Saturday, December 12, 2015

Karma and Rebirth Revisited - Part Three: Loy's "Rethinking Karma"

A Commentary On An Article By David Loy, “Rethinking Karma”

By Gregory Wonderwheel

David Loy is a professor of Religion at Xavier University and an authorized Zen teacher. This article is from his new book Money, Sex, War, Karma: Notes for a Buddhist Revolution (Wisdom Publications).

David Loy’s 2013 article “Rethinking Karma,” in Tricycle Magazine  reveals how even well intentioned modern Western Buddhists can have difficultly thinking about karma and rebirth from within the frame of Western materialism. By not understanding the materialist assumptions in one’s own worldview, one is generally unable to perceive the Eastern contours of materialism and do not see the Easgtern worldview with the same measuring stick of analysis.  That is, the Eastern materialist view of karma gets labeled as superstition, while ignoring that the Western brand of materialism is equally superstitious. Loy makes the best of emphasizing the worth of karma from a Western perspective while deliberately leaving aside the question of rebirth as unaddressed and unanswered.  To make karma relevant from this perspective, Loy can only speak of karma from a perspective of social-psychology that ignores the depth of the archetypal and transpersonal. But in doing so, he also gives ammunition to the secularists who would exterminate both karma and rebirth from the Buddha Dharma by relying on the materialistic worldview of a physical reality that calls rebirth into question as a mere superstition.  What follows is the complete article presented in segments identified by blue italic with my commentary following each segment.

How are we meant to understand this key Buddhist teaching?

The subtitle acknowledges that karma is a key Buddhist teaching.  However by asking “how are we  meant to understand karma?” rather than “what is the meaning of karma?” there is a subtle  preference placing “understanding” above “meaning”   I propose that, ultimately, karma is not about arriving at an intellectual understanding as much as it is about practicing a spiritual meaning.  One of the main problems with Western modernists is that their desire to have an intellectual understanding that is firmly fixed within their rationalist frame of reference actually prevents the exploration of the question.  But even more startling in the contemporary Western hesitancy to deal with karma and rebirth is that the karma-naysayers don’t even understand the depth of their ignorance.  They are denouncing the idea of karma as a superstition from the vantage point of a person who only knows basic arithmetic denouncing calculus as gibberish or a person who only knows pool-table mechanics denouncing quantum theory, quarks, and dark matter as superstition.

IN WRITING OF Sigmund Freud, one master diagnostician of human suffering, the psychoanalyst and philosopher Erich Fromm observes:

The attempt to understand Freud's theoretical system, or that of any creative systematic thinker, cannot be successful unless we recognize that, and why, every system as it is developed and presented by its author is necessarily erroneous.... The creative thinker must think in the terms of the logic, the thought patterns, the expressible concepts of his culture. That means he has not yet the proper words to express the creative, the new, the liberating idea. He is forced to solve an insoluble problem: to express the new thought in concepts and words that do not yet exist in his language.... The consequence is that the new thought as he formulated it is a blend of what is truly new and the conventional thought which it transcends. The thinker, however, is not conscious of this contradiction.

The Buddha, of course, was himself a master diagnostician, and while there are obviously great differences between him and Freud, I think that we can apply Fromm's point to the Buddha's own "liberating idea." Even the most creative, world-transforming individuals cannot stand on their own shoulders. They too remain dependent upon their cultural context, whether intellectual or spiritual—which is precisely what Buddhism's emphasis on impermanence and causal interdependence implies. The Buddha also expressed his new, liberating insight in the only way he could, using the religious categories that his culture could understand. Inevitably, then, his way of expressing the dharma was a blend of the truly new (for example, the teachings about anatta, or "not-self," and paticca-samuppada, or "dependent origination") and the conventional religious thought of his time. Although the new transcends the conventional, as Fromm puts it, the new cannot immediately and completely escape the conventional wisdom it surpasses.

This general opening seems innocuous enough, yet there are presumptions that could act as a poison. Of course, any reference to Freud is compromised from the beginning.  While his initial advocacy of the unconscious was ground breaking, his psychology was rigid and fixated and could not escape from the weight of its own cultural conditioning and materialistic preconceptions.  Also, the category of “creative systematic thinker” is a Western style concept that shows how Fromm himself is being a creative thinker caught within his own expressible concepts of his culture.  To call Buddha a “creative systematic thinker” reduces Buddha’s awakening to the narrow horizons of a modern philosophical framework based on thinking. Buddha’s enlightenment was not simply the result of a creative thinker who thought new thoughts about life.  

Also the idea that Buddha taught a “blend” of the “truly new” and the “conventional religious thought of his time” shows a hidden agenda to assert one’s own criteria for judging the teaching over the Buddha’s.  In other words, the “new” is not necessarily the “true” and the “conventional” is not the “false.”  There is no apparently conventional religious thought presented by the Buddha that is not as equally valid as the apparently new expression. In other words, the Buddha did not formulate a teaching blended of what was “truly new” and the “conventional thought which it transcends” because the conventional thought that was transcended was exactly transcended and left out. The apparently conventional thought in the Buddha Dharma is neither extraneous nor superfluous; it is the Buddha’s wisdom (Buddha-jnana) within the context of the Buddha’s expedient means (upaya) of teaching.  It is not for those who do not understand why the Buddha included the teaching to throw it out merely because we don’t know what he meant for us to understand.   The conventional ideas that were kept were kept because they were relevant and beneficial and the new ideas that were added were added because they were relevant and beneficial. The conventional ideas that were not kept were discarded because they were not relevant or beneficial, and the new ideas that were not added were not added because they were irrelevant, misleading or unbeneficial.  

By emphasizing the inevitable limitations of any cultural innovator, Fromm implies the impermanence—the dynamic, developing nature—of all spiritual teachings. As Buddhists, we tend to assume that the Buddha understood everything, that his awakening and his way of expressing that awakening are unsurpassable. But is that a fair expectation?

Yes, that is fair to see impermanence in cultural contexts, however there is also a false dichotomy at work here. Yes, all spiritual teachings are dynamic and developing. Yes, Buddha’s awakening was unsurpassable. But it is the expression of that awakening within the clothing of the language of culture that will change according to circumstances and conditions, not the awakening itself.  This is why the Buddha Dharma says awakening has the one taste, the single flavor, of liberation.  The Buddha Dharma recognizes an uncountable variation in circumstances in which a person may awaken, yet the taste of that liberation is unified and singular.  The “way of expressing” awakening may change due to language and cultural frames of reference, but the awakening being expressed can never be different or separate from the Buddha’s own awakening. 

Given how little we actually know about the historical Buddha, perhaps our collective image of him reveals less about who he actually was and more about our own need to discover or project a completely perfect being to inspire our own spiritual practice.

Isn’t it both?  Wasn’t it both during the lifetime of the Buddha even without the haziness of history?  The image of any person often reveals more about our own projective desires than about who the person actually is. A school teacher, a minister, a therapist, virtually any authority figure, calls forth our own needs to encounter the “perfect being” in a projective capacity. This projection of the “perfect being” is the archetypal Bodhisattva of our own mind being projected onto others by the functioning outflows of our consciousness. It is nearly invariable that we can only come to a realization of the Bodhisattva Path by first encountering the possibility of the Bodhisattva through our projection of the sense of the “perfect being” onto a person of authority with whom we have an actual relationship.

Understanding this becomes especially helpful when we try to understand Buddhist teachings about karma, which has become a problem for many contemporary Buddhists.

From the beginning of our inquiry, we have to be especially alert to the problems created by trying to “understand” the Buddhist teachings about karma.  Is the locus of the problem to be found in the teaching of karma or in our fixation and attachment to the cultural categories of our own bifurcated conceptualizations (vikalpa, parikalpita)?  I posit the primary problem for contemporary Buddhists is to be found in the very same contemporary conceptualizations that have been dyed (raga) and scented (vasana) by the modern materialist worldview, and not in the teaching of karma.

In the Sutta on the Simsapa Leaves the Buddha says that what he knows from his direct knowledge is like the number of leaves in the Simsapa forest, but what he teaches is like the number of leaves held in his hand. This is because what he mostly taught to these monks was for the cessation of unease (dukkha) so that they too could realize liberation and see the leaves in the forest for themselves.  

If we are honest with ourselves, most of us aren't sure how literally it should be interpreted.

Uncertainty is good to honestly acknowledge.  However, it seems the problem with contemporary Buddhists is not primarily in their uncertainty with the Buddhist teachings, but in the certainty with which they hold onto their non-Buddhist beliefs.  For example, why should karma be taken any more or less literally than any other law of the universe? Do we take gravity literally?  People do in their everyday lives, even though at the cutting edge of physics the nature of gravity is not certain and can not be taken literally.  Likewise, to take karma literally on an every day basis is not so bad as long as we recognize that there is no such literalness on the cutting edge of what karma means.

Karma is perhaps most often taken as an impersonal and deterministic "moral law" of the universe, with a precise calculus of cause and effect comparable to Newton's laws of physics. This understanding, however, can lead to a severe case of cognitive dissonance for modern Buddhists, since the physical causality that science has discovered about the world seems to allow for no such mechanism.

Here we see the example of one’s certainty about their “scientific” frame of reference becoming an obstruction to the meaning of karma and rebirth.  There are multiple erroneous presumptions in the previous statement. First, the idea of an “impersonal and deterministic” law is not compatible with the idea of a “moral” law and to conflate the two is a fundamental error.  Karma is not a “moral law” of any kind.  When a person walks off a cliff and breaks bones on the impact belw, we say that was “bad.”  But there was nothing immoral about the cause and effect, and the labeling of the effect as “bad” is not a moral judgment in and of itself. Likewise, when people say there is “bad” karma, that simply means the karma, i.e., the action of walking off the cliff, will result in a fruit that will be conventionally labeled as “bad” by nearly everyone, as everyone pretty much agrees that broken bones are “bad.”  There is no morality involved in this karmic analysis, because morality depends on an authority commanding what is right or wrong. Buddhism has no such authority, and karma is not a human-made law of right and wrong, but an observable law of nature, i.e., the nature of mind, regarding actions and reactions.

Next, it is a false assumption that there is “a precise calculus of cause and effect” within Newton’s laws of motion and gravity.  Newton’s three laws of motion and law of gravity are stated as precisely as possible, but the calculations that they lead to are only precise to the degree that the system they refer to is closed and without any extraneous variables. It is the popular, but mistaken, certainty in Newton’s laws that creates the erroneous belief that those laws lead to precise calculations of outcomes.  Likewise, that popular but mistaken certainty then gets turned toward understanding karma and the disappointment in the recognition of uncertainty then leads to a “sour grapes” complaint that karma must be wrong.  But do we come to the conclusion that Newton’s laws of motion are wrong just because the “smart” bombs and missiles don’t always fall where the military’s “precise calculus of cause and effect” say they were supposed to strike?  The Buddha always taught that there is an uncertainty principle in karma because there is no closed system and a person’s future action (karma) may effect the ripening of previous karma. That is, if we do not change course when we are walking toward a cliff, our karma will ripen in falling. But if we change our action at any time before stepping off the cliff, then we have changed the course of the outcome of our karma. This is as simple and straightforward as Newton’s laws of motion.

The concern about the “physical causality that science has discovered about the world” not having such a mechanism for the causality of karma, again, shows that the problem is in the attachment to “physical causality” not to any problem with karma.  Before Newton discovered the law of gravity, there was no “such mechanism” to explain why the moon rotated around the earth or the earth around the sun.  Did that make the moon’s rotation any less real or actual or subject to the laws that were only discovered in an historical context?  Modernity certainly will experience cognitive dissonance with the Buddha Dharma precisely because the Buddha Dharma is not dependent on the cognitive framework of physical materialism of science.  The Buddha Dharma’s law of karma is about the laws of the science of mind reality, not the laws of the science of physical reality.  This is the primary cognitive dissonance for modern contemporary Buddhists to understand.  This is the same cognitive dissonance encountered by modern psychologists, as scientists of the mind, who can’t get out of their physicalist/materialist frames of reference.  This is the cognitive dissonance that has led modern psychology to study the psyche using only physical measuring devices, and thus actually dumping the mind as the subject of their science becoming a physical science studying the brain. This is the cognitive dissonance that led pseudo-psychological materialists to brand Carl G. Jung as a “mystic” because he steadfastly maintained that psychology must stand upon its own feet as a science of the psyche, not of the brain.  Thus it is not dissonant to the cognition to acknowledge that shortly before his death, Jung praised the Zen master Hsuyun (Empty Cloud) as saying exactly what Jung was saying about the function of consciousness.

In contrast, some key Buddhist teachings may well make more sense to us today than they did to people living at the time of the Buddha.

And that includes the teaching of karma. 

What Buddhism has to say about anatta, for example, is not only profound but consistent with what modern psychologists such as George Herbert Mead and Kurt Lewin have discovered about the constructed nature of the ego-self.

This is exactly why karma may make more sense for moderns who are able to understand the profound teachings such as no-self, no-soul (anatman, anatta) than for people in Buddha’s own day who were unable to see that Buddha’s discovery of no-self/no-soul was exactly and precisely a revolutionary understanding of how karma actually works, because if there were a literal self or soul, then the law of karma would not be able to function for the same reason that if there was a literal piece of firewood, it would not be able to combust to give off heat and light.

Likewise, what Buddhist thinkers such as Nagarjuna have said about language—how it tends to mislead us into assuming that the categories through which we describe the world are final and absolute—is consistent with the work of linguists and philosophers such as Ludwig Wittgenstein and Jacques Derrida.

Likewise, karma and rebirth are consistent and illuminated by Nagajuna’s (and Vasubandhu’s) analysis of language, as well as the analysis of language found in the Sutras, such as the Diamond Cutter Sutra and Lankavatara Sutra, upon which the great Buddhist Bodhisattva scholars relied.  The modernist’s categories raised in opposition to the law of karma and rebirth are indeed the kinds of categories dependent on language that mislead us into assuming that the categories described by “physical causality” with its illusion of a “precise calculus of cause and effect” are final and absolute.

In such ways, Buddhism dovetails nicely with some of the best currents of contemporary thought. But such is not the case with traditional views of karma.

There is a problem here that is a false analogy. Karma does “dovetail nicely” with modern views. In addition to the modern views stated about with which karma dovetails nicely, the whole realm of modern physics and the so-called “hard problem of consciousness” dovetails nicely with karma and rebirth. The physics of wave dynamics, of light, and of thermodynamics, including the law of the conservation of energy, all dovetail nicely as analogies to describe the law of karma and rebirth.  It is only the mistaken and non-Buddhist interpretations of karma that are not consistent with no-self (anatman), impermanence (anitya, anicca), and imbalance (dukkha) that do not dovetail nicely with modern views.

Of course, this by itself does not refute karma or make it impossible to be included in a contemporary Buddhist perspective. It does, however, encourage us to think more deeply about it.

Yes, just because a person who claims to be a Buddhist interprets karma in a traditional non-Buddhist manner, does not make karma invalid, it only invalidates the interpretation.  We should always consider the Buddha Dharma deeply, until we have no conflict with it in our mind.

THERE ARE AT LEAST two other major problems with the ways that karma has traditionally been understood. One of them is its unfortunate implications for many Asian Buddhist societies, where a self-defeating split has developed between the sangha and the laity.

The split is between the view of sangha as the two-fold assembly of home-leavers or as the all-inclusive four-fold assembly of followers of the Buddha Dharma, including both home-leavers and home-keepers.  I agree that it is unfortunate where the home-leavers have usurped the meaning of sangha to themselves to exclude lay people except in roles of supporting the sangha.

Although the Pali canon makes it quite clear that laypeople too can attain liberation, the main spiritual responsibility of lay Buddhists, as commonly understood, is not to follow the path themselves but to support the monastics. In this way, lay men and women gain punna, or "merit," a concept that commodifies karma. By accumulating merit, they hope to attain a favorable rebirth or to gain material reward, which in turn redounds to the material benefit of the monastic community.

This teaching of merit is the most elementary and superficial teaching that Chinese Zen master Guifeng Zongmi called “the teaching of humans and devas (heavenly beings).” Doing meritorious karma for the result of better conditions in a future life is a universally human perspective and is a common ground for all religions.  In Buddha Dharna this appears as a basic teaching not to be considered anything more than the most elementary addition and subtraction in the calculus of the law of karma. 

This approach reduces Buddhism, quite literally, to a form of spiritual materialism.

The question is whether this is a true reduction or just a beginner’s starting place to build upon.  With children it is better to teach counting first, then addition and subtraction, before trying to teach algebra and calculus. Likewise with materialists, is it better first to teach non-materialism or spiritual materialism?  Teaching spiritual materialism is just a first step to weaning a confirmed materialist from their physical materialist views before introducing them to non-materialism.  It is as much of a mistake to think that a teaching like this is all there is to the law of karma as to think that addition and subtraction is all there is to mathematics.

The other problem is that karma has long been used to rationalize racism, caste, economic oppression, birth handicaps, and so forth.

However, this has always been misuse and abuse by those with a non-Buddhist belief in a self or soul (atman), and has never a real “use” as far as the Buddha Dharma is concerned.  It is similar to the “use” of torture for redemption and salvation in the medieval Inquisitions that was actually abuse in the name of Jesus Christ and never a real “use” of the teachings of Jesus Christ.   The fact is that the human mind has an infinite capacity to rationalize, and abusive rationalization to justify one’s selfishness does not thereby invalidate the principle being rationalized. 

Taken literally, karma justifies both the authority of political elites, who therefore must deserve their wealth and power, and the subordination of those who have neither.

Taken literally, karma leads to just the opposite of these false justifications.  There is absolutely nothing in a literal interpretation of karma that justifies the authority of political elites.  A literal interpretation of karma tells those with wealth and power that they will be among the poor and powerless in their following rebirths unless they learn how to use and apply their wealth and power for the benefit of others and all beings. These false justifications are only possible because the teaching of karma is being ignored by a perverted view and not taken either literally or metaphorically. 

The notion that a literal interpretation of karma can justify subordination of others is a fundamentally flawed view of karma.  The whole notion of “deserving” one’s circumstances is integral to the flawed view. As stated above, there is no moral component to karma, therefore the effects of karmic deeds are not subsumable under a category of “deserved” reward or retribution.  An evaluation of “deserved” is always an after-the-fact judgment and making that judgment is itself a karma of mental deed that will have “bad” karma effects because it is inherently erroneous.  If we have wealth and power and look upon those who have no such wealth and power as deserving their condition, then we are like a person who walks past the person at the bottom of the cliff who has broken their legs.  If we ignore their pain and suffering, then that is our karma of the present that will lead to its effect in the future, where we will be in the position of the other whom we ignored today.

It provides the perfect theodicy: if there is an infallible 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.

This us upside down. It is plain idiocy, not a perfect theodicy.  If one does not work toward social justice, then in one’s rebirth one will suffer the pains and troubles of the social injustice one did not work to alleviate.  But again, we must be on guard not to assign such categories as “fate” to the law of karma.  The law of karma does not assert that there is any category of “moral fabric” to be applied to the universe perceived as a manifestation of the mind any more than Newton’s third law implies a moral fabric to be applied to the universe perceived as a physical manifestation.   The justification of one’s wealth and power under the erroneous interpretation of the law of karma is exactly analogous as the justification of one’s wealth and power under the erroneous interpretation of Darwin’s theory of evolution as “survival of the fittest.”

In fact, if there is no undeserved suffering, there is really no evil that we need to struggle against.

Again, karmic fruit is not a matter of “deserved” or “undeserved.”   It is true that there is no “evil” that we need to struggle against in the sense that externalized objectified evil is a construct of our own mind.  There is no external separately individual “evil.”  And to struggle against such a projected evil only supports an erroneous projection that continues the very injury, harm, and hurt that is being “struggled against.”  To view “evil” as an entity is a materialist construction that obscured the actual harm being done.  To work toward beneficial conditions for all beings does not require or necessitate the hallucination of “evil” at work in the world. What is at work is the human ignorance of the law of karma.  When people harm each other, it is done out of the many and varied ways of ignoring our responsibility to each other which is the fundamental principle of karma.

You were born crippled, or to a poor family? Well, who but you is responsible for that?

The valid karmic question is: when I see you are born crippled, what am I to do about that?  What I choose to do then is what actualizes my responsibility as my ability to respond.  The law of karma presents each of us with the question of our own response ability in each moment, not with the question of someone else’s blame for their condition. 

It is also extremely important to recognize with this kind of example, that the law of karma is not an all inclusive explanatory principle of cause and effect in the universe.   Karma is being abused when it is used as a catch-all explanation of the cause of events.  The Buddha Dharma teaches us that there are five general sources for the causes of events of which karma is only one.  The five are: (1) Physical inorganic laws (utuniyaama); (2) Physical organic laws (biijaniyaama); (3) Laws of karma (kammaniyaama); (4) Laws of the mind (cittaniyaama); and (5) Laws of dharma (dhammaniyaama).  That a person is born crippled to a poor family also has the other four streams of causation to explain the events. To ignore these other four casual fields and to consider only the field of karma as involved is simply an act of ignorance. 

I remember reading about a Tibetan Buddhist teacher's reflections on the Holocaust in Nazi Germany during World War II: "What terrible karma all those Jews must have had. …" And what awful things did the Tibetan people do to deserve the Chinese invasion of 1950 and its horrible aftermath? This kind of superstition, which blames the victims and rationalizes their horrific fate, is something we should no longer tolerate quietly.

It is not superstition, per se. It is inadequate knowledge of karma.  The superstition is found only in the ignorance of someone who thinks they know what is real.  This is the ignorance of false conceptualizations (parikalpita).  To recognize that the Tibetans’ previous karma  ripened into the fruit to contribute to the Chinese invasion is not necessarily an instance of blaming the victims or rationalizing their suffering, but can merely point out that what goes around comes around. In this perspective, it is now the Chinese themselves are sowing the karmic seeds of their own karmic fruits because of their intolerance and oppression.  Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama, has publicly recognized that karma has played its part in the current circumstances of Tibet and his conduct as the current Dalai Lama has been made with this recognition specifically in mind and therefore he has encouraged the modernization of the Tibetan political system to correct, in part, the “bad” karma of the Tibetan system in the past.

Yes we should not quietly tolerate blaming the victim, but karma does not do that.  Karma eats the blame for oneself without assigning it to others. Likewise, we should not be loudly intolerant of mistaken attempts to understand karma. We should loudly clarify the actual functioning of karma and not pretend that karma is superstitious just because people speak about it ignorantly.  When people misunderstood genetics and believed that the "blood" was the transmitter of inherited traits, was that “superstition” or just a limited hypothesis based on incomplete information?     

It is, I think it is safe to say, time for modern Buddhists to outgrow it and to accept one's social responsibility and find ways to address such injustices.

To accept one’s social responsibility is exactly the teaching of karma. This does not mean to accept one’s “social position,” or to slavishly accept the “duties” of one’s social caste or class, which are equally abuses of karma. To accept one’s social responsibility in light of the law of karma means to be responsible for, and to act responsibility in the context of, the society that one lives in.   So what is there to outgrow except for one’s own erroneous ideas about karma?  The law of karma is the direct path to teaching the way to address such social injustices. 

In the Kalama Sutta, sometimes called "the Buddhist charter of free inquiry," the Buddha emphasized the importance of intelligent, probing doubt.

Such labels like “free inquiry” need to be scrutinized.   So-called “free” inquiry can be as irresponsible as the so-called “free” market or “free” sex.  A fair and honest market is much better than a free market and or honest and responsible sexual relations are much better than free sex.  Likewise, fair and honest inquiry is preferred to a wantonly undisciplined but so-called free inquiry. The Kalama Sutta   actually does not call for an unrestrained, anything goes, type of free inquiry, but sets out the course of a fair and honest inquiry.  Too often the Kalama Sutta is used as another rationalization to justify ignoring the Buddha Dharma and the teaching of karma and rebirth because it is misused in exactly the opposite way that is taught within it.

He said that we should not believe in something until we have established its truth for ourselves.

That’s not exactly what he said.  As with all Suttas and Sutras, the teaching is given in a specific context according to the diagnosis of the specific person or group seeking guidance.  Here, the Kalamas were people who received many wandering teachers and preachers who praised their own teaching and disparaged the teachings of others. The Kalamas wanted to know how to make sense of the alternatives and how to know which teaching to follow.  What the Buddha taught is this.

So in this case, Kalamas, don't go by reports, by legends, by traditions, by scripture, by logical conjecture, by inference, by analogies, by agreement through pondering views, by probability, or by the thought, 'This contemplative is our teacher.' When you know for yourselves that, 'These qualities are unskillful; these qualities are blameworthy; these qualities are criticized by the wise; these qualities, when adopted & carried out, lead to harm & to suffering' — then you should abandon them.

Unfortunately many people overlook that the use of “logical conjecture” is also something that one should not “go by”  and instead they think that their so-called “free inquiry” can rely on their own logical conjectures and the cultural “agreement through pondering views” such as modernism.  Of the four ways of determination, “these qualities are criticized by the wise” is one that people also conveniently forget in favor of their own views of what is to be criticized. So actually, what “the wise” have to say about something is to be taken into consideration according to the Kalama Sutta. Thus a “free inquiry” that ignores what “the wise” have to say is not an inquiry conducted within auspices of the Kalama Sutta. 

The Kalama Sutta is not dealing with ontological truths, but with empirical truths of actions, i.e., karma, and its fruit. In speaking to the Kalamas in response to their specific questions, the Buddha taught that personal qualities leading to actions with harm and suffering results should be abandoned and personal qualities leading to welfare and happiness should be entered and maintained.  Thus the conclusion of the Kalama Sutta is entirely consistent with, compatible with, and within the ambit of the law of karma by saying that the qualities of greed, aversion, and delusion are to be avoided because they lead to kill living beings, taking what is not given, going after another person's wife, telling lies, or inducing others to do likewise, all of which result in long-term suffering and harm.  The Buddha concludes by saying that whether or not one believes in rebirth good karma is still warranted because the fruits  can be seen for oneself in the current life.  This is simply the Buddhist version of Pascal’s Wager, so for this Sutta, “the charter of Buddha’s wager” would be a much better description than “the Buddha’s charter of free inquiry.”

This suggests that accepting karma and rebirth literally, without questioning what they really mean, simply because they have been part of the Buddhist tradition, may actually be unfaithful to the best of the tradition.

In Buddha Dharma, nothing is to be “accepted literally” and all language is to be taken for the meaning, not for the words.  Accepting karma “literally” would mean accepting a “self” literally, which is exactly the opposite of the Buddha Dharma.  But even if one were to take karma literally, it would not justify any harmful behavior.  Karma and rebirth are part of what is the very best of the Buddhist tradition, and what would be unfaithful to Buddhism is to not question what karma and rebirth really mean by thinking that they could not be true in the context of a literalist physical interpretation of reality.

This does not mean disparaging or dismissing Buddhist teachings about karma and rebirth.

This is important to emphasize, since denial, dismissal, or disparagement are exactly the kinds of negative karma that arise by labeling karma and rebirth as superstitions.

Rather, it highlights the need for contemporary Buddhism to question those teachings.

It is also important to remember that the context for that questioning is highly determinative of the path the questioning will take, and whether that questioning has the hidden agenda of dismissing something that one does not really understand or is really a questioning with integrity and an open mind as one approaches the most profound questions about the physical nature of the universe such as string theory, dark matter, etc. 

Given what is now known about human psychology, including the social construction of the self, how might we today approach these teachings in a way that is consistent with our own sense of how the world works?

Whose sense?   Since Jung’s depth psychology has mostly been denigrated as “mysticism” by the academic circles dependent on corporate funding that avoids investigation of the mind and instead pays for brain research, most of “what is now known about human psychology”  it is actually not psychology at all but is neurophysiology.   Also we must ask, does the phrase “our own sense of how the world works,” mean the conventional conformist materialist sense of modern scientism or the real sense of science that is open minded and non-materialist, non-literal, not strictly linear, and not deluded about its own flawed ability to precisely calculate cause and effect?  Scientism is one sense of viewing the world that Buddha Dharma says is among the superstitions of the ways of outsiders. 

Unless we can do so, their emancipatory power will for us remain unrealized.

Yes, the liberating power of the teachings of karma and rebirth will remain unrealized as long as these teachings are not integrated and approached in a way that is accommodating.  But we don’t need a way that is predetermined to be consistent with our own sense of how the world works if that sense is a closed system approach,  We need a way of approach that has all the open minded inquiry of a physicist who is free to question the scientific authorities that tell us how the world works.  Einstein did not develop his theories of relativity by looking for an answer that was consistent with his sense of how the world worked, and instead he kept asking how the world worked, because his sense that what was then taught about how the world worked was lacking.  Today, we need to take karma and rebirth as working hypotheses and ask how do they work, in the same way that physical phenomenon are investigated even though we don’t understand how they work.  

Buddhist emphasis on impermanence reminds us that Hindu and Buddhist doctrines about karma and rebirth have a history, that they have evolved over time.

All history has a history, and all human descriptions of reality have evolved over time.  It is important to remember that karma and rebirth or not just stories from Hindu and Buddhist culture.  Some variation on karma and rebirth appears in every culture as a human archetype. Many contemporary Western Buddhists rationalize writing off the teaching of karma and rebirth by saying that they are antiquated artifacts of the Hindu worldview and culture of Buddha’s time that are present in the teaching only because he could not dispense with them, but for our time we can dispense with them.  However, this is a false view of history.

Every people in every culture have some kind of story recognizing karma and rebirth (e.g., rebirth, reincarnation, or resurrection).  Karma and rebirth are archetypal truths that we ignore, deny, or dismiss only to our own psychic harm and at our peril, lest they become submerged merely to reassert themselves through the hidden influences of archetypal eruptions.  In Buddhist terminology, our denial of karma and rebirth may appear to “mow the lawn,” but the seeds (bija) remain to sprout when we least expect it. Christianity has the karma teaching of Jesus in “you reap what you sow.”  Rebirth appears as resurrection. The early Christians accepted karma and rebirth in ways more akin to the Hindu worldview, but the first crusades of 10th century by the Roman Church were against the Albegensians who were an example of Christian communities who taught karma and rebirth. This teaching therefore had to go underground and continued in such hidden traditions as the Rosecrucians until people were no longer burned at the stake for such “heresy.”  So it is not at all the case that karma and rebirth are culturally specific or limited to Hindu or Buddhist doctrinal history. 

We should note here, the term “doctrines” should be taken with grains of salt when used in a Buddhist context. Doctrine usually implies a belief system.  Are Newton’s laws of motion to be considered doctrines to be believed in?  Technically, in the Buddha Dharma, karma and rebirth are not doctrines to be taken as a belief system, but, like the laws of physics, are descriptions to be taken as working hypotheses about the functioning of reality, a reality that is fundamentally a manifestation of mind-only (cittamatra), that is, a psychic not physical.  

Earlier Brahmanical teachings tended to understand karma mechanically and ritualistically. To perform a sacrifice in the proper fashion would invariably lead to the desired consequences. If those consequences were not forthcoming, then either there had been an error in procedure or the causal effects were delayed, perhaps until your next lifetime (hence implying reincarnation). The Buddha's spiritual revolution transformed this ritualistic approach to getting what you want out of life into a moral principle by focusing on cetana, "motivations, intentions."

Buddha’s investigation of karma was a spiritual revolution every bit as ground breaking as Einstein’s scientific revolution and Jung’s psychological revolution.  As Einstein’s theories of relativity radically (i.e., at the root) changed how we can view physical reality, the Buddha’s radical views of no-self, impermanence, and the causes of psychic imbalance (dukkha) fundamentally changed how we can view the realities of karma and rebirth.  As Einstein’s radical views transformed the mechanistic approach of physics, so did Buddha’s radical views transform the mechanistic approach to karma. However, Buddha’s focus on intention (cetana) was not actually an addition of, or change to, a “moral” principle, it was a change to an amoraal psychological principle. The focus on intention has nothing to do with morals in the conventional sense and everything to do with how mind works through the structure and function of consciousness culminating in self-consciousness that becomes the claimant of intention.

The Dhammapada, for example, begins by emphasizing the preeminent importance of our mental attitude:

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's wheel follows the hoof of the ox.

Experiences are preceded by mind, led by mind, and produced by mind. If one speaks or acts with a pure mind, happiness follows like a shadow that never departs.

Here, the Sanskrit word translated as “mind” is “manas. While this passage is one of the earliest examples of what came to be known in Buddha Dharma as the teaching of “mind-only” (citta-matra), in this case, using “mind” is a somewhat loose or free translation, I think the flavor of manas is more accurately conveyed by the terms “mentation” or “cognition.”  There is a subtle but important distinction between manas and mind (citta).  Manas is the mental activity of the mind as it is expressed as consciousness. “A” citta is a quantum (i.e., an elementary mind-moment) of mental activity, and “the” citta is the holistic field of that activity with a principle of indeterminacy as to distinguishing a citta as either a particle or wave.  It is this indeterminacy that causes the confusion about the existence of a “self” and the mistaken illusion that there is a soul or self that moves from life to life in rebirth.  

I translate the opening verses thus:

1. Mentation is the precursor of things; mentation is the ringleader; mentation is the producer. If mentation is corrupted, just so the voice, just so the will, Thereupon unease is enabled, just as the wheel follows the transporter’s foot.

2. Mentation is the precursor of things; mentation is the ringleader; mentation is the producer.  If mentation is clear, just so the voice, just so the will, Thereupon ease is enabled, just as the shadow follows and does not depart.

(Note: unease = dukkha; ease = sukha. Also, the reference to a cart’s wheel following the transporter’s foot and apply to both a cart being pulled by an ox, another animal, or even a person.)

This is a subtle nuance because it is mentation that is “the ringleader” directing the circus (or gang) of sensory consciousnesses and organizing our conscious views of reality (dharma, dhamma) and of things (dharmas, dhammas). (Dharma is loosly translated by Loy as “experiences.”)  It is mentation as the “producer” that is the specific source for forming the intentions that function as karma.  This distinction between mentation (manas) and mind (citta) also becomes important in the subsequent historical development of the Buddhist descriptions of consciousness as being eight-fold, with manas as the 7th consciousness and manovijnana as the 6th consciousness.

To understand the Buddha's innovation, it is helpful to distinguish a moral act into three aspects: the results that I seek; the moral rule or regulation I am following (for example, a Buddhist precept or Christian commandment, and this also includes ritualistic procedures); and my mental attitude or motivation when I do something. Although these aspects cannot be separated from each other, we can emphasize one more than the others—in fact, that is what we usually do. Not coincidentally, contemporary moral philosophy also has three main types of theories. Utilitarian theories focus on consequences, deontological theories focus on general principles such as the Ten Commandments, and virtue theories focus on one's character and motivations.

This view of karma as a “moral act” and using the framework of contemporary Western moral philosophy is a greater cause of confusion than clarity.  It is Western philosophy that must change to accommodate karma, not karma that must change to accommodate Western philosophical moral categories.  The difficulty that Western philosophers, including Buddhist academics and university Buddhologists, have with karma is that it is essentially an amoral circular peg being crammed into a moral square hole. 

To understand Buddha’s innovation we need to appreciate that the consideration of the results (fruits, effects) of actions (karma) is a teaching of responsibility, not morality. Next we need to distinguish that precepts are not moral rules or regulations but are simply lists of the major obstacles to the liberation of personal and social peace and happiness and of the actions to be renounced if that liberation is the result that is aimed at. And third, we need to be aware that it is the volitional intention of our motivation that defines our identity, and it is our identity that determines our karma. 

Actually, holding onto the precepts as rules or regulations is named as one of the three main knots or ties preventing the effective practice of disciples (sravakas). For example, the Lankavatara Sutra says the three knots preventing disciples from advancing to nirvana are “views of the body, doubts, and holding onto the precepts.”   

THE SANSKRIT TERM karma (kamma in Pali) literally means "action," which suggests the basic point that our actions have consequences—more precisely, that our morally relevant actions have morally relevant consequences that extend beyond their immediate effects.

Again, there is no need to insert the concept of “morality” into the analysis of karmic-action any more than there is the need to insert morality into the analysis of the laws of motion.  Simply stating “our actions have consequences” is sufficient as the premise to begin the analysis. Any idea or notion of morality comes only as an after thought of the erroneous conceptualizations in the self-deluded attempt to construct a moral edifice that reinforces and justifies the self-image.

It may seem strange that I am harping on the morality issue. To be clear, when I say that karma and rebirth are amoral laws of nature, I am not advocating a kind of immorality or non-consequential system.  It is just that the concept of morality fundamentally has nothing to do with validating or verifying the consequential system that is karma.  

The actual “morality” of karma is the morality that transcends the dualism of morality and immorality; that is why I call it an amoral system. The problem is that karma, as an activity of suchness, partakes of the natural polarizations such as “light” and “dark,” but karma does not arise from the human polarizations such as “good” and “bad” or “right” and “wrong.”  That is why in Zen, the way to personally verify the truth is presented by such koans as the Sixth Ancestor’s “Don’t think good; don’t think evil. At that moment what is your original face?”   Before we understand or realize the meaning of karma, we think dualistically in terms of reified and objectified moralistic goods and evils.  When we realize the meaning of karma, we aren’t blind to the working of karma and we don’t escape the function of karma any more than we escape the function of gravity, but we are also no longer enchanted and deluded by our previously held false conceptions of good and evil.

In most popular understanding, the law of karma and rebirth is a way to get a handle on how the world will treat us in the future, which also—more immediately—implies that we must accept our own causal responsibility for whatever is happening to us now, as a consequence of what we must have done earlier. This overlooks the revolutionary significance of the Buddha's reinterpretation.

The popular pre-Buddhist or non-Buddhist (Eastern or Western) understanding does overlook the truly revolutionary significance of the Buddha’s discovery. However, that does not mean that there is no value to be found in that view.  Indeed, the view of karma as a context for accepting our current circumstances is one of the primary practices of Buddhism and a designated primary entrance to the Mahayana. Bodhidharma’s Outline For Discerning the Mahayana and Entering the Way By Four Practices and Contemplation distinguishes two ways of entering:“entering by principle” and “entering by four practices.” The first of the four is the practice of retribution for wrongs. 

“The practice of retribution for wrongs” designates a person who is practicing cultivating the Way. If at the time of receiving suffering, we face ourselves and recall the words, “I’ve gone through past innumerable aeons (kalpas) abandoning the root and following the tips, existing in the various currents and waves, hating the many arising wrongs, and disregarding harms without limit.   Now, although I'm without offenses, indeed my former misfortunes have ripened as the fruit of evil karma, and neither heavenly beings (devas) nor humans are actually able to see where they are given out.  With a willing mind I willingly receive it, all without complaint of wrongs.”  A Sutra says, “On running into suffering do not grieve,"  Because, how can you use it?  Because consciousness transcends it.  At the time this is born in the mind you take part in agreement with principle. In their essence, wrongs are progress in the Way. Therefore I articulate the words, "the practice of retribution for wrongs”

The problem arising with this practice is in the failure of the popular understanding to understand the profound meaning of acceptance. Acceptance does not mean, doing nothing or acting without the ability to respond. The practice of acceptance means (1) to stop fighting against what is happening by using denials or claims that one does not “deserve” this, (2) to accept what is actually happening as what is happening, and then (3) to deal with it directly.  This practice means to stop wasting your time whining and complaining about what is happening to you, because that prevents finding the way to take part in the suchness of it and then act accordingly.  If the idea of acceptance is used this way to enhance responsibility, then it is practice. However, if the idea of acceptance is misused to reinforce a feeling of helplessness, then that is not practice.

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.

When we add the Buddhist teaching about not-self—in contemporary terms, that one's sense of self is a mental construct—we can see that karma is not something the self has; rather, karma is what the sense of self is, and what the sense of self is changes according to one's conscious choices.

In one sense this is a better understanding than a wrong understanding, in another sense it is just the next understanding after the previous understanding done correctly.  This is the second of Bodhidharma’s practices of moving forward with the ability to respond to our life situation after we have accepted that our past karma has defined us up to this moment. 

Second, is that which is "the practice of according with conditioned causes."   The multitude of beings are without self and are unified with the karma of the conditioned causes that turn them. 

We have the freedom to continuously redefine ourselves by this kind of transformation of the motivations of our actions in the present.   

I (re)construct myself by what I intentionally do, because my sense of self is a precipitate of habitual ways of thinking, feeling, and acting. Just as my body is composed of the food I have eaten, so my character is composed of conscious choices: "I" am constructed by my consistent, repeated mental attitudes.

Within the realm of our perception of conditioned causes, the self is defined and constructed by identifying this as “my intention” and that as “not my intention.” The precipitate of self is the ego-complex that is the pattern of polarized identifications.  “I like this, I don’t like that,” “this is good, that is bad,” etc., are the polarizations of the opposites, and the coherence of these polarizations create the complex of associations we call “I, me, mine.”  The patterns of complex associations, the habitual mental attitudes expressing those associations, and the repeated conscious choices manifesting those attitudes all follow one another in circular succession to reinforce the apparent solidity of the notion, feeling, and imagination of a self, a separate entity, and an I.

People are "punished" or "rewarded" not for what they have done but for what they have become, and what we intentionally do is what makes us what we are.

There is no actual moral judgment of “punishment” or “reward” in karma.  This is an example of the anthropomorphism projected onto karma.  Reward and punishment only arise from how the self attempts to incorporate what happens into the ego-complex as part of the narrative story that aggrandizes “I, me, mine.” The ideas of “I’m being rewarded” or “I’m being punished” are equally stories made up to reinforce the deluded idea of the self.  People are not punished or rewarded for what they have done, and in terms of karma, neither are people rewarded or punished for what they have become, except that the thought of punishment or reward makes it so.  Defining our intention is the mental act (karma) of defining our responsibility in relation to things and others.  But what we do does not make us what we are, it only makes what we believe we are. What have we ever become?  We are the coming of being itself, the coming of thusness, and that is never a stable or static thing that we “have become.”  The system of karma is the description of the mental actions and effects arising from how we make believe that we are something, have become something. 

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 kind of thoughts do we need to sow? Buddhism traces back our dukkha, "dissatisfaction," to the three unwholesome roots of evil: greed, ill will, and delusion. These problematic motivations need to be transformed into their positive counterparts: generosity, lovingkindness, and the wisdom that realizes our interdependence with others.

This is an example of the confusion caused by the misperception of the bifurcated structure of consciousness overlying its moral system on top of nature.  Positive and negative are useful polarized terms for working with the natural phenomenon of polarized electricity.  However, our misperception of mistaken conceptualizations (vikalpa) then overlays this frame of naturally occurring positive and negative to label human conduct as positive and negative in a moralistic sense.  This idea of transforming negative motivations into their positive counterparts reveals the fundamental mistake.  Where we would never suggest that it is even possible to have an electric field or current without both positive and negative poles, we creatively imagine a whole fantasy system of a human world in which we could have only positive motivations without their negative counterparts. 

This does not mean that transformation is impossible, or that generosity, compassion,  and wisdom are unattainable, only that they are not the kind of transformations within the dualistic field of consciousness that simply turn a negative into a positive.   This is as difficult to explain in a few words as explaining higher math, physics, genetics, meteorology, etc. are to a person with only an elementary school education.  Much of what is in the Sutras and Suttas describing how the Buddha taught karma and rebirth is the most elementary teaching given to people who were firmly attached to the notion of a self or soul.  When greed, ill-will, and delusion are transformed they become the Bodhisattvas Samantrabhadra, Avalokitesvara, and Manjushri. The negatives are not simply extinguished and replaced by positives.  The three negative poisons are exactly themselves in their nature the three positive Bodhisattvas. They were perceived as objectified negative poisons exactly because we could not see their natures since we were blinded by our polarized dualist views that turn everything in to either a positive, negative, or neutral.

 A good example in the Pali Canon of where Buddha did teach karma is found in the The Sutta of the Dog-duty Ascetic (Kukkuravatika Sutta).     Karma is often taught in terms of good, beneficial, or wholesome (kusala) karma and bad, unbeneficial, or unwholesome (akusala) karma.  This framing of karma falls into the confusion of equating the positive with the good and the negative with the bad.  In the this Sutta, the Buddha teaches karma in terms of bright and dark, not good or bad.
"Punna, there are four kinds of kamma proclaimed by me after realization myself with direct knowledge. What are the four? There is dark kamma with dark ripening, there is bright kamma with bright ripening, there is dark-and-bright kamma with dark-and-bright ripening, and there is kamma that is not dark and not bright with neither-dark-nor-bright ripening that conduces to the exhaustion of kamma.”

Here there is no moralizing.  Dark karma has dark ripening, bright karma has bright ripening, mixed dark-and-bright karma has mixed dark-and-bright ripening, and neither-dark-nor-bright karma has neither-dark-nor-bright ripening that leads to the exhaustion of karma.   Thus, the popular teaching to put aside unwholesome karmas withproblematic motivation” and to transform one’s motivations “into their positive counterparts” is an example of the “teaching of humans and heavenly beings” for better conditions in this life and the next. The teaching of positive intentions encourages the sowing of bright actions for the result of bright ripening; it is not the teaching for the non-sowing of karma and the exhaustion of karmic ripening.  The karma that is the karma of liberation is the “karma that is not dark and not bright.”  Zen doesn’t use the didactic language of the Sutras but points at this directly by saying, “Don’t think good; don’t think evil. At that moment what is your original face?”  Only when we see our original face, can we understand in a practical and living way the Buddha’s meaning of “karma that is not dark and not bright.”

The third and fourth practices for entering the Way listed by Bodhidharma are “the practice of nothing to seek” and “the practice of corresponding to Dharma.” The practice of nothing to seek is another way of describing the karma “that is not dark and not bright.”  When it is said that karma is based on intention, that intention is based on the constructed identity that is built up by dividing the world into dualistic categories of bright and dark, good and bad, well intentioned and ill intentioned, etc.  When we have an intention, we are seeking something. Our intent is identified by the something that we are seeking as it relates to our self-image of having volitional actions, i.e., karma. We say, “I meant to do that.” or “I didn’t mean to do that.” as a way of identifying or dis-identifying with our actions.  What we are seeking through any particular action may be more or less identifiable because it will be more or less conscious or unconscious. However, the unconscious aspects of our intentions are just as much a part of our karma as the conscious intentions, because the action is still expressing the characteristic of seeking something even when what we are seeking is something we are hiding from ourselves. 

 hen we have integrated the first two practices of “retribution for wrongs” by acknowledging the functioning of karma, and “according with conditioned causes” acknowledging that our response to events defines our karma, we are then in a position to advance to the knowledge that our intention, regardless of whether it is dark or bright, will only perpetuate karma. While each of us may seek to have only bright karma with only bright ripening, this is still being bound to the wheel of karma and its ripening. It is at this stage that we can appreciate what the Buddha meant by “karma that is not dark and not bright.” Action without intention that is neither bright nor dark (and not merely action with unconscious intention of which we are unaware of the dark or bright aspect to the intention) is what is meant by the practice of having nothing to seek. 

Such an understanding of karma does not necessarily involve another life after physical death.

This is why the Kalama Sutta allows for understanding karma in the present life without believing in another life.  Buddha taught rebirth based on karma, but did not teach that rebirth had to be believed as a dogma in order for the teaching of karma to be understood.  The Buddha said that karma works either way and covers both bases, since for those who don’t believe in rebirth in a subsequent physical life and still see that within this life bright karma has bright ripening. 

It is important to question the assumptions here, because to think about what is before physical birth and after physical death requires a frame of reference that is already resting on a materialistic view of the universe as being “physical.”  People often say that we have no proof of another life after this one, but in fact this life is as much proof of life after the previous one as it is proof that we only have one life.  We have this life, and so, based on this life, we can not logically assert there is not another life after this life, because we cannot determine there was no precious life before this one either.  This present life is at least as much a proof of a past and future life as it is proof of no such lives.  

As Spinoza expressed it, happiness is not the reward for virtue; happiness is virtue itself.

Why complicate happiness with the concepts of virtue and morality?  Happiness is not a reward for virtue, and neither is happiness virtue itself.  Happiness is happiness. Happiness is the bright ripening of its precursor bright actions. There is no need to clothe happiness in the dualistic language of virtue.  In other words, is there a person who does not have direct knowledge of their own of how happiness feels? Everyone knows what happiness is and how it feels without having to label it “good.”   It is only our own craving desire and discursive knowledge that hinder us from simply being in touch with happiness as such, without having to add labels such as “virtue” to it.  If we have forgotten what happiness is, then the teaching of karma tells us that we can act brightly to recover the bright ripening of happiness. 

We are punished not for our "sins" but by them.
With karma we are not “punished” at all, neither for our “sins” nor by them.  Of course the use of the term “sins” in quotes reminds us that in Buddhism the doing of wrong is not a transgression against some kind of divine law, and sin is just the category for deeds that we call misdeeds because they ripen in a way that hurts, either ourselves or others.  To say we are punished by our sins just means that we have hurt ourselves by our actions.  Karma says simply, if you don’t want to keep getting burned, then stop putting your hand in the flame. 

To become a different kind of person is to experience the world in a different way. When your mind changes, the world changes. And when we respond differently to the world, the world responds differently to us. Insofar as we are actually not separate from the world, our ways of acting in it tend to 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, as the intentions behind my deeds become obvious, my character becomes revealed. 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 see 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, lovingkindness, and the wisdom of interdependence, the more I can relax and open up to the world. The more I feel part of the world and genuinely connected with others, the less I will be inclined to use others, 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 what I am is not separate from what they are.

 This is the excellent teaching of karma at the elementary level for beings who believe in a self and who don’t routinely believe that their own actions affect how they view their world and circumstances.  Learning that trust is dependent on the presence or lack of the sense of nonseparation with others and the world is a very important step in learning about how karma works and ripens.

This more naturalistic understanding of karma does not mean we must necessarily exclude other, perhaps more mysterious possibilities regarding the consequences of our motivations for the world we live in.

This more elementary understanding of karma is not exactly more naturalistic, except in the sense that it is based on a socially consensual description of reality that is framed in terms of a physical self and environment as being the natural way of seeing reality.  It is like the naturalistic understanding of genetics as being determined by blood that does not mean we must necessarily understand how the genome actually works. It is like the naturalistic understanding of a car by knowing how to turn it on with the key, without necessarily knowing how the engine is constructed or works.  

If we want to know how karma actually works, then like knowing how genes actually work or how the weather actually works, it is necessary to study in depth the mysterious aspects and features of the continuity regarding the ripening of actions. Not everyone wants to understand at the profound level, which is why not everyone becomes a physicist or meteorologist. But when we hear secular modernists denigrate karma and rebirth simply as antiquated superstitions or supernatural beliefs and also advocating for naturalizing Buddhism by excluding them, then it is like a person denying global warning because they don’t understand the science. If by naturalizing Buddhism we mean transplanting Buddha Dharma to our shores to become established as a native species, then I’m all for that.  But if by naturalizing Buddhism we mean to sanitize it by labeling what we don’t understand as supernatural causes, then that itself is a form of superstitious ignorance of the laws of nature that I object to. 

What is clear, 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 and endure the problematic circumstances of our lives. Rather, we are encouraged to improve our spiritual lives and worldly situation by addressing those circumstances with generosity, lovingkindness, and nondual wisdom.

This is the wonderfully and marvelously empowering aspect of karma that emphasizes our own responsibility in life, which exactly is our own ability to respond to the conditions of life.  To ascribe a fatalistic doctrine to karma only shows a complete misunderstanding of karma or a knowing abuse.  

The truly mysterious aspect, regarding the awareness of the consequences of our motivations and their transformations, becomes apparent when we have practiced nothing to seek by the karma that is not dark and not bight and come to the fourth practice of corresponding to Dharma.  As Bodhidharma says, “The Dharma is the activity of seeing the principle of the purity of the nature.  By this principle the multitude of characteristics are thus empty, without being dyed, without attachment, without this, and without that.”  To the mental activity that functions dualistically and sees everything as dark or bright with positive or negative motivations, corresponding to this Dharma is truly mysterious. Because our karma, regardless of whether it is dark or bright or mixed, is not exhausted all at once, we must continue to practice even if we have had a moment of kensho to see the nature.  Bodhidharma concludes his Outline for Entering the Way by saying, “For eliminating delusions, cultivate and practice the Six Paramitas, yet nothing is practiced.  This is doing ‘the practice of corresponding to Dharma’." 


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