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Karma

QuandariusQuandarius Explorer
edited February 2012 in Buddhism Basics
The category of this question is a matter of necessity, as I could not find a more suitable one (i.e. it does not concern beginners only).

I have tried to make some kind of sense out of the idea of karma, as understood by the generality of Buddhists, Hindus etc. It takes one into a complicated path of reasoning, and I have become a bit sceptical about the possibility of Joe Soap or Mary Brown paying for something that was perpetrated a few lifetimes ago, in this or a later life. These kinds of assertions may be true, of course, but I don't know, and can't make any ultimate sense of them. Of course, whether one believes in karma or not, it is obvious that, if one follows a certain bent, whether it is to slip into drunkenness or some other vice (or, on the contrary, a path of aspiration and effort to improve the tone of one's life), there will be natural consequences. They will be printed, as it were, onto one's relationships and into one's nervous structure, etc. and these consequences will be unavoidable. However, if one makes a single (maybe a big) slip, I cannot see how this will be recorded, for all time, into the "Akashic Records". If, after making the slip, you say, hey, that wasn't so good — I really must try to avoid doing that again, it seems to me that there is a chance of not having to pay for it, since one has learned a lesson from it immediately. I mean, suppose a young man found himself drawn into a plot, with others, to rob a bank. The hold-up is successful, and they get away with the money. Years pass. The man, now much older, has given away his share of the money because of a bad conscience after the event. True, one consequence is that he will always need to be looking over his shoulder, but justice might not catch up with him. Are we to understand that some cosmic Record Keeper has entered the deed in a big, black book, and that, in some future life, maybe, the inheritor of his deed (karma) will, in some future life, have to pay for it in some way?

Years ago, I read a book by Nolan Pliny Jacobson, called: Buddhism, the Religion of Analysis. In it, the author quotes a statement by the Buddha (recorded in Nikaya something or other), in which the Buddha is reported to have said: "I do not teach a doctrine of karma (the common Hindu assumption was that there is karma, in the way most Buddhists understand it), because karma requires justice, and justice is not it". This seems to chime, in my mind, with a statement of a Zen practitioner, who said: "They told us that we were going to Hell, but lo, here is the lotus, opening its blossoms for me to fall on!" — or something very much in that vein.

Several months ago, I came across a Tibetan Buddhist website (the address of which, I failed to note down, and which I cannot now find). On this website, some writer or other said that most Buddhist communities use the teaching of karma as a useful tool, which keeps people mindful of what they are doing, but which, in reality, is not true. I don't know, of course, what qualifications this writer had, that enabled him to make such a statement. However, it certainly rings a bell with me. The old teaching about Hell Fire was a similar tool. It did tend to keep many on the straight and narrow, but, to many more, it also must have caused a good deal of mental anguish. As far as I am concerned, I should want to try to live a decent life whether there is any karma, hell, or not. If this is aspiration is not cherished, one fails to even have a chance of realising one's human potential (even as a secular humanist). It's rather like one's taste in music. One is quite entitled to listen to rubbishy noise that, with the masses, passes for music. However, one has only to be attentive, and one knows what music is, and what is not!

With the teaching of karma, there is an associated problem, and it is not so easily dispelled.

If there is karma, in whatever sense it may be true, (like, despite the fact that there is no continuing identity, "I" will reap the fruits, painful or pleasant, of what is done in my life now), then one has a slight basis for believing that things might slowly get better (despite the teaching that, just round the corner — i.e. in the very next life — there will be a HUGE debt of suffering to pay, for something that "I" did when, for example, "I" was a member of the hordes of Ghengis Khan). However, if karma is just a belief, and has no basis in reality, then there is the frightful prospect that, at death, when my present persona dissolves forever, the next conscious moment MIGHT be one of seeing the fire of Moloch a few feet away, before my body is hurled into the furnace. After all, when I die, babies will be born, and they will all feel that they are "I".

If you go into this, it seems to end up all the same, really, inasmuch as, even if there is karma to pay off, Moloch's furnace might be my next payment off of my debt. It had been sitting there for thirty centuries, and now, instead of, as in my present life, my being a reasonably affluent suburban white person, there might be a dramatic change of culture and time, etc. Karma or no karma, then, the potential for one's next life is like that afforded by a lottery ticket.

With the best will in the world, and with due respect to that great institution, the Buddhist Sangha, a mere belief in karma does raise difficulties. It just does not seem to be enough, to submit to spiritual authority in the matter of karma.

Partly, in all of the above, I have been thinking aloud. I offer my apologies for any inconsistencies that might have been revealed. Nevertheless, if someone, with a clearer mind than mine, would like to respond or to offer any comments whatever on this subject, I should be very interested in what they may have to say. Thanks in anticipation!

Comments

  • federicafederica seeker of the clear blue sky Its better to remain silent and be thought a fool, than to speak out and remove all doubt Moderator
    Kamma is not a judgement, it's not an evaluation, it's not criticism, and it's not for you to try to work it out.
    Kamma is volitional action - that is, whatever kamma is accrued is roughly because of what you decide to think/say/do.
    But kamma is also one of the 4 Unconjecturables, and trying to figure it out, would send you round the bend, so the Buddha strongly recommended you don't bother.
    The secret is not what happened, and why.
    The secret is what you decide to do about it now.
  • personperson Don't believe everything you think the void Veteran
    My personal conception of it is if we imagine the mental continuum as like a large field of light similar to the surface of a still pond. Action or intention or karma is a movement or a disturbance in this still field, like throwing a pebble in the pond. The action causes a disturbance resulting in a reaction. Unlike water in a pond though this mind field can store the potential of action and doesn't have to expend it immediatly. So the karma from one time can ripen at a later time.

    And as @Federica said its not a judegement. No one is recording actions and then making sure justice is done. Its a natural phenomena like throwing a pebble in a pond makes waves, no one decides how much force the pebble has and makes the ripples happen accordingly.
  • Also, using the ripples as examples, the karmic consequence could be quite direct, but because of our narrow view of time, the consequence feels as if it's "far in the future."

    We can already see how time makes us feel separated from consequence, even within a few short years--lung cancer from smoking doesn't generally manifest for 20-25 years, and since that feel so "far off" for many young people, they go ahead and smoke. Not because they don't intellectually accept possibility of the consequence, but because they feel so removed from it by time. It makes it feel "unreal."

    We may feel that a karmic consequence experienced much, much later in life--or even in a future life--is somehow less "real," but as we can see from several examples, the passage of time doesn't necessarily make anything less real.
  • I meant to use a water bug as an example--this is probably unrealistic, but say a small bug who had a lifespan of only a day. He causes a small ripple, which eventually hits the side of the pond and sends back a small counter-ripple. We as humans can see it all happen in the course of several seconds, but to the bug it feels as if months or even years have passed. When the counter-ripple hits him, he may not think he had anything to do with it, since his concept of time is different from ours.

    I know this is kind of a silly example.
  • @quandarius, you are correct that many Buddhists do use karma to satisfy their desire for justice and fairness in the world. Instead of a God handing out punishments and rewards, we have the universe itself upholding the law of reward and punishment. It becomes especially troubling when past life karma is used as an excuse for why innocent people including babies suffer in this life. Because they did something to cause it in a past life? If I had to believe that, I could not call myself a Buddhist.

    Not all Buddhists believe in karma as defined this way, but I suspect since the belief has made it this far, it's probably here to stay. No matter what you believe, I suspect as you practice, it becomes more and more irrelevant. Buddhism is a message of freedom from karma, in whatever form you believe it to take.

  • ZenBadgerZenBadger Derbyshire, UK Veteran
    @Cinorjer not only has the idea of karma lasted in Buddhism and Hinduism but it has leaked into modern religions such as Wicca and other modern paganisms in various forms. This is probably because not only does the idea appeal on a basic level (nothing goes unpunished) it also has utility in the way it encourages civil behaviour. I have even found atheists who admit to liking the idea even if they can't find any reason to adopt it as an element of their belief (or non-belief).
  • personperson Don't believe everything you think the void Veteran
    @quandarius, you are correct that many Buddhists do use karma to satisfy their desire for justice and fairness in the world. Instead of a God handing out punishments and rewards, we have the universe itself upholding the law of reward and punishment. It becomes especially troubling when past life karma is used as an excuse for why innocent people including babies suffer in this life. Because they did something to cause it in a past life? If I had to believe that, I could not call myself a Buddhist.

    Not all Buddhists believe in karma as defined this way, but I suspect since the belief has made it this far, it's probably here to stay. No matter what you believe, I suspect as you practice, it becomes more and more irrelevant. Buddhism is a message of freedom from karma, in whatever form you believe it to take.

    @Cinorjer This isn't an effort to convert you to my view of karma, it's merely to refute the view that previous life karma means fate.

    If one views the suffering of a baby as being caused by previous life karma one could condemn the child as deserving their punishment and leave them to their suffering. Or one could understand that we all suffer from the results of our past actions and help to relieve the suffering of the baby.

    Another way to see it is if someone were drowning in a lake a karma = fate person would say thats their karma and let them drown. If however someone were to jump in and save the drowning person, certainly that is something that is possible to happen, then it wouldn't be their karma to drown. So karma can't be fate and its a wrong view to see it as such.

    Karma is potential. Meaning it doesn't dictate events, a particular potential comes into play when other causes and conditions are conducive for it to happen. Example, someone has a lot of karmic potential to be wealthy, that karma won't happen on its own its takes the proper causes and conditions to occur such as buying a lottery ticket or getting a good education.
  • Some karma can be changed, some can not.


  • federicafederica seeker of the clear blue sky Its better to remain silent and be thought a fool, than to speak out and remove all doubt Moderator
    edited February 2012
    No kamma can't be changed.
    But you can 'transform' kamma considering your current thoughts, words and actions and measuring your perceptions and responses.....
    the kamma that was, is.
    the kamma that might be, isn't.
  • Okay my thought is that there are two 'reasons' if you need them for karma type situations. One is that it is just the law of cause and effect and wholly impersonal in that. The other is my own belief that we make choices before we are born into this lifetime and we may choose something difficult to learn from or to teach others. Like I said, that is my belief and not one of all Buddhists.

    I have been thinking that facing what is here and now in front of us is much more effective when we are not thinking of the cause in this life or a past one, we are not worrying about the future and we are not judging ourselves and others in our quest for fairness. And when we take the personal out of reality then we can just do what we need to do, and seems likely we will create less (negative) karma.

    Don't forget it is positive too,
  • jlljll Veteran
    Who keeps track of the law of gravity?
    Similarly, karma is spiritual law that can be observed.
    Go up to a big, burly man, call him a bastard, and kick him
    between the legs.
    The result of your bad karma will be quite immediate.
    Torture a dog to death, the result of your bad karma
    will not be immediate but it will come.

    Just wondering, what do you think happen to suicide bombers?
    Did they get away with murder?
    Buddha says no.
    The category of this question is a matter of necessity, as I could not find a more suitable one (i.e. it does not concern beginners only).

    I have tried to make some kind of sense out of the idea of karma, as understood by the generality of Buddhists, Hindus etc. It takes one into a complicated path of reasoning, and I have become a bit sceptical about the possibility of Joe Soap or Mary Brown paying for something that was perpetrated a few lifetimes ago, in this or a later life. These kinds of assertions may be true, of course, but I don't know, and can't make any ultimate sense of them. Of course, whether one believes in karma or not, it is obvious that, if one follows a certain bent, whether it is to slip into drunkenness or some other vice (or, on the contrary, a path of aspiration and effort to improve the tone of one's life), there will be natural consequences. They will be printed, as it were, onto one's relationships and into one's nervous structure, etc. and these consequences will be unavoidable. However, if one makes a single (maybe a big) slip, I cannot see how this will be recorded, for all time, into the "Akashic Records". If, after making the slip, you say, hey, that wasn't so good — I really must try to avoid doing that again, it seems to me that there is a chance of not having to pay for it, since one has learned a lesson from it immediately. I mean, suppose a young man found himself drawn into a plot, with others, to rob a bank. The hold-up is successful, and they get away with the money. Years pass. The man, now much older, has given away his share of the money because of a bad conscience after the event. True, one consequence is that he will always need to be looking over his shoulder, but justice might not catch up with him. Are we to understand that some cosmic Record Keeper has entered the deed in a big, black book, and that, in some future life, maybe, the inheritor of his deed (karma) will, in some future life, have to pay for it in some way?

    Years ago, I read a book by Nolan Pliny Jacobson, called: Buddhism, the Religion of Analysis. In it, the author quotes a statement by the Buddha (recorded in Nikaya something or other), in which the Buddha is reported to have said: "I do not teach a doctrine of karma (the common Hindu assumption was that there is karma, in the way most Buddhists understand it), because karma requires justice, and justice is not it". This seems to chime, in my mind, with a statement of a Zen practitioner, who said: "They told us that we were going to Hell, but lo, here is the lotus, opening its blossoms for me to fall on!" — or something very much in that vein.

    Several months ago, I came across a Tibetan Buddhist website (the address of which, I failed to note down, and which I cannot now find). On this website, some writer or other said that most Buddhist communities use the teaching of karma as a useful tool, which keeps people mindful of what they are doing, but which, in reality, is not true. I don't know, of course, what qualifications this writer had, that enabled him to make such a statement. However, it certainly rings a bell with me. The old teaching about Hell Fire was a similar tool. It did tend to keep many on the straight and narrow, but, to many more, it also must have caused a good deal of mental anguish. As far as I am concerned, I should want to try to live a decent life whether there is any karma, hell, or not. If this is aspiration is not cherished, one fails to even have a chance of realising one's human potential (even as a secular humanist). It's rather like one's taste in music. One is quite entitled to listen to rubbishy noise that, with the masses, passes for music. However, one has only to be attentive, and one knows what music is, and what is not!

    With the teaching of karma, there is an associated problem, and it is not so easily dispelled.

    If there is karma, in whatever sense it may be true, (like, despite the fact that there is no continuing identity, "I" will reap the fruits, painful or pleasant, of what is done in my life now), then one has a slight basis for believing that things might slowly get better (despite the teaching that, just round the corner — i.e. in the very next life — there will be a HUGE debt of suffering to pay, for something that "I" did when, for example, "I" was a member of the hordes of Ghengis Khan). However, if karma is just a belief, and has no basis in reality, then there is the frightful prospect that, at death, when my present persona dissolves forever, the next conscious moment MIGHT be one of seeing the fire of Moloch a few feet away, before my body is hurled into the furnace. After all, when I die, babies will be born, and they will all feel that they are "I".

    If you go into this, it seems to end up all the same, really, inasmuch as, even if there is karma to pay off, Moloch's furnace might be my next payment off of my debt. It had been sitting there for thirty centuries, and now, instead of, as in my present life, my being a reasonably affluent suburban white person, there might be a dramatic change of culture and time, etc. Karma or no karma, then, the potential for one's next life is like that afforded by a lottery ticket.

    With the best will in the world, and with due respect to that great institution, the Buddhist Sangha, a mere belief in karma does raise difficulties. It just does not seem to be enough, to submit to spiritual authority in the matter of karma.

    Partly, in all of the above, I have been thinking aloud. I offer my apologies for any inconsistencies that might have been revealed. Nevertheless, if someone, with a clearer mind than mine, would like to respond or to offer any comments whatever on this subject, I should be very interested in what they may have to say. Thanks in anticipation!
  • I suppose that, to prevent misunderstandings, it's appropriate to differentiate between kamma (action) and kamma vipaka (results of action).

    Has anyone seen the scripture quoted by Nolan Pliny Jacobson? I should like to know what the context was (in order to evaluate the Buddha's meaning), and whether there really are grounds for thinking that the Buddha, after all, did not teach a doctrine of karma.

    As regards the comments about karma (action) being a bit like ripples in a pond, or in a field of light, these may well be correct, for aught that I know. There is the obvious aspect of karma, deeds, which, if repeatedly engaged in, cannot but have an effect on the doer, for good or bad. However, I'm not sure that one ought to take a traditional teaching at face value. Even the Buddha encouraged a sceptical attitude to beliefs. Of course, Federica is quite right in saying that what matters is how we react to circumstances.

    What I am concerned to find out is whether the teaching of kamma was a part of Buddha's teaching, or not. The scripture that I cite seems to indicate that he did not. However, even if he did deny that he taught a doctrine of karma, only an idiot would say that Buddha was indifferent to the quality of people's actions.
  • federicafederica seeker of the clear blue sky Its better to remain silent and be thought a fool, than to speak out and remove all doubt Moderator
    edited February 2012

    What I am concerned to find out is whether the teaching of kamma was a part of Buddha's teaching, or not. The scripture that I cite seems to indicate that he did not. However, even if he did deny that he taught a doctrine of karma, only an idiot would say that Buddha was indifferent to the quality of people's actions.
    How about this?

    http://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/nanamoli/wheel248.html

    http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/sn/sn35/sn35.145.than.html
  • federicafederica seeker of the clear blue sky Its better to remain silent and be thought a fool, than to speak out and remove all doubt Moderator
  • edited February 2012
    No kamma can't be changed.
    But you can 'transform' kamma considering your current thoughts, words and actions and measuring your perceptions and responses.....
    the kamma that was, is.
    the kamma that might be, isn't.
    What I meant change is that what will happen will not happen not in a sense the law of karma has been altered.


    By expressing true confession, the seeds of some bad karma from the past will no longer come into fruition. Events from Good/bad karma is just manifestation of our mind.
    However, if one repeats the same thing over and over, confession is not going to change anything. That's insanity defined by Einstein.


    Edit:I think I misunderstand the word: Karma. I interpreted it as cause and effect.
    I just looked it up in the dirctionar. It's means just actions.



  • federicafederica seeker of the clear blue sky Its better to remain silent and be thought a fool, than to speak out and remove all doubt Moderator
    well done.
    That changes things, doesn't it?
  • dang it, I am stuck on the cause and effect. My brain is not optimal today to think deeply on the difference however
  • federicafederica seeker of the clear blue sky Its better to remain silent and be thought a fool, than to speak out and remove all doubt Moderator
    Kamma is the action/cause.
    Vippaka is the consequence/effect.

    there is Positive Kamma, there is Neutral Kamma, and there is Negative Kamma.
    They are all, however, quite deliberate and pre-meditated, intentional.
  • JasonJason God Emperor Arrakis Moderator
    edited February 2012
    I have tried to make some kind of sense out of the idea of karma, as understood by the generality of Buddhists, Hindus etc. It takes one into a complicated path of reasoning, and I have become a bit sceptical about the possibility of Joe Soap or Mary Brown paying for something that was perpetrated a few lifetimes ago, in this or a later life. These kinds of assertions may be true, of course, but I don't know, and can't make any ultimate sense of them. Of course, whether one believes in karma or not, it is obvious that, if one follows a certain bent, whether it is to slip into drunkenness or some other vice (or, on the contrary, a path of aspiration and effort to improve the tone of one's life), there will be natural consequences. They will be printed, as it were, onto one's relationships and into one's nervous structure, etc. and these consequences will be unavoidable. However, if one makes a single (maybe a big) slip, I cannot see how this will be recorded, for all time, into the "Akashic Records". If, after making the slip, you say, hey, that wasn't so good — I really must try to avoid doing that again, it seems to me that there is a chance of not having to pay for it, since one has learned a lesson from it immediately. I mean, suppose a young man found himself drawn into a plot, with others, to rob a bank. The hold-up is successful, and they get away with the money. Years pass. The man, now much older, has given away his share of the money because of a bad conscience after the event. True, one consequence is that he will always need to be looking over his shoulder, but justice might not catch up with him. Are we to understand that some cosmic Record Keeper has entered the deed in a big, black book, and that, in some future life, maybe, the inheritor of his deed (karma) will, in some future life, have to pay for it in some way?
    Kamma is intention expressed via acts of body, speech, and mind (AN 6.63). An action is an event, which puts into motion other series of events. One event doesn't have to keep track or record other events, just as one action doesn't have to keep track of or record other actions; they simply set into motion the conditions for correlated events to potentially arise and be experienced one way or another depending on a myriad of factors, including the ripening of other, competing and/or complementary past actions, as well as our present intentions/actions. (The Buddha basically took the Jain's deterministic view of kamma and ethicized it.)

    As for results ripening in future lives, assuming the possibility, of course, a cause is simply an event that we conceive of as setting into motion, or at least helping to condition, a serious of related events. But those resulting events only take shape if, and last as long as, the appropriate supporting conditions are present. In Buddhism, this concept is called this/that conditionality (idappaccayata), and is expressed by this short formula:
    When this is, that is.
    From the arising of this comes the arising of that.
    When this isn't, that isn't.
    From the cessation of this comes the cessation of that.
    One way to look at it is that a casual process can be self-sustaining, with causes creating effects, and effect acting as causes, creating feedback loops. Moreover, if you admit the possibility of immaterial causes and not just material ones (assuming that a clear distinction between the two can even be made), then the continuation of said process isn't limited by or to a single material body. And if you believe Bertrand Russell, the more we understand about matter (i.e., energy), the more the word itself becomes "no more than a conventional shorthand for stating causal laws concerning events" (An Outline of Philosophy).

    Furthermore, the Buddhist conception of causality is non-linear in that the present moment is viewed as being conditioned by both past and present actions, which creates multiple feedback loops, meaning that, among other things, there's a complex array of competing events allowing for some causes to produce effects immediately, and some that manifest over a period of time. In addition, this provides the possibility for some results to cancel others out and/or displace others in the queue.

    For additional references (in case you're not that familiar with Buddhism), you may find this series of talks and this study guide helpful in better understanding the Buddhist conception of causality, as well as the intended purpose of these teachings; which I'd argue aren't meant to be used to construct a rigid, metaphysical worldview, but as conceptual tools to be utilized in the quest to end suffering. That's my two cents, at any rate.

  • Thanks to all who have responded to me query. I don't think that I'm cut out for replying to others' comments, and maybe, arguing about things. It seems to be so much better (for me) just to read what others have said, and to mull it all over, over time. I do appreciate the feedback, and thanks, all.
  • federicafederica seeker of the clear blue sky Its better to remain silent and be thought a fool, than to speak out and remove all doubt Moderator
    But does it help, clarify or make things any simpler? :)
  • If I was not so tired seeing as it is nearly 1am, I would go and grab a few books and type out some things to help the OP on karma from the dalai lama. I always like his books, they seem very helpful to all stages of a parcticoner to me. Maybe 2moro, hold your horses :) There is a whole chapter on karma ;)
  • But does it help, clarify or make things any simpler? :)
    It does not help me to come down on one side, and say, "Hey, I do believe in karma, now"(the kind that buddhism teaches, I mean). However, though, in the past, I have read things similar to the discourses on karma (which links I went to), I had forgotten, to some degree, how dreadful it is to make bad karma (by anyone's definition). Therefore, those discourses have concentrated my mind, at least!

    I simply do not know whether the sayings attributed to the Buddha really were his sayings, or whether these things have been put into his mouth by those that believed in karma. Nor am I intellectually equipped to find out. Of course, the same applies to the statement attributed to Buddha, which I quoted from Nolan Pliny Jacobson's book, and which has the Buddha saying that he did not teach a doctrine of karma. That, too, could have been falsely ascribed to the Buddha, for anything I may know.

    It would be nice to say that it the comments have helped, but I don't think they have. In fact, after reading those discourses, there is a slight feeling of depression (I know myself, and my ways, far too well, to be in raptures!)

  • federicafederica seeker of the clear blue sky Its better to remain silent and be thought a fool, than to speak out and remove all doubt Moderator
  • There is a lot on this topic in this article too

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Karma_in_Buddhism
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