California is the worst thing that ever happened to Buddhism. Not the place really, but that New Age garbage that seems to have been tagged on to every concept, to the point where the actual meaning of the words and the ideas behind them are unrecognizable from the actual meaning. This may be more true of our basic understanding of the concept of karma than any other that has entered into popular understanding. It may be somewhat unfair to blame just western hippies and media though, as the influx of Hindu and Animist traditions that shaped Buddhism into a religious practice in the east is just as full of nonsense as the crystal healers of the West. The popular understanding of Karma is that as you do good things, good things happen to you, and the converse of bad things is also true. So for instance if you help enough elderly woman cross the road you are saving up some kind of mystical "good" points that might be cashed in at some point to win the lottery. This isn't really even close to right.
Karma isn't about good or bad, deserving or undeserving, it is about understanding the cause and effect of human action. As I've noted before, I had dismissed the concept of Karma for years as rubbish, but that dismissal was due to my lack of understanding of what the term really meant. California Karma, as described above, is rubbish, but the real concept is useful in understanding the relationship of human action, cause and effect and the influence of the past on the present. Real karma isn't mystical, there is no special force that intervenes and meters out justice, there isn't any scoreboard in the sky keeping track of good deeds vs bad deeds, mostly because such notions are purely human labeling being forced onto our experience. It's more about how not doing any physical activity and eating poorly can lead to weight problems and an unhealthy body. How if we cheat one person it creates a wave of response in the social network, where we have created a less trusting individual, and this experience will create an environment that has less trust in it, affecting the decisions of others. It is even how the choices of those who came before us have shaped the societies that we live in, and even have shaped the very genes that act as the basis of the human experience.
Karma is about understanding that action is more important than intent. That it is the actions that we take and how they ripple through the world that makes the future. Our vices and our virtues create the actions we take, those actions create the world that we live in, and that world is what future actions are made in response to. It is understanding that sum of all of history leads up to each moment, that the incremental building of all decisions ever taken has created the event that you are currently responding to, and that action you respond with will create the environment you will have to interact with in the future. While those actions closest to our lives impact us more directly, especially our own, the actions of those around contribute greatly to what kind of society we live in as well.
In fact I would argue that the vices and virtues of populations at large manifest themselves very clearly in how life is lived in different places in the world. The reasons that societies function, or fail to function, is due to the collective actions of its citizens. Karma in many ways is like a very complex application of game theory, about understanding how in very complex webs how one decision affects other decisions, and how that rebounds through the social consciousness of all those around us. When societies collectively accept or reject certain forms of behavior it creates a place where the repeated effects of those actions manifest themselves in how that society is lived in. Each part of the world is what it is because of how the people there have handled each situation before them.
When reading about the Pol Pot regime in Cambodia I remember there being a section on how one of the underlying assumptions of the people of Cambodia, due to their Buddhist heritage, was that they must have done something awful that made them deserve what happened to them. At first such a notion seems horribly cruel, but I think part of the understanding here is wrong. It isn't about deserving or not deserving, it's about the environments that we create. No one can claim that a 6 year old girl deserves to be executed as an enemy of the state, but as a culture we are responsible for creating environments where these kind of things can happen. It is never from just one individual or one thing, but a complex web of interaction that allowed the poor to be exploited, that allowed for the ideas of Cambodia's communists to be accepted by the people, that allowed for the government they overthrew to be so horribly corrupt, etc. Some things that contributed were metered out by admittedly outside forces, such as the effects of American bombings along the Vietnamese border, but how that plays into everything is part of a much larger picture. Because this wasn't just Cambodia, this was the effects of events in France, the US, China, Vietnam, Russia, etc. just to list the other locations that were directly involved. The scope is very broad and the system as a whole encompasses all human action, even if for the sake of simplicity it is easier at times to focus on certain events and locations.
This also highlights why it is so important to have some understanding of history, why it is important to see what forces and actions have created what we are dealing with in our lives. I do not just mean large scale world events, but an understanding of your families history, the history of the place where you live, what were the actions that created you and where you live. What were the actions that people have taken that have created what we love and cherish in these places and ourselves, and what has created the undesirable elements. What actions need to be taken to create better environments, and what changes to accepted action can we make in our lives that will create better environments for us to exist in? By understanding the past we can use that information to guide us into the future, we can learn from the failures of the past, and we can see how our past actions have contributed to possible future difficulties.
I don't think "good karma" is collected by spinning prayer wheels, but it might be that the payoff of contemplation while doing so can make your life better. It isn't about accumulating +s and -s, it's about understanding how the actions you take will reverberate not only through your life, but through the place where you live and the human world as a whole. While it was the concepts of the Greek stoics that taught me why human action is the basis for the measure of right or wrong in our lives, it was the Buddhist concept of karma that let me see how far reaching the consequences of those actions are.