June 22, 2009

Rethinking Karma

David Loy says in the Spring 2008 Tricycle:

If we are honest with ourselves, most of us aren't sure how literally [Buddhist teachings about karma] should be interpreted. 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.

What place if any does karma have in Buddhism today? Read the rest of Loy's piece here.

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SueZen's picture

Thank you for bringing this up as it is a very important point. The issue of Karma is very difficult to understand and as usual we can easily return to our ego's lust "to be the one who knows" and take a very simplistic bottom line approach which completely misses the mark and causes much harm in the world, increasing our bad Karma. For example believing that others including animals deserve what comes to them because of their Karmic past.
Coincidentally, this weekend I pulled out the Diamond Sutra (Red Pine) for an in depth study. It says a lot about the idea of gaining merit / spiritual materialism. I am left with the feeling of how difficult it truly is to gain merit by giving; yet to give is the bodhisattva path. I also noticed that the audience addressed by the sutra is made up of monks and bodhisattvas. There is no mention of "lay people". It seems quite possible to me that a "lay person" has the option to be a bodhisattva or not and therefore the sutra addresses lay people that have taken the bodhisattva vow. It seems that a bodhisattva could come from either the ranks of a monk or a lay person. The sutra does not say. The term bodhisattva is not a title. It is a description of one that has eliminated the concept of self in all beings and has in mind the goal to liberate all beings. As the sutra points out this is a contradiction therefore no one is actually liberated. The sutra also hints that being a bodhisattva is not a permanent condition but something that is very difficult to maintain. My point is that to give is not a simple matter and to think it is simple misses the point of the teachings. The same goes when it comes to understanding karma.

celticpassage's picture

"a very simplistic bottom line approach which completely misses the mark and causes much harm in the world, increasing our bad Karma. For example believing that others including animals deserve what comes to them because of their Karmic past."

Simplistic, perhaps. Completely misses the Mark? Probably not.

It is hard to see why we don't deserve our current life based on previous Karmic debts.
After all, if we aren't responsible for our actions and their results I think it defeats the whole idea of Karma, never mind considered moral action irrespective of whatever hypothesized mechanism ensures Karmic debt is 'paid'.

And if we aren't responsible and therefore deserve the outcomes, how can believing we do and acting accordingly increase our bad Karma?

Dominic Gomez's picture

Loy's position that "the physical causality that science has discovered about the world seems to allow for no such mechanism" doesn't take into account the eternal cycle of life and death, wherein effects do not always appear in the same lifetimes as their causes.

Robbie's picture

I do believe in karma, silly me, even though those imminical to Buddhism use extreme examples of ethnic folk belief in karma to drive wedges in the Buddhist community. To my view, the fact that the author starts off his article with quotes from the psychoanalyitic community says it all. There is hardly a publishing follower of Freud who didn't contradict his theories and come up with their own and the reason for that is that Freud was a self-aggrandising make-it-up-as-you-go nutjob and for that reason it was, and is, easy to come up with equally invalid theories. The thing is that Buddha was none of those things and his teachings have lasted for some millenia longer than Freud-and-clones (lets say 2500 years vs 25 years). The author is possibly one of those guys who hangs out in the Buddhist community but is not himself a Buddhist- he just happens to use the meditation techniques etc that Westerners like to employ to feel better about themselves. So Mr Loy, why not go somewhere else and, like the the gentleman says at the end of "The Entertainer", let us visit YOUR show?

arun's picture

The point that David Loy is pushing in this article isn't dependent on the term "Asian" or his quip about the Tibetan Buddhist teacher. I hope that in the future, Tricycle editors might provide some feedback to their regular contributors that writing on Buddhist practice can be just as persuasive without the explicit injection of race and ethnicity into the argument. Otherwise, the editors are complicit when writers like David Loy continue to stereotype Asian Buddhists, which has the especially unfortunate consequence of perpetuating the notion that Asians and Asian Americans practice a deficient form of Buddhism.

Ðavîd's picture

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?

Is the author attempting to imply some hypocrisy or inconsistency with respect to this Tibetan's view in that last sentence? Is so, it is quite likely that he failed. Many Tibetans do indeed take the idea of karma quite literally, but I also have read them explain there current political situation in terms of karma and things they did to the Chinese long ago.

This does not absolve their view from criticism by any means but let's at least be precise with what we imply.

This is obviously just a minor remark about the article and not a response to its main points.

James Wray's picture

This condition only increases our need to develop the art of self-liberation as a highly effective means of releasing DNA "karmic"impulses without their setting in and effecting an unwitting response on our part.

James Wray's picture

The physical causality applies on the physical side only. The intent of Karma teaching and awareness is to bring Awareness into the equation on the non-physical side, and to affect the guiding of thinking and behavioral response of the vehicles of awareness appropriate to the non-physical perspective.

The main point to derive from the nature of the physical side is the enormous effect DNA coding for survival and reproduction has on traditionally "personal" "karmic" stimulii. These are not our "fault", but how we deal with them IS our karmic resposnibility.