Long time (and current) student of Zen Buddhism and even longer time (and also current) practicing Pagan here. So, I’ve been around the block on a couple of different paths. I’ve experienced a few things and I’ve learned a few things. One thing that bothers me is what I view as a misunderstanding of the role of karma. So, in an effort to light a candle rather than curse the darkness, here’s a little karmic discourse.

Don’t get me wrong. I completely understand that different spiritual paths frequently have the same or similar words that refer to different principles. However, I am also an academic. Sometimes I am frustrated when I see concepts that are thousands of years old being reinterpreted in a way that doesn’t line up with the original meaning.

In my experience, karma is such a term. In Eastern religions descended from Hinduism, such as Buddhism and Jainism, karma is explained as the accumulated merit of one’s actions that carry over from one life to the next. Good or beneficial actions accumulate good karma. Bad, negative, and even some neutral actions (especially ones that result in bad or negative consequences) accumulate bad karma.

However, at least in Buddhism, karma is not direct, nor is it linear. In other words, it is not necessary to actually perform a good or bad act to accumulate related karma. An act does not necessarily accumulate “1 karma” and a karmic act does not necessarily have an equal and opposite reaction. That’s physics talking, not karma.

With all due respect to Sir John Lennon, “Instant Karma” isn’t going to get you. However, when it does happen, it can be rather spectacular to watch. You know what they say about pay-backs.

Karma generally accumulates because of our intent. Do we intend to do good and choose compassion, or do we intend to do “bad” and choose selfishness, laziness, anger, or hatred? By choosing one as opposed to the other, we put into place some future circumstances and close off other future circumstances. Like a family tree, when we go down one side, everything on the other side is excluded but new possibilities open up. Occasionally, one side branches back and can merge with the other side, but there are still options that are excluded. Think of it as opportunity cost.

With all that said, in a large part of the Pagan and New Age community, I see karma being conflated with the concept of Threefold Return and the law of cause and effect. I’m most familiar with Threefold Return coming from a Wiccan background in the early 90s, where it was taught that what you put out, you get back multiplied by three. Put out good stuff? You get three times the amount of good back into your life. Put out bad stuff? Get three times the bad in return. I have other issues with Threefold Return, but that’s a different story.

The law of cause and effect is another thing that seems related to karma on the surface but is different once you look deeper. As mentioned above, karma is not direct or immediate. The law of cause and effect is both direct and immediate, like sitting on a see-saw. If one side goes down, the other comes up. That’s cause and effect.

Karma, from a Buddhist perspective, is generally carried over from one lifetime to the next, especially if it is not balanced in the current lifetime.

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