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Buddhadharma : Spri 2007
spring 2007| 48 |buddhadharma (clockwise from left) NormaN fischer is the fouNder of the everyday ZeN fouNdatioN aNd former abbot of the saN fraNcisco ZeN ceNter. robiN kormaN is a buddhist teacher aNd tibetaN traNslator liviNg iN milwaukee. he is traNslatiNg the tibetaN epic, King gesar of Ling. ajahN amaro is co-abbot of abhayagiri buddhist moNastery iN redwood valley, califorNia. few Buddhist ideas resonate more, yet produce more dissonance for Western dharma practi- tioners, than karma. It’s easy to feel that the laws of karma are at work when you see the chick- ens coming home to roost for someone with an outsized ego. They had it coming. But we are still waiting to see the Harvard Business School case study of how Bill Gates’ extraordinary generosity in previous lives caused his unbelievable wealth in this life. Karma is a Sanskrit word that means “action.” The teachings on karma are about action and its results, cause and effect. On the cause side of the equation, intention or motivation is crucial. The seminal text The Treasury of Abhidharma by Vasubandhu (fifth century) says that karma is intention and the acts that flow out of intention. If you worry about the karmic consequences of all the dead bugs splattered on your windshield, don’t. When there is no intention to cause harm, no negative karmic seeds are planted. On the effect side of the equation, the cardinal rule is that karma never fades away. The results of an action may not mature for many lifetimes, but when appropriate conditions are encountered, the results inevitably arise. And they always arise for the one who performed the action. This is where things get tricky. “Instant karma” makes intuitive sense. We can understand how being mean and angry makes us unpleasant, dis- torts our features, and causes other people to avoid us. And we can see how disturbed states of mind cause accidents to happen. On the other hand, when we are told that a dear friend’s cancer is the ripened result of negative actions performed in pre- vious lives, we don’t know what to make of it. The Forum: How Does Karma Really Work? problem is, we can’t see the past or future lives and we can’t prove they exist with scientific instru- ments or psychological theories. Our rationalist and materialistic instincts don’t want to go there. We just don’t know. To really “know” what karma means, it helps to consider what “knowing” means. The Buddhist theory of knowledge says that we can know things in three ways: through direct perception, by inference, or by relying on trusted authority. Perception works for manifest phenomena, the things we feel and can bump into. In that case, we know something because “we see it with our own eyes.” Inference works for hidden phenomena. We know “where there is smoke, there is fire.” Trusted authority works for extremely hidden phenom- ena. The workings of karma are extremely hid- den. To know them, we rely on trusted authority. Trusted authority is not blind faith, because trust is based on the authority’s track record. We may well regard the Buddha as trustworthy because we have tested his teachings and found them to be reliable. Nevertheless, even if we start out by taking something on authority, it helps to inquire, and karma is worth inquiring about. It raises deep questions, and our panelists try to tackle such questions. If there is no self, who receives the kar- mic fruit? If everything is produced by karma, is everything predetermined? What about free will? These questions go to the core of buddhadharma: the relationship between bondage and liberation. Karmic cause and effect is driven by compul- sion, we learn. It is made up of chain reactions, one thing leading to another in the twelve links of dependent origination that take us from igno- rance to old age and death and back around again, and again, and again. Relentless pressure endlessly turns the wheel of samsara. But, as our panel- ists explain, we can find gaps in the momentum, and in those gaps we can make choices. But does Buddhism view choice in precisely the same way as other ethical systems and modes of thought? Even more basically, our panelists point out that karma depends on ignorance, specifically the ignorance that clings to “I” and “mine,” or ego and its projections. When this ignorance is overcome, karmic cause and effect is like cause and effect in a dream when you realize you’re dreaming. It appears, but it is powerless. From the Buddhist point of view, free will is a contra- diction. “Will” means the delusion of ego. “Free” means freedom from the compulsion that arises from this ignorance. courtesyofJackshainmanGallery,nyc IntroductIon by andy karr aNdy karr is the author of the forthcomiNg book, ContempLating reaLity: a praCtitioner’s guide to the View in indo-tibetan buddhism (shambhala publicatioNs). photographs by robert & shana parkeharrIson