Karma is Action: due to compassion we are impelled to act

By Andy Wistreich

14 people sitting in meditation on the steps outside the national gallery at Trafalgar Square.
Andy with XR Buddhists at the Impossible Rebellion

The Buddha always links karma with the environment. This linkage can be found in all buddhist traditions. For example, the 14th century Tibetan, Lama Tsong Khapa says, “From the nonvirtuous action of killing, such things in the external environment as food and drink, medicine, and fruits will have little strength, be ineffective, have little potency and power, or, being difficult to digest, will induce illness. Hence most living beings will die without living out their expected lifespans.”

According to the Buddha, the environment we are born into is a result of our karma, our actions in previous lives. The kinds of environments that exist, and the kinds of bodies we take within them, result from causes first activated when a universe appears. The universe is composed of particles of earth, water, fire, air, or space, which interact to produce the various ecosystems of planets, oceans, plants, and sentient life-forms. However, the way these ecosystems evolve and how we experience them is determined by our karma.

Collective karma creates for example the human realm, and then within that, individual karma shapes the way we each experience it. For the Buddhas, the entire universe is always a buddhafield, a pure mandala of unlimited bliss and wisdom, but for sentient beings like us, our collective and personal karma determines the kinds of suffering and happiness that we experience.

Karma is a Sanskrit word meaning action. Our actions are karmic causes that generate potentials which reverberate through time. When these potentials later ripen, we experience the karmic results. Constructive actions bring about positive results, such as good environments, whereas with destructive actions it’s the opposite.

Right now, we are humans on planet earth. Our collective good karma connects us with the abundance, beauty, and generosity of mother earth. Individual karma means we enjoy this abundance to a greater or lesser degree.

Meanwhile, our collective bad karma means that we are presently part of a global culture that is disrupting and degrading the ecosystems of mother earth. Some humans pursue destructive courses of action, while others try to reverse that direction.

Why is it bad karma to help degrade the ecosystems of planet earth? Quite simply, it’s because this harms the sentient beings who live here. To do so unknowingly isn’t necessarily bad karma, but in the current situation, where those responsible for fossil fuel industries, and other systems that harm the environment know very well what how destructive their actions are, their karma is very bad indeed. Ecocide destroys countless lives and opportunities for wellbeing.

Things have come to such a serious juncture that even to do nothing implies consent to the ecocidal culture that infuses our economic, societal, and political structures. As His Holiness the Dalai Lama has said, ‘You have to do something!’

On another occasion, the Dalai Lama said, ’Universal responsibility is the key to human survival.’ This indicates that human survival isn’t a given. ‘Universal responsibility’ is the driving force that motivates action for the benefit of everyone. If sufficient people adopt this motivation, human life will continue.

Thus, in general, the actions of Extinction Rebellion are very good karma, because they are motivated by a concern for all, both now and in the future. Although many XR activists, including some in the XR Buddhists contingent, don’t relate to the Buddha’s teachings on karma, nevertheless, these actions, if motivated by universal compassion, will certainly lead to positive results. Actions motivated by universal compassion and responsibility are the actions of Bodhisattvas.

Following brief involvement in the Impossible Rebellion at the beginning of September 2021 I undertook a personal five-week retreat. During the retreat this article came to me, and I jotted down some notes, from which I have now written it. I dedicate it to the positive outcomes of the actions of XR Buddhists.

Posts and articles are the views of their authors and not necessarily of the XR Buddhists group.

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