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.
Another confusion lies misunderstanding the difference between the ultimate with the relative. The Buddha taught two kinds of truth: the veiled, worldly truth that we might characterize as relative or conventional, and the absolute or ultimate truth. Nagarjuna said that those who do not understand the relationship between the two truths can never hope to understand Buddhism. The ultimate truth cannot be obtained without the relative, and what is true from the standpoint of conventional truth is not always true from the standpoint of the ultimate truth and vice versa. This should be kept in mind.
Karma is a Sanskrit word meaning action. Karma is the collection of potential effects that reside in the consciousness, manifested at some future point in our cyclic existence. The Japanese Buddhist term for karma is shuku mei, which means “that which dwells in life.” Karma consists of relationships and environment, both past and present tendencies or habits, and volitional actions.
Often people have a simplistic view of karma and think that every cause produces an effect. Actually, what we create is only the potential for an effect, because everything is subject to conditions. An effect can remain unrealized, though its seed or potentiality is always present.
Karma is logical and even scientific; it suggests a correlation of energy in the moral sphere, a kind of retribution for negative actions (what goes around, comes around), and reward for positive actions. To facilitate understanding, we can liken this to debits and credits, as long as we understand it is not a cut and dry matter that can be reduced to a simple formula and get stuck on the notion of reward or punishment.
Buddha, departing from traditional Indian philosophy, taught that the entity of human life transmigrating through the cycle of birth and death and that the entity accumulating this karma is not a self or soul.
Now this problem arises: how can debit and credit be talked of without postulating a person who is either a debtor or a creditor? How can good and evil, merit and demerit, be attributed to a being who is not a self, a soul, an entity. The Buddha said, “No doer is there, only deeds being done.”
Technically, the matter is explained by asserting that there is no real self but rather a series of conjoined phenomena, or as the Buddha put it figuratively, a human being is like a chariot made up of the body, wheels, and pole, but the individual is no more a thing in itself than the chariot is a chariot in itself.
The self is not a substance but a stream of consciousness; all that actually exists is a series of states of consciousness, one of which may be a consciousness of those states, but no one of which may be viewed as the true self, permanent, abiding, everlasting. If we think we possess a self to which we should be true we are only deceiving ourselves.
Poussin described it in this way: “There is not a self, a permanent substantial unity, but there is a person to be described as ‘a living continuous fluid complex’ which does not remain quite the same for two consecutive moments but which continues” for an infinite number of existences, bridging an infinite number of births and deaths, without becoming completely different from itself or being conscious of the previous rounds in the cycle. In short, human existence is but a nucleus of potentialities and the individual is as “soulless” logically as a corporation is legally, or was until the recent Supreme Court decision.
To think about it in another way, imagine a leaf that has fallen to the ground. If the wind does not blow the leaf away and it stays in one place, eventually it disintegrates and becomes part of the earth. The atoms that formed the leaf have not died or vanished, they have changed, become part of something else. Rebirth is recycling of human energy.
Buddhism maintains that everything is interdependent and arises out of the combination of various causes and conditions. It is virtually impossible for anything to originate from any one single cause or condition. This is why Buddhism does not give much credence to the idea of a “first cause”; nor is it very optimistic about the existence of a supreme creator god.
So, we are talking about a continuum of consciousness, a cycle of birth, death, and rebirth. This theory is called Pratitya-Samutpada, which is rendered in English sometimes as dependent origination, inter-dependent origination, dependent arising, conditioned co-becoming, co-dependent production and so on. I prefer to use dependent arising, because “origination” suggests some sort of beginning or creation. We don’t know what the beginning was. Buddhists will not say “in the beginning”, instead they will say “in the beginningless beginning.”
In dependent arising, ignorance is considered the starting condition of human life. Ignorance leads to suffering. Ignorance could be called the “fundamental darkness of life” and refers specifically to ignorance of the causal and interdependent relationship of all things, as well as ignorance of the true nature of the self or non-self.
Karma are seeds planted in the consciousness where they are stored to ripen and bear fruit at some future time. These seeds are imprints or composites of past actions, behavioral tendencies and causal relationships with others. Traces of our past thought, words and deeds remain in a latent state and do not vanish with physical death.
Consciousness is further conditioned by one’s mother and father, upbringing, experiences, environment and so on. Our senses create new impressions, from which we form new karma. When the sense faculties are active, contact is made with objects (visible, audible, smell, taste, tangible, mental) and this contact gives rise to feelings, which in turn produces a craving or thirst for the repetition of certain kinds of sensations. Craving causes clinging to arise. Clinging is the active search, the seizing and not releasing of pleasure and passion. This conditions our thoughts, words and deeds, and it is through these three things that we create karma, which again, is imprinted upon the consciousness and carried over into rebirth.
Karmic imprints are activated by different causes and conditions and exert influence as we engage in new actions, creating new imprints to join the older, unresolved ones.
Not everything that happens to us is a result of karma. Chaos happens, so does coincidence. To try to make karma, or cause and effect, the basis of everything is mistaken. Karma is merely one aspect of life.
But to simply reject karma is like rejecting heredity or the nature of experience itself. Who can deny that our past experiences help shape our future? It is precisely the same reasoning here.
You can do away with rebirth if you want. Karma still makes sense without it.
So, karma is not destiny alone, not fate, nor magical thinking or something supernatural. Karma is merely one of the elements which helps to shape our lives. And the idea of karma does perform one other important function. It empowers us, for we are not helpless, at the mercy of forces beyond our control. We have the power to change our thoughts, speak differently, act better.
Instead of rejecting karma, I think we would be better off if we tried to own our karma. Change it where it needs to be changed, appreciate it where it needs to be appreciated.
Thich Nhat Hanh says,
“You can make the world a better place to live, or you can transform the world into hell. That is karma, action; not something abstract . . . The dynamic consciousness is called karma energy. Karma energy is not abstract. It determines our state of being, whether we are happy or unhappy. Whether you continue beautifully or not so beautifully depends on karma. It’s possible to take care of our action so that we don’t suffer much now and continue to do better in the future. There is the hope, the joy.”