What does karma mean within a Zen context?

Karma is the principle of cause and effect. Simply put, when a thing happens, another thing happens. In pop culture, karma is typically used to refer to an observable effect in the sense of a universal or cosmic reckoning. In Buddhism, there is no divine agency that punishes or rewards us for our behavior, and no effect randomly happens. It is simply our own lack of clarity regarding causality that makes it seem so.

Karma is a fundamental principle of Buddhism and can be adequately translated by “action.” It derives from the root meaning “to make, do, perform.” Action has many meanings; we get closest to the principle by taking the definition: “the causation of change by the exertion of a force or natural process.”

All events in the great web of life are related, and certain types of events will yield similar types of events. For example, the karma of an apple tree is to make apples, not to make peaches. The apple tree itself is the product of karma; as the natural processes of sunlight, water, soil, and seed interact with each other to create change from seed to sprout to sapling to a fruiting tree, bearing the genetics of the apple tree that seeded it, and so on.

Unlike an apple tree, we can’t easily predict how or when a specific cause will yield its effect. There may be a minuscule delay, like the pain felt upon burning one’s tongue with hot pizza. There may be a long delay, like a forgotten childhood trauma that suddenly resurfaces in middle age to ruin an otherwise perfectly happy moment. These examples of direct cause-effect relationships are fairly easy to wrap our heads around, but this principle applies to everything and can rapidly become unfathomable.

When we begin looking at our own minds, we notice that cause and effect are subject to what is called “conversion.” Conversion simply means that each cause is an effect and each effect is a cause. They are simultaneous, distinct, and seamless.

To use a concrete example, I had a traumatic experience with a big, hairy, wandering spider when I was a young kid. The main sense aspects of this experience were:

  • Finding a wandering wolf spider in our pop-up trailer while camping.
  • Dad violently beating it with a rolled magazine and it not dying.
  • My sister screaming hysterically.
  • It never being found.

Each of these events could be interpreted according to non-conscious processes available at the time. These are the reactions I remember:

  • Holy crap! That’s a giant spider!
  • It must be dangerous!


  • Complete loss of control and unshakeable uncertainty about my safety.

This experience strongly influenced all karmic seeds associated with arachnids, so any time the mind identified the experience of a spider, the hysterical terror of that from the initial experience of that event came along with it. Hence, running away screaming and begging someone to come kill it.

Our practice teaches us that…

“Because our ego is a wholly-conditioned process and not a fixed entity, it can and must be reconditioned to become liberated. When we experience genuine insight and realize who we truly are, we can answer the knock at our door. Knock, knock! Who’s there? Nobody!” (Mondo Manual, page 4)

When “I” is just an unfolding process of cause and effect we are empowered to transform it. For me, by way of progressive perspective shifts resulting from this practice, I am now the one people call for help when they see a spider. I take the spider up gently and carry it to a safe place outside. I have come to this place by allowing old reactions to arise and fall away, introducing new understanding and perspective to my original set of beliefs, and creating the opportunity for a new response to spiders to be realized.

In the quote above, we encountered the phrase “to become liberated,” which (via awakening) is the entire point of our spiritual discipline. The essential point of Buddhism is to eliminate the cycle of suffering based on confusion known as samsara, which is impermanent and functions according to this mechanism called karma.

Knowing this, a student one day, a long long time ago, asked his Zen master:

The student: “Are the great practitioners still pulled along by karma?”

The master replied: “No!”

(Wumenguan, Case 2 “Baizhang and the Wild Fox”)

Apparently, he missed a lesson along the way because as a punishment for misdirecting a sincere practitioner, he spent the next 500 lifetimes as a fox.

(For those curious about an interpretation here: The partial view transmitted by the master is that karma is ultimately unreal due to its relative nature. By transcending relative truth and sitting so firmly in the absolute, he believed that he no longer had a functioning, conditioned self subject to the laws of cause and effect. The rest of the story shows the Zen perspective, read on!)

Fortunately, on lifetime 501, this fox got to have a dialogue with Baizhang. It went like this:

Fox-master: “Help me! Are great practitioners still pulled along by karma?”

Baizhang replied: “Great practitioners do not violate karma!”

The old fox-master finally had a complete awakening and was able to apply this insight into reconstructing his karma, completing his time in samsara, and passing into nirvana.

No matter how true it is that relative, conditioned experience is not the absolute, we still live and function in the relative, conditioned experience of being a human! As soon as there is “consciousness” and “consciousness of” we have separated into subject and object, created a self, and are subject to karma. It may not be “true,” but it certainly is very real! We must engage with it as such if we are to be liberated in this lifetime, here and now, by reconditioning our habitual patterns.

The law of karma allows this. Each time we engage in a transformational practice (like meditating, following the precepts, practicing the perfections, or Mondo Zen) we are providing the necessary conditions for awakening. Seeing through karma, we are no longer bound by it and experience great freedom. But, as this story illustrates, this is just the beginning. We must take our seat in this awareness-centric perspective and realize that we are not separate from the cause and effect of relative existence. Instead, we are empowered to take radical responsibility for our lives and live with complete engagement. Each moment we sense a reactive pattern arising, witness it from Clear Deep HeartMind, and respond skillfully, we are coming one step closer to liberation. Here, in this very being, we face the entirety of our human experience with compassionate curiosity and profound joy.

Umi no Nami Dan Rotnem is the executive director of Hollow Bones Zen, and a teacher of Hollow Bones programs.

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