I recently came across a post about karma at the Dharma Folk blog. It compares two texts about karma, written by two different present-day Buddhists (as opposed to long-dead sages). The ideas expressed by the two authors don’t exactly contradict each other, but they are different.
A lot of Buddhist teachings (some would say “philosophy”) are like this. Even if you stick with the oldest texts, you will find differences that confuse you. On some Buddhist forums, people spend thousands of words debating these distinctions. Of course, this is the way of religion (and philosophy) — debate over meaning is always going on.
First, there is the question of what karma is. Is it your past actions (of body, of thought, of speech) coming back to repay you in kind? This is a general way of thinking about karma. The past actions might be from this life or from a previous life.
Then there’s the matter of intention. It is said that for a past action to cause some effect, that action had to be intentional. Are you off the hook if while sleeping you dreamed a bad thing about somebody? I don’t know.
Third, there’s the whole question of rebirth and past lives. I have read that a lot of Western Buddhists reject the whole idea of rebirth. I have trouble understanding how we can be reborn in a new life if we have no self, no soul, to begin with. Yet, what is not born cannot die, and all beings are also that.
Fourth, we know that all great teachers practice skillful means, and what one teacher said to one audience of hearers might not match, exactly, the words said by another teacher to another audience at a different time and place. Is this a contradiction? Is one teaching more true than another? (I am often reminded of a lyric from Jesus Christ Superstar, which I memorized in full in my youth: “And what is truth? ‘Tis but a changing law. We both have truths. Are mine the same as yours?”)
Some texts refer to karma as a fruit. The seeds you have planted will grow into what they must be. A seed of evil or sorrow will always yield a fruit of evil or sorrow. A seed of goodness and compassion yields a fruit of goodness and compassion.
There are teachings that say all one’s bad karma can be erased in a single moment, under special conditions that make it so. Can you cause these conditions to come about? Deliberately? By design? I don’t think so. The harder you chase that goal, the farther away it will recede. No goal, no aspiration.