When I wrote about karma last week, I left a few things out to make a shorter post. So, now is as good a time as any . . .

My own introduction to dharma was through Japanese Buddhism. First Zen, then Nichiren. So it’s somewhat natural for me to have an affinity and fondness for the way Japanese Buddhists see things.

In Japanese, the word karma consists to two Chinese characters: Shuku Mei. Here is a diagram, copied from an old publication I have, and please excuse my poor calligraphy:

Shuku means “to dwell.” It also refers to the accumulation of habits from the past or thought patterns previously acquired. Mei means “life” or reality. Put together it is “that which dwells in one’s life.”

Now, as we should all know by now, the Indian word karma (karman) or kamma means “action.” In early Buddhism, this word was used specifically in relation to volition, referring to the intention or motivation behind an action. But there is another dimension in which the seeds of past motivations and the resulting behavior dwell within the present life.

In this broader view of karma, according to the diagram above, we see that shuku mei is comprised of three general components. The first, shuku en, refers to relationships or environment. This means that karma can be influenced by external factors. For instance, someone brought up in a hostile family atmosphere will undertake different sorts of actions than they would if they were in a more loving family environment.

Secondly, we have shuku ju – tendency or habit. Different circumstances, such as environment, heredity, biological makeup and so on, contribute to the way a person tends to think, speak and behave, and repetition then becomes a factor. Ju also means “to learn.” In this way it is possible to learn certain behaviors, through the repetition of both the external stimuli and the reactions to it. This is consistent with what we know from behavioral psychology, where behavior is shaped by childhood experience and other external circumstances. However, Behaviorism sees no need to investigative the internal conditions, the external are the beginning and the end of the matter, whereas in Buddhism external stimuli are only a contributing factors toward the overall behavior of an individual.

Finally, we have shuku go, past acts that produce future effects. This, of course, is the law of cause and effect: what goes around, comes around. Karma.

I feel that it is a mistake to assign everything to karma or to make statements such as “there are no accidents.” Of course there are accidents. And coincidences. We live in an interdependent reality, so we should not negate the importance of external factors or dismiss chaos. Karma is a web of interconnecting causes and conditions. It is impossible to isolate any one factor, be it internal or external, as the prime generator. It’s everything, all together.

Even so, there is a point at which karma is largely determined by our response not only to external stimuli, but internal factors as well. Fairly early on in life we are able to make choices about how we react. We know the difference between good and bad behavior and then it is really up to us what kind of karma we create.

Furthermore, it’s suggested that karma is not exclusive to sentient beings. Nagarjuna once said that mountains have karma. And there may be collective karma, somewhat similar to Jung’s notion of the collective consciousness.  As groups, as nations, we make causes that can come back to haunt us. The chickens can come home to roost in an individual and in a society.

The universe that we inhabit and our shared perception of it are the results of a common karma. Likewise, the places that we will experience in future rebirths will be the outcome of the karma that we share with the other beings living there. The actions of each of us, human or nonhuman, have contributed to the world in which we live. We all have a common responsibility for our world and are connected with everything in it.

The 14th Dalai Lama

Ultimately we must take responsibility for our own behavior, our own karma. People can rise above less that advantageous circumstances, and they can rise above their own habits and tendencies. Those who fare on the Bodhisattva way understand that we must be responsible for others as well. We are our brother’s and sister’s keepers in the sense that we have a duty to raise their consciousnesses and help them overcome external factors and themselves. The karma of one person influences the karma of another. Changing karma (Tenju Kyoju) is a group activity.

I have to admit that I am not 100% sold on the ideas of karma and rebirth. Some people tend to think of them as a kind of “next-life” balm, and there are times when I tend to agree with that.

But after I think it about it some more, I wonder. How is the notion that you carry around everything from your past, especially all the dumb shit you’ve ever done, around with you through countless lives, endlessly into the future, any kind of balm or reassurance? Karma is like a set of luggage that you tote around everywhere you go. You can leave the bags at the gate, bribe the sky cap to lose them, hope that the airline loses them, or better yet, destroys them, and yet, no matter what you do or where you go, it catches up with you, a huge set of heavy bags to lug around some more. Nothing very soothing or restorative about that. No ambrosia. No nectar or honey-dewed comfort.

Now the flip side is of course that we also carry around good stuff, and for most people the good and the bad should even out, with the former having a bit of an edge. That’s something that is often forgotten about when this subject is discussed.

So while I may harbor doubts about the actual mechanics of this doctrine, I take seriously the point teachings about karma and rebirth are trying to make, which is to take responsibility for your thoughts, words, and actions. You can’t escape from yourself and there is no blaming others for this or that because ultimately you are the one who decides what to think, what to say and what to do.

It is important to remember that karma means “action,” a word that can refer to many things. In an essay entitled “The Buddhist Concept of Karma”, Professor of Indian Philosophy, Hari Shankar Prasad grouped Karma(s) into two categories:

karma-without-agency . . . the dynamic nature of reality . . . This kind of karma is essential and blind, for example, the internal bodily processes, the [burning] of fire, etc. . . . the second, karma-by-human-agency which is the basis of the popular doctrine of karma and its retribution (vipaka). This kind of karma is essentially ethical and causal in nature . . .

Prasad goes on to explain that this second kind of karma, which reflects the ethical aspect, demonstrates that it is not necessary to hypothesize the existence of a Supreme Being, for the Buddhist concept of karma instills moral values on the secular level. Furthermore, the Buddhist karmic doctrine rejects any sense of fate (niyati, vidhi) to which a person can evade responsibility for his or her actions by passing the buck to external determining factors.

Up to this point, I think everyone should be on board, but we come to some forks in the road when the ideas of rebirth and transference of merit (parinamana) are thrown in. On one hand, this should be enough. Taking responsibility for our thoughts, words, and deeds on the deepest level, while at the same time purifying them, is the job of a lifetime. What more can we do  other than exercise control over our “volitional capers.” Living an ethical life in this life is the right thing to do regardless of whether or not it increases the possibility of more favorable circumstances in some next life.

We may or may not have had past lives, but we all certainly have a past. That’s why the bags have our names on the tags and no matter how hard we try to lose them, some sky cap will always come up and say, “Here is your luggage . . .” And, what’s more, you have to give a tip.

As I noted this doctrine of karma with its moral aspects is not the exclusive domain of religion, nor should it be the starting point of religion. The Buddhist sense of karma put it all down on the secular level, and as well, on the level of conventional or relative truth. On the ultimate level, it’s a whole other ballgame, as Nagarjuna points out in the Maha-prajnaparamita-sastra:

All deeds are empty, sunya (relative and contingent); and the deeds that are done with this understanding are called the right deeds. The farer on the Mahayana way, the bodhisattva, comprehends the ultimate sameness of all deeds; and he does not take the good deed as meritorious and the evil deed as devoid of merit. For, in the ultimate truth, there are no deeds, good or evil. This is the true wisdom (Prajna). But this is itself also the right deed for it issues in the deed that is done with the right understanding . . . Having achieved the true understanding of deeds, one neither does deeds nor desists from them, for one is devoid of clinging and so one does not consider oneself as the doer of deeds. And such a wise man always does the right deeds and never any wrong ones. This is the right deed of the bodhisattva.

Nagarjuna is not denying deeds literally. Rather he is rejecting clinging in regard to deeds and any sense of passion, pride, or even guilt, associated with doing deeds. It is definitely not an escape clause that one can use to justify any action simply because in the ultimate sense all actions are empty. Nagarjuna is pointing to the state of mind capable of transcending suffering on account of thoughts, words, and deeds. It is also safe to assume that if there is some kind of balm being offered, it too is empty, relative and contingent.

Tenju Kyoju or “transforming heavy into light” is a term used in a number of Japanese Buddhist schools. Often understood as ‘lessening the effects of negative karma’, the presence of the Chinese character “chóng” meaning “repetition” suggests another sense, that of changing repeated negative patterns of thought, word and deed.

Habits can be hard to break. Deep seated thoughts are not easily dislodged. “Transforming heavy into light” is possible by cleaning up negative tendencies, habits and addictions. From a purely Buddhist point of view it is not altogether necessary to understand why we are compelled to repeat negative patterns, so much as it is to understand that we can stop it with the adoption of opposite behavior (pratiprak-sabhavana).

The Eastern spiritual traditions have developed many practices to effect the transformation of karmic tendencies. One aspect that is central to many of these practices is the taking of vows (vrata) which is said to form tendencies opposite to those ones that binds us to hard-to-eliminate negative thought patterns and habits.

If karma is dependent upon intention, then the patterns that produce negative karmic tendencies can be countered with the purest of all intentions: the vow to realize awakening for the sake of all living beings.

We call this Bodhicitta or the Thought of Awakening.

You who are accustomed to dwelling abroad in the marketplaces of destiny, seize firmly that highly priced jewel, the Thought of Awakening, so well-attested by all those with immeasurable minds . . . Whoever has committed the most dreadful evil may escape at once by taking refuge in this thought . . . This Thought of Awakening is to be understood as twofold: it is the idea of dedication to Awakening [bodhipranidhiccitta) and the actual pilgrimage towards it [bodhiprasthana].

Shantideva, Guide to the Bodhisattva Way of Life

It’s taught that the first instant in which a person conceives of the desirability of attaining awakening for the sake of others is identical with awakening itself. Of course, that should not be taken literally. It doesn’t end there. Once the thought has been produced, it is the subsequent determination to actualize the thought that nurtures the aspiration and sets in motion the conditions that make it possible for positive karmic tendencies to be strengthened and negative ones lessened.

The seeds of karmic potentialities reside deep within the consciousness, and it is from there, beginning with a new deep-seated thought pattern, bodhicitta, the thought of awakening, that we can “transform heavy into light.”

The sea of all karmic obstacles arises from illusions. If you wish to make amends for your past karma, sit upright and meditate on the true aspect of life, and all your offences will vanish like frost and dewdrops in the sunlight of enlightened wisdom.

Sutra of Meditation of the Bodhisattva Universal Virtue

Today a passage from the Pitrputrasamagama, found in Shantidava’s Siksasamuccaya or Manual of Wisdom. The chief speaker in the following dialogue is said to be the Buddha:

The senses are like illusions, material objects are like dreams. Take for example; a man asleep might dream that he has made love to a beautiful country girl. Awakened from sleep he might remember her. What do you think; does that beautiful girl in the dream exist? “

“ No, Blessed One.”

“Would that man be wise to remember the girl in his dream, or to believe that he had actually made love to her? “

“No, Blessed One. Because the girl does not exist at all, so how could he have made love to her, except perhaps on account of weakness or fatigue, he might think so.”

“In this same way,  a foolish and ignorant man of the world, when he sees agreeable forms and believes in their existence, is pleased, and being pleased feels passion, and feeling passion acts accordingly, develops the action that springs from passion, creates karma, threefold by body, fourfold by voice, threefold by mind; and that action, developed, from the very beginning is injured, hindered, distracted, changed, not going towards the east, not south nor west nor north, not up nor down, nor to the intermediate points, not here nor across, nor between both.

But at life’s end, when the time of death comes, when the vitality is checked by the exhaustion of one’s allotted span of years, the karma that fell to him dwindles, and his previous actions become the object of the mind, the last thought in his mind as it disappears.  Then, just as the man on first waking from sleep thinks of the country girl about whom he dreamed, the first thought upon rebirth arises from two causes:  the last thought of his previous life as its governing principle, and the actions of the previous life as its basis.

Thus, a man is reborn in states of hell, or in bestial states, or in spiritual ones, demonic ones, or human or celestial states. And from this first thought belonging to rebirth, a new series of thoughts arise, and the experience of the ripening of karma is to be felt. The stopping of the last thought is known as death, the appearance of the first thought is known as rebirth, and the manifesting of the first thought is known as arising. Nothing passes from life to life, but death and rebirth take place nonetheless.

The last thought when it arises does not come from anywhere, and when it ceases it does not go anywhere; action arising does not come from anywhere, ceasing it does not go anywhere. First thought too arising does not come from anywhere, ceasing does not go anywhere. All are essentially empty. The last thought is empty, karma is empty, the first thought is empty, rebirth is empty, and arising is empty. In the whole process no one acts or creates karma, and no one experiences the effects of karma, except by verbal convention.”

A verse of the Dhammapada reads:

To avoid evil actions, to do actions that are good
and to purify the mind is the essence of Buddha’s teachings.

One of the primary concerns of religion and philosophy is the issue of morality, of defining what is good and what is evil. Some say that it is a divine force that determines the nature of good and evil. Others feel that morality is something created by human beings and is relative to time and place.

Those who hold to an absolute measure of morality have often tried to establish a moral code or set of commandments upon which all human conduct is to be adjudicated. In the world of law, this may be necessary. But the world of morality is not black and white. The biggest problem with this approach is how to motivate people to follow the commandments. The usual solution has been to proffer a fear of consequence such as the “wrath of god,” eternal damnation.

Buddhism is called the philosophy of the Middle Way because its concepts often fall in-between these and other extremes. While Buddhism neither confirms nor denies the existence of a supreme being, it is rather pessimistic about the idea, so we tend to view morality as a human concern, with more than two shades of color.

In Buddhist philosophy there is a theory of consequence called karma. This doctrine was probably not taught by the Buddha himself, rather it was a Brahman idea likely layered on sometime after the Buddha. Nonetheless, it has become an integral part of the dharma.

The idea of karma is that one’s actions produce effects, either good or bad depending upon the nature of the action undertaken. That, by the way, is the little loophole. Conceivably one can perform some action that is technically ‘bad’, but if the motivation is right-minded then it’s ‘good.’

In any event, effects from past actions are said to come back in time to affect the individual. With this scenario, there is a tendency to lock in on the idea of ‘bad karma’ and speculate on what was done to deserve it. Frankly, all speculation of this sort is rather foolish. As I mentioned in a recent post, the T’ien-t’ai teacher Chih-i, as well as many other teachers past and present, have taught that none of us can know the true nature of our karma from the past.

Another flawed way of thinking is to believe that we should engage in positive actions in order to avoid negative karma. All this does is replace the supreme being who judges our behavior with ‘mystic karma,’ a divine force that can somehow perceive the difference between good and evil. For me, using this doctrine as a  carrot stick doesn’t work too well.

Some question the very idea of karma, after all, there is no real empirical evidence to support it. However, it doesn’t really matter whether you accept karma or not. At least in regards to morality, for as far as good and evil is concerned, both arise from our own mind. The Buddha taught that if one purifies the mind and trains it toward goodness, then wisdom will arise. It’s a kind of simple and intuitive wisdom, where one naturally understands the virtue of positive, wholesome actions. In other words, we learn to practice goodness because it is the right way to live.

In fact, it is the only way to live.

Mookie: C’mon, what. What?
Da Mayor: Always do the right thing.
Mookie: That’s it?
Da Mayor: That’s it.
Mookie: I got it, I’m gone.

Buddhists talk a lot about karma, and yet I wonder how many really understand it. There is a growing trend among Western Buddhists to reject notions about karma and rebirth, or to be agnostic about their feasibility. I maintain that Buddhism works without these concepts, however, it doesn’t work quite as well.

Stephen Batchelor, a contemporary Buddhist teacher and writer, is one of the leading figures of this trend. He is quite right when he says that notions such as karma and rebirth are teachings Buddhism inherited from traditional Indian philosophy, but to dismiss these fundamental concepts on the argument that the Buddha taught them only because they were culturally prevalent at the time, is mistaken. I share Batchelor’s desire to rid Buddhism of “magical thinking”, but I am not too sure that karma and rebirth fit into that category.

As I mentioned in my post of April 22, reincarnation is not a Buddhist concept. I have a great affinity for and admiration of the Dalai Lama and Tibetan Buddhism, but on this subject they are confused. I don’t care how many claim to be tulkus, there is no reincarnation.

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