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Buddhadharma : Spri 2007
buddhadharma| 67 |spring 2007 system in an absolutely convincing rational formula, the system of cause and effect is, as the computer folks would say, scalable. What works on the small scale that we’re able to see also works on the very big scale that we can only intuit. NormaN fischer: Yes [laughs]. buddhadharma: And while we can see that larger scope through the insight that arises in meditation practice, there’s no rational argument in a book somewhere that offers the silver bullet for understanding how cause and effect works on the large scale. ajahN amaro: In the Theravada canon, there is what are called the Four Imponderables, and one of them is the workings of karma. The Buddha said that if you tried to figure it out intel- lectually, your head would explode. The thinking mind doesn’t have enough dimensions to encompass the reality of it. NormaN fisher: I am reminded of a koan concerning karma that is central to Zen practitioners. There’s an old man attending abbot Pai Chang’s lectures. Pai Chang asks him who he is, and he answers, “I’m really a fox, and I’ve been reborn as a fox for five hundred lifetimes, because in a previous life when I was the abbot of this very temple, someone asked me, ‘Is the enlightened person free from karma or not?’ I told them the enlightened per- son is free from karma, and because of that I’ve been reborn for five hundred lives as a fox. Can you please help me?” Pai Chang replies, “The enlightened person does not obscure karma,” and this answer enlightens the old man. He’s later freed from the body of a fox, and the fox body is given an honorable burial. The crux of the koan is, what does it mean to not obscure karma? The enlightened person is free from karma – and we know what that means – but there’s more to it than that. The deep answer is not to be found doctrinally but rather on the cushion. This koan describes the Zen understanding of karma. One can say a lot about this koan, but the important point is that the situation is not quite so simple or convenient, from the Zen point of view, as saying that the enlightened person is free from karma. The way to clarify that is not by doctrine but by intuition on the cushion. ajahN amaro: I’ve heard this koan many times. It’s a very useful teaching, because if we begin to think that enlightened beings do whatever they like, it becomes very easy for you to take what you think is an experience of enlightenment and use it as a kind of credential to get confirmation from others about your importance and your position, when in fact you are probably still caught up in self-view. In that case, all kinds of subtle karma is created based on hidden attachments and confusions. In so doing, a whole pile of karma could build up, to such an extent that one might be reborn as a fox five hundred times. robiN korNmaN: Well, I am wary of suspending intellectual inves- tigation and ending up simply with the attitude that you might always have ego and you better watch out and not think too much. ajahN amaro: It’s not about not thinking too much. It’s just know- ing that the thoughts don’t have an owner. robiN korNmaN: Of course they don’t have an owner, but in the Tibetan traditions we have great practitioners who are also great metaphysicians, following the Indian tradition of people like Chandrakirti and Nagarjuna. Teachers like Mipham the Great and Jamgon Kongtrol say that our karma is subtle and very difficult to study, and then they go ahead and study it in great detail. They say that there is no teaching of the Buddha that can’t be demonstrated through inference. They are inspired to figure things out for the culture, for the civilization, philoso- phizing out the details of the functions – what karma is and what it does. There is an approach that says that it is worthwhile to present comprehensive systems of thought that can have civiliz- ing effects throughout the world and, in so doing, can actually bring about whole Buddhist civilizations. buddhadharma: Are you saying that there is a philosophical sys- tem that will explain karma in such a way that you don’t need an intuitive, insightful understanding of it? robiN korNmaN: Of course I wouldn’t say that you don’t need to meditate and you don’t need to have an intuitive understanding to understand karma. If I said that, I wouldn’t be a Buddhist. I just feel that we shouldn’t shy away from systems of thought and merely rely on intuition. Western civilization is permeated with elaborate systems of thought. Buddhism ought to offer some- thing just as elaborate, and on a key point such as karma, we should not be satisfied with an intuitive understanding alone. ajahN amaro: I don’t think the teaching on karma necessarily needs to be sophisticated or refined. In the Southern Buddhist countries, karma is taught on a very simple and straightfor- ward basis. The Buddha’s teaching is, if you sow the seeds, you reap the fruit. It’s an aphorism that two- and three-year-olds learn in Thailand and Sri Lanka. It becomes a basic format for existing within the world. Such simple directives are a recurrent theme introduced all the way along through one’s education. That approach is as much a part of bringing the understanding of karma and its result into the Western-mind sphere as the detailed explanations of pratityasamutpada, because essentially the simple teaching in the form of a simile expresses the same thing. It just presents it on a coarser and more manageable scale. You don’t have to deal in fancy constructs like “conventionally existent beings.” buddhadharma: Wouldn’t you say it’s a matter of horses for courses? The intricate philosophical systems have as much of a role to play as the teachings that elucidate karma through similes, homilies, and parables. ajahN amaro: Certainly, but I want to make the point that you don’t need intricate philosophical analysis to get the same mes- sage into the group mind. NormaN fisher: Yes, we do need both. And of course Robin is talking on the level of influencing a society, a culture, in a pro- found way, and in order to do that you certainly need a sophis- ticated, credible, intellectual system. Someone like Robin who works as a translator has a big role to play in that regard. People like Ajahn Amaro and I work mostly on teaching individuals at the ground level. Most of them really don’t need to, and probably never will, master or even be aware of the complexities of a vast philosophical system. But when you’re working at the level of an entire culture and its intellectual foundations, presenting detailed systems of thought is tremendously important. ➤ continued from page 65