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Buddhadharma : Spri 2007
spring 2007| 52 |buddhadharma that don’t exist in our own tradition, which comes from a completely different worldview. ajahN amaro: Yes, the question is posed in the wrong way. robiN korNmaN: Nevertheless, perhaps we can find points of connection. The simplest teaching on karma I know is pratityasamutpada, depen- dent origination, as expressed in the chain of the nidanas. There are gaps in the chain, when the next act is not determined, which is what makes enlightenment possible. ajahN amaro: In the Theravada, they particularly point to the gap between feeling and craving. NormaN fisher: The choice gap. ajahN amaro: The difference between “I like” and “I want.” NormaN fisher: Karma is the crucial teaching in Buddhism, because there is cause and effect rather than determinism. robiN korNmaN: Or the moral strictures of an all-powerful being. NormaN fischer: It presents the possibility that we can transform our life and the lives around us. The Buddha taught that we’re all empowered to do that. buddhadharma: You mean karma is not bad news. [laughter] ajahN amaro: No, it’s very good news. robiN korNmaN: It’s important for us to figure out how leading a life regulated by the laws of karma makes you different from a person who lives according to a moral code. That’s very hard to pin down. It looks like we’re all the same: Christianity has a moral code, and we Buddhists have laws of karma. But there is some subtle difference in why Buddhists do an action. We have a sense of the impending vipaka, the results, that would occur – that’s what guides our action, and that is different from doing it out of a sense of morality. ajahN amaro: As Robin alluded to, the buddhad- harma is not the word of the absolute being spoken in the world; it’s a collection of methods and encouragements. For that matter, I think the Buddha is unique in encouraging people not to believe things simply because they’re in scripture or because a trusted teacher tells you so. Rather, you are instructed to try them out for yourself. Far from being a revealed religion, where you are subject to the commands of an authority, it’s an experimental religion, a path of individual inves- tigation. Through exploring the laws of cause and effect, the Buddhist practitioner comes to see that if he or she behaves in a certain way, certain things will result. If the practitioner does one thing, the mind is agitated. If another, the mind is settled and clear. That’s cause and effect. NormaN fisher: Buddhism lacks the strong parental flavor of many of the theistic traditions. It deals directly with motivation, which is an important point with respect to the notion of free will. Why do we do something? To be in accord with the paren- tal god’s wishes, which are absolute? In Buddhism, though there may be a guide and there may be a code of conduct, you do what you do because you come to see through your own experience that if you behave in one way, you get one result, and if you behave in another way, you get another result. That accounts for the emotional and motiva- tional differences between the buddhadharma and Western theistic paths of ethical conduct. buddhadharma: Other ethical systems are based on the notion of an ongoing person who is, shall we say, “responsible.” Such an ongoing person, it seems, also continues after death, and perhaps eternally. An ethical system that doesn’t have an ongoing person at its core is shocking to many people. Such shock has caused some people within Buddhism to simply sidestep the issue and say, “Well, I don’t really know about or believe in karma and rebirth. I’m just trying to be a good person and follow the Buddha’s path.” As teach- ers of Buddhism, how do you address that conun- drum? How do you teach an ethical system that doesn’t require a person? ajahN amaro: This is not a new issue. It’s been going on since the time of the Buddha. It does seem counterintuitive. If the body, feelings, perceptions, consciousness, and so forth are not-self, who is it that receives the results of the karma made by this non-self? It requires a wisdom approach – a meditative, contemplative approach – to see how that might work. If you consider the teachings on not-self, there is a subtle presumption that there is a doer, a meditator, shall we say. This meditator examines every perception, every thought, every memory, and every action and intention. However, when the meditator looks for the doer, the agent, it can’t be found, which is the very point of the process of meditation. People often have that insight when practicing vipassana meditation. They hear the sound of a dog barking across the valley and notice that it’s just a formation happening in the mind. The sounds of the dog begin and end. The memory begins and ends. In that experience, they can see the selflessness within a thought or sensation. And yet, there is choice. There seems to be a decision-making agent, someone who’s choosing between helpful courses of actions and deleterious courses of action. But when we use the same ana- If you didn’t have a teaching on karma, you wouldn’t be a Buddhist, no matter how much you believed in the Buddha otherwise, because without karma we would become nihilists ethically. — Robin Kornman