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The Problem With Karma

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What are we going to do about karma?

It's no use pretending that karma hasn't become a problem for contemporary Buddhism. In many ways Buddhist teachings seem very modern in their emphasis on impermanence and interdependence (evolution, ecology), insubstantiality (physics), the deceptions of language (philosophy), and non-self (developmental psychology). But these similarities do not include karma as an inexorable moral law built into the cosmos. This doesn't mean that the doctrine of karma should be dismissed or ignored, but it does encourage us to interrogate those teachings and ask: what does karma mean for us today?

There are at least two big problems with the ways that karma has often been understood. Although the earliest teachings are quite clear that laypeople too can become enlightened, the main role of lay Buddhists, as widely practiced today, is to support the monastic sangha. In this way non-monastics gain "merit," and by accumulating merit they can hope to attain a more favorable rebirth. This approach commodifies karma into a form of "spiritual materialism," an attitude that is quite different from the path that the Buddha taught.

Karma has also been used to rationalize sexism, racism, caste, economic oppression, birth handicaps, and almost everything else. Taken literally, karma justifies the authority of political elites, who therefore deserve their wealth and power, and the subordination of those without them, who are also experiencing the results of their behavior in previous lifetimes. If there is an inevitable cause-and-effect relationship between one's actions and one's fate, there is no need to work toward social justice, because it's already built into the moral fabric of the universe. So why bother to struggle against injustice?

For these reasons, karma is one of the most important issues for contemporary Buddhism. Is it a fatalistic doctrine, or is an empowering one? In order to understand the Buddha's deep insight, we need to appreciate the originality of his approach.

Karma and rebirth were already widely accepted in pre-Buddhist India, but Brahminical teachings understood karma mechanistically: performing a Vedic sacrifice properly would sooner or later lead to the desired consequences. The Buddha's spiritual revolution transformed this ritualistic approach into a moral principle by focusing on cetana, which means "volitions" or "motivations." As the Dhammapada emphasizes, "Experiences are preceded by mind, led by mind, and produced by mind. If one speaks or acts with an impure mind, suffering follows even as the cart-wheel follows the hoof of the ox.... If one speaks or acts with a pure mind, happiness follows like a shadow that never departs."

The term karma literally means "action." According to the popular understanding, the law of karma is a way to get a handle on what will happen to us sometime in the future, but to focus on the eventual consequences of our actions puts the cart (effect) before the horse (action) and misses the revolutionary significance of the Buddha's realization.

Karma is better understood as the key to spiritual development: how our life-situation can be transformed by transforming the motivations of our actions right now. Then karma is not something the self has; rather, it is what the sense of self is, because one's sense of self is transformed by one's conscious choices. Just as my body is composed of the food eaten and digested, so "I" am (re)constructed by my consistent, repeated mental attitudes. By choosing to change what motivates me, I change the kind of person I am.

An anonymous verse expresses this well:

Sow a thought and reap a deed
Sow a deed and reap a habit
Sow a habit and reap a character
Sow a character and reap a destiny

What kinds of thoughts and deeds should be sown? Buddhism traces back our dukkha "suffering" to the three "unwholesome roots" that often motivate our actions: greed, ill will, and delusion. These need to be transformed into their positive counterparts: greed into non-attachment and generosity, ill will into loving-kindness, and the delusion of separate self into the wisdom that realizes our interdependence with others.

From this perspective, we experience karmic consequences not just for what we have done but also for what we have become, and what we intentionally do is what makes us what we are. In other words, we are "punished" not for our "sins" but by them. And, as Spinoza put it: happiness is not the reward for virtue; happiness is virtue itself. To become a different kind of person is to experience the world in a different way. And when we respond differently to the challenges and opportunities the world presents to us, the world responds differently to us.

Our ways of acting involve feedback systems that incorporate other people. People not only notice what we do, they notice why we do it. I may fool people sometimes, yet over time my character becomes revealed as my intentions become obvious. The more I am motivated by greed, ill will, and delusion, the more I must manipulate the world to get what I want, and consequently the more alienated I feel and the more alienated others feel when they realize that they have been manipulated. This mutual distrust encourages both sides to manipulate more.

On the other side, the more my actions are motivated by generosity, loving-kindness, and the wisdom of interdependence, the more I can relax and open up to the world. The more I feel genuinely connected with other people, the less I am inclined to use and abuse them, and consequently the more inclined they will be to trust and open up to me. In such ways, transforming my own motivations not only transforms my own life; it also affects those around me, since I am not separate from them.

This more naturalistic understanding of karma does not exclude the possibility of other, perhaps more mysterious possibilities regarding the consequences of our actions. There may well be other aspects of karmic cause-and-effect that are not so readily understood. What is clear in either case, however, is that karma as how-to-transform-my-life-situation-by-transforming-my-motivations-right-now is not a fatalistic doctrine. Quite the contrary: it is difficult to imagine a more empowering spiritual teaching. We are not enjoined to accept passively the problematic circumstances of our lives. Rather, we are encouraged to improve our situations by addressing them with generosity, loving-kindness and wisdom.