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Page last updated at 12:05 GMT, Thursday, 29 May 2008 13:05 UK

What is karma?

Sharon Stone bows to the Dalai Lama
Sharon Stone with the Dalai Lama

The Magazine answers...

Sharon Stone claims the earthquake in China is the result of bad karma for its treatment of Tibetans. Is her definition - "when you are not nice, bad things happen to you" - correct?

Radiohead sings of the "karma police", called in to arrest those who upset Thom Yorke: "This is what you get when you mess with us." And Boy George warbles about a "karma chameleon", in a toxic relationship because he's not "so sweet" anymore.

Cause and effect, see. Actions have consequences.

Law of karma holds that actions have consequences
Ethical intention behind an action affects outcome
Other factors also come into play

And Sharon Stone, a convert to Buddhism, has claimed - to much criticism - that the earthquake that killed at least 68,000 people in China was bad karma for Beijing policy in Tibet. "I thought, is that karma - when you're not nice that the bad things happen to you?" she mused at the Cannes Film Festival.

Karma is an important concept for Buddhists, Hindus and Sikhs. Translated from the Sanskrit, it means simply "action". Because karma is used in a number of ways and contexts - even among different branches of Buddhism - this can be confusing.

Dhammadassin, a teacher at the London Buddhist Centre, says that Stone's take on karma is common - glossed over as an outcome that is the result of something done in the past - or even a past life.

Candle-lit vigil in Shanghai, China
Chinese mourn the dead and missing

"This reduces the enormously complex matter of causes and their effects to a question of retribution meted out for unspecified previous actions," she says.

But the law of karma states that it's the motive behind one's actions that affects the outcome of that particular act.

"So an intentionally ethical action - for example to promote kindness, generosity, contentment - is more likely to have positive, beneficial consequences. An intentionally unethical one - to promote self-aggrandisement or greed - will be more likely to have unhelpful, even harmful consequences. Unhelpful, that is, for the positive well-being of either the doer or the recipient or both."

In a complex world, it's too simplistic to expect that a positive intention will always have a positive outcome as many factors are involved, she says.

Poetic justice

The idea of moral causation has long been held in India, but the doctrine of karma was formulated and explained by the Buddha, a spiritual teacher thought to have lived about 2,500 years ago. Some believe that he was a human who became enlightened; others that he was a god.

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A regular part of the BBC News Magazine, Who, What, Why? aims to answer some of the questions behind the headlines

His teachings hold that whatever comes into existence does so in response to the conditions at the time, and in turn affects what comes after it.

Sangharakshita, the Briton who founded the Friends of the Western Buddhist Order in 1967, explains this with the following example in his book Who Is The Buddha? "Rainfall, sunshine, and the nourishing earth are the conditions from which arises the oak tree, whose fallen leaves rot and form the rich humus from which the bluebell grows."

Dhammadassin says that despite its simplicity, this example reflects the inter-connectedness of our world, "in which our views, attitudes, opinions and intentions all have a part to play in creating our actions and their consequences". And what many call karma is actually closer to the idea of poetic justice, she says.

Nor do Buddhists believe karma is the only cause - others are:

  • inorganic or environmental factors, such as the weather
  • organic or biological factors, like bacteria or viruses
  • psychological factors such as stress
  • and transcendental or spiritual factors (such as the sometimes powerful galvanizing effect of spiritual practice)
"The earthquake in China or the cyclone in Burma have much to do with environmental factors," says Dhammadassin. "To invoke karma is more to do with our desire to nail things down and find someone to blame. But that's not ours to do."

Below is a selection of your comments:

Sharon Stone's comment is the idiotic New Age equivalent of fundamentalist Christians' ignorant statements that Aids is God's retribution for homosexuality and pre-marital sex.
Ben, Edinburgh

It's worth noting that the earthquake affected areas heavily populated by Tibetans as well as Chinese. As a supporter of the Tibetan cause I find it unconscionable that the deaths of innocent Chinese people could be attributed to negative karma. These people are not complicit in the actions of the Chinese government and do not deserve hardship and suffering any more than the Tibetan people. Whilst I commend Sharon Stone for her concern, her comments are ill-judged and insensitive. I'm afraid she has a poor grasp on the concept of karma as well as the demographics of the region affected by the earthquake. My thoughts go to all the Tibetan and Chinese families in the region affected by this tragedy.
Terry Bettger, London

I always understood that karma was a state of mind. In the search for happiness and fulfilment, Buddhists try to achieve compassion for all people including towards those who cause them suffering. You cannot have compassion for someone and do them a bad deed in your own mind you cause yourself suffering hence "bad karma". Conversely an act of kindness strengthens your compassion and increases your self worth hence "good karma". Which is important in the search for life-long happiness. Indeed despite the immense suffering the Chinese have caused the people of Tibet, the Dali Lama will have no other feelings other than total compassion for the suffering of the people affected by the earthquake in China.
Derek, Cumbernauld

I don't think this Karma business is as complicated as people think. It seems to me that the concept comes from a built in human instinct. If we all went around being negative, carrying out detrimental actions on one another we wouldn't really get anywhere. Positive beneficial interactions usually achieve more and at the same time make people feel good about themselves. For example a pride of lions hunt together and kill a wildebeest. The lions' positive interaction achieves a common goal making them feel good. The wildebeest on the other hand is just unlucky.
Craig, Scotland

To begin with, Buddha did not formulate the doctrine of Karma. It is much older than the Buddha and is primarily a Hindu idea. Being a Hindu himself, Buddha (like Mahavira before him), only reiterated this idea. Secondly, karmic effects are believed to be felt not only by individuals but also communities as a whole. It is "reap what you sow" but is still a very complex matter.
Sriram Rao, Bangalore, India

Karma as a notion is a loaded term as it presumes a divine definition of what is good or bad and assumes to be aware of your intention of said act. Seeing as the Chinese believe what they do in Tibet is right, how can they receive bad karma because of it?

People are always entitled to their opinion, but opinions, particularly religious ones that have no evidence to back them up, are often dangerous or offensive to people. It's no more provable than if I claimed it rained yesterday because the Invisible Flying Spaghetti Monster was angry with me because I didn't finish all of my pasta-based dinner.
Ryan Hawthorne, Brighton

Sharon Stone is now an authority on Eastern philosophy? As Socrates said: "I am the wisest man in Athens not because I know anything but because I know that I know nothing." Success in one field automatically makes people assume that they should be an expert in another. I like Tiger Woods who, when asked the (yawn) question about representing his race, said "I am a golfer". I suspect that his dignity and intelligence is not copied often enough by other (bigger yawn) celebs.
Mark G, Brussels, Belgium

By Sharon's definition, people who practised slavery should have been destined to hell thousand times - but it never did happened.
Prasad, Indian working in UK

Karma relates to one of Christ Jesus' teachings in parables in which he said "What you sows is what you reap". If you kill you shall be killed. If a nation destroys the nation shall be destroyed. If you cheat you shall be cheated. If you tell lies against your neighbour, someone will tell lies against you. If throw a stone up, it comes down to you in the same manner. Karma is like an earthly magnetic force that obeys the force of gravity.
Uzoma Ugoji, Barking, Essex

Uzoma Ugoji will not be able to find the parable he quotes since Jesus is not reported as having said it. However the sentiment is a reflection of a standard human desire for justice, and Uzoma's quote is actually from the Biblical books of Job (4:8) and Hosea (8:7), but in neither case do they apply in that blanket way. Judgement doesn't always arrive in this life, but Christians (and others) believe that there is accountability after death. However, this is very different from saying that if you are suffering in this life you must have done something to deserve it (either in this life, or putative previous lives). Jesus clearly stood against this as being a rule, contradicting his disciples who tried to link a man's sickness to sin by him or his parents. The Buddhist expert seems to agree.
Andrew, Hong Kong SAR, China

It's disappointing to hear that karma is so diluted by (to paraphrase) people, places and feelings. It sounds very much like it's simply comparable to luck. Wiccan beliefs have roots in a similar system too, and being pagan it likely pre-dates most of the listed religions. Personally I find the direct decision/consequence meaning to be more spiritual. If you want proof of a "god" at work, what more do you need than something bad happening to someone who has done bad things?
Paul, London, UK

To hear karma explained by a Buddhist makes it seem an even emptier concept than what I'd picked up myself. Aim to do good/bad things and it's more likely that positive/negative things will happen, but it's all complex so you can't be sure. Take away the childish view of ethics and karma goes by another name - "the blinking obvious".
Daniel, London

Daniel, the concept of karma may well be the blinking obvious - Buddhist teachings do not require leaps of faith, and are practical guides to ways of living ethically. It stands to reason that if I act with kindness to those around me that my relationships will be more harmonious. Yes it seems obvious but how many of us actually have enough awareness to practice this, without reminders through such teachings. I find Sharon Stone's comments very unhelpful and not representative of Buddhist teaching as I understand it. I saw the Dalai Lama in Nottingham last weekend. He spoke with nothing but compassion for those affected in China - and certainly was not apportioning blame.
Cait, Birmingham, UK

I like to think of karma in terms of cause and effect. Every word, thought and deed is a cause which creates an effect. Karma, then can be understood as the destiny one had created through such actions. from this point of view it is our behaviour, from moment to moment, that will give raise to consequences particular to our own lives. it is not about fault, judgement or blame. Karma can be seen as part of a "law" of causality which can not be avoided; it is etched indelibly in our lives.
Claudius, Brighton, East Sussex

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