In a note it was mentioned that an Article on the notion of samsara would be upcoming but I’m waiting for an angle, a way to present it in an interesting fashion.
Generally, am interested in presenting these Buddhism-related topics not to provide a course on or proselytize Buddhism rather share things I’ve found interesting which are rarely found elsewhere. I was involved in a prominent Buddhist community for two decades before moving on but along the way picked up many things which stuck. Plus it’s interesting to see how well or poorly I can articulate them. Often the official explanations and commentaries of such key topics end up being overly abstract in ways which distance a reader or practitioner from understanding the material in any ordinary, everyday context.
In any case, something came up in conversation which seems worth a short piece especially since it includes a short story from real life, so here goes:
Buddhism 101 Series #3: Karma, one aspect of
First, as is now the tradition with these Buddhism 101 Articles, let us examine a classic definition. Rather than go to Wikipedia or a Western dictionary, this time let’s visit https://encyclopediaofbuddhism.org/wiki/Karma. Indeed, this entry is so much better than the ones cited previously that I paste it in at length even though these Articles are supposed to be quite short. That said, this one too leaves a little to be desired in terms of linking to ordinary life examples which hopefully this Article will – albeit only slightly – remedy.
“Karma [alt. karman] (P. kamma; T. las; C. ye; J. gō 業) is a Sanskrit term that literally means “action” or “doing”. The term is used within the Buddhist tradition in two senses:
On the specific level, karma refers to those actions which spring from the volition (cetanā; also “urge” or “intention”) of a sentient being. Karmic actions are compared to a seed that will inevitably ripen into a fruition (referred to as vipāka or phala in Sanskrit and Pali).
On the general level, contemporary Buddhist teachers frequently use the term karma when referring to the entire process of karmic action and fruition.
In the Buddhist view, developing a genuine, experiential understanding of karmic action and fruition—how all of one’s actions are like planting seeds that will eventually bear fruit—is an essential aspect of the Buddhist path. Karmic actions are considered to be the engine which drives the cycle of uncontrolled rebirth (samsara); correspondingly, a complete understanding of karmic action and fruition enables beings to free themselves from samsara and attain liberation.
Within Buddhism, the theory of karmic action and fruition (karmaphala) is identified as part of the broader doctrine of dependent origination (pratityasamutpada), which states that all phenomena arise in dependence upon multiple causes and conditions. The theory of karmic action and fruition is a specific instance of this broader doctrine that applies specifically to sentient beings–when there is a volition (cetanā) behind an action, then the action is karmic action (or seed) that will eventually bear fruition. Every action of body, speech, or mind is considered to be karmic action, and the determining factor in the quality of one’s actions is our intention or motivation.
In the Buddhist view, karmic fruition is not considered to be a “judgment” imposed by a God or other all-powerful being; rather, this fruition is considered to be the outcome of a natural process. Contemporary Buddhist teacher Khandro Rinpoche explains:
Buddhism is a nontheistic philosophy. We do not believe in a creator but in the causes and conditions that create certain circumstances that then come to fruition. This is called karma. It has nothing to do with judgment; there is no one keeping track of our karma and sending us up above or down below. Karma is simply the wholeness of a cause, or first action, and its effect, or fruition, which then becomes another cause. In fact, one karmic cause can have many fruitions, all of which can cause thousands more creations. Just as a handful of seed can ripen into a full field of grain, a small amount of karma can generate limitless effects.
In the Buddhist view, the relationship between a single action and its karmic fruition is dependent upon a nearly infinite number of subsidiary causes and conditions; thus, the ability to precisely predict the results for any single action is considered to be beyond the comprehension of ordinary beings. According to the Buddhist tradition, it was only at the time of his Enlightenment that the Buddha gained a complete understanding of the workings of karma. Thus, it is taught that only one who has achieved the mental range of the Buddha (referred to as omniscience) would be able to precisely predict the outcome specific actions. Indeed, the Buddha indicated that worrying over the precise results of specific actions is a counterproductive exercise that will only increase one’s suffering or anxiety. He identified this type of worrying as one of the four imponderables.
Nevertheless, the Buddha emphasized the importance of understanding the nature of karma on a general level. He taught that wholesome actions (free from attachment, aversion, and ignorance) lead to happiness and eventually to liberation; and unwholesome actions (based in attachment, aversion and ignorance) lead to suffering. Developing a genuine, experiential understanding of karma on this level is considered to be an essential aspect of the Buddhist path.
The Buddha also described the karmic process in more detail in his teachings on the twelve links of dependent origination—a series of conditional factors that illustrate how the karmic process unfolds within an individual life. The Buddhist tradition emphasizes contemplating the twelve links and related teachings on the karmic process in order to gain greater insight into the process of karmic action and fruition. It is believed that this insight enables a practitioner to unravel their habitual ways of thinking and reacting.”
Note how this definition mentions the ‘interdependencies galore’ principle in the second article of this series…. (just sayin’…)
Back when I was majoring in Theatre at University, the head of that department had an affair with Chrissie, the prettiest girl in the class, a natural platinum blond with snow white skin and large blue eyes. Although a little (and hopelessly) besotted with her mainly she and I and one other lady hung out together as first year student buddies. Towards the end of the second term shortly before spring, Chrissie told us, in tears, that she had had a brief, secret fling with the head teacher and was now pregnant and he wanted nothing further to do with her and wanted her to get an abortion and keep the whole thing secret. She was extremely upset and taking it badly. We were all around eighteen years old and not nearly as mature and sophisticated as we thought: babes in the woods suddenly confronting an adult situation requiring an adult response. What we later did, though not without flair, failed to meet that challenge, though as I slowly came to realize decades later, it changed my life forever.
We bought a lemon meringue pie and when the next day we were performing an already scheduled improvised skit, I went up to the teacher perched on his high stool at the side of the proscenium stage and pushed that pie firmly into his face whilst excoriating him in public for his dishonorable treatment of our fellow student Chrissie. He said nothing to any of us but at the end of the term only a few weeks later I found I had been given an ‘F’ and because it was the main class in my Major, it basically meant my entire year and the entire Major were shot. So I took the advice of a faculty member who ran a once a week class in Transcendental Meditation to check out an ashram a couple of hours drive away rather than remain in a University system for which I was so clearly unsuited. He was quite right that I wouldn’t fare well in that university in that place at that time but the irony is that I personally loved study and if I had chosen a different field in a different school and a different place I probably would have done quite well and laid the foundations for a more conventional career, quite likely ending up as a professor teaching at university or some such.
Be that as it may, this event which lasted for only a few seconds, namely thrusting a lemon meringue pie into the face of the teacher and calling him out in public, changed my life forever.
This is a very simple, direct example of karma as described in the opening blurb. “Just as a handful of seed can ripen into a full field of grain, a small amount of karma can generate limitless effects.” Actually, there are many different types and descriptions of karma. Sometimes it is fairly obvious: if you point the gun at someone and pull the trigger, you can kill them; if you drive off the road at high speed you will crash; if you shout at your boss every day (let alone throw a pie in his face!) you will get fired; if you and your spouse spend all day every day shouting at each other you will be unhappy and emotionally unstable and probably be alcoholics.
However, sometimes large effects can happen from small causes. Take the classic example of a seed: when you look at a small acorn in the palm of your hand it looks nothing like the mighty oak it will later become, with its huge root networks below and thousands of leaves, small branches, main branches and majestic trunk above, not to mention all the scenes it weathers and witnesses, endless cloud formations, sunny and overcast days, thunderstorms, the passing of generations under its benevolent shade and presence, battles or wedding parties.
Another example is that of using a lever. If you place a simple crowbar under a large round rock on top of a hill you can easily dislodge that rock which then rolls down the hill and kills many sheep, a dog and several children playing in their back yard before smashing into a small home and causing one side to collapse. All this disaster and death from simply using both hands to push a relatively small iron bar about six inches down.
Now in the initial description from the Encyclopedia the emphasis is on the spiritual dimension of karma, specifically the intent involved and the types of emotional and spiritual after-effects of any given action, aka karma. (Note how the word karma refers to both the cause and the result, not just the result.) My last two examples are somewhat literal but these straightforward physical examples accurately represent how psychological, emotional, social, spiritual and other karmic repercussions play out as well, though they are perhaps less easy to spot or describe.
So that’s enough for this short Article. Thousands of books have been written about it, though few in English. I just wanted to share a story from everyday life namely how a relatively small seed or action can engender long-term karmic consequences. ..
3 thoughts on “Buddhism 101 Series #3 Karma”
Ash, your posts on buddhism are excellent. In spite of your statement that “Generally, am interested in presenting these Buddhism-related topics not to provide a course on or proselytize Buddhism,” you might want to reconsider and do exactly that. The world needs the buddhadharma now more than ever. Every little bit helps.
Thanks for kind remarks. My next post on all this is probably going to be about ‘why I don’t trust institutions’ so that also probably relates to why I don’t want to give courses. I am really not sure about the whole thing insofar as how people in Christian countries can relate to it without getting into counter-culture shenanigans.
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