Published on September 23rd, 2009 | by Harmonist staff23
Karma: Black and White, or Shades of Gray?
The following article is a Buddhist challenge to the “eye-for-an-eye” understanding of the concept of karma found both in Hinduism and Buddhism.
By Ven Kobutsu Malone
“Bad karma, man!” We’ve all heard it, and probably even said it. Of all the Buddhist [and Hindu] 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.”
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 [and all other spiritual] 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 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!
This article originally appeared on buddhistchannel.tv and was entitled, “Komments on Karma.”
I think volition is an important element in karmic repercussions that is often not taken into consideration. But I don’t think the author has done a very good job of enlightening us about how karma actually works. He also seems to be a Buddhist at odds with reincarnation. While I have my doubts about how that works in Buddhism, I do believe it is a core tenant of the tradition.
It would be interesting to hear from a Vedic astrologer about the dynamics of karma.
I am (hopefully) a Vaishnava and (hopefully) a Jyotishi. I submitted an article. I hope you don’t consider it too commonish or non-scholastic. I dread scholastic writing.
I agree that Rupa Goswami has discussed Karma with citation from Padma Purana in his beautiful Bhakti Rasamrta Sindhu. Actually it is my opinion that his analysis is far more insightful than anything jyotish provides on it’s own. Jyotish is merely the “eye” of the Veda. It relies on the puranas, etc. for it’s foundations.
The dynamics of karma from a jyotish perspective – practical rather than philosophical are, IMO:
a) you are constantly in the process of creating it – therefore you have capacity to alter your future
b) you cannot alter what you’ve already done in the past – there there are some punishments and rewards that you cannot escape or change.
c) you can ALWAYS change how you REACT to those punishments and rewards and thus the NEW karma / future you build.
On another angle….
i) Jyotish often identifies Karma as being adridha dridha/adridha or dridha. This is far more of a practical than a philosophical distinction. Sometimes we see only a few planetary combinations indicating a particular karmic result and we call that “adridha karma” or something which is rather weak and may not even tangibly manifest (may only be felt or sensed). Or sometimes we see more than a few yogas and etc. pointing to the same karmic result and we call that “dridha/adridha” – it is “fairly solid” that it will tangibly result in the predictable shape. Finally, we sometimes see lots of yogas etc. pointing in to the same karmic result and we term that “dridha karma” – it’s going to happen, and it will be obvious.
ii) some have said (not sure if i agree) that you can easily “change” adridha karma, it’s somewhat possible to change dridha-adridha karma, and it’s impossible save for a miracle to change dridha karma. I think I disagree only philosophically but not practically. I think what is philosophically happening is that it is easiest to REACT in a proactive and wise manner when the karma is weaker or more “adridha” and therefore it appears that this karma can be “changed” – philosophically speaking, previous actions are already done, they can’t be undone, it can’t be changed.
The universe is not a MACHINE, it is a mother!
She takes personal care when you show personal care. And she allows you the wisdom to lessen the pain and negative impact of your karma when you show proactive desire to improve yourself.
Therefore I have found the prescription of planetary mantras to be particularly helpful and useful for my astrology clients.
“The universe is not a MACHINE, it is a mother!
She takes personal care when you show personal care. And she allows you the wisdom to lessen the pain and negative impact of your karma when you show proactive desire to improve yourself.”
This is the classic straw-man argument. The author accuses the Vedic systems of making karma as the only factor upon which the universe works, while he obviously has a very meager acquaintance with Vedic knowledge.
The Vedic system does not hold karma as the only force working within the universe. Above karma there is the Supersoul who is certainly free to intervene in karma and adjust anything according to his will.
The author accuses the concept of karma as being “simplistic” because he himself has a very meager and simplistic conception of what karma is and how it works. He fails to mention or understand that Isvara controls Prakriti which is the agency of karma.
He seems to think that the term “Karma” holds a purely negative connotation while being oblivious to system of Karma-yoga as a process of personal spiritual growth.
All-in-all the mental wranglings of the author are simply misinformed and misleading. He is an elementary school student posing as a professor and spewing forth a diatribe against the Vedic authority due to his obvious ignorance of the knowledge.
How and why this article appears on the front page of this Vaishnava website is questionable, as this sort of article can easily confuse and poison the mind of someone looking for information on bhakti-yoga and Vaishnavism.
When visitors come to a Vaishnava website they expect to find some information about Vaishnavism, not some antagonist making absurd assumptions on a platform of flimsy understanding.
Why are the Vaishnavas giving vent to this rascal on this website?
This is a different kind of Vasinava site. Read “About Us.”
But I think the article brings up an interesting topic and popular misunderstandings of karma that need to be addressed, even while being not well informed about karma from the perspective of Vedanta. So does Isvara causes the Hurricanes or is it karma. You have left us with two choices. If you feel so strongly about the points the author has raised, it would be good if you could share your superior understanding of the issues he seeks to address. I personally don’t agree with all that he has written, but must admit that I do not have much to say on the matter other than what I have written above.
Again, I think a Vedic Jyotish could shed a fair amount of light on the topic by explaining the different types of karma, how one type of karma is carried over from one’s pervious life’s actions into this one and how another type karma is created within this life, etc.
Sri Rupa has not gone into this topic to the degree that it is discussed in the field of astrology. He has only cited the Padma Purana with regard to the stages of karma from aprarabdha to prarabdha and discussed the extent to which bhakti and Harinama in particular have the power to eradicate karma.
I find the calling of people mlecchas, yavanas, and rascals a gross disregard for human compassion and a VERY poor example of Vaisnava humility. I find more aversion to your comment Livingentity than to the article, meager as it may be.
Where do you get the right to talk about people like that? Srila Prabhupada spoke like that Sometimes, even in this pure soul I found that language distasteful. At least he had his prema to turn such language into ornamentation. In others it just sounds ugly.
It does seem that the concept of karma in it’s contact with Judeo-Christian morality becomes less about the concept of personal responsibility and binding that comes from our acts and has instead become a very punitive concept synonymous with sin and it’s punishment. It appears that many Hindu concepts and religious attitudes take a very Christian flavor when practiced in the West.
Gurumaharaja, what I appreciate about your presentation of Gaudiya vaisnavism is that you apply GV priciples to the more progressive and generous dimensions of western culture rather than the conservative and restrictive. You also do not accept the static and orthodox Indian status quo. Maybe you can say something about how and why you practice such progressive generosity?
As far as I have observed, there is significant participation among Western Buddhist converts in various kinds of social activism. That activism addresses precisely the kinds of social ills that the author chalks up to abuse/misunderstanding of the karmic conception in the rest of the world. I am surprised that the author doesn’t acknowledge this, or discuss the ways in which Western Buddhists might also misunderstand karma.
Although I don’t think the article is successful, it does reveal something about the challenges of articulating philosophical ideas (even timeless ones) in a modern and socially-aware context. Even if the premises and conclusion are flawed, the author is trying to say something relevant in the present about the socio-religious implications of an ancient idea. I think many would agree that Gaudiya Vaisnavas could do more to rise to such challenges themselves, rather than allowing others to define what yoga, karma, dharma, etc. mean and entail for the general public.
It is also worth mentioning that from what I have read elsewhere D.T. Suzuki, whom the author cites, was very socially and thereby worldly motivated more than enlightenment oriented in the classical Buddhist sense.
D.T. Suzuki, whom the author cites, was very socially and thereby worldly motivated more than enlightenment oriented in the classical Buddhist sense.
I think any kind of outreach specifically targeted at the western neo-Buddhists is a waste of time and effort.
I worked side-by-side with a nice guy for the last couple of years who subscribes to this modern westernized Buddhist movement. I have found him to be quite unreceptive to any Vaishnava theology and in fact quite aware of Buddhist sunyavada siddhanta and well convinced of the Buddhist beliefs.
There are some people who naively think that western Buddhists are just gullible people who can easily be enlightened with exposure to the Vaishnava theology. Well, that assumption is quite misconceived and simplistic.
Second only to the Christians, I find western Buddhists as the most unlikely candidates for the Vaishnava outreach programs.
Targeting them with Gaudiya propaganda is waste of time.
Fortunately that is not what we are doing here.
The problem is not the mentality of the Buddhist westerners… or the theology, we have something Buddhism does not, absolute beauty and ecstasy.. the problem is with this:
Targeting has aggressive connotation tied to hunting, propaganda shows one’s intention is in convincing and exploiting. This approach is the problem…not the people or the theology. We should take inventory of ourselves before we find fault externally. If we approach differently there will be success and we will not sound so self-righteous.
The Harmonist is for discussing ideas, not targeting or converting.
also, “waste of your time” implies that one’s time is only used valuably if it is used in the successful conversion of others to your way of thinking. Is this one’s objective in preaching? You might find that conversing with others honestly is never a waste of time. It might be helpful to you, not just to them.
Living Entity: “Second only to the Christians, I find western Buddhists as the most unlikely candidates for the Vaishnava outreach programs. Targeting them with Gaudiya propaganda is waste of time.”
Once people have a well formed approach to life they are happy with it is very difficult to change their faith. Still, it can be done by showing them the beauty of bhakti and the wonderful qualities of pure devotees.
Most of the devotees I met in life came from a Christian background, some were Jewish, but none were from a Muslim background. So perhaps your generalisation above is not based in real experience.
Here is a good Buddhist tale that helps to put karma in perspective and seeks to explain that things are not always what they seem. Bad things happen sometimes for good reasons.
Tripurari Maharaja wrote:
That was a point I wanted to make earlier, but got side-tracked by my own thoughts.
In fact, if we understand the concept of the material world being God’s program for the evolution and reformation of disintegrated energies, we will have to conclude that “bad things” ALWAYS happen for good reason inasmuch as karmic reactions are all part of the Lord’s reformatory measures for redirecting such misdirected energies.
The simplistic assumption that “bad things” are simply punishments without any sort of reformatory aim is easy to arrive at outside of any Vaishnava philosophy.
Living Entity: “In fact, if we understand the concept of the material world being God’s program for the evolution and reformation of disintegrated energies, we will have to conclude that “bad things” ALWAYS happen for good reason inasmuch as karmic reactions are all part of the Lord’s reformatory measures for redirecting such misdirected energies.”
Using this type of thinking we must conclude for example that Soviet and German concentration camps which exterminated millions of people happened for a good reason and had nothing to do with volitionary activities of certain people.
This type of misguided thinking reduces everything to reaction only and makes no provision for volitionary action on behalf of living entities.
Good illustration as to why such articles about karma are important for devotees to read and discuss.
In general I find the article quite interesting because the simplistic understanding of karma is very common among the devotees, often resulting in undesirable behavior. In the extremal cases devotees totally minimize the volitional element of our actions, or excuse improper behavior of people as ‘karmic instrument’.
Supposedly Srila Prabhupada chastised one of his disciples for being angry at something that looked like a clear case of bad behavior of one of his godbrothers by saying: ““Don’t be unhappy at the instrument of your karma” or something to that effect (I was never able to find an exact quote and context). That in turn led to all kinds of ‘justifications’ such as ‘the abused gurukulis (or women) had it coming, so we should not blame the abusers’.
Another issue that needs to be raised is the (common among devotees) mixing up of karma with vikarma.
BG 4.17 clearly says:
karmaṇo hy api boddhavyaḿ
boddhavyaḿ ca vikarmaṇaḥ
akarmaṇaś ca boddhavyaḿ
gahanā karmaṇo gatiḥ
“The intricacies of action are very hard to understand. Therefore one should know properly what action is (karma), what forbidden action is (vikarma), and what inaction is (akarma).”
Karma is infinitely complex and not well understood by the simple-minded. Furthermore, people tend to minimize or overlook the “sister” factor in reincarnation–kama. Indeed, it is kama or desire that impells our karma or actions. Another important understanding that is missing here but familiar to Vaishnavas and other spiritualists is the idea that bad karma is often a blessing in regard to spiritual life whereas good karma can easily become an impediment. I didn’t find any deep realizations about karma in this article. If anything, the author seems mostly dismissive of it.
“It does seem that the concept of karma in it’s contact with Judeo-Christian morality becomes less about the concept of personal responsibility and binding that comes from our acts and has instead become a very punitive concept synonymous with sin and it’s punishment. It appears that many Hindu concepts and religious attitudes take a very Christian flavor when practiced in the West.”
I think this is a very relevant point. The Christian perspective which permeates our society causes many people to think of karma as a punishment that is imposed on us by some outside force – some sort of universal judge and law enforcer.
It is not God who is punishing anyone who does not follow His laws, or His command. Our actions can either bind us or liberate us. We are punishing ourselves, actions are sinful if they degrade the soul.
Should we judge an outcome as good or bad based on the material benefit to us? Does theft make us richer? Does giving charity make us poorer? It depends on your perspective and what you consider to be valuable. Judged from a material point of view, stealing money will give us more money, and giving charity means we have less money. But if our real wealth is found in the soul and not in our material possessions, theft will impoverish us and charity will enrich us.