Three Ordinary Ideas Called into Question by Karma in Buddhism

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Time, space, and separateness from others – three ordinary ideas that are called into question in Buddhism

“There are three ordinary ideas that we have that make karma seem particularly strange but which are ultimately called into question in Buddhism. The first is that people are very separate from the material world; the second is that the present and the future are very separate; the third is that different beings and different locations in space are very separate.

Firstly, Buddhist teachings suggest that what we take to be the objective, material world, is actually emanating from the same reality as our subjective world. As we operate subjectively on the world, the world responds and operates on us in a way that has nothing to do with our idea of an external world consisting of dead matter. The world is completely alive with the same kind of awareness as appearances in a dream. They are not the dreamer in the subjective sense, but objectively they are the awareness of the dreamer.

Similarly, we are agents in our world and the world we live in actually has the power to respond by acting on us in some way hidden from our ordinary ways of knowing. In the light of this kind of view of reality, it does not seem so strange that our actions can rebound on us as events that are unrelated by the laws that seem to govern the objective ‘external’ world.

Secondly, Buddhist teachings suggest that what we take as being the flow of time from present to future, although based on something real, is part of our delusion. According to the view presented in classic Buddhist texts such as the Mahayana Sutras and the Avatamsaka sutra in particular, past, present and future are not as separate as we ordinarily think. Normally, in Buddhist texts, action and karmic result are presented as if they were separate events, leaving the question open as to what the mechanism is that causes the result to proceed from the action.

Actually, if the distinction between past, present and future is in some sense unreal, then so too is the distinction between karmic cause and karmic result. It could be more accurate from the perspective of Awakened beings to think of the result of the action as an integral part of the action itself. It is as if the living Truth or Reality of that action was complete with its ‘result’ from the very beginning. It is what emanates from that action as part of the structure of Reality itself.

To Awareness itself it is not a problem, nor is the ‘result’ that is part of the emanation or display. However, for a being blinded by avidya, the whole pattern of movement emanating from that display appears as the world doing something to it and/or as itself doing something to the world; it seems as if there is karmic action separate from karmic result. But really, the action and result is a movement of Reality or Awareness within itself as a kind of play. In the light of this kind of view of Reality, it does not seem so strange that our actions can rebound on us at some time in the far distant future.

Thirdly, Buddhist teachings suggest that what we take as being physical space with its separate locations is not as real as it appears to us to be. The Avatamsaka sutra gives us a vast vision of the Universe, in fact of countless Universes, each interpenetrating each other. Interpenetration means that each part of the Universe contains every other part without any of those parts becoming smaller or bigger in size.

Such a view of Reality requires profound realization. It is not an ordinary common sense view of the world at all! To some extent, this can be demonstrated mathematically by mapping infinite points into a tiny sphere by a one-to-one correspondence. In effect, it means that in a world in which space and time have lost their usual meaning, one can enter and operate in any other world simply by a shift in one’s awareness.

To demonstrate this, the Avatamsaka and other Mahayana Sutras describe how Buddhas and Bodhisattvas pass over countless Universes with the same ease as we would simply raise and lower our arm. As some event is happening in one Universe, the same event is simultaneously happening in countless Universes as if this were actually all aspects of a single event. In the same way, a karmic action that we make now might be having a simultaneous affect on some Universe that we might enter and experience as acting on us in the future. In the light of this kind of view of reality given to us by Awakened beings, it does not seem so strange that our actions can rebound on us in some completely different universe.

Each volitional action we perform becomes like a timeless, sensitive place in our awareness that we can touch and enter and from which whole worlds can spring. Somehow the imprint of a particular action and the whole pattern of its interconnections with others and the whole Universe exists, non-manifest, as a point of timeless awareness. When our awareness, moving within itself, happens to touch it again, we experience it as a world that we enter and feel the effects of our original action returning to us.

This is what is called the ripening effect of karma. It ripens in the way that the world appears to us and also in our habitual tendencies. It is fairly easy to relate this to dreaming. Things that we do in waking life may return to us in our dreams expressing, perhaps, our guilty conscience. However, when Buddhism talks of karma, it means that our ‘dreams’ become as real as this world we are living in now. It is not just a matter of waking up from a dream in our sleep. We need to wake up to our whole life as being somehow dream-like.

This is why Enlightenment is called Awakening. The process is very similar to waking from a dream but much more radical.”

Lama Shenpen Hookham

This is an extract from Trusting the Heart of Buddhism Book 2 – one of the course books in Lama Shenpen’s Living the Awakened Heart Training – the structured, comprehensive, supported, distance learning programme. The training, which is open to all, brings the profound Dzogchen and Mahamudra teachings to a western audience in an experiential, accessible way, through spiral learning. Find out more and how to join and become a student of Lama Shenpen at

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