It is so sad to see just how full the mind is of afflictive tendencies. We find ourselves dully scrolling on a screen, or inexplicably bereft while walking down a rainy street, or annoyed with ourselves or our colleagues. We see people tear their lives apart for the pleasure or numbness of drugs and alcohol, and we see them falling into the same tortured relationships. When we turn on the news, we learn that people are killed, or that they steal, and deny that harm is being done while railing against others. Together we tear at the subtle fabric of interdependence that supports billions of living beings as we chase temporary safety, pleasure, or convenience. Samsara, the wheel of suffering, rolls on, powerful and vast. From a Buddhist perspective all of this is produced by mind. Yogacara gives us the metaphor of karmic seeds in the field of mind to help us see that we can cultivate wellness.
James Baldwin once wrote, “People pay for what they do, and still more for what they have allowed themselves to become. And they pay for it simply; by the lives they lead.” A central tenet of Buddhist thought is that each action produces a similar result. If you feel angry and shout, you plant seeds of anger and shouting in the storehouse. If you feel calm and confident and ask someone to stop doing something harmful, you plant seeds in the storehouse of calm and assertiveness. If you open an online shopping site each time you feel sad, you plant seeds of sadness, avoidance, and consumption. Those seeds will bear fruit, though we don’t know when or where. Our tendencies toward feelings and actions in any moment are the result of conditioning that goes back farther than any of us can comprehend. As the Buddha says many times in the Pali Canon, these tendencies are “without discoverable beginning.” Traumas, joys, insights, and countless moments of calm going back generations bring us this moment. The impulse to recoil from the discomfort that you experience when sweat drips into your eyes on a hot day couldn’t have appeared without microorganisms recoiling from stimuli millions of years ago.
But here is the good news and the central thesis of Buddhism: you are not merely a victim of karma. You always have the capacity to do something beneficial. In each moment you can respond to what is arising (the results of karma) with something that will plant karmic seeds for future benefit. Karma is the way to understand why what you do matters, and how you can do something that will promote true well-being. The Buddhist idea of karma is fundamentally about empowerment.