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Using & Abusing Karma

“It’s her own bad karma,” announced our seventeen-year old. She was talking about a fellow student who’d been dumped by her friends.

“Karma, eh?” I said. “So, what’s that?”

“Uh…what goes around comes around?”

“You mean, people get what they deserve?”

“Something like that,” she prevaricated.

“Also known as divine retribution?” I prodded.

She looked suspiciously at her mother.

“God.” Caroline smiled.

“I don’t believe in God.” She stated it emphatically, as always.

karma simply means cause and effect

Karma simply means cause and effect, but on top of that meaning we pile our own prejudices. It sounds perfectly sensible in English, doesn’t it? But the Sanskrit ‘karma’ never quite loses its mystique. Go figure.

We’re delighted that our daughter has no need to turn cause and effect into a belief system. Orthodox Buddhists and Hindus, as well as batty new-agers, tie themselves up in metaphysical knots over this straightforward idea.

Mahasi Sayadaw, the influential 20th century proponent of vipassana meditation, begins his Theory of Karma by suggesting that it’s “the cause of inequality,” and that it explains why people are born “blind, deaf, or deformed.”

This is weird, even repugnant.

He goes on to say, “No sensible person would think of attributing this unevenness, this inequality, and this diversity to blind chance or pure accident.”

It’s sketch logic. The justification for reincarnate karma is no different from that used to ‘prove’ God’s existence.

At the other end of the spectrum, karma’s bandied around these days to imply that there’s a divine plan. It doesn’t just represent the natural order; it goes on to suggest that this order is for our benefit. It’s straight out of the Bible. Hence: the universe is looking out for me; what goes around comes around; everything happens for a reason.

Well, everything does happen for some reason or another, but why should it revolve around me? That’s wishful thinking. A Facebook friend of mine recently received an unexpected $19 cheque in the mail shortly after losing $11 in cash. He called it karma, as if the two events were directly connected. However, we already have a word for remote coincidences like that: Luck.

As the basis of all science and the rationale for all change, the idea of cause and effect is useful. Our daughter’s schoolmate lost her friends because she was mean to them; in that case, it did revolve around her. By connecting the dots between what she did and what happened next, she might learn something.

That’s the higher purpose of mindfulness: an attempt to not just step back and accept change, but also to see it at work in our own minds.

what we really want is reassuring
explanations, even if they’re illusory

It’s not easy. Countless causes and conditions collide to produce a constant stream of effects, and those effects in turn become new streams of causes and conditions. We never get the whole picture any more than we notice each frame of a movie, though we can see patterns with more or less clarity, depending on how much mental space we create for ourselves.

Trouble is, we don’t always want to see clearly. What we really want is reassuring explanations, even if they’re illusory. We hang on for dear life to familiar patterns and predictable outcomes, even if they’re painful. To the extent that we feel familiar to ourselves we believe (or pretend) we’re safe. This habit is automaticity, momentum, karma. It’s how we stay in our comfort zone even when it hurts. The worst is when it reaches critical mass and, like a tidal wave, propels us involuntarily in directions we’d otherwise avoid. We’re carried along in the wake of our karma whether we pay attention or not.

to know your illusions and let them go doesn’t mean they
go away; it means you see them for what they are

When we face the relentless momentum of our own minds, we badly want it to stop. It’s understandable, but it’s not possible. Fortunately, it’s not the point. To know your illusions and let them go doesn’t mean they go away; it means you see them for what they are. We need them; we don’t need to believe in them.

The most paralyzing illusion is how we identify ourselves. When you need to believe in yourself as a Hindu/Buddhist devotee, or as ‘spiritual,’ you have to defend the notion of reincarnation, or to justify your belief in the benevolence of the universe. It seems reassuring, but it soon turns into a load of pointless rationalizations that only intensifies the inner chatter.

If, on the other hand, we dare to let go of ideas, opinions and illusions once they’ve served their temporary purpose, then we’re free to enjoy the glorious cinema of life.

 

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12 responses to “Using & Abusing Karma”

  1. Andrea

    Very nice post.

  2. Michael

    The article is a bit of an unfair assessment of the Buddha’s teaching on kamma (Skt. karma) . The Buddha in fact rejected the Vedic understanding of karma as being an inherited trait that determines one’s place in society and determines one’s fate. The Buddha rejected caste, and ordained untouchables. He taught kamma as “action,” with some actions in this lifetime being skillful. and some unskillful. He taught rebirth not in metaphysical terms, but as a strategy for understanding not-self, dependent origination, and causality. The Buddha was a pragmatist, and typically taught that metaphysical concepts had no real role in his teaching. Please see http://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/thanissaro/truth_of_rebirth.html

    I don’t pretend to be able to teach the Dhamma; there are excellent teachers in the East and the West that teach the Buddhadhamma quite well. The quote that is attributed to Ven. Mahasai may or may not be accurate as to him, but it is not unusual in the East that some older teachers hold on to country-specific traditions and embrace this incorrect understanding of kamma.

    1. Thomas Westheimer

      Good point. We are just reading What the Buddha Thought by Richard Gombrich and he makes the point over and over again that the Buddha was a pragmatist and was in many cases talking to Jains and Brahmans.

  3. Nayeli

    I find myself annoyed by the misinterpretation of this term, particularly toward my co-practitoners of the Buddha’s path after we supposedly study and understand what Karma means within the Buddhist understanding, but then go on with a comment that only shows that they are back with the misinterpretation flow that uses it as retribution, or as a count of good and bad points. I guess the force of the colloquial use is just too strong to break the misconception. As you say, our comfort zone is just damn sticky to leave.
    I often think that is me who has it wrong… but then, when I read this… or when I think and carefully consider the notion I find that that simplistic view doesn’t fit in “my understanding” and that understanding is not even as a linear cause and effect. To simplify I think it’s just a multiplicity of causes (some added, some subtracted) and particular conditions that can set an effect in a particular moment. Is this wrong?

  4. Bcr Titu Barua

    I do not like the name of the site. Please kindly change the name of the site. The Name shows disrespect to monks. Please change kindly.

  5. Ralph C

    The saddest thing about this discussion is that we are still talking about karma.
    Like the silly statement “everything happens for a reason”…. Really?
    Shouldn’t it be “things happen THEN we give them reason?”
    The only logical explanation for karma, simply put, is PROPENSITY.
    The more you steal the more your chances of getting caught.
    The more you’re delusional the more your chances of believing in karma.
    Believing in fairness in this world is like putting on diapers all over again
    and believing in Snow White and the seven dwarfs.
    Oops, Sorry I have to go now as my guardian angel is summoning me to a game
    of ping pong.
    Regards Stephen

  6. Rob Stolzy

    We have both freedom and constraints in our lives, incorporated into our beings. I am not necessarily speaking about external life conditions, which can change or evolve in mysterious ways, but about actual inner tendencies and limits. A person can notice qualities about the balance between these inner constraints and freedoms with some effort and inner observation over the years. A person can also develop, or already manifest (why is this??) an intuition about other people, freshly encountered, recognizing in this meeting, either after the fact with hindsight or immediately with ‘grace’, a kind of destiny moment. A potential.

    Sometimes, a person might ask themselves about the origins of these inner freedoms and constraints. A matter-of-fact type might often decide that genetics and upbringing account for everything and wipe their hands of the matter. Such people in my experience are not particularly deep thinkers about human nature — in a word, they are uninterested. They do not make this conclusion because they’ve personally investigated genetic science and child psychology. It is just easier for them to go with the dominant cultural opinion. This scenario is very reminiscent of Stephen’s characterizations about maintaining a comforting belief to avoid the angst of mystery, if you think about it seriously.

    Stephen also mentions new-age craziness, perhaps with an exaggerated bit of intolerance for my tastes, and such beliefs or ideas can be seen as a kind of opposite pole of incautiousness (or unthoroughness?) regarding the concept of karma. Of course, both of these poles can blend with more mainstream Buddhist viewpoints in countless ways.

    I’ve not studied the Buddhist conception of karma or any of the inherited Buddhist conceptions of karma. So I can’t comment directly. But there are other esoteric sources and I do have familiarity elsewise along with some personal experience observing and thinking about the matter. So there are a few things this post makes me want to say.

    First, you cannot really speak about karma divorced from the notion of repeated earthly lives. It forces you to dismiss a wider timeline and limit your gaze for all cause and effect to the present narrow window. This choice basically guarantees a certain kind of conclusion. Reading through the many posts and also listening to the podcasts here, it has often been held that Buddha’s talking about reincarnation and early scholarly commentary can be dismissed as a sort of cultural phenomena induced by the worldview of those times and that place, etc. But whether one believes in or disbelieves in reincarnation is beside the point here. Either one of these beliefs are just ‘comfort beliefs’ if one has not seriously investigated the matter. (It is just a matter of your location along the matter-of-fact new-age craziness pole). The free honest thing to do is to leave the question undecided and open for further contemplation. (If you have some actual proof either way, maybe do a TED talk about it.) If we think more openly about reincarnation, then we are in a position to think more openly about karma.

    Now, the other strong recurring theme is the idea of fear as a motivating factor for our opinions and beliefs. Stephen talks often about letting go of one’s beliefs or need for believing. Of course I agree that work needs to be done to be in a position to notice this in oneself, and to gradually make adjustments when it is happening. But there is also such a thing as intuition. We don’t just adopt stances because we’ve been frightened into them. We sense the direction where some truth lies, we smell it or taste a hint of it. And so we open ourselves a bit to related concepts and savor them for awhile, sometimes years. We exercise judgement, and test it with our experiences.

    I always find it so interesting how frequently the chestnut of people rationalizing their fear of death into fantastical beliefs is employed when being critical of either religious or spiritual opinions. I’m sure this does happen. But, whenever I come across a person with real spiritual depth, fear is never a motivating factor for them; instead it’s always a sense of wonder and a deep intuition that something is errant about the commonplace worldview. Often too, it is precisely those personalities who previously went through fear-based creed misadventures in their biographies which are most vociferous about this. All this proves is that some have that inclination and tend to project it onto others.

    My experience tells me this: ‘karma’ is not simply cause and effect. It is convenient to dismiss the riddle like this. But there is more to it, in the infinite background. It’s a subtle concept, not a straightforward one. Most ‘spiritual’ concepts are this way. You have to be interested in it and want to work with it over time, and not care to nail it down and give the answer and move on. You don’t look it up in Wikipedia — you live your way into the concept if it interests you. Sure — don’t let it control your life or your choosing. People have the ability to be subtle about this.

  7. Thomas Westheimer

    I could maybe add that it is an accumulated “influence”. In other words to say that a single event is just a result of another single event of one’s action or intention is an over simplification. There are many many conditions that cause a “result” IMHO

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