I know someone who says, whenever anything bad happens to someone whose behavior she doesn’t like, “Karma is a bitch.”
In 6th Century China, Emperor Wu had built Buddhist temples and financially supported monks. He thought this must have earned him good karma, so he asked Bodhidharma, the First Ancestor of Zen, what merit his actions had earned him.
“None,” said Bodhidharma.
The Emperor didn’t like this. “Then what’s the meaning of the Buddha Dharma?”
“Vast emptiness, nothing holy,” said Bodhidharma.
“Then who are you?” the Emperor asked.
“No knowing,” said Bodhidharma.
People who come to Buddhist practice, but still like to make everything about themselves, love to talk about karma, their own and other people’s. To a mindset conditioned to believe in an omnipotent parent, karma is a system of punishment and reward—do bad things, and the deity will punish you; do good things and the deity will reward you.
This is what psychiatrists call “magical thinking.” It is not karma.
The law of karma is this: every action has a consequence. The action itself is called karma; the consequence of the action is called vipaka.
What happens to you is the result of something that has preceded it. If you jump out of a top-floor window (karma), you are most likely going to be splattered all over the sidewalk below (vipaka). This is not because someone or something is punishing you for jumping out of the window—rather, hitting the sidewalk is a result of the fall, which is a result of your jumping out of the window. Your decision to jump out of the window is a result of previous karma and vipaka on your part.
Cause and effect, not punishment and reward.
But it’s common to hear people talk about how it’s someone’s “karma” to live in an impoverished country, or have a debilitating illness, or any other predicament. This shows a sad lack of any understanding, let alone awakening.
Such people use the word “karma” as an umbrella that covers all causes and all effects, and they do not distinguish the volitional from the random. But karma is only one of the five niyamas; there is also dharma (the laws of nature), irthu (seasonal changes and climate), biija (genetic inheritance) and chitta (the will of the mind).
So there are things that are governed by our choices. Our karma and our chitta are our own. But sometimes it’s karma, and sometimes shit just happens.