How many times have you heard a conversation about something bad happening to someone and one of the people talking will say……”it’s Karma”. Next to the misconception that Buddha taught Reincarnation this has to be the most misunderstood teachings in Buddhism. For years I tried to understand Karma as it is generally taught and I always felt confused and that this was the one area of Buddhist teaching that I just could not believe. Of course most people’s understanding of Karma is that “whatever you do will come back to you”. Do a good thing and a good thing will happen to you. Do a bad thing and a bad thing will happen to you. It is kind of a cosmic “what goes around comes around” or “Tit for Tat”. That seems pretty simple to understand you may say. I think we would like there to be some form of cosmic justice like this. What is so hard to understand about that?
This blog is not a regurgitation of what other people have told me about Buddhism. It is the conclusions I have made personally as a result of my own study, experiences, and contemplation about the Buddhist teachings. The Buddha told us to do just that. Not to believe that any teaching is true just because he taught it. We are supposed to determine which teachings are true by our own inquiry and practice. So each time I came across a new teaching I have sort of my own process to try to understand it. First I do my best to try to understand the new teaching as it is taught. Then I take the new teaching I have learned and try to correlate it against the core teachings of all Buddhist schools. I believe that the Buddha did not teach a random set of disconnected ideas. This means that if you look at one teaching and compare it to another they cannot be diametrically opposed. If they are then either your understanding of the core idea is incorrect or the new teaching is not what the Buddha taught.
The reason I found the commonly taught versions of what Karma was were confusing is that they did not correlate with the core teachings I had already learned. Why would that be? This will probably sound arrogant but after a lot of study and thought I could only come to one conclusion. The commonly held understanding was just incorrect! No before you label me a heretic or a lunatic please take the time to consider what I am saying. I will try to outline my thought process as best I can and then you can decide for yourself what you think. Please understand that language is kind of cumbersome when trying to discuss these sorts of things. If I mention the self or use the word I or you it will often be in quotes to indicate the limitation of language to convey the real meaning. There is the “self” that we normally think of and then there is the self that we actually are. The first thing I will mention are the questions that came to my own mind after first learning about Karma.
I do not believe that there are any followers of Buddhism that would deny that Anatta or “Not-self” is a core Buddhist teaching. The Buddha taught that there is “not an abiding or permanent self”. He did not teach that you do not physically exist as the being that you are. What he did teach is that what we think or view about who and what we are is incorrect. Particularly the notion that we exist in a permanent state as ourselves, which we have always been and always will be, Bob for example. Bob has been living his life like the rest of us. He has been busy doing many things, some good, some bad. Well the first question that comes to mind is who or what is it that is keeping track of what Bob has been doing so that those things can come back to him? While there are many spiritual beings in Buddhism there isn’t a “God” in the sense similar to Christianity. So if there is no all-powerful “God” to decide our fate then who is it that is keeping track? Who is it that decides what is good or bad? Who is it that decides when these deeds should come back to you? If the Buddha taught Anatta (not-self) then according to him there is no “you” for the deeds to come back to. The Buddha never taught reincarnation. Reincarnation is the idea that “you” die and then “you” come back in in someone else’s body. What the Buddha did teach is rebirth. The difference between the two is subtle but very important. In light of Anatta there isn’t a “you” as we think of it to come back in another body. To understand rebirth you have to consider these things. The being that we are is an aggregate of many things. All of the many things that make “us” were already in existence before “we” came into being in this world. When the conditions were all there “we”, became. What we identify as “I” can only exist for a period after all the conditions are there for “us” to exist. If all of the conditions were not there, if just one of them was missing, then “I” would not exist! When we die the many things that made “us” will still be here. Everything that makes us up or was needed for us to “be” does not go away or disappear when we die. So rebirth is just the cycle of “us” (and everything else!) coming into being and then going back to the individual parts that “we” came from. It does not describe an individual being passed from body to body.
The Buddha’s teaching on Impermanence (Anicca) also says that nothing stays in one state permanently. All things in the universe are under constant change. That includes “us”! The ‘self” is impermanent just like all other things in existence. You can see how the teaching of Anatta and Anicca go perfectly together and do not contradict each other. On the other hand the commonly taught idea of Karma, that everything “you” do gets stored up by someone/somewhere/somehow and eventually comes back to “you”, totally contradicts both teachings. So what can this possibly mean?
If you read my blogs on the Precepts and the Four Noble truths you understand that we do the things that cause us suffering and that all things are unsatisfactory to us because of desire. This desire is rooted in ignorance. What are we ignorant about? The “self”! The reason we suffer and feel like everything is unsatisfactory is because of the misunderstanding we have about who and what we are. The precepts are designed to help us overcome this misunderstanding and wake up. We (humans) think that we are separate from everything and that we exist as our own independent permanent self. The truth is that we are part of everything and everything is part of us. Remember the six level pagoda that I discussed previously. This is a symbolic representation of this idea.
The Buddha did teach:
“My actions are my only true belongings,
I can’t escape the consequence of my actions. My actions are the womb from which I have sprung. The fruits of all my actions, both wholesome and unwholesome, skillful and un-skillful I will inherit.
(Anguttara Nikaya, Pancaka Nipata Pali)
So if “My actions are my only true belongings” then how can you reconcile this? Do you remember in school learning Issac Newton’s law? For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. Well this seems to me to be much closer to what Karma really is. The word Karma literally means action. One thing for certain is that every action we do has an effect even if we do not see or understand it. Buddhism does not believe that all things are predetermined or that we are just victims of our own destiny. You can choose to do any action you want right now. The only sure thing is that whatever you do will have an effect. That effect will change what will happen in the future. The problem is that we don’t generally see the effect that our actions have. If you throw a baseball at your mom’s favorite vase you know exactly what the effect was. But for most of our actions we really don’t think what we do affects anyone but ‘ourselves”.
Our minds work in such a way that we really do not give things much thought. Because the mind is constantly having to process a myriad group of things almost at once it cuts corners and just gives each thing a brief period for consideration. The problem is that if you want to wake up to reality you have to look deeper and actually give things some real thought. Let’s take a couple of ideas that on the surface will seem a little bit silly but if you really consider them they are very profound.
You are sitting here reading this blog. Have you ever considered the multitude of things that had to happen in the past just to make that so? If you create a timeline in your head going back in time from this moment you will start to see. Think backwards and note all the different things that if they did not occur you would not be sitting here right now. What if you chose to go out to eat instead of staying home and using your computer? Maybe you just recently bought this computer. What if you didn’t find it on sale that day? Maybe you would not have bought it and therefore you would not be reading this now. You needed money to buy that computer. What if you had quit your job? What if you got fired? You would not have had the money to buy the computer. What education or experience did you need to get that job? What if you had not gone to that school or you had worked a different job previously? What if your parents had not moved to that town where you went to the school you needed to get that job. What if you had quit high school? What if you were born in a different country? What if you weren’t even born?
It is difficult for me to outline all the things that possibly have happened to you in your life but I think you get the drift. The truth is there are a million and one things that needed to happen just the way they did in order for you to be reading this today. It is not only things that happened recently but things going back in time indefinably. The past is directly linked to the future. Not in a way that things are destine to happen. This is because it is not just you that are doing the actions that have the effect. All living beings going back to the beginning of time have had their effect of the universe due to their actions. If you take this a little farther it also shows how important each and every decision you make is.
Let’s go back to your great great grandparents. Your great great grandmother obviously said yes the first time your great great grandfather asked her out on a date. What would have happened if she said no? It would have changed the universe! How could such a simple decision that most people would think only affects themselves affect the universe? Well it is actually simple. Let’s say that because your great great grandmother said no that your great great grandfather never saw her again. Well then it only follows that your grandparent who was their child would have never been born. Neither would any brothers and sisters your grandparent had. That means that all of the actions that they did during their lifetime and the effects they had on themselves and others would not have happened. It also means that your parent and any of their siblings would not have been born either. So none of the actions that they would have done or their effect on others would have happen either. You would not be sitting here reading this blog and all of your actions would not have happened as a result. What if one of your grandparents discovered the cure for polio? How many would that have affected? I know this seems a bit silly. But it is a simple way to outline how we do not live independent from everyone and everything else but that we are dependent on the actions of everyone else. Can you say that no ones actions ever had an effect on you? Then how can we say that Karma means that our actions come back to us? There is constant action in the universe and it causes everything to be under constant change. These changes cause different conditions to arise. All things are interdependent, all existence is conditioned.
So what does this all have to do with Karma? If you think of all the beings that have ever been their actions have created the universe that we live in. If you believe in rebirth then the very actions “you” take will create “your” future (My actions are the womb from which I have sprung). So Karma is what it literally means, action. The Buddha said it belongs to you because while “you” were in this state of being “you” made the decisions to do whatever it was that “you” did. When you are in your next state of being you will live in the conditions “you” created (The fruits of all my actions, both wholesome and unwholesome, skillful and un-skillful I will inherit.). But it isn’t just the actions “you” have done that will affect “you”. Action (Karma) is sort of an inverted pyramid where all the things that have happened in the past plus everything that we and everyone else are doing currently determines our current state of being. I also do not agree that if you do good things the result will always be good. This is because it is not only your actions that determine the outcome of any situation.
Consider this scenario. You are in line at the airport to get on a plane to go home. There is a young lady that is on standby that is trying to get home for her wedding. So you decide to do the nice, good, thing and let her have your seat. The plane takes off but then soon crashes and everyone on the plane dies. You had every intent to do a good thing didn’t you? Then why did something bad happen? If you follow the standard teaching of Karma she must have done something bad in the past to cause this to happen. That just makes no sense to me. It happened because a million and one things (actions) went into making the conditions right for the plane to crash. There were hundreds of people on that plane. Did they all do something bad in their past to cause this to happen to them? I don’t think so. If you do good things the result will generally be good but it is impossible to determine how that will play out among all the other actions that have happened.
Karma is one of the ideas that the Buddha learned from Hinduism. But like many of the Hindu teachings he reinterpreted them in light of his awakening. I think the standard teaching of Karma is much more in line with the Hindu teaching. I believe that Karma is the action that creates “our” world. Everything is under constant change as a result. All of our actions have an effect even if we do not see what it is. We affect and are likewise affected by all the other actions that have occurred. If we all try to do good actions it can literally change the universe. If we understand that all of our decisions and actions affect not only us but everything and everyone else maybe we would make better decisions.
I know that what I am saying will probably not be well received with many in the Buddhist community. The only way I could change my mind is if someone could prove to me that the Buddha’s other teachings do not conflict with the standard teaching of Karma. Given some thought I think that you too can see the where the standard teaching falls short.