Student’s Question – Understanding Karma, it’s not about crime and punishment

A student asks:

Someone I know who has suffered chronic pain and illness for most of her life and is concerned, as a Buddhist, that she must had done something wrong in a previous life. Karma doesn’t work like that though, does it? It’s not about crime and punishment.

Lama Shenpen replies:

Yes, it is a matter of cause and effect rather than crime and punishment – nonetheless this alone might not be much comfort.

What I find helpful is to realise that actually we are all in the same boat karmically speaking. We have all had countless past lives and done every imaginable stupid action and so have an infinite pile of horrible results waiting for us just around the corner – that is the truth of it from the Buddhist point of view and life’s circumstances seem to bear this out.

Samsara is a dangerous place and none of us knows what action will ripen for us next – like we do not know what we are going to dream next in our sleep. It is all pretty unpredictable and haphazard.

It is not that some people are good and have only good karma and some are bad and have only bad karma – this life’s circumstances are not the sum total of our past karma but a random ripening of certain things. We experience a mixture of good and bad ripenings and sometimes more of one kind than the other. It’s like that for all of us.

So the only solution for any of us is to use whatever circumstances arise to further our Dharma practice – for learning patience, for giving up selfishness, giving up our grasping at a false sense of self and inspiring us to make skilful pranidhanas (aspirational prayers or wishes) so that we do not lose our way and so that we can use our suffering as a way of helping others.

That is what we all can do whether just at present we are enjoying a relative respite from suffering or whether we are in the thick of it.