In the next phase in our Theosophical Tenets study, we will cover Karma & Reincarnation. We begin this phase with some introductory quotes regarding the nature of Karma:

"Karma is a word of many meanings, and has a special term for almost every one of its aspects. It means, as a synonym of sin, the performance of some action for the attainment of an object of worldly, hence selfish, desire, which cannot fail to be hurtful to somebody else. Karman is action, the Cause; and Karma again is “the law of ethical causation”; the effect of an act produced egotistically, when the great law of harmony depends on altruism."

-SD II 302

"Karma is an unfamiliar word for Western ears. It is the name adopted by Theosophists of the nineteenth century for one of the most important of the laws of nature. Ceaseless in its operation, it bears alike upon planets, systems of planets, races, nations, families, and individuals. It is the twin doctrine to reincarnation. So inextricably interlaced are these two laws that it is almost impossible to properly consider one apart from the other. No spot or being in the universe is exempt from the operation of Karma, but all are under its sway, punished for error by it yet beneficently led on, through discipline, rest, and reward, to the distant heights of perfection. It is a law so comprehensive in its sweep, embracing at once our physical and our moral being, that it is only by paraphrase and copious explanation one can convey its meaning in English. For that reason the Sanskrit term Karma was adopted to designate it.

Applied to man's moral life it is the law of ethical causation, justice, reward and punishment; the cause for birth and rebirth, yet equally the means for escape from incarnation. Viewed from another point it is merely effect flowing from cause, action and reaction, exact result for every thought and act. It is act and the result of act; for the word's literal meaning is action. Theosophy views the Universe as an intelligent whole, hence every motion in the Universe is an action of that whole leading to results, which themselves become causes for further results. Viewing it thus broadly, the ancient Hindus said that every being up to Brahma was under the rule of Karma."

-Ocean of Theosophy, Chapter 11

Read the Full Chapter on UniversalTheosophy.com

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What makes an act selfless, and thus altruistic?

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One key ingredient is the motive.  If the actor (person) is saying, "what is in it for me?", then all bets are off.  The action must be performed without any desire for something in return (the deed is done for its own sake) for it to be entirely selfless.  I believe that our actions cannot be entirely selfless until we have gained a certain degree of enlightenment.  Shreds of self appear at every other level in degrees of magnitude.  Until then we have to be patient with ourselves and take it one step at a time.

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Is it possible to act selflessly when one's consciousness is trapped in personal identity?

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I think it is, to a degree. I really hesitate to look at this in black and white terms.

It is often the case that what seems like a charitable or selfless act on the outside is also tainted somewhat by self-consciousness. A person may truly want to help another person, but how many can do this without at least secretly patting themself on the back, or taking some pride in it? But I don't think that to point this out means to rob the act of all of its selfless merit. Even if we do sometimes help others with some selfish motive involved, it is better than not helping at all.

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Is not karam simply a spiritual habit or attitude which colors or determines our outlook on things in general and our behavior specifically?  These habits are carried through each life and they are the reason we make good decisions or bad and find ourselves in good environements that we enjoy or environements that we desperately want to escape.  We eventually learn to correct our habits, our mistakes but sometimes this takes several life times and once we have learned we have evolved just a little bit.  An act is sefless when we no longer have to presuade ourselves to do something or justify what we do, we wimply do it because we have learned to do so, we have learned to love and to care for othes and to live beyond ourselves, we have learned to LOVE.  As we are all ONE we must learn and understand this and if we tune in to this and align ourselves with the ONE or the ALL or LOVE then our acts become selfless and we have evolved beyond our wildest dreams. 

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Do selfless acts generate karma?

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It's an interesting question. It seems to me that what we call 'karma', at least how it's presented in eastern teachings, arises only from actions performed from within the delusion of separation (i.e. selfish actions; actions where we see ourselves (our personalities) as the 'doer' and thus get attached to reward, etc.). Just the very idea that one can rise above karmic action (as presented in eastern teachings) seems to indicate that it is possible to act without building up 'karmic debt'. So to me the answer would appear to be 'no', selfless actions (truly selfless) do not generate karma. I would say, acting in harmony with Nature (on all planes) is karmaless action; acting in disharmony with Nature (on all planes) is karmic action.

Thoughts?

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My guess is -

Unless the law of karma is not universal and only operates in the world of illusions,  then I think there are some consequences in Nature.   Maybe, instead of the word karma, which has personal connotations attached to the concept, we could think of it in terms the law of adjustments and harmony.   Using Newton's theory, to every action, thre is always an equal reaction. So, the effects are there; it may not be anything personal since it is a selfless act. 

Some exercepts on this subject from HPB -

"This Law -- whether Conscious or Unconscious -- predestines nothing and no one. 
It exists from and in Eternity, truly, for it is ETERNITY 
itself; and as such, since no act can be co-equal with eternity, it cannot be 
said to act, for it is ACTION itself. Karma creates 
nothing, nor does it design. It is man who plans and creates causes, and Karmic 
law adjusts the effects; which adjustment is not an act, but universal harmony, 
tending ever to resume its original position, like a bough, which, bent down too 
forcibly, rebounds with corresponding vigour."

"Atma nor Buddhi are ever reached by Karma, because the former is the highest 
aspect of Karma, its working agent of ITSELF in one aspect, and the other is unconscious on this plane."

http://blavatskyarchives.com/blavatskykarmareincarnation.htm

 

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Is there a difference between the physical law Newton described and the activity of karma?

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Yes, a huge difference,  one points solely to the physical plane while karma is multi-dimensional. 

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I'm not so sure of this myself. I can understand that Newton's laws of motion appear to be something totally different from karma--their effects are immediate, we can calculate them with great certainty and they seem to act independently of any conscious involvement, whereas karma is dynamic, harmonizing and intelligent in a sense, and is directly connected with our decisions rooted in the desire nature.

On the other hand, I often see reference in esoteric writings to "The One Law," which I relate to karma. We are taught time and again that separation is but an illusion veiling the essential unity of all things. I can't help but think: If karma be multidimensional, then can we not view physical laws as perhaps simply the lowest, most material manifestations of that One Law? If all is one and separation is an illusion, why do we separate "physical" laws from multidimensional ones, especially when we consider that:

H.P.B. stressed that there is no dead matter, that every last atom is alive in a sense, and ultimately rooted in consciousness. What we deem to be mere lowly physical laws may just be karma, as it plays out at the grossest material level. No? Physical laws don't seem as dynamic and intelligent as karma does, but then again, consciousness is not as developed in atoms as it is in humans, so that actually fits. If karma is the law that harmonizes, what is Newton's Third Law but a description of how material interactions are harmonized? They keep the physical universe in balance, just as karma checks our own actions.

It may be that I don't understand karma completely and am missing something that fundamentally separates it from physical laws--but my views regarding Newton have been unavoidably colored by those of Schrodinger and Heisenberg, whose work changed the way that even the scientific community conceives of "physical" laws.

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Peter is right that are many facets to karma.

When I read the question, if selfless acts generate karma,  I was thinking less of the moral aspect which is directly related to karma.  Somewhere in the teachings, HPD said that no matter how small is an act, it generates an effect somewhere in the universe.  The question reminded me of this idea because not only does it show the law of cause and effect operates throughout Nature but it demonstrates the interconnected of all living things as well. 

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Permalink Reply by Peter on February 18, 2013 at 4:17am
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I thought your earlier post was very helpful, Barbara, in that it brings out the interconnectedness of everything through the law of cause and effect, which in turns entails endless readjustment (via the law of Karma) to restore harmony and equilibrium.  As HPB writes:

"We describe Karma as that Law of re-adjustment which ever tends to restore disturbed equilibrium in the physical, and broken harmony in the moral world.  We say that Karma does not act in this or that particular way always; but that it always does act so as to restore Harmony and preserve the balance of equilibrium, in virtue of which the Universe exists."  (Key to Theosophy, p205-6;  emphasis added.)

To my mind this brings together the good points that you and Daniel have expressed.   At one level it makes sense to say there is a huge difference between Newton's laws and the Law of Karma, because the karmic effects generated by moral agents are far more complex in their ramifications and we can't predict how the harmony will be restored.   And as Daniel says, we would expect the laws of cause and effect on the physical plane to reflect the workings of Karma at its own level.  Newtons laws may be a simple expression of Karma at that level.

In terms of the moral aspect of Karma, HPB says that in our courts of law we give more weight to the physical act and less to the mental.  In other words the courts punish people for their actions not simply for having desires or intentions.   HPB says that the opposite is the case for Karma where more weight is placed on the intentions and motives rather than bodily actions.  In other words - irrespective of our actions- by our thoughts, intentions and desires we constantly create karma that effects ourselves and humanity in general, positively and negatively.  

With regards to merit and demerit:  it is not the physical body that is rewarded or punished by Karma in some future life, or compensated in devachan after death for any unmerited suffering during its incarnation.  It is the moral agent (the manasic entity that reincarnates from one life to the next) that gets its just rewards - good or bad.  However, in order to fulfil a particular current of karmic destiny in our next life, karma may provide for us a body with the right characteristics fitting for our karmic role in a particular life.

This is just my understanding of what Theosophy states, so improvements and corrections welcome.

Permalink Reply by barbaram on February 18, 2013 at 9:57am
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Thank you for your explanation.

Would you say karma is an aspect of the law of harmony?  I have seen karma called by different names, like the law of re-adjustment, law of retribution, law of cause and effect, the law of balance, etc. 

When we speak of karma, it applies to the levels of manas and kama in the human kingdom.  In other words, karma relates mainly to our motives in action.   While the law of harmony seems to be broader and more universal, it encompasses all levels and all kingdoms in manifestation.

Permalink Reply by Jon Fergus on February 18, 2013 at 10:21am
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Just wanted to add this interesting quote into the discussion. It comes from an unnamed chela as part of an article in The Path:

"The law of Karma is the law of the conservation of energy on the moral and spiritual planes of nature."

Permalink Reply by Daniel Noga on February 18, 2013 at 12:37pm
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Thanks, Peter. I appreciate the thought you've put into your reply, which I think really helped to bring all of this together.

Peter wrote:

"In terms of the moral aspect of Karma, HPB says that in our courts of law we give more weight to the physical act and less to the mental.  In other words the courts punish people for their actions not simply for having desires or intentions.   HPB says that the opposite is the case for Karma where more weight is placed on the intentions and motives rather than bodily actions.  In other words - irrespective of our actions- by our thoughts, intentions and desires we constantly create karma that effects ourselves and humanity in general, positively and negatively."

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On a practical note, could it be said that in the sense of "being the change that we want to see in the world," changing our attitudes, thoughts and feelings takes precedence over simply changing our actions?It is often the case that the material world falls short of the ideal world, and this can be true in the sense that we may change our inner attitudes and thoughts, but not always manage to hit the mark in practicing those ideals. Still--if this statement about karma means what I think it does, could we say that nonetheless, changing our attitudes contributes more to changing the world than simply going through the motions and behaving in a certain way, but without true understanding and intention?

Permalink Reply by Peter on February 18, 2013 at 4:37am
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Barbara,  the word "Neither" is missing from your excellent quote from The Key to Theosophy on Atma, Buddhi and Karma, which should say:

"Neither Atma nor Buddhi are ever reached by Karma, because the former is the highest aspect of Karma, its working agent of ITSELF in one aspect, and the other is unconsciouson this plane."

Permalink Reply by Gerry Kiffe on March 6, 2013 at 8:42pm
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It might be fair to say that Karma as a term has been bent to have personal connotations but as given to us through the teachings is an entirely impersonal and mathematical adjuster of imbalances.

Permalink Reply by Daniel Noga on February 16, 2013 at 3:19pm
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Jon wrote:

"I would say, acting in harmony with Nature (on all planes) is karmaless action; acting in disharmony with Nature (on all planes) is karmic action."

For me, this conjures imagery involving water in a natural flow, and what happens when that flow is opposed or somehow obstructed. An object resisting, opposing or otherwise impeding the natural flow of water kicks up a lot of turbulence, splashing water all over the place in what could be called discord.

Or what about salmon, swimming upstream to spawn? See how they struggle against the currents! On the other hand, a fish swimming with the current goes much faster than it otherwise would and does not create turbulence. In fact, if the fish were to swim in just the right manner, in perfect harmony with the current, the action of the fish would actually strengthen the current itself. Looks like a win-win--Nature is aided and aids us in turn, if we but seek to swim with its currents.

And then there are schools of fish...

Permalink Reply by Jon Fergus on February 16, 2013 at 6:52pm
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I love the imagery of the water splashing up from the rocks! Great analogy!

Permalink Reply by Jeffrey Smart on February 16, 2013 at 6:29pm
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Is doing something good for someone else, because it makes one feel "good", altruistic or selfish?  If one feels good one is gaining something from doing, even if it is just a feeling.

Permalink Reply by Jon Fergus on February 16, 2013 at 6:50pm
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A great question! I would say (and this is just my personal take on it), that if you do something in order to feel good - i.e. if the purpose of the action is to satisfy a personal desire to feel good - then I would consider that a selfish act. If one does something with either no intention for results or with the genuine desire to aid the other person (without a desire for anything personal from it), then I would call that altruistic. I think, ultimately, true unselfishness would be doing something without any notion of 'separation' at all, and thus even the idea of 'me' and 'you' would not factor into the motivation behind the action (and perhaps this is what the action of a bodhisattva would be like).

Thoughts anyone?

Permalink Reply by Gerry Kiffe on March 6, 2013 at 9:16pm
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The answer is bound up with the motivation.  Do we do something good because it is right?  Or do we do something right because it makes us feel good?  Until we enlightened (transcend all sense of being separate from others) there is bound to be some selfish motivation no matter how hard we try..  That does not negate the act but apparently. (It is not very often that an act is entirely selfish or entirely altruistic, usually somewhere in between.)  it does leave a Karmic residue so to speak.  Mahatmas are "karmaless" because they act with no sense of a separative self (leaves no tracks they say).  The idea, as I understand it, is not to view this in black and white terms.  In other words we want to maximize the right thing to do for its own sake and minimize the motivation to do good for what it brings to ourselves. 

Permalink Reply by Peter on February 17, 2013 at 11:21am
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There seem to a number of aspects of Karma (action) that we have to keep in mind.  

There is the general law of cause and effect that operates throughout all the planes and departments of nature, and which also has to do with stages of evolutionary development.  

As I understand it, Theosophy states that the Law of Karma is a moral law and refers to causes generated and effects experienced by beings with a moral responsibility.  Hence, children up until the age of seven (ish) may experience the effects of karma (past life generated or via the parents) but do not generate it, as they are not yet morally responsible i.e., lacking the direct connection with Manas until that time.   Likewise, mineral, plants, stones, animals and the insane are not morally responsible and therefore do not generate good or bad karma for their actions.  I would think that the AH-HI, those Dhyan Chohanic forces that have yet to become 'man' also do not generate such karma as they have not yet become morally responsible beings.

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Permalink Reply by Peter on February 18, 2013 at 12:46pm
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There's no reply button under Barbara's and Jon's latest post so I've responded here.  Barbara asks: Would you say karma is an aspect of the law of harmony?  I have seen karma called by different names, like the law of re-adjustment, law of retribution, law of cause and effect, the law of balance, etc. 

Yes, we have plenty of names: the Law of Ethical Causation is another one.   That's a really interesting question, Barbara.  Could we say that Karma and Harmony are two aspects of the same thing, given your earlier quote which says that Atma is the highest aspect of Karma?

Jon - would you give us a reference for your quote from The Path, please.

Permalink Reply by Jon Fergus on February 18, 2013 at 1:06pm
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Hi Peter. The quote is from an article titled "Teachings of the Master". It's from the December, 1886 number (quote is on p. 280), which can be read here:

http://www.universaltheosophy.com/legacy/movements/modern-era/theos...

Here's the direct link to the pdf:

The Path, Volume 1, Number 9: December, 1886

Permalink Reply by Peter on February 18, 2013 at 1:23pm
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Thank you, Jon.   That's great work you're doing at www.universaltheosophy.com

Permalink Reply by Jon Fergus on February 18, 2013 at 1:37pm
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Thanks Peter. Much appreciated.

Permalink Reply by Peter on February 18, 2013 at 1:04pm
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Daniel asks:  could we say that nonetheless, changing our attitudes contributes more to changing the world than simply going through the motions and behaving in a certain way, but without true understanding and intention?

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That makes a lot of sense, Daniel, especially when we consider that our thoughts, feelings and desires are reflected in the astral light where they affect humanity at large.  Ideally, our 'good' aspirations would be accompanied by actions, but as you say, going through the motions without the underlying intention etc has very limited value.

Permalink Reply by Daniel Noga on February 19, 2013 at 8:33pm
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Peter wrote:

"Ideally, our 'good' aspirations would be accompanied by actions, but as you say, going through the motions without the underlying intention etc has very limited value."

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Absolutely, actions are essential too. One reason that changing our attitudes and thoughts is so important is that our actions inevitably flow from them. When we truly make an inner change, we most often find that we cannot help but to act on that change. We may sometimes find difficulty when this means changing long-standing habits (and perhaps this inertia is another facet of karma--years of thinking the old way must have its effect too), but I truly believe that the turning point is that inner change.

As an example, early in our relationship, my wife told me she cannot stand the word "hate." It can be a very destructive word but is also often used loosely and even playfully by people with no intention of harm. Nonetheless, my wife was stalwart in her position that it is just an ugly word to use anyway, even in playful hyperbole--"I hate this glass, it always drips water down my chin." She pointed out that the words we use go on to shape our more subtle, wordless thoughts, and challenged: "Do you really hate the glass or does it just annoy you?" I rolled my eyes at her at first, but the seed was planted and over time I began to see her point. I gradually stopped using the word at all. It took effort in the beginning but is now automatic.

Today I cringe when I hear others use it.

Permalink Reply by Peter on February 20, 2013 at 7:38am
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Daniel,  lucky for you to have a wise partner - no doubt due to your good Karma.  I think what you've said helps make explicit that action is not simply something physical.  

We turn our thoughts and aspirations into actions whenever we act upon them at whatever level - thought, word and deed.   For example, It may be a nice idea to give up feeling ill will and instead to develop goodwill and a sense of 'unity and brotherhood' towards others but to do it requires an inward act and effort which may or may not show itself directly outwardly, especially as so much of our ill will is directed at individuals and groups we may never even meet.  The results may be more far reaching than we imagine:

Firstly, we stop adding negative thoughts to the astral light where they linger and depending on their strength infect others.  As the Master says, "thoughts are things — have tenacity, coherence, and life, — that they are real entities"  (ML 9)

With our understanding of the Law of Karma, we may get a sense that by generating good will rather than ill will we also help transform the karmic connections we forge with others that are likely to come into play in future incarnations.  

Importantly, our noble aspirations to realise the highest within us form a living link, a bridge, between the personal consciousness and the INNER or HIGHER EGO.  Perhaps this relates to a hint given us in HPB's THE VOICE OF THE SILENCE:

 "Thou canst not travel on the Path before thou hast become that Path itself."

Thus, while our Karma in this life may mean we have little opportunity to do great outward deeds to benefit humanity as a whole, yet by our inward resolve to do the duties that lay before us, however menial, and to live 'the life' within us we may yet play a part in the great struggle that is Life.

Permalink Reply by Gerry Kiffe on March 19, 2013 at 11:00am
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What does the teaching on the Law of Karma tell us about judging our fellow man?