“Bad karma, man!”
We’ve all heard it, and probably even said it. Of all the Buddhist catchwords to have taken popular hold in the West, “karma” is possibly the most widely used, and the most grossly misunderstood. The idea that everything is a product of “karma,” is erroneous and simple-minded in the extreme, yet is accepted without question and even taught and transmitted by otherwise “respected” teachers. The commonly accepted usage of “karma” to represent the universal law of cause and effect, coupled with the notion of “rebirth” often commonly, and mistakenly, accepted to mean “reincarnation” is often misused in a manner that serves to define a deterministic universe. In this way, “karma” is used to make logical sense of difference on social levels, providing a rationale for the varying degrees of pain and suffering different individuals experience. The idea shifts responsibility for such disparity from the “unknown” or “the will of God” to individuals who, according to the “the law of karma,” are held responsible for their own circumstances. This logic places blame upon people who experience hardship, and praise upon those who enjoy fortuitous circumstances, irrespective any direct knowledge of specific actions, particularly those allegedly committed in “previous lives.”
The idea that “karma” is the only force operating in the universe feeds into this determinism in most cases subconsciously resulting in social attitudes in many Buddhist societies that are far a field of the compassion taught by the historical Buddha. In many cases, the idea of “karma” perpetuates the status quo, reinforcing preexisting hierarchical social orders in ways that are reactionary, discriminatory, sexist, and racist. Famed Zen scholar D.T. Suzuki criticized those possessing such a backwards understanding of the Dharma, even going so far as to label those who subscribe to such beliefs “pseudo-Buddhists” in his book Outlines of Mahayana Buddhism, published in 1907.This “pseudo-Buddhist” understanding of “karma” has been used to ignore racism, social injustice and inequality, economic exploitation, sexual abuse, slavery, child abuse, and numerous other crimes against humanity. For centuries in Tibet, it was used to support and maintain a rigidly hierarchical theocratic dictatorship consisting of an elite minority of educated clergy.
Warmongering governments have institutionalized this distorted view, manipulatively using it to dismiss responsibility for loss of life in wartime, shifting the blame to the “karma” of the individual soldiers or innocent civilians caught in the crossfire. During World War II, Japanese people were told their loved ones were killed not because of poor decision making on the part of hawkish government leaders, but because it was their loved ones’ personal “karma” to be shot dead, blown up in battle, or burned to death in their homes during bombing raids. Grieving survivors were consoled with the promise that, as a “karmic reward” for their loved ones’ sacrifices for the Emperor and the good of the country, they would be reborn in better circumstances, in (of course) Japan.
This tendency to blame the victim is in no way isolated to Buddhist countries. Oppression veiled by wrongheaded ideas of “karmic retribution” mirror the way “the Protestant work ethic” has been used in the United States to scapegoat poor people for their circumstances. By rationalizing that, by virtue of their unwillingness to work hard, “the poor” are to blame for their own poverty, Americans can comfortably ignore economic injustice. After all, if “those people” are unwilling to lift a finger to help themselves, why should any of the rest of us? And, in a broader sense, why should the government support those who have only their own shiftlessness to blame for their situation? This position, of course, assumes that everyone who “works hard” will be economically fulfilled. The “rags to riches” mythology is a pervasive part of the American subconscious, while the stories of those who work their guts out all of their lives, yet never realize any economic gain, are conveniently glazed over. Those people and families are marginalized, and their life experiences forgotten, because they occur outside of the accepted “work ethic” ideology.
An understanding of “karma” that allows indifference to suffering, and the active causation of it, is not only a perversion of Buddhist teachings, it is directly antithetical to the process of awakening. The message of Buddhism is to awaken compassion by courageously confronting reality. The Dharma is not another convenient ideology or set of superstitions we can use as a shield for our own prejudices and complacency. Yet the concept of “karma” remains an important part of Buddhist cosmology. The word “karma,” itself, carries many connotations, both technical (orthodox) and colloquial (heterodox). Within the various Buddhist traditions, the distinctions between these interpretations are rarely discussed, despite divergent definitions among the many sects and schools. This dualistic characteristic, which is seldom written about or publicly addressed, is consequently the root of widespread misunderstanding.
Etymologically, the word “karma” derives from the Sanskrit karman (“action” or “act”) and, in turn, the Pali “kamma.” Literally “karma” denotes “action” specifically, “volitional action,” or deliberate, willed action. Colloquially, however, the term has come to refer to “the law of karma,” a concept the historical Buddha borrowed from the pre-Hindu religious cosmology that prevailed in India during his lifetime. The derivation of the term “karma” originates in the Upanishads, a portion of the massive body of Hindu religious writings known as the Vedas. According to modern scholars, the textural body of the complete series was assembled over several centuries, the oldest of which are generally believed to have been codified in the 8th century BCE.
In the Theravadan school, the tradition of “the Teaching of The Elders” still practiced today in most of Southeast Asia, “karma” or “kamma” is defined as volitional action, while the term “vipaka” is used to denote the result of volitional action. The combination of “karma/vipaka” or “kamma/vipaka” denotes a cause and effect cycle, taking place within a set period of time. The “karma/vipaka” cycle can be seen in a personal sense on a day-to-day basis, where specific actions or intentions in the present life result in “vipaka,” or effects, also in the present. It is interesting to note that “karma” in this context seems to be used far more in the retributive sense than as a rationale for good fortune. Colloquially, in both the East and in the West, the term “karma” is almost universally used to connote a complete sequence of cause and effect action and its consequence. In this heterodox interpretation, such action is not necessarily defined as being specifically volitional. Understanding “karma” as volitional action is far more precise than the colloquial definition of “karma” as the sum of “karma/vipaka” “the law of karma” in which “karma” is used broadly to refer to all causality, including non-volitional action.
In India, the term “karma” has been used for millennia to rationalize the differences between people in their birth-status as male or female, short or tall, and a myriad of other differences, including whether or not people are born into slavery or are born free, what social and economic circumstances people are born into, what race they are born, and whether or not they are born with some birth defect or congenital handicap, among other issues. “Karma” is the foundation and rationale used to support the oppressive and repressive Hindu caste system. This perception of “karma” is inextricably bound to the belief in “rebirth,” or in the commonest “peasant level” heterodox interpretation, belief in “reincarnation.” In some Buddhist traditions “karma” is viewed as something accumulated by unenlightened people destined for further “rebirth.” These traditions view people who have actualized the awakened state of mind, those who are “enlightened,” as free from “generating karma,” and therefore from the necessity of “rebirth.” This rests on the mistaken premise that “karma” means “the law of karma” and that the “law” implies negative vipaka. There are huge differences between the “rebirth” principle and the “reincarnation” principle that are similarly commonly misunderstood in popular “peasant level” heterodox Buddhism.
While “karma/vipaka” was a part of the historical Buddha’s teaching, the fact that he did not accept a socially deterministic model of “karma” is clear from his outspoken rejection of the caste system. The early sangha was an egalitarian collective, and all bhikkus were to be accorded with the same level of respect, regardless of their birth status.
The term “law of karma,” in and of itself, is open to question as a valid definition. “The model of karma” is perhaps a more apropos translation or, more precisely, “the model of karma/vipaka.” It’s important to recognize that models, and even laws of the universe, are mere intellectual concepts of what is; they are not “tathata,” or “suchness,” itself. Buddhism is not about concepts. No concept can trump the pure experience of reality as it is. In addition, the “karma/vipaka model” is always a slice out of time. It can never include all time, because every cause can be seen as an effect of a prior cause, and every effect the cause of a prior effect, in an “it’s turtles all the way down” infinite regression.
It also needs to be clearly, and unequivocally, stated that volitional action, “karma” is not the only causal factor in the universe, it is a mistaken view to maintain that “karma” is the only agent of causality whether it is defined as volitional or not. It is vitally important to note that Buddhism recognizes forces other than “karma” that affect the universe. In Buddhist cosmology, “Karma Niyama” is only one of five categories, known collectively as “The Five Niyamas,” that define causality. The other four are Dharma Niyama (the laws of nature), Irthu Niyama (seasonal changes and climate), Biija Niyama (genetic inheritance), and Chitta Niyama (the will of the mind). If we are to clarify our understanding of causality, we are required to pay attention to socio-political, economic, and ecological sciences. A sixth “Niyama” could even be brought into the picture to account for the social structures that have spontaneously or deliberately formed in all communities of sentient beings. While the modern “chaos theory” was not delineated in the Buddha’s time, as such, elements of its structure can be found in the Five Niyamas. Despite the prevalent misperception in the Buddhist community, even in so-called “orthodox” circles comprising clergy and teachers, that “karma” is the sole force active in the universe, “chaotic” forces are also present but rarely, if ever, mentioned, let alone taught, studied, or comprehended.
In a community that has been devastated by a passing tornado, some houses are completely destroyed, some are damaged, and some are left completely untouched. A pseudo-Buddhist understanding maintains that whether one’s home is destroyed or passed over is a result of one’s “karma.” But how can one’s prior actions, volitional or otherwise, affect the path of a future tornado? Buddhist doctrine answers such questions by pointing to Irthu Niyama (physical inorganic order or processes, such as seasonal change phenomena, for example, winds and rains), natural chaos, as the causal agent in such circumstances. That the Jones family lost their home and the Smith family didn’t, does not mean that the Jones’ were guilty of some horrible transgressions in some past life. Although “karma” and the notion of “justice” are commonly viewed as intertwined, we do not live in a rigidly deterministic universe; chaos functions quite well where we live. Sometimes shit just happens!
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