His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama
Pleasure and pain come from your own former actions (karma). Thus, it is easy to explain karma in one short sentence: If you act well, things will be good, and if you act badly, things will be bad.
Karma means actions. From the viewpoint of how actions are done, there are physical, verbal, and mental actions. From the viewpoint of their effects, actions are either virtuous, non-virtuous, or neutral. In terms of time, there are two types – actions of intention which occur while thinking to do something and the intended actions which are the expressions of those mental motivations in physical or verbal action.
For instance, based on a motive, I am now speaking and thereby accumulating a verbal action of karma. With gestures of my hands, I am also accumulating physical karma. Whether these actions become good or bad is mainly based on my motivation. If I speak from a good motivation out of sincerity, respect, and love for others, my actions are good, virtuous. If I act from a motivation of pride, hatred, criticism, and so forth, then my verbal and physical actions become non-virtuous.
Karmas, therefore, are being made all the time. When one speaks with a good motivation, a friendly atmosphere is created as an immediate result; also, the action makes an imprint on the mind, inducing pleasure in the future. With a bad motivation, a hostile atmosphere is created immediately, and pain is induced for the speaker in the future.
Buddha’s teaching is that you are your own master; everything depends on yourself. This means that pleasure and pain arise from virtuous and non-virtuous actions which come not from outside but from within yourself. This theory is very useful in daily life, for once you believe in the relationship between actions and their effects, whether there is an external policeman or not, you will always be alert and examine yourself. For example, if there were some money or a precious jewel here and no one was around, you could take it easily; however, if you believe in this doctrine, since the whole responsibility for your own future rests on yourself, you will not.
With respect to the effects of actions, many different types are explained. One type is called “effects which are fruitions”. For instance, if someone, due to a non-virtuous action, is born in a bad transmigration as an animal, that rebirth is an effect which is a fruition in another life. Another type is called an “effect experientially similar to its cause”; for instance, if after being reborn in a bad transmigration due to an act of murder you were subsequently reborn as a human, you would have a short life, – the effect, a short life being similar in terms of experience to the cause, cutting short someone else’s life. Another type is called “effect functionally similar to its cause”; an example would be naturally to have tendencies toward the same non-virtuous action, such as murder.
Examples for all of these can similarly be applied to virtuous actions. Also, there are actions the effects of which are shared – many beings having similarly done similar types of actions and thereby undergoing effects in common, such as enjoying a certain physical environment together.
The important point is that such presentations of Buddhist theories about actions can make a positive contribution to human society. It is my hope that whether religious or not, we will study each other’s systems to gather helpful ideas and techniques for the betterment of humankind.