Healing and the Emptiness of Karma

In any discussion about the Buddhist perspective on healing, one of the first things we have to contend with is the doctrine of karma. This is a troubling notion for some modern Buddhists who are inclined to doubt karma (and rebirth) because there is insufficient evidence of their validity. I have doubts myself about these two concepts, yet I have never been willing to dismiss them outright. One thing I’ve learned over the years is that there is little in Buddhism that is not useful on some level.

Sickness is one of the four sufferings taught by the Buddha (along with birth, old age and death). Raoul Birnbaum, in Healing and Restoring, explains the traditional view of how karma relates to sickness:

Most fundamentally, disease relates to either a direct or indirect result of karma, either retribution for specific acts or the ultimate effect of longstanding patterns of thoughts, words and deeds. Since the mind drives the speech and actions that generate karma, it is the mind especially that is seen as root of disease.”

Karma has long been seen as a form of metaphysical payback. If you’re not “good,” then something really “bad” is going to happen. Your karma will get you. Karma became a tool to coerce people to adopt socially acceptable behavior. There is a flip side. Good deeds will reap future positive situations. The amount of merit (punya) a person accrues can result in good karma: a good rebirth, or in this life, good health and freedom from disease. Basically we have been presented with a scenario where a sword of Damocles is hanging over our head and a carrot dangles from a stick in front of our face.

Now, our old friend Nagarjuna had some problems with this. He understood that karma referred to “action” and not to a law of causality, and that all action is volition and volitional. Karma is not the result or effect of action. For karma to be “a law of cause and effect,” it would have to be of the nature of permanence (nityata):

If karma were a fixed thing [i.e. enduring] because of its self-nature, then its ripening would always remain.

Nagarjuna, Fundamental Verses on the Middle Way 17:25

The questions Nagarjuna dealt with in Verses, included whether or not the ripening or effects of karma were imperishable and inevitable, and if perhaps the effects existed prior to the full ripening.  As I understand it, Nagarjuna felt these questions suggested that karma exists from its own side, that it has self-nature. However, that cannot be the case, for all phenomena whether material or immaterial are devoid of any inherent self-nature or essence, and are impermanent.  Things are not “fixed.”  They are sunya – empty.

David J. Kalupahana (who passed away Jan. 15) writes in Nagarjuna The Philosophy of the Middle Way,

Even though there is no continuity of karma (and in this case, borrowing), that is, it does not continue in any subtle or substantial way, the responsibility for that karma cannot be denied once that karma is performed . . .

The simple notion of human responsibility is what is upheld here, not the metaphysical notion of the fruit or result that lies hidden and gradually attains maturity . . .”

I am simplifying Nagarjuna’s explanation a bit, and yet it is simple. He did not reject cause and effect, for actions do have consequences.  However, he does reject the notion that karma is some self-existing force, a Law of the Universe.  It seems to me that a sense of responsibility is the all-important take-away from the doctrine of karma.

Few people in this modern age have any use for the notion of responsibility. As soon as it is suggested that individuals should assume responsibility for what happens to them, one is accused of blaming the victim, etc. That’s missing the point. It is foolish not to take responsibility for one’s own actions, just as it is equally unwise to say that every consequence in life is a result of karma.

We can’t say the cause for every suffering exists within the life of the individual, or that effects are always the result of some past action. But, without a doubt, suffering exists within, and taking responsibility for the suffering can influence the future.

The first step in healing, then, is to “own” the suffering.  We take full responsibility not only for the suffering but also for the healing process. This requires a willingness to break free from past negative patterns in thought, word and deed that can impede healing. It also involves compassion or love for oneself and for others.

The English word ‘heal’ is connected the word ‘hale’, which is related to ‘whole.’ To heal is to be whole. ‘Whole’ also means, “that which has also survived” and “keeping the original sense” and “to heal.”

In Buddhism, wholeness ultimately means to be awakened.  Awakening implies wisdom, but also surviving or transcending suffering, and discovering one’s original nature.  In this way, the path to awakening is also the path to healing.

Listening to and understanding our inner sufferings will resolve most of the problems we encounter. In order to heal others, we first need to heal ourselves. And to heal ourselves, we need to know how to deal with ourselves. If we know how to go back to ourselves, listen and heal, we can change. But most of us don’t know how to listen to ourselves and understand the sufferings.”

Thich Nhat Hanh, “Stop and Heal,” Jamsil Indoor Stadium, Seoul Korea, May 2013

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2 thoughts on “Healing and the Emptiness of Karma

  1. Well stated and reasoned.

    Karma, like space, is dependent on the factors that produce it. If those causes and conditions no longer exist, then karma will no longer exist. So if I am successful at helping all sentient being to achieve enlightenment, then karma will no longer exist.

    One small quibble: You write “In Buddhism, wholeness ultimately means to be awakened.” I’m not sure if there is a bit of idealism there. Wholeness depends on its parts and of course every whole is in fact a part of something else. Imputing wholeness (something different from the aggregates) could be similar perhaps to imputing inherent existence.

    I may be reading more into this than is warranted – if so, let me know!

    1. Thanks for the comment. I’m not sure how imputing wholeness imputes inherent existence. To me, wholeness refers to an integration of all the parts. Instead differentiating and dividing things, we see their whole-ness, which I think is what Buddhism is aiming at. However, I meant this in regards to healing. To be healed is, in a sense, to be restored to wholeness or wellness. And this is what I feel is the original sense of Nirvana, synonymous with awakening. To get an idea of what I mean about Nirvana, you might want to take a look at this post: Original Enlightenment Pt. 1

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