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Buddhadharma : Fall 2013
FALL 2 0 1 3 BUDDHADHARMA: THE PRACTITIONER’S QUARTERLY 39 PHOTOS(LEFT—RIGHT):LINDAFISHER;UNKNOWN;UNKNOWN you say that in some sense there’s a moral quality to the posi- tive or negative causes that lead to future conditions? RITA GROSS: After many years thinking about this, I really believe it’s better to talk about effect than cause. The present is an effect, and we can’t always ascertain exactly why the present is as it is. But how we deal with the present becomes the cause of future effect. So that to me is one of the most important clarifications about what karma is and isn’t. You know, if somebody has been mean to us, we don’t necessarily know why, but how we deal with that difficult situation will have a lot to do with how we feel in the future and how our relationships with other people will work in the future. That’s why Thich Nhat Hanh says we shouldn’t ever take out our frustrations by punching pillows, because all we’re doing is imprinting in our mind that it’s okay to react or hit when we are angry. ANDREW OLENDZKI: I’d say a moral component is perhaps a sub- set of karma. There are lots of ways to understand cause and effect in nature, but the Buddha was particularly interested in our psychological life, and his great insight was that some of the emotions we have, some of our responses, and some of the actions we undertake are healthy and some of them are unhealthy, or wholesome and unwholesome. Healthy or wholesome was described simply as that which works toward the alleviation or cessation of suffering. Unhealthy or unwhole- some thoughts or actions are what lead us toward more suffer- ing and away from wisdom. It’s all very practical. The Buddha is simply saying that your quality of mind is going to be affected by the kind of thoughts, emotions, and actions you put into your mindstream. That’s the distinction between healthy or unhealthy; it’s not so much moral in terms of what you should or shouldn’t do, but rather it’s like the law of nature: you can throw a rock up in the air and stand underneath it if you want, but there will be a consequence. In the same way, you can punch somebody if you want, but the consequence will be that it brings harm to you and others. LARRY WARD: It’s helpful to understand our actions and the seeds that may be the source of them—what is referred to in the Yogachara tradition as “perfuming”—and how we can condition ourselves psychologically. Our karma can also show up as memories that can impact our intellect and our charac- ter. It influences both what we prejudge and how we prejudge, whether in a wholesome or an unwholesome manner. I sup- pose we could also respond in a neutral manner. BUDDHADHARMA: So how does karma really work? We said there are wholesome or unwholesome acts that by some mechanism cause us to suffer or not suffer in the future. What is the specific mechanism, according to Buddhism, by which these causes are carried forward to have their effects in the future? How does that happen? ANDREW OLENDZKI: In classical Buddhist psychology, karma is explained in terms of the relationship between what we might call mental states and mental traits. The state of what is mani- fest in the mind, the emotion of anger or hatred or love, has an effect on your behavior, whether through body, speech, or mind—and that lays down a disposition, a character trait. A behavior has been learned, has been reinforced, and so down- stream when you are called upon to respond to a situation, if you have watered those seeds with a lot of anger, you’re going to be inclined to be an angry person who has angry responses, and the whole thing will just cascade. But if you’re able to cultivate states of mind that are kind, you’re laying down dispositions—habits, as it were—that are kind, and those will more likely be triggered. BUDDHADHARMA: Does the Mahayana tradition have a more specific analysis of how the seeds are created and manifested in the future? LARRY WARD: Yes, the Yogacara tradition talks about our “storehouse consciousness,” or depth consciousness, where these seeds or habit energies reside based on our previous actions. Every action nourishes seeds that grow from a depth consciousness up into our mental states and into our traits and behaviors. I find the metaphors from Yogacara very helpful. Thich Nhat Hanh draws upon these images in his teachings as well. My tendency is to stay focused on this experientially and in the present tense, so I want to affirm what’s been said already about the immediate psychological impact as well as the subsequent psychological impact of our actions, be they wholesome or unwholesome. RITA GROSS: I think the word “habit” is really important here. When we do something over and over, it becomes habitual and therefore much easier to repeat. So the seeds we choose to water—Trungpa Rinpoche used to use this analogy, too— makes a lot of difference. Here’s where the role of practice is so important. Without the ability to see what’s going on and catch ourselves, which is an experience we develop through Every action nourishes seeds that grow from a depth consciousness up into our mental states and into our traits and behaviors. —Larry Ward