Thursday, January 21, 2010

More on Karma

Probably Beyond Repair
Probably Beyond Repair, Helsinki, 2007

Karma is clearly one of the more complicated concepts in Buddhist thought. I've come across a number of what appear to be contradictory interpretations of what the word means, as well as trying to figure it out for myself. I don't think there is one "right" understanding of the concept; merely a bunch of different ones that make sense in different contexts.

The naive understanding of karma is something like "if you do bad things, bad things will happen to you; if you do good things, good things will happen to you." "Bad things" and "good things" are understood to be more or less easily observable actions and consequences. Tiger Woods sleeps around and subsequently gets whupped upside the head with a nine iron and loses his sweet sponsorship deals, not to mention his family. That sort of thing.

The obvious problem with this version is that it doesn't always work this way. Plenty of thieves and adulterers never get caught. Plenty of cold-blooded killers die in their old age in plenty and comfort while being hailed as war heroes. And plenty of people who labor all their lives for the benefit of others suffer and die in horrible ways.

Then there's the version that includes the above, more or less, but brings reincarnation into the equation. Some Buddhists I've read go as far as to say that it doesn't even make sense to speak of karma if you don't believe in reincarnation. The idea with this version is that any karma that doesn't ripen (i.e., produce visible consequences) in this life will get carried over into the next one, and will determine the conditions of your birth.

My main problem with this interpretation is that it assumes belief in an unprovable metaphysical concept -- namely, that there is some part of us that is not connected to our physical body, and leaves it after the physical body dies, only to inhabit some other body. I don't like believing in unprovable metaphysical concepts just to make another concept work out better, unless there really are no better alternatives around. They're a bit like bunging experimental constants into physics equations to make them balance out. There are philosophical difficulties as well -- if the self is a delusion produced by the five skandhas, whereas True Self is universal, then who, exactly, gets reincarnated?

Finally, there's the one that makes most sense to me: karma as something internal to every one of us. In this view, karma would be a bit like the shape the metal of our mind takes, and our thoughts and actions are like hammer strikes on it. Lying will hammer your mind towards the shape of a liar's mind. Stealing will hammer it towards the shape of a thief's mind. Acting compassionately will hammer it towards the shape of a compassionate mind. Every action, and the thought that goes into it, will leave a mark, and these marks ultimately determine the shape your mind has. Different varieties of suffering are inextricably linked to the shapes the mind takes: a liar's, thief's, killer's, or glutton's mind will, because of these very qualities, suffer more than a compassionate, patient, loving, or tolerant mind, even if the external consequences of the actions never manifest.

The real challenge is that it's very hard to know exactly into which kinds of shapes we're hammering our minds with our thoughts and actions each day. I may think that I'm practicing patience when in reality I'm only practicing repression; I may think I'm practicing loving-kindness when in reality I'm only practicing being sanctimonious. I think it's definitely necessary to practice the paramitas and observe the precepts, but there's a danger there too -- that of hammering yourself into the shape of a self-satisfied, judgmental, passive-aggressive, humorless, holier-than-thou "spiritual" type. This kind of karma can take a long time to ripen, and the fruits will be particularly bitter.

I think there's a way out: just letting your mind be what it is, recognizing your thoughts and desires and impulses for what they are, and learning recognize the effects -- desirable and undesirable -- of acting on them. As I wrote in an earlier post, I've found that I have modified my daily actions in many subtle ways -- for the better -- since I started to practice daily zazen, without making much deliberate, conscious effort to listen more, talk less, eat less meat, drink less alcohol, or lie less frequently.

This is in contrast to one change I made deliberately and with considerable effort: giving up computer games. I was playing more of them than is good for me, and it was echoing in my life in a variety of undesirable ways, but the action of eliminating that distraction was, in and of itself, highly distracting, and I'm not quite sure that the result was entirely what I intended. I have a feeling that in the long run that repressed desire may bubble up somewhere in some not-so-fun way. My mind did -- certainly still does -- have the shape of a compulsive gamer. That shape has a quite a nice stack of particular kinds of suffering attached to it. However, I'm not sure what my cold-turkey decision really did: strike a blow that would reshape that mind to something easier to live with, or just hammer it into the shape of a repressed compulsive gamer. The latter is probably not all that much better than what I started with: my goal was to rid myself of a compulsion, but I may only have added repression to the stack instead.

Either way, I'm observing it. At this time, I have no particular desire to pick up a game and play it. However, I am leaving the door ajar -- if I do get that desire, I will deal with it then, without deciding beforehand what to do about it. I think I'm a little bit more aware now of the consequences of giving in to the desire or repressing it, if it turns out that I'm not able to just acknowledge it and let go of it. I'll treat it as a karmic experiment, whenever I need to cross that particular bridge.


  1. Thanks for this insightful posting. I like your "hammer the metal of your mind" metaphor(and your "way out"). Often, this effect seems apparent even in another's physical bearing. It's not so easy to see this in oneself.

  2. I find this exploration of the concept of karma on your part much more palatable intellectually and emotionally than your last examination. That could just be because we agree more here, but I also think it's because it rings true. The evidence of a lifetime certainly does suggest that karma often refuses to come home to roost, at least in an outwardly observable way. Learning to watch one's thoughts and actions for their effects is something that we just aren't taught in western culture, but they are indeed the shapers of who we are and often,what we encounter.

    It's especially ..piquant? that you end your post talking about computer games, because as I was reading your exposition I was reminded of the skill systems in rpgs that develop a skill through it's use and not through arbitrary point allocation. I think the ghost of those gaming lessons is not such an evil one. ;-)

    As far as playing again one day, I imagine that can only happen when the experience falls into a different perspective for you, and that takes time--or may not happen at all. But nothing to be too worried about. If your abstinence has led you to use the energies you felt were wasted gaming in pursuits more productive for you right now, there's nothing much amiss with that. Guilt and repression are not preferred tools, but they can be effective sometimes when they are the only ones to hand.(Not that that's necessarily the case--just a fruit of my own experiences over the years.)

    Again, the photo is immensely enjoyable and satisfying. I see your recent work as a way to communicate nonverbally the tangible expression of a valuable state of mind. (Or I could just say they've become very creative, or they make one think, but you know me;why use two words when you can field twenty or thirty... ;-))

  3. Interesting you should say that, Mags -- because I didn't think I was saying anything all that different. I just replaced one metaphor with another. I could have added that one effect of zazen is to allow the mind to slowly find its original shape -- which is what I think Hakuin means when he speaks of 'purifying the karma.'

    Re repression and what not: you're probably right; sometimes you can use one poison to fight a worse one. What I meant, I guess, is that that still leaves you with the other poison, and if you don't deal with that, it'll cause you trouble later along the line. My gaming compulsion has weakened, I think, and largely simply because I haven't been feeding it through gaming. However, I think that it's also possible to feed the compulsion through not-gaming -- if it's constantly on your mind because you're missing it, it might also grow stronger. Tricky stuff, this, and I'm really lucky my compulsions are small potatoes compared to what some people have to deal with.

    That photo is from 2007, by the way. I picked it for this entry because I thought it fit... and yes, it still makes me happy that you like them.

  4. I've said before to other Buddhists who insist on acceptance of rebirth, "what does it matter to my practice if I believe in rebirth or I don't?" Our practice is our practice, and believing in or denying rebirth does not help our practice along. Of course thats just my opinion. :-)

  5. Maybe. I've heard someone comment that people who don't believe in reincarnation sometimes have a harder time practicing because their time window is too short. Someone who does believe in it can just sort of hang loose and practice and not worry too much about enlightenment, whereas someone who doesn't runs the risk of turning the desire for enlightenment into an entanglement.

    I think there may be some truth to that. Then again, I'm quite sure that belief in reincarnation carries its pitfalls as well.