Sunday, April 28, 2013

Karma Confusion

A friend recently asked me what initially attracted me to Buddhism, and I explained that it was the straightforward and experiential nature of the core teachings, free of dogma and metaphysical mysticism. I told her that I have always thought of Buddhism as a practical psychology rather than a religion. Then she asked the question I was secretly dreading: “What about karma?” Writing anything about karma, whose workings were considered by the Buddha to be one of the Four Imponderables, is a daunting undertaking, especially for someone like me who’s not exactly an avid reader of the Pali canon. Still, it’s a teaching that’s too widely known and too central to the Buddha’s worldview to be ignored, and I think the basic idea is much less abstruse than it might at first appear.

When I learned about Hinduism and Buddhism in high school and college, I thought of karma as the ancient Indians’ answer to an age old question: Why do bad things happen to good people? And although there are certainly plenty of Buddhists who take a mechanistic view of karma, it is my understanding that the Buddha did not claim that everything that happens to us is due to karma. In fact, karma is just one of five natural laws that govern the workings of our universe. Though everything that arises is inextricably interrelated, different processes unfold according to their own nature. An earthquake arises due to conditions in the physical world; it is not the universe’s way of punishing the living beings that happen to be affected by it.
Regardless of the metaphysics, the heart of the Buddha’s teachings about karma relate to the effects of our own actions, not the meaning of impersonal forces. All of our volitional actions have the power to bring about karmic results, and the factor that determines the nature of that karma is our intention. We cannot easily predict the specific results of our actions, since the future is shaped by impersonal forces and others’ karma, as well as our own, but we can be sure that our current intentions will condition our future well-being. This conditioning need not involve mysterious forces; it operates most simply and directly through the formation of mental habits. This is where practices such as mindfulness can allow us to affect the course of our destiny.
Of course many people’s interest in karma does not relate to the critical but seemingly prosaic matter of intention; they are captivated by the supernatural possibility of rebirth. That is an issue on which I have little to say, owing to my lack of experience. I like the perspective of the Zen monk who, when asked by a layperson what would happen to her after she died, replied that “I am a monk, but not a dead one.” It’s worth noting that some teachers, such as Ajahn Chah, did not think belief in reincarnation was necessary to follow the dharma, since the egoic self is dying and being reborn all the time.
The possibility of reincarnation probably raises as many questions as it answers. For example, what is it that is being reborn? Also, why should the moment of death carry so much weight in determining one’s future conditions? This seems unfair not only because the moment of death is so often an unpleasant one, but also because there is so much variation in the degree of unpleasantness depending on the cause of death. Could anyone maintain the clear consciousness described by the Dalai Lama while being consumed by fire?

Well, I’ll leave these metaphysical questions to the scholars and philosophers. My point in writing this post is that karma is a lot simpler and more practical than all that.

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