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Buddhadharma : Fall 2013
44 BUDDHADHARMA: THE PRACTITIONER’S QUARTERLY FALL 2 0 1 3 interpenetrates with all other things, then for me, my action— wholesome, unwholesome, or neutral—will have effects way beyond my capacity to perceive them. The effects beyond my lifetime, as well as in my lifetime, are inescapable. RITA GROSS: Emptiness doesn’t mean things aren’t there. So if things are “empty,” from a very simple point of view, that doesn’t mean karma doesn’t happen, but from another point of view, the only way to undo or alter karma is to truly under- stand emptiness and to not reify or substantialize everything we encounter all the time, but to let things be in a much less fixated way. ANDREW OLENDZKI: In the early teachings, emptiness is usually discussed in the sense of non-self. And a lot of that language is there simply to emphasize that it’s not you doing your karma, it’s not you inheriting your karma; the whole concept of “you” and “yours” is really called into question. You know, things happen, things occur, and the less you see yourself as the one doing them, the closer you are to seeing things as they are. RITA GROSS: And the less karma affects one. ANDREW OLENDZKI: Yes. There is no agent producing the karma. And there is no victim or recipient of the karma. The whole karmic stream is impersonal; the more you can recognize that, the more natural it is to abandon or not construct those things that cause harm, and instead cultivate altruism and compas- sion, kindness, honesty, generosity, and so on. RITA GROSS: And the less one will resent the present, and who- ever made the present the way it is, and just work with it. BUDDHADHARMA: Touching on what Rita was saying earlier, to what extent is karma our misperception of a solid and truly existent reality? And what is the antidote to that? Is it wisdom? RITA GROSS: Practice and study. LARRY WARD: From which we hope wisdom and compassion come. ANDREW OLENDZKI: Looking at karma from the psychologi- cal standpoint, we have to act every moment. You know sankhara, which is related to the word karma, is one of the five aggregates, and it simply means every moment that we’re cognizing an object or perceiving it, we have to respond to it. So we must act every single moment either by body, speech, or mind. Karma is intrinsic to the human condition, and we need to understand the implications of cause and effect and the quality of mind that goes into how we act. That’s what’s going to clean things up as we purify the mind and, through our interactions, help improve conditions for everyone. LARRY WARD: Right, and another aspect of the antidote to karma creation and manifestation is to meditate on—and discover and name and wrestle with—our own psychologi- cal conditioning at the deep levels of our mind that results in the subject-object dualism in which karma itself can subtly become another object of clinging. So I think we must com- bine study and practice with the aspiration for wisdom and compassion. BUDDHADHARMA: All three of you have described karma in down-to-earth understandable terms. For many people the concept of karma seems philosophical and abstract, and so the question is, what should we actually do with these teach- ings or these principles in our lives? There is a saying, Tibetan I believe, that we should protect our karma more carefully than we protect our eyes, that it’s the most precious thing we have. So what as Buddhists can we say about how we should evaluate karma in the choices we make and in how we choose to live our lives? ANDREW OLENDZKI: Well, karma is our refuge. We are going to inherit the consequences of what we do with our minds here and now, and if we want to be as safe as possible, as happy as possible, as well off as possible, then we have to put as much care into the present moment as possible. There will always be something coming out of past karma that throws us a curve, and we’ll find ourselves in very challenging circumstances, but the best way to be safe in the future—the Buddha talked about this—is to take care, to act ethically, to act honestly, and to practice diligently. In doing so, you’re giving yourself and everyone around you a gift of harmlessness. LARRY WARD: Some of my recent research is an attempt to paral- lel Buddhist practice with recent neurological findings on how our neurons fire when we think and take action. I find that a biological grounding in how our brains and minds work can be very helpful for practitioners. The phrase “when neurons fire together they wire together” is one way to understand the neurological basis of habit, which ties into what we’ve already said about some aspects of the nature of karma. We now know that our actions of body, speech, and mind leave traces neurologically, not just in our mind but also in our brain. RITA GROSS: I find it’s important to think about karma beyond the level of self-interest. In the larger scheme of things, there’s a level of choicelessness about doing what needs to be done for the greater good that’s more important than anything else. That level of choicelessness is the basis from which I approach whatever arises in the present. I really don’t think about cal- culating karma in a self-interested way. The only way to undo or alter karma is to truly understand emptiness and to not reify or substantialize everything we encounter. —Rita Gross ©iSTOCKPHOTO.COM/URBANCOW