Karma Without Tears

Let’s see, where was I? Oh, right… karma. I’ll give a run-down on the concept seeing as <sarcasm> no one else has ever done that before. </sarcasm>

So existence, conditioned phenomena, a.k.a. the world of samsara (the realm of being in which there is suffering) is subject to the law of karma. Karma is not the will of some magical divinity, nor it is swift justice, or based inherently in ethical morality. Karma is simply the rhythm of existence, the result of dualities, the waxing and waning property. Karma is a law, but it is not really dogma, because dogma implies some sort of decree, command or tenet. And don’t get confused: the karma of things is not exactly the same as the Dao or way of things, because karma is a little more specific. Karma literally means intention, and translates to “volitional action”. It understood to refer to the law of cause and effect; that all actions lead to appropriate results.

Karma is strange because it is both very simple and yet very broad and all-encompassing upon its dissection. This is why, in order to maintain a certain ethical volitional quality, philosophical discussions of karma are not always technically in-depth. They can become complicated very quickly.

With regards to free will — karmic law asserts that although an individual’s mindstream will experience the fruition of past karmic seeds (good and bad), the present moment is always ripe with opportunities to make choices of one’s own free will. That is to say, regardless of what transpires around an individual, the individual does almost always have opportunity to say yes or no to their actions — to either get further involved in a situation or walk away from it. Hence, those events which manipulate us beyond our own control or choice are not necessarily divine law or pre-determined events, but the current of the karmic stream we are close to. And karmic streams are not pre-set, for they are in constant flux.

Serious karma from the past eventually manifests in our lives, and sometimes manifests over a long span of time (many rebirths in the mindstream — each of which is not the same person over again, but the karmic inheritor). However, negative karma in this life very often does show up in this life. The more unbalanced a person is, the less aware they are of their own part in influencing the mind stream, the stronger the karmic effects they will reap.

There is much said in religion, and indeed in Buddhism, of the hells a person will fall into upon committing grave sins. This is not inaccurate — the further births in one’s mindstream will be subject to the weight of these volitional actions. Typically, killing one’s parents (or almost any innocent being, particularly another person) accrues karmic weight, heavy gravity in one’s karmic stream. Although a person can repress the negative mental effects of their actions during life, in one’s sleep, meditation or death, the frightening layers of one’s subconscious reveal themselves.

At the moment of death, one’s past actions project one into future births. This is why those who eradicate karmic seeds in their minds can cease to take rebirth, as not only are they aware of the deathless states and the layers of the psyche, but upon passing away they are no longer projected by the karmic fuel of their mindstream. Thanissaro Bhikkhu likes the metaphor of fuel and flame — when one attains nirvana/nibbana, the flame of the mind has finally gone out. There is no longer any fuel to keep the mind burning upon dissolution of karmic seeds.

Deshimaru has some good things to say on the subject in his book, The Ring of the Way. When one initially awakens (which isn’t the same as enlightenment), one understands with their whole being (not just intellectually) that all things are happening at once, all things are in continual flux — a circle. Time is circular, not linear. All beings are interconnected and the same and yet somehow individually unique. The more wisdom and insight one accrues (or is given?) from life practice, the less one is bound by karmic conditions.

To quote from the book:

There is something deterministic, irrevocable, and mysterious about fate or destiny, but not so with karma, in which the rigorous necessity of causality, the necessity that we understand as a characteristic of destiny, is attenuated because our lives are a composite whole and cannot be ruled by the principle of causality alone. There are many antecedents, many prior causes, and they do not systematically produce a single, inevitable result. The activity of the psyche is partly conditioned by these antecedents, beyond any doubt, but it is not totally determined by them.

The human consciousness has developed the concept of voluntary choice, a lucidly weighed option, a possibility that is not inevitable. In the lower orders of nature, the realm of minerals, plants, and animals, phenomena are governed by strict necessity alone, the physical law of determinism. If the required conditions are present, the phenomenon appears. But the determinism of the principle of causality can have no absolute power over the human psyche. The more a person wakes up to reality and understands it, the less influence determinism will have upon that person and the greater will be his or her freedom of action, autonomy, unpredictability.

Of course, many people suffer for reasons that, whether or not there is some karmic law to explain it, are not the results of actions they have committed in their present life or form. Therefore, it is unreasonable to simply declare a person’s state of being to be something they deserve as a result of karmic balance. And after all, without people to help one another, there is little opportunity for positive karma and the accumulation of merit. But the goal is not just the accumulation of positive karma. A good explanation of this interplay of good and bad karma is: bad karma is harmful (especially to the doer) but creates opportunities for good karma. Good karma is beneficial (especially for the doer) but creates opportunities for bad karma. In other words, another person can very easily act on the results of your volitional actions.

Another elucidation of karma is that it is a rhythm. That is to say, each time a person does something, it will become easier to do again. Eventually one has ingrained impulses into one’s mindstream, which often manifest in the body either as compulsive physical habits, neuroses/psychoses or illnesses.

Karma as a rhythm of waves, has the same dimensional properties as water. Each movement of the water creates more waves, which in turn builds momentum for more waves. Eventually we become unknowingly subject to our own habits, ensnared by desires and emotions built up by messy impulses and reactions we do not watch closely. Thus, in practicing a mindful practice (which can really be almost anything that is pure and devoid of desire for profit, sex, status, etc.) one can calm the mind and be aware of impulses. This is what Deshimaru means when he says people can change their karma through zazen.

A final, physical metaphor I would use for karma is that it can be explained by looking at an audio wave in a music-editing program on the computer. Initially a sound file looks like a bunch of blurry waves, which go up and down, back and forth across the 0 decibel line. But zoom in on any wave and it seems there are even smaller waves inside of that one. This continues endlessly, like a fractal generation. These are like waves of karma in the mind. In some sense, all beings share an interconnected karma; a connection which becomes more immediate with social groups, families, friends and so on. A person is a very small karmic wave, part of a larger karmic wave, but there are ever smaller karmic waves of action, speech and thought.

I think many people do not want to believe in karma because it strikes them as dogmatic, or wishy-washy, or they misinterpret as some kind of moral judgment. And secretly we all wish to discover things for ourselves, to feel that our own perception is unique or accurate. And really, isn’t life less romantic or exhilarating if the answer to all our questions and existence is right here in front of us? Romance and fear, they always result from events in which we cannot see the entire picture.

There are a bunch of good resources out there which explain karmic law:

Since karma is primarily a Buddhist concept, the discussions tend to have a Buddhist context, thus they tend to be imbued with the Buddhist moral sense. I don’t necessarily think Buddhism is the one true religion, but I do think the Buddhist canon contains some of the clearest elaboration upon the cause and result of all existence.


2 Responses to “Karma Without Tears”

  1. That’s very well written, and quite educational. Thanks a lot for taking my request. I knew it was too uncharitable to think of karma as just some explanatory moral default (i.e., “bad things happen because you’re a bad person”).

    There is one thing I’m still a little fuzzy on, however. It’s one thing to say that causing suffering is immoral (i.e., inherently bad), and another to say that causing suffering is not in one’s self-interest, since it will ultimately be revisited upon you. Associating good and bad with the cause of alleviation of suffering is an easy, logical step, of course, but aren’t I right in thinking that morality and suffering are still distinct?

    More simply, does morality describe causality, or the other way ’round? I think I know the answer, but I’d like to be sure.

  2. I know what you mean and I wonder what your interpretation is, since I’m no expert. I feel like religious exposition of a moral sense and discussing how causality works are sympathetic, saintly transmissions. Of all the things in the universe, these are the things the Buddhist scriptures emphasize. It’s not that there aren’t gods and demons and spiritual freakouts in Buddhism, but just that they aren’t emphasized. If they were, some people would chase after those aspects instead of the goal of liberation. Of course, a lot of people still do that anyway…

    There have certainly been some people, black magicians, etc. who explain karmic law to benefit or validate their own ends outside of the Buddhist context. And most Buddhists would argue that to take discussion of karma outside of the religious context is to distort the teaching. I agree with that, but that creates the problem of presenting karma as some objective universal notion. Describing karma as something inherently moral is too dogmatic to be realistic, whereas removing the moral sense separates it from a proper ethical message and makes it dangerous. It becomes like Nietzsche’s theory of drives, which is of no comfort to those who suffer. To that end I almost don’t like putting such interpretations on the internet for public access.

    I think the emphasis Buddhism places upon karma is balanced, as an explanation which is neither inherently dogmatic but also inspires people to behave ethically. I don’t know if there’s some universal moral sense, and I think guys like Confucius are closer to describing an enlightened ethical code. As I understand it, the Buddha says that everyone’s deepest desire is the desire for true happiness. Which sounds…fundamentalist, but I guess it’s kinda true. Anyway, that’s the context.

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