How are we meant to understand this key Buddhist teaching?
Incremental Bliss, Karen Tompkins
IN WRITING OF Sigmund Freud, one master diagnostician of human suffering, the psychoanalyst and philosopher Erich Fromm observes:
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.