Thursday, November 19, 2009

The Karma Puzzle

The other day, I had an insight. Most likely I'm just reinventing the (Dharma) wheel, but I haven't come across this before. It's even possible I'm entirely mistaken. For what it's worth, here it is anyway.

Western philosophy, from Socrates to Sartre, tends to deal in abstractions. It's about relatively complex conceptual structures, with relatively well-defined concepts that have relatively well-understood logical relationships. The Platonic idealists and their successors seem almost obsessive about these abstractions -- "What is Virtue? What is Justice? What are the forces driving History? What is the Mind? What are Language, Truth, and Logic, and how do they relate to each other?" -- and so on and so forth. Even Popper's magnificent work dismantling the Platonists' cathedrals in the sky is concerned with definitions and how to arrive at them, and it, itself, is as beautifully constructed a conceptual cathedral as any.

Coming from this background, it's only natural that I treat concepts from Eastern philosophy the same way. I try to understand what's meant by things like ki, samadhi, dukkha, enlightenment, nirvana, karma, and so on, through their definitions, and then try to see how these things relate to each other in the thought-construct that is the philosophy.

I just realized that this may be entirely the wrong approach.

Years ago, I practiced aikido, in the ki no kenkyukai tradition, which teaches the techniques through the concept of ki, and includes a quite a few exercises intended specifically to train you in "extending ki," as the term goes. It's dead simple to demonstrate to someone what "extending ki" means (although a lot harder to explain in words), and once you've got it, it's relatively simple to explain how to do a technique in terms of ki. In a way, this technique explains the purpose of a technique, rather than the form. It's a different way of teaching, say, ikkyo, than the way they do it in aikikai or ju-jutsu, and after enough practice, you end up learning it either way -- but in my limited experience, the "ki way" of teaching these techniques was quicker, at least as measured by effectiveness rather than purity of form.

Thing is, at no point during any of my aikido lessons did anyone bother explaining what ki is. Instead, we just practiced extending ki, learned techniques to test whether someone is extending ki or not (example: give 'em a shove; if it feels like you're shoving a tree, they're extending ki; if they fall over, they're not), and then practiced techniques in terms of it. I still have no real idea of what it is, although I'm pretty damn certain that no supernatural woo-woo was involved -- it's simply a matter of getting everything pulling in the same direction, as it were. However, I have read and heard any number of such explanations, and they all sound terribly new-agey, abstract, and flaky.

In other words, ki is a term used to describe a simple, observable phenomenon -- albeit one that is difficult to explain. 

This experience came to my mind a few days ago, as I was pondering the meaning of another common term in Eastern philosophy -- karma. The usual explanation of karma has it meaning something like collecting brownie points or demerits which get tallied up when you die, determining whether you're reincarnated as a cockroach or a lama, or something in between.

This has always struck me as somewhat ridiculous.

The Dhammapada starts with a few verses that did not strike me as ridiculous at all:
All that we are is the result of what we have thought: it is founded on our thoughts, it is made up of our thoughts. If a man speaks or acts with an evil thought, pain follows him, as the wheel follows the foot of the ox that draws the carriage.
All that we are is the result of what we have thought: it is founded on our thoughts, it is made up of our thoughts. If a man speaks or acts with a pure thought, happiness follows him, like a shadow that never leaves him.
When I'm sitting, I can actually experience something very much like this. If I've "acted with an evil thought," that pops up and nags at me. If I've "acted with a pure thought," it doesn't. Sometimes I can feel these even when I'm not sitting. I believe the term for this is "conscience," although it's understood rather differently in Judeo-Christian culture. (Interestingly, mere thoughts don't have this effect, or at most, they have it to a very minor degree -- actions are needed for it to happen.)

I have no way of knowing if this is what the Tathagata (or whoever actually wrote those verses) had in mind, but it fit.
A couple of weeks back, one of the senior students at the sangha where I practice described people as "karma vortices," which struck me as a bit too cutesy at the time. I think the idea he was attempting to articulate was the unity of cause and effect -- that the two are ineluctably entwined, and the thoughts, actions, and outcomes that we have and do "are" us at some fairly deep level. Still, the description remained, filed away under "doesn't make much sense but may eventually."

The final piece of this little karma puzzle of mine are a couple of lines from Hakuin's ode to zazen (Zazen wasan), which go something like:
Even those who have practiced zazen just for one sitting
Will see all their karma wiped clean

If you approach all this -- as I did -- with the idea that karma is an abstract concept, none of it makes much sense. It's all so much new-agey pseudo-spiritual woo-woo, or just a lot of blather. I certainly thought that bit of Hakuin's ode a bit embarrassing when I first got to chant it.

So, the insight?

Karma isn't an abstraction. It's a label for an observable phenomenon, just like ki. Namely, it's that witch's cauldron of stuff that bubbles up to the surface when sitting -- the internal monologues, the sensory inputs and the way they're experienced, the aches, pains, and discomforts, the snatches of music playing through the mind, the emotional affects, the memories, and the feeble will that attempts to sit in the middle of all that and tries to keep the mind on the practice anyway.

These other woo-woo-ey concepts in Eastern philosophy -- dukkha, samadhi, nirvana, and so on -- aren't abstractions either. Instead, they're concrete phenomena grounded in experiential observation. Understanding "what they are" in the same way that Marx attempts to explain what history is, or Keynes to explain what an economic depression is, is almost irrelevant; what counts is recognizing what the words point to. As concepts go, they have much more in common with "chair," "table," "roof," and "internal combustion engine" than with "truth," "justice," "dialectical materialism," or "comparative advantage." I'm going to have to redo a lot of my reading through this new lens, to see if it works as well as I think it might.

And that witch's cauldron that is uncovered during zazen -- "karma vortex" isn't a bad description for it at all? It is me, much more than any of the individual threads or leaves or pieces of dust churning away in it. A really good sitting does wipe it clean(er), although I do think that Hakuin-zenji is overpromising a wee bitty bit there. The cause and the effect, the "merit" and the "demerit" is all in there, churning away. Reincarnation or tallying up points doesn't enter into it at all. It's just there, and it's me.


  1. If you believe in a physical, concrete concept of karma--consequences of actions determining the future--how can your quote about wiping it all clean in one sitting of magical meditation possibly make sense? It seems completely impossible to me.

    No, don't try to explain it. ;-)I know I wouldn't understand at all, since this whole post seems completely based on religious faith and not rational argument, and I.m not able to go there with you, my friend. But I'm glad you are able to reconcile all these contradictions if they bring you peace of mind.

  2. Not physical. Experiential. When you sit in zazen, you experience something -- namely, a whole bunch of thoughts, emotional affects, snatches of music, and other mental flotsam and jetsam swirling around you (and generally distracting you from doing what it is you intend to be doing, i.e., focusing on your practice). What I'm sayin' is that the name for this bunch of stuff is "karma."

    (I'm also sayin' that all of that stuff is with you all the time; it's just that when you're not meditating, you're not actually actively conscious of it.)

    Meditation also has an effect on this stuff, namely, it causes it to settle down, and reduces the amount of nastiness that's included in it. The name for this phenomenon is "purifying the karma."

    IOW, neither faith nor argument has nothing to do with it. It's simply a description of a bunch of experienced phenomena. If you're at all like most people, you can experience it yourself, simply by sitting down without moving, and staring at the wall for a half an hour.

    (If you're like me, you'll need to do it more than just once, though, to get used to it -- at least I just experienced boredom plus pain in my legs the first few times I sat.)

    So, my whole point is that the naive understanding of karma as "consequences of actions determining the future" as you put it is a misunderstanding. Karma is just this bunch of stuff that we continuously produce and carry along. It does "determine the future," but only in the way your physical health determines your future. Eat junk food and never get off the couch (~do bad things and never meditate) and you'll be in worse shape than if you eat wholesome food and get regular physical exercise (~do good things and meditate regularly).

  3. So you've switched from a concept of kharma as exemplified in your quote from the Dhammapada(which makes sense to me):
    "All that we are is the result of what we have thought: it is founded on our thoughts, it is made up of our thoughts.... [etc]"
    which clearly indicates a significant depth of mental cause and effect, to a position that kharma is instead just mental junk food?

    I have no problem believing that meditation can bring insight or clarity to the extraneous and internal disorder that accompanies our thought processes, but that it can on its own undo the cause and effect of our thoughts which produce choices and actions--especially in one sitting--seems at best hyperbolic, and at worst, misleadingly simplistic.

    I don't mean to just be arguing over the term and definition, either. Obviously you can call your mental clutter anything you want, if it helps you deal with it, but underlying the concept of kharma (in my modern westernized understanding anyway)is the idea that it is by its essence an impartial,unavoidable and self-determining cycle, which I agree may include but is certainly not limited to random mental baggage. The good following "a pure thought" is as unavoidable as the bad brought by it's opposite, and the control necessary to concentrate on and initiate pure thought or action is certainly not a moment's chore easily done. To think so seems truly to trivialize not just human powers of free will but the human experience itself.That is,if kharma is nothing more than mental static, easily tuned out and nullified, human society and individual well-being can be neither significantly improved nor ruined by it, which defeats the whole concept of kharma as a moral and ethical model, which is how I've always interpreted it as being viewed in Buddhism.

    Obviously you've read much further and deeper into these subjects than I, so I'm sure I'm missing things, but that's how it seems to me from the outside looking in, anyway.

    Even if instead of a perceivable chain of choice(conscious or unconscious) and consequence pervading one's entire life, kharma is instead a process running in the background that can be absorbed and neutralized, to continue your own analogy, I question whether it's any easier to do so in one sitting than it is to change one's couch potato lifestyle in order to become fit.

  4. Uh. No. I'm clearly not explaining this too well. Sorry about that, and I appreciate your patience.

    First off, let's get the "just one sitting" thing out of the way: as I said in the original posting, it seems to me that Hakuin is overpromising a wee bitty bit there -- or else he's talking about something slightly different that may or may not have been lost in translation. I don't speak Japanese, so I couldn't say -- but the translation (into Finnish) that we use is a bit different than the English translation I cited here. It goes something like "A single zazen-samadhi purifies the karma and removes the obstacles to practice." The key difference is that the Finnish translation mentions samadhi, which is something that sometimes happens through zazen -- a "clear mind" that has very little of that mental flotsam and jetsam (that I just called "karma") around. I've experienced something like it on occasion, and (1) it's very pleasant, and (2) it leaves me feeling much better about everything. Of course, the karma clutters right up soon enough, so I need to sit again to get it to settle down again.

    So yeah, at least in the translation I quoted, Hakuin is "at best hyperbolic, and at worst, misleadingly simplistic." However, Hakuin was no dummy, and it took him decades to get to what he's remember for, so I suspect we're missing something there. None of my zazens have wiped my karma perfectly clean, that's for sure.

    Second, "mental junk food." No, that's not what I meant. I meant karma as everything that we carry in the mind -- good food and junk food, memories, thoughts, affects, preferences, iTunes, likes, dislikes, and so on and so forth. When I'm sitting, I can "see" it bubbling up and whirling around like mad, and that very act also causes it to settle down -- and, afterwards, the nasty stuff is mitigated while the good stuff is strengthened. "My karma is purified," in Hakuin's words -- at least a little. It's not a matter of gaining insights into anything; it's a matter of acknowledging and accepting it, which sort of "processes" it and lets us let it go.


  5. So, my whole point was that karma isn't a metaphysical concept; it's a label for that experiential phenomenon: the stuff that whirls around when you're sitting. So while thoughts, feelings, mental states and what not are all karma, karma is not just a mental state. It's all of it.

    Now, where does that come from? Let's continue with your couch potato analogy a bit.

    what you eat - how you act
    working out - meditating

    Eating wholesome food is good for your physical health. Working out is good for your physical health. Eating good food makes it possible for you to work out more effectively. Working out makes it easier for you to eat healthily (for me, at least).

    Acting with a pure mind is good for your karma (mental health). Meditating is good for your karma (mental health). Acting with a pure mind makes it possible to meditate more effectively. Meditating makes it easier to act with a pure mind (for me at least.)

    IOW, it's not a chain of choice, perceivable or otherwise, any more than your physical fitness is a chain of choice. Your physical fitness is a result of various factors that go into it -- what you eat, how much exercise you get, your genes, your mental state, your other habits, and so on and so forth, but it's not a neat chain of cause-and-effect. The same goes for karma: what you put in, comes out, but it's not neatly reducible to "this causes that."

    Finally, "karma as a moral and ethical model." That, Madre, is precisely the concept I'm rejecting: it's *not* a moral and ethical model, nor a metaphysical concept; it's just an observation of a phenomenon, no different than the observation that eating junk food and never getting any exercise will make you sick, while eating wholesome food in moderation and getting some exercise will help you stay healthy. It's *trivial,* really -- not the mysterious, complex, and, yes, religious woo-woo that we make it out to be.

  6. Thanks for taking the time to explain your conclusions. I appreciate it, and it does seem to make sense within your frame of reference, which of course is much closer to the originators of the concept than mine. I personally find it more helpful in making life decisions to view it as the 'moral and ethical' construct it has evolved to be in my own life experience and from my observations of people and events over time, but I'm quite willing to admit that's a personalized and perhaps out of context, westernized view.

    Anyway, always good to cross theoretical swords with you. Best of luck with your practice and your life.

    (You do know this is mags, right? Madre is my google ID.)

  7. And you were quite right--it was the 'one-size fits all, instant one-sitting kharma removal" that struck me as a bit of over-promising. It's one thing to turn your life around, or calm your mind and see clearly, and quite another to do it all in fifteen minutes.

  8. Yup, I did realize you were Mags, although the ol' bean only clicked a part of the way into the conversation. That's the damnedest thing about the Internets, though -- you never now how you're supposed to address someone, Madre, Mags, magerette, or Joy.

    You mentioned at some point that you have some history with Zen, and not all of it pleasant. I get the feeling that some of the stuff I say presses some of your buttons, and not in a good way. Would you be interested in sharing some of that? Feel free to email if you don't want to air it out in public.