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I’m not sure why, but lately the topic of Karma has been coming up a lot. I’ve been asked about it from several different angles, and there seems to be a lot of confusion around this topic. As you might suspect, the Buddha’s teachings on Karma are a far cry from the new-age/superstitious ‘squish a bug, be reborn a cockroach’ nonsense. This is actually a very delicate subject, and I’ll try to clarify it to the best of my abilities.
The word Karma in Sanskrit, literally means ‘action’. An action can be one of three kinds- committed by body, committed by speech, or committed by mind. The basis for any of these is intention or volition. Basically speaking, Karma is not at all a system of retribution or morals, but rather a intricate network of causality, described by the Buddha as this/that conditionality, a formula that looks quite simple:
(1) When this is, that is.
(2) From the arising of this comes the arising of that.
(3) When this isn’t, that isn’t.
(4) From the stopping of this comes the stopping of that.
— AN 10.92 (Tr. Ajahn Thanissaro)
This can seem deceptively simple, but there are various levels functioning here simultaneously: (1) and (3) relate the relationships of events in the present moment, whereas (2) and (4) connect events over time. This is key, as the Buddhist notion of Karma is not a single cause/single effect theory. Rather it takes into account the massive intricate web of causes and conditions that govern the arising and duration of any action or event. Rare is the example of a single cause that conditions a single outcome. Thus pondering what one might have done to deserve something, for example, would be rather useless, as the causes of a single event could possibly be the result of your own action in the past + your mental state at the time of the event + someone else’s action in the past + various conditions present in the time of the event.
Next is the question of the fruit of Karma (Karmaphala). For daily life this carries a lot of significance, as the “karmic aftermath” is what totally shapes our experience. Intentional actions leave imprints, in the form of memories, on the mind. These can be usefully thought of as seeds that are stored in the deepest recesses of our mind. Thich Nhat Hanh speaks of the fact that we store a great number and variety of seeds (intentions), and the choice that one has is which seeds to water. So the choice element is whether we choose to engage with what is skillful or with what is unskillful.
The Buddha usually chose to speak of skillful and unskillful, rather than good or evil, which are spoken of mostly in poetic contexts. He explained unskillful thought (perhaps more useful would be to say intention, as volition often arises as a kind of energy or impulse and not a fully crystallized thought) thus:
“If evil, unskillful thoughts — imbued with desire, aversion, or delusion — still arise in the monk… he should scrutinize the drawbacks of those thoughts: ‘Truly, these thoughts of mine are unskillful, these thoughts of mine are blameworthy, these thoughts of mine result in stress.’” -MN 20
And on skillful thought:
“And as I remained thus heedful, ardent, & resolute, thinking imbued with harmlessness arose in me. I discerned that ‘Thinking imbued with harmlessness has arisen in me; and that leads neither to my own affliction, nor to the affliction of others, nor to the affliction of both. It fosters discernment, promotes lack of vexation, and leads to Unbinding.” -MN 19
I find this understanding extremely useful, particularly because the teachings on Karma are less prone to induce guilt, as opposed to the western cultural notion of sin, which permeated even the secular society I grew up in. There is no blame to be shoved around, as there is always a multitude of conditions and causes governing outcomes and events. There is always a way to renew and turn away from what is unskillful, and no need for an immanent sense of retribution to loom over one’s psyche. As any attentive addict will know, guilt is not a useful way of treating addiction, as it usually causes anxiety which just makes you want to engage your addiction. My own many year struggle with tobacco smoking came to an end only when I finally saw the impulses and thoughts behind craving in a balanced, detached manner, and was able to realize that I do not necessarily have to react based on these impulses.
Since engaging with unskillful actions of body speech and mind do tend to cause distress, it is very helpful to have a tool for renewing and making reparations, so that we may positively move forward rather than get bogged down in shame, guilt and remorse. Personally I use the classical Chan renewal formulation. The Chan verse in our school goes like this:
“All my ancient, twisted karma,
From beginningless greed, hate, and delusion,
Born through body, speech, and mind,
I now fully avow.”
Being so concise, it is very easy to remember and use in times of need. It is important to remember that having avowed something does not mean that it will never occur again. We have formed very strong habits, and these are not so easily transformed. Instead of beating ourselves up for failing numerous times, we can use each occurrence as an opportunity to pay attention and learn more about how unskillful actions make us feel, and why it is that we resolve to move away from them and transform them. No doubt we can all use the renewal verse many times.
Another very useful way to look at renewal is through the Tibetan idea of The four Powers of Purification. Erick Tsiknopoulos, the wonderful translator, has translated the Sutra of the Teaching on the Four Dharmas, and written a fantastic introduction where you can learn all about the Tibetan approach to renewal. You can find it here.
Lastly, a few words about the so-called end game of Buddhist practice. It is often posited that upon enlightenment one puts an end to the chain of karma, and that is because one’s actions become untainted by volition or craving. Meaning that rather than being thrown about by causes and conditions (a process which is known as Samsara), one acts spontaneously out of the pure wish to benefit all beings, with no self-centered attachment. This is a beautiful idea, and if you have ever experienced flow states free of self-reference, for example when being 100% fully engaged in an activity, you know the bliss of acting without the feeling of the actions being “willed” by you. I think that probably everyone has experienced this at least for brief moments, for example when “having your breath taken away” when you see a majestic view, before you begin to analyse your experience.
However, a warning must be issued, and that is why we will end with Master Baizhang’s famous Fox gongan (Jap. koan), rendered beautifully by James Ishmael Ford. I will only say this- beware the hubris of thinking you are free from participating in the world.
When master Baizhang spoke before the dharma assembly, an old man would always stand near the back of the assembly, and would vanish before the abbot could speak with him.
Finally, one day, the old man lingered and Baizhang said to him, “Who are you? Or, should I say, what are you? And, why are you coming here?”
The old man smiled thinly, bowed, and said, “You’re very perceptive. I am in fact not a human being. Many ages ago I was abbot on this mountain, heading an assembly of monks following the way.”
“A sincere student of the way came to me and asked if someone who had awakened to her true nature, who saw clearly the play of life and death, and had achieved wisdom, was that person bound by the laws of cause and effect?”
“And,” asked Baizhang, “what did you say?”
The old man shuddered. “I said such a person is not bound by the laws of cause and effect.” There was a horrific silence that felt like endless suffering. Baizhang thought perhaps he smelled the whiff of sulfur. Finally, the old man added, “And ever since then I’ve been reincarnating as a fox spirit. So far, five hundred times.”
“Please,” the spirit begged. “Say a turning word, and free me from this hell.” Baizhang didn’t hesitate. He replied, “The true person of the way, she or he who has achieved wisdom, is at one with the laws of cause and effect.” Another translation of these words says, “That person does not avoid the laws.” And another says, “The wise person does not obscure the laws.” Don’t obscure, do not avoid, be at one with.
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