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Buddhadharma : Fall 2013
36 BUDDHADHARMA: THE PRACTITIONER’S QUARTERLY FALL 2 0 1 3 FORUM RITA GROSS • LARRY WARD • ANDREW OLENDZKI Karma: Fate or Freedom? Many Buddhist teachings seem quite modern in their emphasis on such things as impermanence and interde- pendence (evolution, ecology), insubstantial- ity (physics), and the deceptions of language (philosophy). Yet the same cannot be said for karma, which points to an inexorable moral law built into the cosmos. This doesn’t mean that the doctrine of karma should be dismissed or ignored, but it does encourage us to interrogate those teachings and to ask, what does karma mean for us today? There are at least two problems with the ways that karma has often been understood. Although the earliest teachings are quite clear that laypeople can become enlightened, the main spiritual role of lay Buddhists, par- ticularly in non-Western societies, has been to support the monastic sangha. In this way non-monastics gain “merit,” and by accumu- lating merit they can hope to attain a more favorable rebirth. This approach commodifies karma into a form of “spiritual materialism.” Karma has also been used to rationalize sexism, racism, caste, economic oppression, birth handicaps, and almost everything else. If there is an inevitable cause-and-effect rela- tionship between one’s actions and one’s fate, INTRODUCTION BY DAVID LOY social justice is already built into the moral fabric of the universe. So why bother to strug- gle against injustice? For these reasons, karma is one of the most important issues for modern Buddhism. Is it a fatalistic doctrine or an empowering one? That is the focus of the conversation that follows. Karma and rebirth were already widely accepted in pre-Buddhist India, but Brahman- ical teachings understood karma mechanisti- cally: performing a Vedic sacrifice correctly would sooner or later lead to the desired consequences. The Buddha transformed this ritualistic approach into a moral principle by focusing on cetana, meaning “volitions” or “motivations.” As the Dhammapada empha- sizes, “If one speaks or acts with an impure mind, suffering follows just as the cart-wheel follows the hoof of the ox.... If one speaks or acts with a pure mind, happiness follows like a shadow that never departs.” As Rita Gross points out, the term “karma” literally refers to one’s actions. To focus on the eventual consequences of our actions puts the cart (effect) before the horse (cause) and misses the revolutionary signifi- cance of the Buddha’s approach. Karma can be understood as the key to spiritual develop- ment, revealing how one’s life situation can be transformed by transforming the motivations of one’s actions here and now. Yet karma is not something the self has; rather, it is what the sense of self is, because one’s sense of self DAVID LOY is a professor of Buddhist and compara- tive philosophy and a Zen teacher in the Sanbo Kyo- dan tradition. His books include The World Is Made of Stories and Money, Sex, War, Karma, both published by Wisdom. ©iSTOCKPHOTO.COM/PHILLY077