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.