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. Continue reading