1. Religion & Spirituality
Send to a Friend via Email
Barbara O'Brien

Re-thinking Karma?

By April 6, 2011

Follow me on:

The interview of Zen teacher David Loy at Sweeping Zen provides a lot of fodder for discussion, but for now I'd like to focus on his comments on karma (scroll about halfway down the page). Loy says,

The question for us today is whether karma and rebirth, in the way that they came to be historically understood in Asia, are teachings essential to Buddhism. Many Western Buddhists, such as Robert Thurman, would say yes. Others, such as Stephen Batchelor and myself, understand karma and rebirth as issues that need to be rethought.

In Confession of a Buddhist Atheist Batchelor didn't "rethink" karma; he rejected it wholesale, on the theory that since teachings on karma appear in the Vedic religion of his day, the Buddha couldn't possibly have taught about karma himself, and all the stuff about "kamma" in the Pali texts must have been added later. And I say that's got holes in logic you could drive an elephant through, but let's focus now on what Loy says.

Loy draws a parallel between the teachings of karma in Buddhism and teachings of sin in Christianity. The way Christians originally understood "sin," Loy says, was very general, a state of "alienation from God." But in the Medieval church it became a complex judicial system in which God was the judge, and the Church acted as police and prosecuting attorneys.This gave the Church considerable control over peoples' lives for several centuries.

Loy argues that "karma" went through a similar metamorphosis --

On the other side, when you look at the way Buddhism developed it is interesting how karma (which in the Pali Canon is presented in a more nuanced way) became objectified into a preoccupation with accumulating merit. It's the mirror image of what happened in Christianity: merit is positive and sin is negative but both become something commodified. In both cases, this works to the benefit of the institution. It's widely believed that how much merit you accumulate depends not only on your gift but also on the spiritual status of the recipient. Therefore, it is always better to give it to a monk or temple, because of course they must be more spiritually developed than some poor homeless person on the street who may actually need that food or money much more.

I get the impression that the concept of merit is a huge part of Buddhism in southeast Asia and in some Mahayana regions as well. It's not something one hears much about in Zen, and frankly the idea that one can "accumulate" anything, merit or otherwise, just doesn't work for me at all. But this idea of merit is an important connection between monasteries and lay communities,

Loy goes on to propose a different way to look at karma --

... karma is not something the self has but what the sense of self is. Just as the food that I eat is digested and becomes part of my physical body, so the intentional actions that I perform, as they become habituated, end up forming my character. That is why the Buddha emphasized intention so much - that was his revolutionary new perspective on karma, in place of old Brahminical emphasis on ritual and sacrifice. One way to understand how karma works is to see how habitualized intentions tend to create certain types of situations for us. ...

... Habitual ways of thinking and acting not only construct the sense of self, they also transform the world that we live in, in effect. We relate to the world in certain ways and the rest of the world tends to respond to us according to how we relate to it. Our karma isn't something external or internal but the medium with which we approach the world.

I've never thought of karma this way, but I'm certainly going to reflect on this for a bit. What do you think?

Comments
April 6, 2011 at 6:25 pm
(1) Frank Grigonis says:

I would love to believe in the classical idea of karma: rich and beautiful people are that way because of good deeds they performed in past lives, etc. but REALLY, let’s look at the rich and beautiful.
Do they act like people who were benevolent in past lives? Should we honor Paris Hilton and Charlie Sheen and assume they were generous and selfless individuals in past lives? If so, why are they so shallow and selfish now???

Conversely, isn’t it an insult to already suffering handicapped people or the poor to assume they are suffering now because of their misdeeds in previous lives?
I wish karma were true, but I’ve learned that a wish and a dime (or a quarter now) will get me exactly one gumball, and that’s IF the gumball machine even works.

It’s painful for sensitive people to look at things the way they really seem to be: unfair and random, so I would say I’m more of a fan of Buddhism than a Buddhist.

April 6, 2011 at 8:34 pm
(2) Barbara O'Brien says:

I wish karma were true, but I’ve learned that a wish and a dime (or a quarter now) will get me exactly one gumball, and that’s IF the gumball machine even works.

Karma isn’t what you think it is. The Buddha taught that karma isn’t fate, and it isn’t some cosmic criminal justice system. Also, lots of stuff happens that doesn’t have anything to do with karma. This article on karma might help.

April 7, 2011 at 2:05 am
(3) Frank says:

and if “lots of stuff happens that doesn’t have anything to do with karma” (agreed), then life is often unfair and random. I am glad that Buddha liberated me from believing in god. If I still believed in god, I would still be angry ALL of the time. I agree with you that Buddha’s view of “karma” is more accurate than the Hindu view though.

April 6, 2011 at 9:33 pm
(4) David says:

I confess I did not go and read the whole David Loy article, but at heart he seems to be speaking of Buddhist institutional structures as much as Buddhism itself, and how such structures relate to karma (e.g. donating food to a monk is especially ‘good karma’). It is always perfectly fair to take a hard look at religious institutions and how they may or may not twist doctrines to the advantage of those in the power structure. Buddhists are humans, and humans do things like form power heirarchies. Since religions ask the question ‘what is the good life’, goodness itself can indeed become a kind of commodity that is controlled and regulated by the leaders. So his argument is a point well taken. But I am struck by the fact that karma/kamma is not one of the ‘four seals of the dharma’. Nor is it part of the noble truths or the eightfold path. The main Buddhist concern seems to be with how one’s life is lived now, not what will be in a future life, or what was in a past one. I for one have no belief in some metaphysical karma system flowing from life to life. It is enough for me to be mindful that our actions flow outward from us and have many consequences, some of which are passed on to future generations (as the poet Delmore Schwartz wrote: “I am my father’s father/You are your children’s guilt.”) Since there is no self in Buddhism, the idea of karma related to some idea that ‘I’ will be reborn a rich, handsome man if ‘I’ am good in this life is completely senseless. In fact, I would find Buddhism pretty dismal if I thought I would show up over the centuries as an endless versions of one essential self, ‘acquiring’ karma. As Zen likes to note: there is nothing to attain.

April 12, 2011 at 1:28 pm
(5) Yeshe Pete says:

If your mind continues in a form after this life, you may not be rich and handsome, but have a strong Buddhist inclination and compassion; the best wealth. The river of mind flows, it doesn’t just fall off the earth. Donations to monks (I am a monk and don’t receive donations other than cups of latte’s from friends) is meritorious because of supporting the growth of love, compassion, meditation and wisdom in the world through the monk’s or temple’s activities.

April 6, 2011 at 10:15 pm
(6) MStrawder says:

After reading the article, I believe that Mr. Loy is coming to the same conclusion as I have in understanding karma, but from a different path.

Karma as I have begun to understand it, are the actions, positive or negative, that we do which create the potential for future events to occur. It in itself is not the result, but rather the seed planted and if conditions are conducive, it can blossom and the result can be positive or negative, depending on the seed. The potential for these actions is said to carryover because it creates a sort of imprint on our mindstream.

Mr. Loy says that our karma (actions themselves, not the results) becomes a part of character. Specifically he says, ” If I am usually motivated by greed, ill will and delusion the three poisons I will tend to find myself in certain problematical situations.” People who continually follow a particular behavior pattern and commit these negative actions tend to create situations for themselves that are conducive to more negative actions and suffering.

The ideas are very similar in nature in that they both still state that our actions (karma) plant the potential for both good and bad results. There are some situations however that occur simply because they do. Conditions must be right for a particular seed to blossom and sometimes conditions occur that produce results without our having planted a seed, but perhaps are the results of a seed planted by another. Though I do find his comparisons on sin vs merit to be an interesting parallel.

April 7, 2011 at 9:13 am
(7) Hein says:

Habitual ways of thinking and acting not only construct the sense of self, they also transform the world that we live in, in effect. We relate to the world in certain ways and the rest of the world tends to respond to us according to how we relate to it. Our karma isn’t something external or internal but the medium with which we approach the world.
Karma in the sense as a reward or punishment for what you have done never resonated with me. If so then it is Karma with a capital letter K and no different than a god. Must say that I appreciate Loys definition as that is what my Chinese Chan Teacher always told us about karma and I could never get a proper way to convey it in English; that is now the understanding and not the translation of karma.

Merit (as a process) is not that different from karma either. IMO merit have an internal and external part; what you do internally (in the mind) have an effect externally and vice versa. By making merit (in whatever form your Buddhist tradition require you to do) you actually relate to the world in a way that have effect on everything (your mind, your body, your life, people around you environment etc). And although Barbara states that she has never thought about it in the way conveyed by Loy we all relate to the world in a certain way, without necessarily realising or thinking about it. As is portrayed in the schematic rendering of the Wheel of Life; ignorance (the first part) leads to the formation of karma (the second part) and everything follows from that until death. In that sense karma is the medium in which we approach the world. To end karma you have to break or end ignorance, otherwise the Cycle of Death continues. I think in the Zen tradition although not mentioned in this way operates exactly along this line; to end the formation of karma by ending ignorance…it is actually the Buddhist Path in general.

April 7, 2011 at 11:38 am
(8) CL says:

I think Loy offers a reasonable explanation which has been my understanding as a Nichiren buddhist.

“If I am usually motivated by greed, ill will and delusion the three poisons I will tend to find myself in certain problematical situations.

We refer to the concept of esho funi (oneness of self and environment.)

We do not believe that karma is immutable. We can change our environment and the kinds of situations that arise from either our mis-perception of reality or our “super-imposing” of our constructions upon others. It is only a matter of time, but if we keep up practice and continue observation of the mind, even our habits will change, our behavior towards others and this will cause the actions accumulated whether in this lifetime or a past lifetime to take the shape of where our growth has led us.

However, we must consider the fact that we have been so immeasurably fortunate to be born or have chosen to be born in a human body with the more or less of the faculties afforded by having one. It certainly seems to be the result of past causes or practices.

gassho

April 7, 2011 at 4:37 pm
(9) Tammy says:

Loy’s description of karma fits perfectly with my own understanding of this concept. I am a Yogi/Buddhist, and I think of intention as the underlying foundation in our lives. It is what forms our mindset, or worldview. This underlying perspective is what frames the world we see, and the way in which we interpret things. I may not always be joyful, centered, and productive in the world, but I see the world in a positive, loving way overall. A friend of mine unfortunately has come to see the negative in the world as his framework. He and I have very different experiences of events that occur in our lives. A positive attitude attracts, by and large, positive things. This is how I understand Karma.

April 7, 2011 at 5:16 pm
(10) AniTenzin says:

One aspect of Buddhism that conteracts the actions of karma is that any negativity can be purified. The Buddha stated this in the first teaching of the Four Noble Truths. Karma is much more complicated that how we perceive it in the West. It also includes the concept of time as not existent or not linier. So, actions done in past, present and future can effect whats happening now.

You have to consider that the seeds of both positive and negative karma are latent within all mindstreams. So, if someone seems to must have good karma as mentioned above just means that that’s what’s ripening right now. The circumstances came together in such a way that it turned out that way. However, deeds done in past lives are still within the mindstream and negative karma can ripen in an instant.

So, the best way to deal with karma is thru purification and practicing an ethical life that will bring postivie results at some future time.

April 9, 2011 at 11:58 am
(11) nyiking says:

“So, the best way to deal with karma is thru purification and practicing an ethical life that will bring positive results at some future time.”

You have answered the “rethought of Karma” by providing a solution minus the dust of argument arising from the topic.

Actually the cycle of samasara are endlessly existence of suffering but empty of self ;If Western trained people can take a holistic approach and look at the endless life- death cycle ,you might not jump to conclusion certain celebrities enjoy a good life b’cos he/she have collected abundance of merits to qualify for his glamorous life of present. As the entry point and exit point of samsara were both open.

As long as one still cling to the notion of duality, even in attempting to grasping the truth of Buddhism, the answer shall continue to be along the concept of accountability of previous life and present life,that is shortsightedness ,so is karma or cause and effect only valid for two life span only!?

April 7, 2011 at 5:52 pm
(12) Lerissa says:

I like what Loy says about karma. His ideas are similar to my own teacher’s ideas about karma: she talks about “ruts” of reactions and counter-reactions, and how difficult it is to get out of them.

I have never found that it pays to try to figure out someone else’s karma. It’s enough to puzzle over my own.

April 8, 2011 at 4:31 am
(13) Peter says:

Yes, it resonates with me too. My intentions influence my actions which influence my reality. And I am part of a much wider, unpredictable, reality. My intention is to accept this with kindness. Sometimes I do and when I don’t I try to remember to practice.
May all beings be happy.

April 8, 2011 at 9:32 am
(14) Chris says:

Another way of seeing kamma might be in the pollution of the jewel in the lotus caused by negative actions and thoughts.

And, there does seem to be a heavy emphasis placed on making merit in Thailand, where I’ve lived for a while. A common view held by farang in Thailand is that the priesthood exploits this to its material advantage.

Another way to see it: Many, many males–less so females, for some reason–take time out in a monastery from time to time. By feeding and providing other material support to the local temple, you are supporting your own offspring’s spiritual path–albeit at a small remove–unless your son goes to the local monastery.

April 8, 2011 at 10:03 am
(15) Barbara O'Brien says:

Another way to see it: Many, many males–less so females, for some reason–take time out in a monastery from time to time. By feeding and providing other material support to the local temple, you are supporting your own offspring’s spiritual path–albeit at a small remove–unless your son goes to the local monastery.

Hmmph. I postulate women have less time to “take out” because they are busy feeding, washing, dressing, and otherwise taking care of children and elderly who are not monks.

April 8, 2011 at 11:09 am
(16) Mila says:

RE: “If even the Dalai Lama still gets angry after multiple lives of intense practice, what hope do I have to liberate myself from anger?”

It’s not that feelings of anger etc. never arise — but rather that they’re allowed then naturally to dissolve, to pass through — rather than becoming congealed, in-corporated into a fixed egoic “me.”

So instead of the feelings becoming carved in stone; it’s more like writing or drawing a picture on the surface of water: as soon as the words/image arises, it has already been absorbed again into its background.

The feelings, thoughts, images can then function in the way they need to function — e.g. leading to action or no-action — without being recruited as fuel for some fixed notion of “who-I-am.”

April 8, 2011 at 11:18 am
(17) Mila says:

RE: “Also, imagine there is a physical threat to you; at that point a belief in a seperate you becomes essential and NOT something to be overcome, right?

Well, actually, what generations of martial artists have discovered is that becoming greatly expanded, greatly relaxed — i.e. totally free from any sense of a “little egoic me that’s now being threatened” — is the most effective way to be, when in a position of needing to defend oneself from an impending attack. Because then we have full access to all of “our” resources, which include an intelligence and perceptive capacity far greater than anything our little egoic “me” could possibly muster.

Having said as much, it’s also true that a “sense of self” is often called for, in our daily interactions — and is not a problem, as long as it’s allowed to be fluid, i.e. recognized as being a construction, not some essential and everlasting “me.” So we can manifest a “self” that’s appropriate for the given context, and then let it dissolve …

April 8, 2011 at 11:31 am
(18) Chris says:

“Hmmph. I postulate women have less time to take out because they are busy feeding, washing, dressing, and otherwise taking care of children…”

You are likely right about that, Barbara! I had only been thinking about the Thais with whom I lived or knew socially, surely a biased sample.

April 8, 2011 at 1:38 pm
(19) Chris says:

Given the clarity no-mind requires, there’s no difficulty imagining how a violent thought, or a violent act even more so, might hold us back from moving along the path.

The concept of kamma is perhaps most useful as a construct, a staff for the path…to be discarded when no longer needed.

April 10, 2011 at 8:43 am
(20) Sam B says:

I think this view could be a helpful stepping stone toward the ultimate and deeper understanding.

Where I think it gets tricky is losing the distinction between self and “I”. Who is it that is observing and giving meaning to “… karma is not something the self has but what the sense of self is” Is it the self patiently accepting the good or bad fruit that the seeds of karma have brought forth? Or is the “I” [Ego] once again posing as “self” and trying to apply logic to simply “what is”.

I say this because “merit” can be a slippery slope depending the point of view: Self or “I”. Collecting merit or working on merit for the sake of merit does place positive action into the world, yet what does it do to teach the student about true compassion.
Where I agree with Loy is merit seeking becomes an action of adding to what one has…. just another form of striving.
But when we our actions are made with true compassion for others hen we have empathy… or as Loy puts it, karma/merit is something we become.

I like this: “Our karma isn’t something external or internal but the medium with which we approach the world”. It seems to take the dualism of good and bad out of the nature of karma and turns karma into a channel for love and compassion.

April 12, 2011 at 1:04 pm
(21) Taizen says:

“Karma” is a very deep subject. It encompasses much more than merely one’s outlook and personal experiences in this lifetime & future lifetimes. More properly, it falls into what is called “Abhidharma”(Higher Knowledge)in Buddhist teachings. If you would like to understand how karma thoroughly functions; I would respectfully suggest you study:”Course 5 How Karma Works” from http://www.acidharma.org The course is presented from a Vajrayana (Gelugpa) point of view and may prove to be quite helpful & an eyeopener. Don’t merely scratch the surface and accept “comfortable” conceptions about “karma” in this lifetime! Karma can be worked with, it can be purified. For countless lifetimes we have wandered in ignorance as to this subject. Bodhisattvas&Buddhas work with&master this subject. Why shouldn’t we?

April 12, 2011 at 1:17 pm
(22) Barbara O'Brien says:

Bodhisattvas&Buddhas work with&master this subject. Why shouldn’t we?

You mean, we’re not Buddhas and Bodhisattvas? :-(

April 12, 2011 at 3:20 pm
(23) Taizen says:

“You mean, we’re not Buddhas and Bodhisattvas?”A wonderful Zen response!(From a Mahayana perspective)
While all may inherently have the “potential” or fundamental “Buddha Nature” to become an Arhat, High level Bodhisattva, & Buddha; accordingly, very few have the level of accumulation of both “wisdom” and “merit” necessary to properly be considered to be of such caliber.
Who is a Buddha? In my humble opinion: One who has perceived emptiness directly under the influence of Bodhichitta & has subsequently accumulated the required level of both wisdom & merit (by removing all obstacles).
Our “Buddha Nature” is the emptiness of our mind or Buddha seed waiting to be uncovered. There is no other Buddha nature hidden from us! You can be a Bodhisattva before you even understand the concept of emptiness intellectually or perceive it directly. This however requires “Bodhichitta”.

December 23, 2011 at 6:49 am
(24) Jackie LION says:

I am an astrologist and astrology brought me to my commitment to the dharma. You can see in a birth chart not WHAT you were in a past life but the neurotic tendencies you bring over with you (retrograde planets, the Nodes etc), the objective being to clean up and move from the neurotic tendencies to the luminous side of your North Node. Of course I can be attacked for writing this as I cannot prove scientifically that this is so, but I know with startling clarity and insight backed up with signs in my birth chart (and that of others who wish to evolve spiritually) of the neurotic tendencies that remain in me. Far from being passive, I work actively to bring these tendencies up to the light and move forward positively. You could also put this down to psychology, but so what? I am understanding my life, accepting certain elements (the most difficult part) and moving forward in genuine peace. At the end of the day we have many lifetimes to move forward but for me I now “know” it is in my interest and in the interest of all sentient beings that I have had the realisations I have had. Yes, karma is misunderstood and maybe I too misunderstand, but by golly I don’t half feel a lot better.

Just wanted to add my “two pennyworth” as we say in English. I can actively change how I feel about my Parabdha karma (the arrow has left the bow) and actively prepare a better future, the ultimate aim being beyond duality.

Leave a Comment

Line and paragraph breaks are automatic. Some HTML allowed: <a href="" title="">, <b>, <i>, <strike>

©2014 About.com. All rights reserved.