Why people misunderstand the Buddhist concept of karma?

You often hear people say in English things like, “He will get what he deserves”, or “What goes around comes around”. And often you hear these same people say, “He has bad karma”. But that is not what is meant by karma, at least not in the Buddhist sense.

Firstly, karma (or kamma in Pali) which means ‘work’ or ‘deed’ in sanskrit should not to be confused with kama (as in The Kama Sutra) which means ‘desire’. They are not variant spellings of the same word but two separate words with separate meanings. Furthermore, the concept of kama is related to Hinduism and not Buddhism.

Secondly, it should also be understood that karma is a term used in Hinduism, Jainism and Buddhism, with all three religions having different meanings for the term. In Hinduism accumulation of karma is important in order to reach liberation. In Jainism the soul is surrounded by karmic “dirt” which “clings on to souls” which attract it. In Buddhism all production of karma – whether good or bad – through one’s actions is to be avoided. Thus the interpretation varies according to religious tradition which is reflected in the ways to attain their goals. In Buddhism it is awakening or bodhi. In Hinduism and Jainism it is liberation or moksha, though again the meaning of these terms are different for each religion. One should be aware that the word is only a “container” and not its “content” or meaning.

So in Buddhism if by avoiding karma we are to be awakened then how can one talk about anything that has to do with deservingness or merit. In Buddhism we do not talk in this way for this very reason. Merit of deed is wholly an English language convention and concept attached to the word karma by mistake.


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