Paying Our Debts

Karma means “action.” Do our actions have consequences? Yes. Nagarjuna likened them to “debts.” Rather than take these debts to be some sort of payback or karmic retribution, I prefer to think of simply taking responsibility for our own actions.  Not that taking responsibility is all that simple.

It’s said that all karma is volitional. All human activity is volitional, a result of an individual’s own self-determination, and even when action is not determined by choice, but by external forces, one may choose a response that is not prevented by any outside forces or conditions. This is freedom of choice, free will.

We are always free in one way or another. We exert our free will by choosing our actions, our behavior. Volitional activity is always directed by will, determined by choice.

I was reading something on this subject by someone who evidently practices Buddhist meditation but may not be a Buddhist, and he maintains that free will is an illusion, that everything in the world is the result of past events, which is more or less the popular view of karma, and along with other causes and conditions, such as biology, there is no freedom.

From the Buddhist side I see some holes in this position. One is that this “illusion” would be created by the mind, which is thinking, and if karma is created by thought, words, and deeds, then thinking must on some level be a volitional process.  Secondly, if there is no freedom of action, then how do we even explain volition, one of the Five Skandhas, the components of human life? Thirdly, Buddhism teaches that we can control our minds, and I don’t believe that would be possible unless we maintained some degree of free will.

Maybe we are conning ourselves about freedom.  Maybe you can scientifically prove there is no free will.  Nonetheless, for me, the idea of everything per-determined is a tough sell.

As for karmic retribution, we should be less concerned with payback and focused more on paying it forward.

Nagarjuna says, “[The debt] is paid only through cultivation.” He’s talking specifically about meditation. However, in a broader sense, it means “to avoid negative actions, and do actions that are good, and to purify the mind” (the Buddha’s words). We pay forward by striving to improve ourselves and our choices, and helping others do the same.  Compassion is also paying it forward.

We are free to choose our actions, and we are free to decide how to react to the consequences of our actions. So, there is free will, but this is not absolute.  As living beings, our existence is dependent upon causes and conditions, but neither is determinism absolute.  The real Buddhist answer to all this is where is always is, in between absolutes, for that is The Middle Way.

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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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More Karma

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.

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Karma, again . . . and again . . .

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.

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Transforming Heavy into Light

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

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