There are some moments in life when the impact of karma feels particularly strong. For me, for reasons I must keep private, this is one such moment. I’m not a proponent of, nor an expert on karma from any philosophical or religious angle, I’m simply reflecting on the notion that thoughts, motives and actions in life – both good and bad, positive and negative – all have consequences.
Here, for the particular benefit of the very few people in my life who will understand the place from whence this post comes, a few words quoted directly from a couple of respected sources on the subject of karma (because they can explain it better than I); and (with a spoiler alert to anyone who does not know the story and has never read the book), a plot summary of Oscar Wilde’s ‘Picture of Dorian Gray’, which may make little sense to you, but is connected. Thank you, lovely readers, for indulging me today.
The theory of karma as causality holds that (1) executed actions of an individual affect the individual and the life he or she lives, and (2) the intentions of an individual affect the individual and the life he or she lives. Another causality characteristic, shared by Karmic theories, is that like deeds lead to like effects. Thus good karma produces good effect on the actor, while bad karma produces bad effect. This effect may be material, moral or emotional — that is, one’s karma affects one’s happiness and unhappiness. The effect of karma need not be immediate; the effect of karma can be later in one’s life, or even in future lives.
The word karma means ‘action’, and this indicates something important about the concept of karma: it is determined by our own actions, in particular by the motives behind intentional actions. Skilful actions that lead to good karmic outcomes are based upon motives of generosity; compassion, kindness and sympathy, and clear mindfulness or wisdom. The opposite motives of greed, aversion (hatred) and delusion, when acted upon, lead to bad karmic results. Karma is not an external force, not a system of punishment or reward dealt out by a god. The concept is more accurately understood as a natural law similar to gravity.
In Buddhist teaching there is the concept of karmic ‘conditioning’, which is a process by which a person’s nature is shaped by their moral actions. Every action we take moulds our characters for the future. Both positive and negative traits can become magnified over time as we fall into habits. All of these cause us to acquire karma.
‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’
In Oscar Wilde’s celebrated novel, Dorian Gray, a handsome narcissist, has a portrait of himself painted whilst he is a young man – it is widely admired. But his is a hedonistic and amoral life, filled with moral duplicity and self-indulgence. Dorian Gray engages in ever more compulsive and dishonest behaviours, a process which takes him on a downward spiral from which he cannot escape. At first he believes he notices small changes happening to his face in the portrait; it appears to be becoming subtly less open and attractive, although he cannot be sure. All the while, he himself remains inexplicably handsome and youthful. As time goes by however, and he cannot escape from his own moral degradation, the changes in the picture are so obvious that they become a constant rebuke to him. He hides the picture from the world as his private guilty secret. By the time of his death, the picture depicts the grotesque portrait of his warped soul.