Karma Is Empty Until It Is Given Value

By: David Xi-Ken Astor, Sensei

I have been thinking a lot recently about karma and how we can learn through our Buddhist practice if it is possible to drive our own karma, or at least, what are we going to do about it.  There is no point in pretending that karma has now become problematic for Western contemporary Buddhism.  If we are honest with ourselves, most of us are not sure how to understand it.  This is something I have become aware of in my own teaching and through group discussions.  Karma has always been an essential element of the core Buddhist principle of mutual-causality, but we may not know how literally it should be understood using today’s language .  Karma is often taken as an impersonal “moral law” of the universe, with a precise calculus of cause and effect comparable I suppose to Newton’s laws of physics.  This understanding, however, can lead to a server case of “cognitive dissonance” for modern Buddhists, since the physical causality that modern science has discovered about the world seems to allow for no such mechanism.

Then again, some important Buddhist teachings make more sense to us today than they did to people living at the time of the Buddha.  What Buddhism has to say about “no-self”, for example, is consistent with what modern psychology has discovered about how the ego and self-nature is constructed.   In some aspects Buddhism can fit quite nicely into contemporary ways of understanding.  But not traditional views of karma.  Of course, this by itself does not disprove anything.  It does, however, encourage us to think more deeply about karma.

There are at least two other problems with the ways that karma has traditionally been understood.  One of them is its unfortunate implications for many Eastern-centric traditional Buddhist cultures, where a split has developed between how the Sangha is defined.  In most of the East, and in many Western Centers as well, the Sangha is considered divided between the monastic community and the laity.  Although the Pali Canon makes it quite clear that laypeople too can achieve an awakening, the main spiritual responsibility of lay Buddhists as popularly understood in the East,  is not to follow a life of purposeful isolation behind walls themselves but to support the monastic’s that do, and by doing so gain merit.  By accumulating merit they hope to attain a favorable rebirth, which for some offers the opportunity to become monks next time around.   From my way of thinking, this approach makes Buddhism into a form of spiritual materialism, because Buddhist teachings are being used to gain material rewards.  The result is that many Sangha’s and their supporters are locked into a co-dependent relationship where it is difficult for either partner to change.

There is another issue that has important implications for how Buddhism will adapt to a more global role in the future.  Karma has been used to rationalize racism, caste, economic oppression, and everything else.  Taken literally, karma justifies the authority of political elites, who therefore must deserve their wealth and power, and the subordination of those who have neither.  If there is an infallible cause and effect relationship between one’s actions and one’s fate, there is no need to work toward social justice, because it is already built into the moral fabric of the universe.  In fact, if there is no undeserved suffering, there is really no evil that we need to struggle against.  It will all balance out in the end.

In the Kalama Sutra, sometimes called the “Buddhist charter of free inquiry,” the Buddha emphasized the importance of intelligent, probing doubt.  He said that we should not believe in something until we have established its truth for ourselves, a pragmatic construct called experiential verification.  This suggests that accepting karma literally, without questioning what it really means in our lives, may actually be unfaithful to the rest of the tradition.  I am not saying we should dismiss traditional teaching about karma out of hand, but we are challenged to learn how to understand karma’s influences in our daily lives.    This highlights the need for contemporary Buddhist teachers and practitioners alike to interrogate these teachings in more depth.  Given what is now know about human psychology, including the social construction of the social-self, how might we today approach these teachings in a way that is consistent with our own sense of how the world works?  Unless we can do so, their potential power of freedom will remain unrealized.

One of the core principles of Buddhism is interdependence, but I wonder if we realize what that implies about the original teachings of the Buddha.  Interdependence means that nothing has any “self-existence” because everything is dependent on other things, which are themselves dependent on other things, and so forth.  All things originate and pass away according to cause and conditions.  Yet, Buddhism, we believe, originated in the unmediated experience of Siddhartha Gotama, who became “an awakened one” when he became aware and accepted a body-mind state of nirvana under the Bodhi tree.  Different Buddhist scriptures describe that experience in different ways, but for all Buddhist traditions his enlightenment is the basic source of all Buddhist thought, which unlike Hindu teachings, do not rely upon anything else such as the ancient revealed texts of the Vedas.

That enlightenment story, as usually told, amounts to a myth of self-origination, something Buddhism denies.  If the interdependence of everything is true for everything, the truth of Buddhism could not have sprung up independently from all the other beliefs of Buddha’s time and place (Iron Age India), without any relationship to them.  Instead, the teachings of Siddhartha must be understood as a response to those other teachings, but a response that, inevitably, also presupposed many of the beliefs current in that culture.  For example, the popular Indian notion of karma, which was becoming widespread at the time.  The Buddha too expressed his new, liberating insight in the only way he could, using the language that his culture could understand.  Inevitably, his dharma was a blend of the truly new and the conventional understanding of his time.  Although the new transcends the conventional, the new cannot immediately and completely escapes the conventional wisdom it surpasses.

In revolutionizing the spiritual path of his day the Buddha could not stand on his own shoulders, yet thanks to his profound insight those who follow could stand on his.  As Buddhists, we tend to assume that the Buddha understood everything, that his awakening and his way of expressing that awakening are unsurpassable, but is that fair to him?  Given how little we actually know about the historical Buddha, perhaps our collective image of him reveals less about who he actually was and more about our own need to discover or project a completely perfect being to inspire our own spiritual practice.  And we know the danger of accepting anything as perfect.

Another core teaching of Buddhism is impermanence, which in this context reminds us that Hindu and Buddhist doctrines about karma have a history as they have evolved over time.  Earlier Brahmanical teachings tended to understand karma mechanically and ritualistically.  The Buddha’s spiritual revolution transformed this approach to getting what you want out of life into a moral principle by focusing on motivations and intentions.  To understand the Buddha’s innovation, it is helpful to distinguish a moral act into three aspects:  The results that we seek, the moral precept we are following, and our mental intention when we do something.  The foundations for situational ethics.  Although these aspects can not be separated from each other, we can emphasize one more than the other, and that is what we usually do.

While we know the Buddha placed much value in the role of intention, some Pali Canon texts do support a largely deterministic view.  For example, in the Majjhima Nikaya 135, karma is used to explain various difference between people, including physical appearance and economic inequality.  However, there are other texts where the Buddha clearly denies moral determinism, for example the Tittha Sutra – Auguttara Nikaya 3.61 – in which the Buddha argues that such a view denies the possibility of following a spiritual path.  While we take the words of the Buddha seriously, we should not overlook the fact the authors of the Pali Cannon differ on their own understanding of the Buddha’s teachings, and have in some respects, invested interest in seeing them through their own lens of personal preferences.  Perhaps the important point to be gleaned from comparing such passages is that the earliest Buddhist teachings about karma are somewhat ambiguous.  If they are insufficient by themselves as a guide for understanding karma today, I think that we should return to the Buddha’s revolutionary emphasis on the motivations of our actions.

All effects of our actions (karma) are neutral until we or our culture give them value.  While karma itself results in action, it is always a second-action.  Think of causality more as a circle rather than linear.  In this way there is really no beginning or ending, just a continuous stream of causal actions.  These actions can have effects in either direction on this causal-chain circle.  Additionally, karma is empty until we give it value.  That value is based on the reaction or response the effects of a specific action generates for self or other.  Considering the principle of impermanence as a reality, karma, once released, has the nature of being independent, and thus not attached to its original source.  However, both the source and objective of the action realize some effect either immediate, delayed, or indirectly influenced over time.  Either the source or object of an action can be effected in a positive/negative, negative/positive, positive/positive, negative/negative, or positive or negative/natural way, depending on situational out comes.  It is not about what is going to happen the “next time around”, but about what will either promote human flourishing, or add to further unsatisfactoriness in a world burdened with uncertainty.


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