Rethinking Karma

How are we meant to understand this key Buddhist teaching?

David Loy


Incremental Bliss, Karen Tompkins

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.

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? 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.

Understanding this becomes especially helpful when we try to understand Buddhist teachings about karma, which has become a problem for many contemporary Buddhists. If we are honest with ourselves, most of us aren't sure how literally it 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.

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. 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. 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. 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. 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.

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JoseBuendia's picture

Karma is simple. As Chogyam Trungpa said (paraphrasing): "Predestination exists up to the present moment. Then all bets are off." All of our prior acts lead to where we are now. The trouble is that we tend to take everything personally from our narrow perspective. It is like how my Jewish mother-in-law would inject into any discussion about any current event: "And is that good or bad for Israel?" We inject -- "Is that good or bad for me?" into any situation. And, as long as we do that, our actions accumulate merit (leading to results consistent with enlightened motivations) or create suffering.

If we realize that "all bets are off" and our habits are sufficiently transformed so that our first thought is based on an open heart -- then we are quite close to stepping off the karmic wheel. It can be done. It has been done. We can do it.

celticpassage's picture

Perhaps a little too simple?
All bets don't seem like they can be off.
If one is fully enlightened then the current moment's actions produces no new karma.
But in all other cases, the bets are definitely still on.
In all but the fully enlightened situation, ALL actions and thoughts in the present moment will produce new karma.

mahakala's picture

"If one is fully enlightened then the current moment's actions produces no new attachments to karma"

if one is fully enlightened, its not that actions dont produce karma, but that one is not bound by its deterministic effects - even though all actions everywhere remain interrelated regardless

celticpassage's picture

Of course all actions produce effects, but when people talk about karma they mean more than simple cause and effect such as a wave hitting the shore, otherwise there's nothing worthwhile to talk about.

mahakala's picture

I dont think you can speak for all people like that. You could say that when you yourself talk about karma, you "mean more than simple cause and effect such as a wave hitting the shore". But this just speaks to your particular misconceptions on the matter. I would say that it is valuable to understand this. Notice again, how it is I who have made this valuation. The understanding is not inherently valued, it requires that someone is there to value it. In other words, the distinction of something being "worthwhile to talk about" or not is also a relative matter - not an absolute proclamation that you can make for everyone. If you understand this, and then proceed to act on that understanding consistently, you will be a little bit closer to being "fully enlightened" - and thus you will be much better informed about what it might mean.

Dominic Gomez's picture

Present actions (waves) hitting and wearing away rocks of built-up karma. The practice is worthwhile to talk about.

Dominic Gomez's picture

In this scenario full enlightenment that produces NO new karma (action) indicates death.

Dominic Gomez's picture

Good point. The present moment is all we have to change all future ones for the better, for ourselves and for others.

Danny's picture

I appreciate this naturalistic understanding of karma stripped of its magical and mystical notions--very helpful, thanks.

Dominic Gomez's picture

Karma translates as "action". It is simply human behavior.

D. Anderson's picture

Thank you Tricycle for this excerpt from David Loy's book Money, Sex, War, Karma. I want to emphasize the signifigance that human cultures have on each of our "dependent originations" and therefore each of our "constructed selves". In my opinion our modern human cultures exist in a spiritual vaccum and promote greed, hatred and delusion so we have a responsibiliy to not only "re-construct" ourselves but to also "re-construct" our human cultures.

Tharpa Pema's picture

I appreciate this article very much. It articulates an uneasiness I have felt about the concept of karma for a long time.

Often when I hear people apply the word karma to other people's actions and their consequences, it sounds like they are dismissing another's suffering, giving themselves permission to not hurt with them and/or to not feel guilty for doing nothing about it.

Then I have to ask myself--what if I am projecting? What if I am imputing an ignoble motive to another, when all I really know is that I have thought and felt the same way myself at times.

I also know there are times when my concern for others is genuine. At that time the concept of karma serves as a way to let go of something I personally have no power to change.

Perhaps the difference is this: imputing karmic consequences on others with compassion for their suffering, and the with the intention to reduce the sufferings of karma if at all possible FEELS DIFFERENT FROM imputing karmic consequences for the purpose of DENIAL of others suffering and/or DENIAL of my feelings of guilt about doing nothing to prevent their suffering.

It's a fine distinction, but an important one, I think.

nancysdp's picture

It's a very helpful distinction. We know, somewhere. I guess it's just a question of learning how to avoid denying what we know about ourselves and our motivations. Being able to tune into the feeling, rather than getting lost in words and rationalizations, seems to be a very good way to go. I'll remember that--thank you.

Tharpa Pema's picture

As I write this, I cannot help but think about the movie I saw this weekend, "12 Years a Slave."

I'm a Southern white woman. So far I haven't told any of my mostly white friends I went to see this movie. I expect when I do bring it up, it will arouse a lot of anxiety in a lot of people.

It makes me wonder if the karmic consequences of slavery are still with us, in the form of AVOIDANCE of our history. As long as we avoid acknowledging the suffering our ancestors caused, and how that suffering continues to benefit us today at the expense of people of color, I don't think white people in America will be free of from their enslavement to the past.

mahakala's picture

What about your ancestors before America? How far back do you go when you are claiming responsibility for past actions?

Dominic Gomez's picture

Past is past. What matters is the present and the future, and how we redirect negative karma to meritorious karma.

Tharpa Pema's picture

"How far back do you go when you are claiming responsibility for past actions?"

A good question: I go back all the way, as far as I can go!

I also go sideways! I'm a German-American born in 1958. I feel some responsibility today for the distress of Palestinians caused by the obdurate self-protection of Israel, which I believe stems partly from the terrible deeds done to Jewish people in the Holocaust.

I am not separate from these events.

Dominic Gomez's picture

Past history and its karmic consequences are not that remote from present reality. The daily news shows us that America is still shadowed by (clinging to?) her past. Changing karma (our future) is done by changing our present thoughts, words and behavior.

wilnerj's picture

Karma is not only what the self senses but what constitutes the self.

The traditional view laments over the karmic consequences of the perpetrator: what will become of the Nazis and their collaborators involved directly and indirectly with the extermination of millions of people and what will become of the Chinese who invaded the Tibetan plateau. These consequences may not be entirely evident in the lifetime of the victimizer though they live lives of denial.

SueZen's picture

Thank you for bringing this up again 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.

maryft's picture

Thank you!

Dominic Gomez's picture

Hi kwperlo,
Re: "why is nothing said about the doctrine that animals are born as such because of their sins in a previous life?"
One Buddhist notion is that past karma designates into which of ten worlds a person may be born into. Most obvious one is hell, the lowest and most terrifying. Two realms above hell is the world of animality. Archaic doctrine describes it as non-human forms of life, everything from amoeba to whales. Those of us born as animals can only live as such, destined to be victims of insatiable desires and irrational, instinct-driven behavior. As such, those born in the world of "animality" lack the capacity to make positive causes and thereby change their karma. Their destiny is to be reborn in lifetime after lifetime as helpless beasts, slowly making their way towards eventual opportunities to be reborn as human beings.

nancysdp's picture

I forgot one other important distinction--in general, most animals don't kill or cause suffering to others for sport or pleasure.

Just because we believe that we have some kind of superior standing doesn't necessarily make it so.

(Dominic, I also wanted to say that I've been reading articles and comments here on Tricycle for a few years without commenting myself, and I always look forward to seeing what you have to say about things.)

wilnerj's picture

Many predators make sport of their prey.

nancysdp's picture

Yes, although I think it's relatively rare, and not nearly as deliberate and planned as it is when human beings do it, and I doubt that the "pleasure"--if indeed there is any--is anything like what humans who enjoy killing and causing others to suffer feel. It would be very difficult to determine an animal's motives for what may look like killing for sport, and you don't see them doing things like, for example, planning and paying for a trip to a "canned hunting" facility where they can kill clueless and basically domesticated animals who have no means of escape--not for food, but for a "trophy" and bragging rights (cough...Dick Cheney...cough cough).

When I was a child I watched a cat torture a baby bird on the lawn. My friend's mother wouldn't let me stop it. The memory still upsets me, but I still doubt that the cat knew that the bird was suffering and getting pleasure as a result. Nor was he doing it out of hatred, or to gain power, property, or wealth. And he wasn't doing it in secret, as if he knew that he was committing a wrong.

I apologize--I didn't mean to distract from the original conversation about karma. Kwperlo just brought up some interesting points about animals, and that (and Dominic's reply) got me thinking again about the subject.

wilnerj's picture

The distance between predators in their natural habitat and human cruelty is one only of degree.

Dominic Gomez's picture

Cats are wearing down their prey to avoid injuries. They're motivated by self-preservation, like most other animals, and they know what could happen if they aren't careful. Mice and rats can deliver nasty bites that can cause injury. Birds scratch and peck. Rather than playing with their prey for amusement, cats are tiring their victims to the point where they're too worn out to fight back. The cat will then feel safer when finishing them off, according to researcher Dennis C. Turner. So while it may look like a display of cruelty, a cat playing with its prey is just animal instinct in action. (from: http://curiosity.discovery.com/question/why-cats-play-with-prey)

wilnerj's picture

And yet domestic cats will leave dead mice for their caregiver as an offering of thanks. Or, at least this is how I interpret their behavior. And at times one my find such remains upon open ground outside abandoned by such cats after they have played with them. To put it succinctly, I have seen cats manipulate their pray in this manner eventually discarding them. I have no other word to describe this than play.

nancysdp's picture

An explanation that makes sense (although a baby bird can't do much damage--I've raised plenty of them--but perhaps the cat doesn't make those distinctions)! Thank you.

I often look up at ospreys and other soaring birds, and think, "That's it!" They are encumbered by none of the ambitions, jealousies, hatreds, and other useless emotions that so easily disable or destroy human beings. Even in flight, they are carried by the wind, and it takes only the slightest tip of a wing to change direction. They get what they need to live, and it's enough. I would not consider it the result of "bad karma" to be reborn as one of them. They simply are what they are, and it seems to me that that's the point.

wilnerj's picture

By the shore, I once saw a heron gull pecking at a fish and chasing birds of its kind that came near. This appeared to me as being a bit territorial. Multiply that exponentially many, many times and eventually one arrives at human ambition, jealousy, and hatred.

nancysdp's picture

Perhaps it was very hungry, or had babies to feed?

nancysdp's picture

Scratch the part about babies--the bird would have brought the fish to them.

nancysdp's picture

"...destined to be victims of insatiable desires and irrational, instinct-driven behavior..."

I'm not trying to be contrary in the least when I say this, but when I read the above my first thought was that it describes human beings at least as much as it does animals. Animals are not driven by ego, or some delusional idea of the way they "should" be or what they can acquire to make themselves superior to others in some way. For the most part, they do what they do in order to get what they need to survive, and they (many of them, at least) care tirelessly for their mates and offspring... They "eat when hungry, and sleep when tired." I live on the beach, and I love to watch seabirds soaring, either to get somewhere they need to go, to find something to eat, or--at least it seems this way to me--because they can (and without wondering how they measure up to the other seabirds :) ).

I often think that the assumption that animals are necessarily less evolved than human beings might be a little delusional in itself.

Dominic Gomez's picture

(Thank you for your kind comment, Nancy) Re: "insatiable desires/instinct-driven behavior". No contrariness here. Humans and animals may differ in form, intelligence and ego, but we are joined at the evolutionary hip. That's why Buddhism describes people who do not speak, think or behave using wisdom (sapience) as animals. Animals have no ego, or have delusions of grandeur. They just do what they do to survive. Unfortunate people have to do the same thing.
Problems arise when people who are (materially) fortunate continue to do "animalistic" things, like engage in war, manipulate others for financial gain, despise those different from them, etc. Human beings may be the pinnacle of "mind" evolution, but physiologically we are still animals. Buddhism reminds us as much, and that we have the potential and the capacity to be "human" in the best sense of the word.

nancysdp's picture

Well said--thank you. I was not necessarily suggesting that animals are "superior" to human beings (as you say, "in the best sense of the word"), and yet I think that the best sense of the word encompasses qualities that non-human creatures come by naturally ( no "delusions of grandeur", lack of a penchant for war, no instinct for manipulation and hatred of the "other", etc.) Perhaps it's not necessary at all to categorize or create hierarchies or presume that we really understand the "workings of the cosmos". I think that we can do without that kind of thinking quite nicely--particularly as those are precisely things that lead people to lack compassion or to be out-and-out cruel, particularly to those who we see as "inferior" (and those are often the very same creatures/people who lack those ugly compulsions).

Just some thoughts I've had--it was nice to see a way to enter into conversation with others about it here. :)

kwperlo's picture

I particularly appreciate the challenge to karmic rebirth in terms of its bad effects on unfortunate human beings. But why is nothing said about the doctrine that animals are born as such because of their sins in a previous life?
Animals suffer more, both in their numbers and in the intensity of their mistreatment, than even the most oppressed human beings. Yet karmic rebirth can be used by Buddhists to support a halfhearted approach to animal welfare and a dismissal of animal liberation. This isn't true of all Buddhists, to be sure, and Buddhism is much better than the theistic faiths when it comes to animals. And it has used karmic rebirth to support compassion for animals ('the animal may have been your mother').
But it would be useful to include the damning effect that karmic rebirth can also have on animals as a reason for querying the need for, or indeed the acceptability of, the rebirth element as part of the morally and psychologically sound account of karma in terms of personal cause-and-effect.
Here, of course, we can ask to what extent animals can create their own moral karma. That is perhaps a question for ethologists. But the human responsibility towards them falls within our own karmic realm, and is not favourably promoted by the idea that animals are all former sinners.
The author may or may not agree with me on these points, but my main objective is to have nonhuman sentient beings included when discussing the issue.