An Explanation Of Karma

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Few concepts are as misunderstood or difficult to define as the concept of karma.  Like love and happiness, it seems to mean something different to everyone, even as most would probably agree it has something to do with the principles of destiny, fate, predeterminism, and even reincarnation.  If we define karma according to the philosophy of Nichiren Buddhism, however, and take the admittedly challenging step of accepting that it functions as a real phenomenon, it becomes apparent few principles are as important to understand correctly if we want to become happy.

As of this writing, I find myself still an unenlightened, common mortal—meaning, essentially, that my understanding, while clear, remains intellectual only, unsupported by any kind of genuine awakening to the principle of karma operating within my own life.  So though what follows is logical, I can’t say I honestly believe it’s true.  Yet.

WHAT HAPPENS TO YOU

At the most basic level, karma can be considered simply what happens to you.  In this way, people variously attribute things like getting sick, meeting the love of one’s life, getting into car accidents, and finding parking spots all to the workings of karma.  But if our consideration of karma were to stop there, we’d also have to conclude we have little to no control over the events in our lives, that our destiny has already been constructed down to the last detail by external forces, and that free will is an illusion.

Certainly we may often feel that our lives operate this way, but even the most nihilistic of us have had experiences that refute this view—experiences in which we aimed at a goal, fought through obstacles, and achieved our objective through our own efforts.  Though we’d be foolish to believe we can achieve complete control over what happens to us, we’d be equally foolish to believe we have no influence over it (even if only—to argue a ridiculous extreme—through the minute amount of gravitational force our bodies exert on all other bodies in the universe).  If we accept that we do, in fact, have the power to influence things by our actions, much less by the mere fact of our existence, (even if only sometimes to an infinitesimal degree), then the notion that what happens to us (our karma) is rigidly fixed by an outside force—destiny or Fate or God—cannot be considered valid.

THE LAW OF CAUSE AND EFFECT

Buddhism, in fact, teaches exactly the opposite, that everything that happens to us is ultimately due to our own influence—whether intentional or not—and that coincidence is in reality an illusion.

How can this be so?  According to Nichiren Buddhism, because of the operation of the law of cause and effect.  Karma is a Sanskrit word whose literal meaning is “action,” and action is indeed the common element around which all of karma’s philosophical implications pivot.  Shakyamuni Buddha (the original, historical Buddha who lived in India approximately 2500 years ago) is said to have remarked, “If a person commits an act of good or evil, he himself becomes the heir to that action.  This is because that action never actually disappears.”  In other words, and according to the SGI website, “The latent force of both our good and bad actions remains in our lives…each act [remaining in] the present as a potential force or energy, influencing the course of one’s existence from the point of that action forward.  In this sense, rather than simply viewing karma as ‘action,’ it may be more appropriate to think of it as action plus that action’s potential influence on one’s life.”  In other words, all the effects in your life (what happens to you) are without exception determined by causes you yourself have made in the past—”causes” here defined as your thoughts, words, and deeds (listed in order of ascending impact).

As I argued in a previous post, Become A Force For Good, general causality is something everyone understands and believes, namely that every effect has a cause.  We may not be able to identify what particular cause is responsible for a particular effect, but it’s difficult, if not impossible, to conceive of an effect that has no cause.

Buddhism, however, takes this principle of general causality even farther.  It denotes the principle of cause and effect as a universal law that governs not just the physical universe but our own lives as well.  Essentially, it works like this:  everything we say, think, and do serves as a cause that will at some time in the future, when circumstances are right, manifest an effect.  In one sense, this seems obvious:  if you get angry (cause) you might get punched (effect).  But Buddhism takes this even farther, arguing that all the causes we make are recorded at some level in our lives as if they were transactions in a bank.  Making a good cause would be like depositing money that can be withdrawn at some point in the future, while making a bad cause would be like borrowing money that at some point in the future will have to be repaid.  So if, for example, you slander someone today, that might result in them slandering you tomorrow (if they hear about it)—or it might result in you breaking your leg.

This last possibility is extremely difficult to believe.  To do so, we must first accept that all events in the universe occur as a result of a sublimely interrelated mosaic of causes and effects, like the running of an infinite number of cosmic Rube Goldberg machines, each individual cause leading to an effect, which itself becomes the cause of another effect, and so on, and so on, and so on, until years, decades, or even lifetimes later(!) a final result reaches us, an effect we ourselves experience whose arrival we could never, with our conscious perception, trace backwards in space and time all the way to its original cause.  The idea that the universe works this way nearly outstrips the mind’s ability to imagine, but is nevertheless, at least, possible in theory.  In fact, more than that—when we examine the concept in light of our everyday experience of cause and effect, it’s actually harder to rationalize the notion of coincidence.

THE SIMULTANEITY OF CAUSE AND EFFECT

To accept that somehow our slandering someone today could be the true cause of the broken leg we experience tomorrow, however, requires not just that we conceive of the universe as a cosmic Rube Goldberg machine—that is, not just that we accept the validity of the law of cause and effect—but that we accept the validity of the simultaneity of the law of cause and effect.

The idea that cause and effect come into being simultaneously is yet another incredibly difficult idea to believe (though not the most difficult idea to believe—that one’s coming up).  According to this principle, at the very moment you make a cause, its effect appears within your life immediately, not visibly but rather latently (hence the term latent effect), like a mouse trap being cocked into place, creating a fixed amount of potential energy that any number of things could set off—say, for example, a drunk driver.  An inebriated swerve could easily become the external cause that transforms the potential energy of the latent effect we created by slandering someone into the manifest effect of a broken leg.  That the potential energy of the latent effect need not be released in a form that seems directly related to its original cause (eg, finding ourselves on the receiving end of someone else’s slanderous remarks) but could be released in a novel and seemingly unrelated form entirely like a broken leg, the way matter is converted into energy and energy into matter according to the laws of physics—is actually the most difficult idea to believe of all.  In this example, most of us, believing in the general law of causality, would be tempted to say the drunk driver was the inherent, true cause of our broken leg, but we’d be wrong.  The inherent, true cause was the action that set the mouse trap in the first place, our slander of another person.  In this way, Buddhism argues, we are responsible for every effect (not just what happens to us, but even the experience of emotions like anxiety and depression—everything) that occurs in our lives.  Create a good cause and you enjoy a good effect.  Create a bad cause and you suffer a bad effect.

HOW CAN AN EFFECT BE ENGRAVED IN OUR LIVES?

The chain of causation that connects original causes (eg, slander) to their manifest effects (eg, a broken leg) is simply too sublime to trace from beginning to end, making it difficult, if not impossible, for us to believe such a chain even exists.  In fact, according to Buddhist thought, it requires nothing short of a great awakening—enlightenment itself—for a person to perceive the workings of this law of cause and effect in his or her own life.

True acceptance of the notion that an effect is “engraved” in our lives at the very moment we make its cause may only be achievable by means of a great awakening, but one common phenomenon provides at least a metaphorical framework with which to imagine how this could actually work:  traffic jams.  A traffic jam is well known to persist at the site of an accident for hours after all evidence of the accident has been removed.  With no visible evidence remaining of the original accident, anyone getting caught in a traffic jam at the site of it hours after it had been cleared might reasonably conclude (knowing of the accident from listening to the radio) that the accident’s latent effect had been somehow “engraved” at the site.  Yet if you click on the link above and read the article after finishing this one (it’s long but well worth the read), it becomes clear there’s actually a mechanism by which this “engraving” occurs.  The way causes we make in our lives lead to various effects must also occur through some real mechanism—just one we can’t perceive at a conscious level.

RESPONSIBILITY VS BLAME

If we accept the possibility that we ourselves have made all the causes for all the effects we currently experience in our lives, does that then mean the woman who suffers abuse at the hands of her husband or boyfriend is to blame for it?  Or even worse, deserves it?  Or that a baby is responsible for having been born into poverty?

From the Buddhist perspective, we are indeed responsible, but importantly not to blame, for every effect we experience (blame accruing only if we intend to yield a particular effect at the moment we made the cause for it).  For example, if you buy a train ticket intending to go to New York but mistakenly board a train for Los Angeles, your own action makes you responsible for arriving in Los Angeles but not to blame for it (as arriving in Los Angeles wasn’t your conscious intention).  Whether or not you deserved it isn’t even a consideration.  Through the inexorable workings of cause and effect, you received the effect of the cause you made.  The law of cause and effect is impartial, impersonal, and strict, just like the law of gravity, requiring no higher power to make it run.  It explains how bad things can happen to good people (everyone has made bad causes in the past, and each cause carries with it an effect that must at some point be experienced in the future).  It also, most importantly, places the power to change our destiny firmly in our own hands:  we can continually make better causes in the present that lead to better effects in the future, the best good cause, Nichiren Buddhism teaches, being to actively embrace the law of cause and effect itself by chanting its name, Nam-myoho-renge-kyo (another post in itself).

CONCLUSION

So why does any of this matter?

Because the operation of the law of cause and effect means we do have the power to determine what happens to us—or if not exactly what happens to us, whether what happens to us is good or bad—just not most effectively by using our will like a battering ram to bend circumstances and people into the shape we want.  Rather, we can determine the degree of happiness or suffering in our lives by continuously attempting to reform our most deeply held beliefs that happen to be foolish and untrue.  Only by constantly polishing our character in this way do we become better able to more consistently avoid making bad causes, to reduce the amount of “debt” we must pay and instead increase the amount of money (or fortune, if you will) we can “deposit” into our karmic bank account to be drawn upon when we need it in the future.

It sounds fantastic, I know.  And yet to me also…attractive.  I still don’t know, or entirely believe, that the simultaneity of the law of cause and effect is real, but I want to be the one wholly responsible for everything in my life.  Because if I am, if the power to create havoc in my life really does accrue only to me, then so does the power to create the opposite.  Everything, in other words, is up to me.  Everything.

Next weekOnly Three Ways To Die

43 comments to An Explanation Of Karma

  • Ivan

    Ooh, I’ve got lots to say about this post.

    1. I agree with Dan Dennett on free will. In fact, I’m an incompatibilist in the reverse sense: I don’t think we can have free will without the world being primarily deterministic.

    However, there are physical situations in which it appears there is non-determinism, i.e., events without cause. Neutron decay is a good example. While conservation laws need to be satisfied (i.e., the neutron is a prerequisite for the decay products, energy, momentum, and charge are conserved, etc), the actual time of the decay and the direction of the decay products is fundamentally random (i.e., determined by nothing whatsoever). It’s as if the physical laws determine a probability density, but at root level, the universe makes a random selection according to the distribution. So, I would disagree that we cannot imagine events without cause. They seem pretty straightforward, if counter-intuitive.

    2. The karma idea seems to be unverifiable. When we ask, what would be different about the world if the karma theory were false, we come up empty. And that means that no one has any justification for an inference that the universe works in this way.

    Philosophically, the claim about karma isn’t meaningful because it has no truth value. This is where I have a big problem with religion…

    If karma is just an aesthetic, motivational tool, then we should be clear about that. If it’s like the runner who momentarily imagines herself to be a cheetah, and gets better motivation and performance for the aesthetic play, then that’s fine. It’s kinda cool, in fact. But if our athlete actually believed herself to be a cheetah during this process, most of us would have a big problem with that. And this problem goes beyond practical questions like whether our athlete will attack other animals or try to mate with actual cheetahs. Most people think that knowing the truth is pretty important (even if they don’t always tell it). Any aesthetic appeal to the reality of karma is outweighed by the rational illegitimacy of believing it to be actually true.

    3. Finally, I agree that we have causal powers, but those causal powers are pretty well described by physics. If I pass up an opportunity to help someone on one side of town, that doesn’t make me responsible for getting hit by a drunk driver on the other side of town. They are obviously separated causally, and independently explained. It doesn’t require a second explanation.

    Every proper explanation is predictive. If you can’t predict a thing, you can’t explain it. Karma explains nothing because it predicts nothing. People might think it’s explanatory if they associate explanation with knowing what to do. Karma tells you what to do, and in that regard, it seems like actual explanations (e.g., the way explaining lightning tells you how to protect yourself from lightning strikes).

    I know that universal justice is a seductive concept. I find it’s what drives a lot of theists to their conclusions. The thing is, we know that morality is subjective, and that, simply put, life isn’t fair. However, we do have causal powers to make it much more fair, and making things more fair seems like the best we can do in any case.

    Ivan: The problem is indeed that the idea of karma is fundamentally unverifiable in an objective sense (demonstrable to others) and even, it seems to me, in a subjective sense (how could I ever prove to myself the broken leg I get today was caused by anything I did in the past?). It is also seductive, as you point out, because it means the universe is fundamentally just.

    But just because an idea isn’t verifiable by objective means doesn’t imply it can’t be meaningful. If it correctly explains how something works, that provides great meaning. The issue, of course, as you rightly point out, is that if we can find no legitimate path to believing it, we have no way to make it meaningful to us. The question for me then becomes: is there some experience I could have, that today I can’t predict or even conceive of, that could convince me the notion of karma actually reflects the way the universe works? By definition, of course, I don’t know. You could conclude there couldn’t be if I can’t even imagine it by thought experiment, and yet what stops me from dismissing the possibility altogether are the experiences I’ve had of subjective awakenings to truths about myself through my Buddhist practice that, prior to having them I could never have imagined or predicted, yet once having had them, I was incapable of imagining as false.

    The risk here, of course, is that the athlete who imagines herself to be a cheetah comes to completely believe, incorrectly, that she is indeed a cheetah. It does matter to me that what I believe is true is actually true. So I find myself stuck between my scientific mind completely agreeing with you and my past experience suggesting a purely subjective awakening can provide me with an understanding of truth that, while unverifiable to anyone else (perhaps even myself—risky, I know), nevertheless adds great value to my life (eg-endows me with a sense of responsibility for my life’s outcomes that positively affects the way I think and behave).

    The reason I don’t yet fully embrace the notion of karma as I’ve laid it out in this post is because no such subjective awakening has yet occurred. I recognize it may never. I have no idea, in fact, how it actually could. And yet I leave open the possibility that the limits of my ability to imagine how it could don’t define the limits of what’s actually possible (I’ve been wrong in my predictions so many times before). The whole issue really hinges for me on whether or not enlightenment is a real possibility, on whether or not there’s a legitimate way to know truth other than through our logical, rational minds. Was the Buddha deluded? If so, I’ll never know (not achieving something doesn’t prove it’s impossible). If he wasn’t, I hope to achieve the same understanding as he. Many believe a human being’s subjective perception of reality can never be fully proven to reflect objective reality and that we can never satisfactorily answer the great questions. That may be true but it hasn’t seemed to have stopped me from trying. :)

    I don’t agree that a causeless effect is so easy to imagine, however. Nothing in our experience prepares us to discuss it except as an intellectual concept. What purpose, among others, does the belief in God serve? As a first cause we can’t explain but whose existence explains the beginning of all things. The problem with space and time is that we can neither imagine it as infinite nor as having started (if it did, what preceded it?). And yet here we are, experiencing both. Neutron decay may appear causeless but far more likely to me is that we simply haven’t found a way to demonstrate its cause.

    Thanks for a truly thought-provoking comment. It went right to the heart of the conflict I’ve been facing ever since I began practicing Buddhism, that my rational, scientific mind and subjective experience argue about on a daily basis.

    Alex

  • Hazel

    Have I got this right? What you’re saying is that although I may accidentally do things that have undesirable effects—something I can’t avoid completely—what I DO have power over is my intentions and my responses to circumstances which aren’t what I hoped for.

    Hazel: The law of cause and effect as imagined by Buddhist thought (as compared to general causality) argues that one’s intentions in making causes are what determine their effects, so that the quality of effects that accumulate in your life are the results of something you do have control over. If, for example, you meant to help someone but in taking action inadvertently caused them harm, your intention to do good would engrave a beneficial latent effect in your life, not a negative one.

    Alex

  • “I want to be the one wholly responsible for everything in my life.”

    Indeed, it is a happy thought that we can get back a good return for a good investment. But, as you allow, there is always the possibility that the universe is disinterested. Or perhaps perverse or indiscriminate, and then we get a bad-for-a-good, and nothing is determined.

    At times, I hew to the idea that justice is a human construction, and the return on an investment is only to be had in the immediate. The laws of universal probability would account for bad people prospering, and yet one day having their number come up. One cannot always break the bank.

    I have a hard time with any religious system for this reason: there is the carrot-stick incentivizing of good behavior. I say, just do good because it is the right thing to do. I am the captain of my ship, master of my soul.

    There is good and bad awaiting me, because life is a game of chance.

  • shantu patel

    As a Hindu, my understanding of Karma in simplistic terms is: ”karma” is best understood in terms of the past shaping the present and the present forecasting the future.

    Karma implies a continuum or a cycle of some sort, self-generated to a great extent, but what i struggle with is how can this be a learning experience for a human being when the scope of memory is finite?

    Shantu: Don’t know that the Buddhist view is that karma is intended as anything, much less a learning experience. More that its workings represent a natural law operating within all life. That it simply is, like the law of gravity. And like the law of gravity, that it’s something we can take advantage of or not.

    Alex

  • Henry Benjamin

    “I want to be the one wholly responsible for everything in my life.”

    Well, this struck a chord, as I have often said to myself,

    “I own every moment of my life.”

    Similar, yet different. I can understand your views and wholly agree with your scientific, logical side. However, I have not experienced a great Buddhist revelation, so I am not tempted into believing in karma.

    I also fail to see how karma is useful in anyway other than hindsight. Scientists may make mistakes now and then, but overall the foundation of a scientific theory is that it is testable and reproducible. Karma is neither. Furthermore, karma is not predictive other than the notion of “bad will bring bad, good will bring good.” The nature of the bad or good thing isn’t apparent. If you believe in karma, you’re more likely to think, “Well the car accident was my fault, if I hadn’t slandered my friend, I wouldn’t have been carrying around all this latent negative energy! I must be more careful in the future.”

    I see this as making a connection where there is not any. Your past actions influence your future state in so many ways that we often fail to take into account how important our decisions we make in the present moment are. The belief in karma only makes sense when you tie together things that shouldn’t be tied together.

    Even if your slandering of your friend made you mentally distant, causing you to not pay attention to the road and get into a car accident, wouldn’t it be equally viable if you were distracted by a good date with your lover that you had the night before? Or the good/bad news that you just can’t stop thinking about? Either could cause a car accident, not just a bad action.

    Karma is also painted in a bad light when viewed as a cause of genocide or other crimes against humanity. The poverty and rampant inflation caused by the Treaty of Versailles made post WWI Germany more vulnerable to a fascist takeover. Hitler was elected on a platform of economic reform. After his election, he took dictatorial powers and after making life unbearable for European Jews in the 1930s, he and the Nazi regime started exterminating them in the 1940s.

    It’s a very clear level of cause and effect. The structured, statist society of Nazi Germany made it nearly impossible for individuals to make a difference in the genocide. Before they knew it, Europe’s Jews, ethnic minorities, homosexuals, gypsies, and other people that the Nazi party found distasteful were loaded into cattle cars and sent to work camps or gas chambers.

    How can karma account for these horrific events? Are the children not obeying their father’s orders to study diligently responsible for being sewn together by Dr. Mengele? Or was Dr. Mengele a horrible person whose sickening excuses of scientific experiments earned him a high position in his party and one of the lowest positions in the history books?

    Karma is simply too ego-centric a point of view. I would also like to be responsible for every moment of my life. With a little willpower and problem-solving guile, one can have anything that one wants. There is no fate but what we make.

    However, we can’t predict everything. To state a cliche, life is 10% about what happens to you, and 90% of your reaction to it.

    I’m going to take Aron Ralston for my last example. He went hiking alone (2003) and a boulder dislodged and fell on him, pinning his arm. It was really stupid to be hiking alone and with no cell phone, and without telling anyone of his friends or family where he was going, so he is definitely responsible for that. He is not to blame, though, because nobody thinks about the dangers of a rock falling and pinning him.

    Here is where will and our decisions come into play. After five days of unsuccessfully trying to free his arm and running out of water, he decided that he did not want to die, so he sawed his own arm off with a dull pocket knife.

    I’m just left wondering what in his past he could have done to deserve this, rather than the law of simple cause and effect. The boulder dislodged for reasons of physics. Maybe thermal contraction, a gust of wind, but boulders do that sometimes. Then Aron’s arm got pinned. Then he saved his own life. It was his decision, but he was not responsible for the accident. He could have prepared better, not by being nicer to people, but by being pragmatic, carrying a cell phone, walking with a partner or telling people where he was going. Being a better person with better character wouldn’t have helped him at all; in fact I think if his character was strong enough to cut his own arm off rather than give up, he has little to improve on. Even the best people sometimes do dumb things.

    All I can do is live by my own code of conduct and do good in the world for its own sake. Mostly because I would feel bad otherwise. Some people don’t feel bad, and they do bad things with no remorse. But I don’t think that doing good for the sake of brownie points with the mystical universe is any better than believing in Santa Clause.

    You better not shout! You better not cry! You better not pout I’m telling you why! Karma is going to give you coal in your stockings, now behave!

    All in all though, I think you have far more of a chance in actually finding the day that you can fully believe in karma. My mind is too set in its own ways of thinking. I’d have to radically change my philosophy to even have the chance to prove myself wrong, whereas you’re already open to that possibility through Buddhism. As right as I think I am now, I have to keep my mind open if I’m ever going to learn anything new.

    Henry: Your ode to Santa Claus made me laugh. You raise, as always, well-reasoned, excellent points in your comment. You rightly point out, as did Ivan above, that the Buddhist principle of cause and effect isn’t verifiable. Yet if we look for a causal chain of events that connects a boulder falling at a certain moment to Aron Ralston being positioned in such a way that it pins his arm and can’t find it, does that prove no such chain of events exists? Coincidence may be a much easier explanation to believe for why things happen to us than we ourselves contain a bank of positive and negative energy that manifests concrete results at various times and places, but it seems to me no more verifiable. In fact, if we were to envision all activity in the universe to result simply from the banging together of matter and exchange of energy, wouldn’t it make more sense to conceive of that activity as necessarily conditioned by cause and effect, even if through such a complex chain of it that it appears random to us?

    Alex

  • “How can this be so? According to Nichiren Buddhism, because of the operation of the law of cause and effect.”

    Just to be precise, Alex, it’s not ONLY according to Nichiren Buddhism, but also according to countless practices of Buddhism that existed long before Nichiren Buddhism…

    Josh: Fair enough.

    Alex

  • Mary

    I think he was just using that for an example, Josh.

    Alex, I didn’t have time to read all the responses but I’m glad you brought up “intention.” To me that’s everything.

    Another great read. Your writing always inspires me.

  • Julia

    Hi again Alex,

    I think this is a very good article, and I like that you address many questions about karma. I’ve never really understood the concept, but I trust this to be an adequate summary.

    Cause and effect are a subject I’ve been thinking about quite a bit. I come from a Jewish family, but have to admit a distinct lack of faith after some traumatic events. Right now I choose a middle path in belief. I feel it is self-evident that the sum of a person’s intentions and actions determine their fate. I’ve hardly known an elderly person who hasn’t reaped the results of their actions at the end of their life. It’s easy to tell the person whose life can be summed up with an accumulation of good deeds and friendships versus the depressed and complaining cynic who passes away with no one at their bedside.

    At the same time, I feel there should be room to accept that crap occasionally falls into our lives for no reason whatsoever. For example, a child born into an abusive family could hardly be considered “deserving” of victimization. I’m not even sure Buddhism could sanction that idea; I certainly hope not. However, if that same child reaches adulthood and doesn’t take responsibility for their actions, they do become responsible for future fallout.

    I think this one of those topics that need to be thought about with a great amount of silence.

  • Anchaleeya Thompson

    I’m thinking that people are missing the point of karma by attaching themselves to the concept of entitlement…that is, “If I’m good, then I DESERVE good things to happen to me and if I’m bad then I DESERVE bad things to happen to me”…and then being disgruntled and dismissive of “karma” when bad things happen to good people. It doesn’t make sense to them WHY bad things happen to good people.

    I do believe that we are indeed in charge of our own karmic bank and that future effects are caused by our current and past actions. It’s not about whether we DESERVE it or not. It’s about WHAT we have done and what CHOICES (conscious or subconscious) we have made to get to a certain point in our lives.

    An example of this is that, the other day, I sprained my knee playing soccer. I am a good person who tries to lead a good and honest life…so, did I DESERVE to sprain my knee playing soccer…I can’t say, because “deserve” is irrelevant and is neither here nor there. What it all comes down to is CHOICES and what happens as a consequence of choices. I could have CHOSEN not to play soccer that day and my knee would probably be fine and healthy today. But, instead, I CHOSE to play soccer, even though I understood that soccer can be an aggressive and violent sport. I CHOSE to put myself in harm’s way. I chose to gamble on the fact that I may or may not be injured. At the same time, our choices are inter-related and connected to the choices of others. Had the other person, who injured me, not chosen to play soccer that day, my knee might have been okay today too. BUT, even though his choice affected me, I had already put into motion the choices that put me there in the first place. Many people find this very hard to wrap their heads around.

    Karma is about taking personal responsibility for the things that happen to us and the choices of action that we make, and not being attached to whether we “deserve” something.

  • RG

    Oddly, I don’t think of karma in quite the traditional way of slander causing a broken leg. I think of it more like what goes around comes around—if you’re habitually negative, you’ll focus on the few things that are negative and you’ll generate negativity. If you’re optimistic, helpful, proactive, you’ll find yourself connected to other people, looking for solutions, focusing on the future. The negative person is more likely to be out of sync with their surroundings, which does cause injury. The positive person may also sprain their ankle—instead of a full on broken leg—but they’re more likely to react better to the injury (rest, shrug it off), heal faster, not make the situation worse.

  • Mary

    All I know is, everything in my life is cause and effect; don’t complain about it but always chant for the wisdom to know what to do about it/how to handle that situation/figure out the lesson to be learned, and sometimes that may even mean taking a stand, but I will always know.

    I know this is kind of heavy, but I also believe you are born into your circumstances due to karma from past lives. The beauty of that is you can change your karma in one lifetime; I’ve seen it done. I notice since I’ve come to this realization and since I’ve grown in my practice I hardly ever complain about anything in my life anymore and take 100% responsibility except, of course, at times when my life condition is lower. LOL.

  • Henry Benjamin

    Anchaleeya, I must disagree with you. That’s not karma at all. That’s just cause and effect. You chose to play soccer and there is an acceptable level of risk that you, consciously or unconsciously, chose to undertake. I agree with you, that what happens to you in life, and the choices we make due to that, is absolutely not about whether we deserve something, but rather the things that happen to us, and the actions we then take.

    Karma, on the other hand, is fundamentally defined as a mystical, unmeasurable force. It is the idea that kind thoughts, words, and deeds will bring you better fortune than malicious words, thoughts, and deeds.

    Here’s an excerpt from the Wiki page on karma (not an authority, but serves as a good general definition):

    [Buddhism relates karma directly to motives behind an action. Motivation usually makes the difference between "good" and "bad," but included in the motivation is also the aspect of ignorance; so a well-intended action from an ignorant mind can easily be "bad" in the sense that it creates unpleasant results for the "actor."]

    Thus, karma is concerned with people “deserving” their circumstances. Your definition seems to be just hitting on cause and effect rather than the controversial nature of karma. You say that people think erroneously that karma is about entitlement,

    “If I’m good, then I DESERVE good things to happen to me and if I’m bad then I DESERVE bad things to happen to me.”

    I don’t think that’s erroneous; on the contrary that’s the definition of karma. My personal philosophy is about “taking personal responsibility for the things that happen to us and the choices of action that we make, and not being attached to whether we ‘deserve’ something.”

    That was one of your quotes. But I left out the bit that defined that as karma, because it isn’t.

  • It is important to know what you believe. What goes around does come around. We are, in this present moment, the accumulation of our thoughts and desires. And, the road to hell is paved with good intentions, as actions speak louder than words. Nice blog.

  • isaac

    Two things pop into my mind with this post.

    1—This seems dangerously close to the old view that one became sick because one sinned. It wasn’t the bacterial infection. It was punishment for the sin.

    2—It presumes an arbiter of what is good and what is evil. Or at least something that recognizes tit-for-tat.

    In the end, it’s not too far removed from the old church’s view of do good works, go to heaven. Do bad things, and get punished.

    Isaac: I certainly see your point. One key difference in my mind is that the law of cause and effect is presumed to be natural and impartial, eg, no God required. Of course, this raises the question of how good and evil could be characteristics that arise as a result of a natural law without a consciousness to judge them as such, to which I have no answer.

    But to expand on your own example, I see people come in with bacterial infections of the skin all the time which occur for no obvious reason. I often find myself wondering why a patient happened to become infected at a particular time, or why one patient became infected and not another. You could answer coincidence, but as I argued in a comment above, whether or not events happen by coincidence is not only as debatable and unverifiable as the law of cause and effect, but based on our real-world experience (not to mention the limits of our conception), in my view, less likely to be true.

    Alex

  • I am not terribly familiar with karma, as it isn’t very interesting to me as a philosophical concept, so I haven’t studied it much. But I think perhaps, like many Buddhist ideas, it is not meant to be taken as a literal or immutable law but rather as a koan; as a way to delve into the true nature of impermanence and come up with a conclusion that could ultimately lead to enlightenment.

    Taken literally, there are serious problems with karma, most of which have been well argued in the post and the comments. But seen as a way to peer into our human condition and come up with a different paradigm for cause and effect—the very mechanism of impermanence, perhaps, and therefore of suffering—now that’s exciting.

    Thanks again for a great, thought-provoking post.

  • isaac

    #1—Regarding the inexplicable infections, I will concede the intersection of the physiologic with the metaphysical. As I’m sure you’re aware, it’s pretty clear that stresses of life (or perhaps misbehavior in this example) can weaken the immune system.

    Or, from a psychic perspective, as I once had a wise professor illustrate, you cannot outrun yourself indefinitely. Sooner or later, your subconscious WILL be heard. Jung would probably argue that the soul needed an illness at that point. Life does indeed have a funny way of throwing us “coincidences” at the most interesting times in our life. I’m experiencing that firsthand right now. Much of philosophy/theology to me means being able to hold mutually exclusive ideas in your head simultaneously. There’s always an “on the other hand…”

    #2—The impartiality is where I have the mental block. From whence comes the law? Is killing equal to being killed from a simplistic notion? What about the taking of life through self defense vs. premeditated murder. Both result in the loss of life but in most societies, the judgment is very different. How would the impartial law differentiate? Intent, emotion, what’s in your heart? A sort of evil begets evil?

    Incidentally, I just recently stumbled across your blog and I thoroughly enjoy it.

    Isaac: I’m glad you’re enjoying the blog. Regarding #2: I can’t quite wrap my mind around it, either. Then again, I can’t wrap my mind around how anything physical like a brain, no matter how complex, could ever support or give rise to thoughts and emotions. And yet we all experience them daily. As I wrote in the post, I’m looking for an experience or insight that will bring understanding to me. I recognize no such understanding might be actually possible to have, and all I can say about that is it would really be a bummer. ;)

    However, I know I’ll never achieve that understanding if I don’t take some action, and I’ve experienced enough through my practice of Buddhism to think it just may hold the key.

    Alex

  • Tom Reddock

    I just yesterday found your blog and have enjoyed and benefited from the postings I have read so far, and am very much appreciative of your sharing the insights your education, studies, and spiritual work have produced. You are indeed a crucial and important teacher. Your notes here on karma, however, have left me shaking my head and perhaps even more confused about the subject than I was before.

    I can track with you on these points:
    1. We must each accept responsible for our life, how it flows, its accomplishments and failures, its joys and suffering. What happens to us is not rigidly fixed by an outside force.
    2. What we put out is what we receive. We do not have complete control over what happens to us, yet we have a very strong influence on the manner in which our life unfolds.

    Yet, here is where you lose me: “…that all the causes we make are recorded at some level in our lives as if they were transactions in a bank. Making a good cause would be like depositing money that can be withdrawn at some point in the future, while making a bad cause would be like borrowing money that at some point in the future will have to be repaid.”

    This smacks of the Christian concept of sin and afterlife punishment. God is keeping track (bookkeeping) everything we do, “good” or “bad” (as if these two terms could ever be universally defined), and then doles out punishment or reward upon our death—heaven, purgatory, or eternal damnation. I understood the absurdity of that concept at age fourteen (fifty-six years ago).

    So, I cannot accept the notion that we do “good” things because we want to make a deposit in our good karma bank. If reward is our motivation, the “good” act is flawed. We do “good” things to help relieve suffering. We do “bad” things to cause suffering. Yet, it has been my experience that the universe does serve as a backboard, sending back to us what we have sent out. Fear engenders fear. Love engenders love. So, “if you want peace, be peace” (Thich Nhat Hanh), and there is no way to “Fight for Peace” (a sign I once saw over the entrance to a US Air Force base).

    Alex, it’s the “bookkeeping” part of your explanation that I’m having trouble with. The precision, the balancing act—debits on the left, credits on the right—(or is it the other way around). And anything that requires a “great awakening” or “enlightenment” to be experienced or understood leaves me out from the get go. Like most people, I’m just an everyday guy, living my life as best I can given the conditions in which I find myself, and looking for help and support wherever I can find it.

    I’ve got to say, I read the posting with great hope that I could catch a hold of this concept, and have left it shaking my head bewildered, and wondering if perhaps I’m just not bright enough to “get” this teaching.

    Thank you SO much for the work you are doing. I have subscribed to this feed and will be reading your posts every week.

    Tom: Isaac makes the same objection in his comment above to the “bookkeeping” concept embedded in the law of cause and effect. In addition to what I said in response to him I’d add here that I, too, find it tempting to believe this idea was put forth not just as an explanation for how the universe and life are governed but as a deliberate way to motivate good behavior, much like the Christian concept of sin and afterlife punishment as you reference. However, I’d caution against using the fact that such a concept is socially and politically expedient to conclude it’s less likely to be true. You say above in #2 that you agree that “what we put out is what we receive”—yet how can this be if there isn’t some kind of “bookkeeping” going on at some level?

    I wonder if it would be easier to grapple with how “good” and “evil” causes could yield “good” and “bad” effects if we substitute the words “joy” and “suffering” for “good” and “evil.” Causes made with the intent to create joy would yield “good” effects and causes made with the intent to create suffering would yield “bad” ones. I recognize this model still seems too good to be true (or perhaps too convenient to be true) especially since, as Ivan points out above, it’s not actually verifiable through conventional means. And it’s still difficult to imagine how such energies could be stored within our lives as a function of a natural law.

    Which is why I suspect a “great spiritual awakening” to be the only way to perceive the truth of it. However, just because such an awakening might need to be “great” doesn’t mean it isn’t accessible to “everyday guys.” In fact, intellectual prowess might be a distinct disadvantage here, causing, as it so often does, an over attachment to one’s own views and the conceited belief that only what can be grasped through reason has validity and that which cannot must not, by definition, be true. Adherents to the temple of reasoned observation elevate it, perhaps, to a position it doesn’t entirely deserve (as powerful as it admittedly is). To answer the great questions don’t seem possible via reasoned observation. Whether that means we as human beings therefore can’t ever succeed in doing so is debatable. That such answers exist, however, is not. We’re here, we live, we die—something happens to us, whether we can ever convincingly uncover what it is or not before it happens notwithstanding. But if we open our minds to the possibility that our subjective wisdom is linked to objective reality and that there might be a valid way to achieve a “great spiritual awakening,” then we only need two things: 1) a determination or desire to achieve it and 2) an easy and effective practice that produces it.

    If you’re interested, you might navigate to the “About” page and click on the SGI link to learn about Nichiren Buddhism as a way to achieve this awakening. Not having achieved it yet myself I don’t absolutely know that my Buddhist practice will produce it, but my previous experiences with it suggest it might. My purpose in writing this post wasn’t so much to convince anyone the Buddhist view of karma was true but to encourage interested people to explore the possibility for themselves.

    Alex

  • isaac

    In my own life, that’s where I start to take a pragmatic approach and say that it works for me, even if I don’t fully understand it.

  • Julia

    I think the bank account analogy is actually a very accurate description of how our actions (hence our reputation) build a positive or negative balance in relationships. Indiscretions are more likely to be forgiven if they are weighed against a positive balance. I was first introduced to the idea in Covey’s 7 Habits book. A score is definitely being kept, but I am skeptical that the officiator is a divine or cosmic force.

    Rather, I think the score is kept by fellow humans and rewards paid out accordingly. But, sometimes I wonder if there might not be more to it than that…

  • Stephanie

    Very interesting article and discussion. I’m not going to pretend to be an expert on Buddhism or karma, as I only briefly studied these ideas many years ago (although this has certainly now renewed my interest). But I have several thoughts on this topic.

    My understanding is that with karma the “cause” is the combination of both action and intent and cannot be thought of as just one or the other, and that the “effect” is also a combination of the event and the state of mind that it produces. For instance, death in and of itself is neither good nor bad, it is simply an event in the natural cycle of life. There are those who experience profound physical or emotional pain, who see death as a welcome event. Then of course those who do not wish to die see death as the ultimate punishment.

    To digress just a bit, there are philosophies that view intent as a form of energy, perhaps generated by the mind. Reiki, or healing hands, is sometimes thought of as the healer using the energy of intent and focusing it through their hands.

    Perhaps intent colors the action one performs by adding a certain type of energy to it, and like a chemical reaction, sets in motion a chain of events with a certain predictable outcome. And like a chemical reaction, other chains of events set into motion from other “intent + action” reactions or at other points in time can disrupt, alter, or accelerate the original reaction.

    To call a particular intent “good” or “evil” may also be passing too much judgment on the intent, particularly when coupled with the idea that karma is impartial. Just to make the idea more tangible, maybe intent is divided into something as simple as those intents which cause a release of endorphins, and those which prevent endorphin release. There is nothing “good” or “evil” about endorphins, but high endorphin levels lead to a sense of happiness, and low levels a lack thereof.

    Not that any of the above thoughts explains karma. But maybe its a start towards approaching an understanding. I always thought of enlightenment more as having a moment of total insight into how everything is, and that this was not possible without first letting go of the notion that there is good or evil, right or wrong, in the way of things (among other notions and attachments).

    Thanks again for another great post!

  • Billions of words have been written about karma and yet the best explanation is the simplest. As the Buddha said, “Action and reaction are opposite and equal,” and as Jesus said, “As you sow, so shall you reap.”

    Something you haven’t gotten into here is reincarnation. I think karma and reincarnation really have to be talked about hand in hand in order for them to make sense. For example, someone like Saddam Hussein couldn’t possible reap the consequences of his actions in only one lifetime.

    Julian: Agreed. I made brief mention of it in the first paragraph but what you say is true. But if the law of cause and effect is hard to believe…

    Alex

  • rdp

    Pulling up towards the rear again, I can’t help but notice that all the examples given of consequences here are things people have lived long enough—at last theoretically—to have “caused.” But what about babies who die excruciating deaths, children who are abused violently, and victims of genocide? Doesn’t karma as you discuss it make the Holocaust the responsibility of the Jews? And even of a three-year-old who is gassed? I can’t accept this. As a “rule-of-the-road” I think holding oneself responsible for what happens in one’s life as long as things aren’t too dire makes sense; but using karma as an explanatory model for what happens in the world seems to require us to accept too much cruelty and injustice as “fate.”

    I admit to a powerful pull toward the idea of reincarnation, if only because it offers a hopeful way of seeing how karma might work through us to making purer souls (or something evolutionary like that). But without reincarnation, the notion of karma leaves you, in the case of Innocents, at the same dead end as deo-centric religions that tell you that God works in mysterious ways. I think it is hard-wired in us to look for causal mechanisms (see some wonderful work by Alison Gopnik on this appearing even in babies http://www.alisongopnik.com/Papers/default.htm) but it seems to me we have to temper our desire for these explanations with our moral sense.

    rdp: Without a doubt, the notion of karma as I’ve outlined it presumes reincarnation occurs, which implies none of us is truly “innocent” (meaning without a “balance sheet” of past karmic causes). The notion may outrage our moral sense that a baby could be responsible for being abused or each Jew who died in the Holocaust was responsible for his or own death. But if we’re strict in the way we define responsible—meaning, in the karmic sense, simply that we took action in the past that led to our being abused as a baby or gassed by the Nazis—it neither removes moral culpability from those who commit or committed evil against us nor does imply we deserve or deserved the suffering they inflict or inflicted upon us.

    One aspect of karma people seem to be ignoring is to me the most attractive aspect of it: if we ourselves are responsible even for things that we have no apparent control over, then we potentially have the ability to change those very same things. I recognize this view of the universe requires swallowing not only the concept of the law of cause and effect but of reincarnation as well. It does, however, allow us to satisfy our sense of justice if, for example, one of those babies who was born into abuse was, in fact, HItler or Stalin or even just an unknown person who, in some past life or lives, made the causes to be abused. Tough to swallow stuff, I freely admit.

    Alex

  • rdp

    And more than a little scary, too. I appreciate the subtlety of your argument, but I would worry if people were too quick to assume that little children “deserve” the abuse they receive. For me, what’s of paramount importance is creating a belief system that leads people to do better that they have done or would do without it. I could not accept a system that would allow (encourage) some of us to tolerate a child’s suffering or death because we believed a karmic debt was being paid. And I worry that even if you SAY it doesn’t remove moral culpability from the people who commit the atrocities, it will be felt as some kind of justice.

    rdp: All good points. Any explanation for why things happen to people could be twisted to justify immoral acts. However, I’m not so much interested in finding or creating a belief system to motivate behavior as I am in discovering how things actually work.

    Alex

  • Tom Reddock

    Some things cannot be known or proved in this consciousness we all share/create. The question of karma, as you explain it, Alex, requires a belief in reincarnation and the karmic banking system as discussed above. I have tried to make that stretch throughout my life without success, so far, and have come to the conclusion that, for me, it really doesn’t matter. Let the mystery be just that, and perhaps the truth will finally be known after we leave this life. But while here on this earth in this life, the work is to do what we can to help relieve suffering and to do our best to love and respect all people and other living things. I’m sure that we can all agree that love engenders love. Let that be enough. Just to breathe in and breathe out in this precious moment is a miraculous blessing. Let us share this moment in peace and leave the unknowable to its own means.

    This posting and discussion has been lively, interesting and enlightening in many ways, and thank you, Alex, for your insights and for bringing us together, and to everyone who has participated for the opportunity to share in this way.

    Tom: Words of real wisdom, to be sure. I sometimes think I should forcefully abandon my need to know some of these answers. If only I could get myself to do it…

    I agree the conversation has been quite lively and thank you for participating in it as well.

    Alex

  • sefacci

    Alex,
    I just found your blog using StumbleUpon and this post has given me a lot to think about.

    #1—The way you distinguish blame and responsibility is an aspect of karma I had not considered before. I can now look back at my life and stop beating myself up and simply say “I made the cause for this. I can accept that.”

    #2—Given the assumption that karma works exactly the way you have described, I don’t think we would ever be able to find such a clear correlation between the cause and the effect in question. If you think of the metaphor of a butterfly flapping its wings in Brazil, and a tsunami occurring in India (or whatever variation of that) I think that is a much more realistic way to look at it. It seems to me that we are the product and sum of our choices, but given that we make hundreds or thousands of tiny choices every day, I don’t see how the link between cause and effect could ever be verified, or should be for that matter.

    For example, one night I decided to go to a party that my friend was not invited to. He wanted me to stay home and hang out with him, but I didn’t want to because he was making me angry. We got into an argument before I left. I went to the party, wanting to let off some steam, got rather drunk. That night I met a man and we started dating shortly after. About a year later, I moved across the country with him. The neighborhood we moved into turned out not to be that good and I was in the right place at the right time to be mugged and pepper-sprayed by three men practically right outside my house. This lead to several months of extreme anxiety and stress. Because of the stress, a latent gene I have was activated and I began to suffer from celiac disease, a permanent and incurable (though treatable) condition. Now, did all this happen because I had an argument with my friend? Well, yes and no. I made choices that had I not made I would never have met this man and may never have ended up in this neighborhood at this particular time. But certainly I should not feel as though all this was punishment for blowing off my friend. There were also “rewards” for this path of actions. I have been with this man for over 4 years and have a career in yet another city that we moved to. I have become a stronger person. So clearly I think karma is way more complicated than we think.

    #3—As a fan of thought experiments, I am pondering the possibility of karma having an actual basis in quantum physics. I think probably we are still QUITE a ways off from being able to understand anything of this complexity, but if you think of M theory which tries to unite string theory and multi-dimension universes I suppose it could be possible. I am no expert in this but some say a new universe is created every time a decision is made, one for each possible outcome. That certainly would take away the value judgment of “good” and “bad” that we are talking about in black and white terms, making the whole topic very much more complex.

    Sefacci: I especially agree with your #2. The exact chain of causation, beginning with a cause we ourselves have made and leading to an effect or effects we experience today, seems too sublime for us to ever be able to trace (which, paradoxically, makes it almost impossible to believe it exists, if not—as others have pointed out—truly impossible to prove objectively). And yet the metaphor of the accident causing the car jam suggests a way to conceive how it might exist, even if beyond our ability to verify by objective experimentation. Your description of how taking the action of going to a party, motivated at least in part by your desire to blow off steam, which then led to a life-changing series of effects, is a great example of how responsibility and blame can exist as separate issues, at least in my mind. And finally, your #3, while obviously purely speculative emphasizes the important point that if the law of cause and effect is actually real, it can’t occur by magic—that is, it must occur through some mechanism, even if one we can’t objectively evaluate.

    Alex

  • Anonymous

    Hi Alex,

    You have a thought problem (I know it well, I was affected too for many years) that is very common in discussions of the supernatural:

    Person A: Karma explains good and bad events.

    Person B: But karma is not scientifically verifiable.

    Person A: You can’t prove karma doesn’t exist! (or, “Ah, but coincidence is also not verifiable. You also have no evidence to support coincidence as the underlying cause of things.”)

    The problem here is that you’re seeing karma and coincidence as alternative theories. This is not the case. This is exactly analogous to the debate between the religious and the atheists, and it goes something like this: “I believe there is a God while you believe there is no God, and you also cannot prove that your belief is correct just as I cannot prove that mine is correct.”

    Or course, the problem with this discussion is that atheism is NOT a belief system, just as coincidence is not a system for explaining anything. It is a “base” state to which evidence must be added in order to support idea of, for instance, a deity, or a karmic system. The way to tell which is which, is to detect which side is making a *positive* statement.

    In the world, events occur. Some people put forward explanations of why things happen. The person making the *positive assertion* must provide the evidence. There really is no other way to discuss these things; otherwise you get lost pretty quickly. It is usually impossible to prove an infinite negative, and then you don’t know where you are anymore. Examples:

    - You can’t prove God doesn’t exist!
    - You can’t prove karma doesn’t apply!
    - You can’t prove that Heaven doesn’t exist!
    - You can’t prove there are no unicorns!
    - You can’t prove Santa doesn’t exist!

    And so on, and so on. This is really a pointless line of questioning. There are an infinite number of things that cannot be proven untrue. We must require evidence of the person making the positive assertion in order to hold a meaningful debate. In this case, you, or Buddha, is making a claim about karma: then you must provide the evidence to support the claim.

    Your redeeming comment:

    “However, I’m not so much interested in finding or creating a belief system to motivate behavior as I am in discovering how things actually work.”

    Amen to that. I am a chemical engineer and a Yoga teacher, so I have also tried to tackle these questions from multiple sides, e.g. scientific vs experiential. For me, scientific methods are winning.

    Anonymous: I don’t disagree with your reasoning here at all. But it’s your own arguments that have sparked my interest in a spiritual awakening as a legitimate means to discover the truth about “how things actually work.” If, as you and others have pointed out, we can’t objectively prove or disprove whether or not the principle of karma operates or that God exists, it seems we have only two choices: either accept we will never know these answers or seek alternative means besides objective experimentation to discover the truth of them. Just because one can’t apply objective experimentation to answer questions about karma doesn’t mean one can’t apply scientific reasoning to a subjective awakening that could (of course, as I’ve not yet had such an awakening, I don’t know if it even exists as a real possibility—I may very well reach the end of my life empty-handed, but to try and fail seems better than not to have tried at all). I’m not interested in coming to believe something wholeheartedly (even if it benefits me by relieving me, for example, of my anxiety about death) if it’s not objectively true. However, I also fully recognize there may not be a way to be 100% convinced that truths arrived at through a great spiritual awakening actually do reflect objective reality, and I recognize the potential for self-delusion here is great. But, then again, even objective science can only be known through subjective perception.

    Alex

  • Frank

    As has been mentioned in the comments, I think it is important to understand that the workings of karma go far beyond the materialistic cause and effect of science. One’s karma accumulates and is expended over many lifetimes and is intertwined with the karma of countless other beings. Only omniscient buddhas can truly understand the specific karmic consequences of one’s mental grasping.

  • Ivan

    If I’m not an omniscient buddha, the world will look exactly like the world of material cause and effect? Gosh darn, that’s convenient.

    I’m sick of superstitious lies and nonsense. Science is about eliminating personal bias. If science can’t see it, and reason can’t prove it, it’s no better than personal bias.

    Karma is just another universal justice fantasy, and claiming it to be real is deceptive.

    Uh oh, I must be accumulating lots of undetectable bad karma because I’m losing my patience with all this superstition. Fortunately, no experience I’ll ever have will be detectably altered by the karma.

  • Frank

    “If science can’t see it, and reason can’t prove it, it’s no better than personal bias.”

    Sure, you can hold this view. You’ve got FAITH in science.

  • Ivan

    Wrong, Frank. I have faith in reason. Science follows from reason. But nice attempt to make every question a matter of faith.

  • rdp

    I do hope I’m not belaboring this (and building up more bad karma!!), but I trust that you are earnest in wanting to grapple with the issues you bring to the table here, so here goes.

    I’m interested in finding out how things actually work, too. But one of the ways I KNOW they work is that people tend to seize on moral, religious, or philosophical notions to excuse their bad behavior. Perhaps it is the pursuit of an explanation that is problematic—as with abstraction, the local and the particular may be sacrificed to the “theory” one chooses. I guess what I was trying to say is that it is a mistake to argue for theories in a vacuum, as if they had no consequences. Just as we should suspect any ideology that reduces people to functions, we need to tread carefully when an explanation for “how things work” might result in people feeling even less motivated to address injustice than they already are. (An analogy in medicine might be that although you want to know exactly how the body succumbs to disease, in the meantime you don’t encourage people to ignore conventional medical wisdom.)

    You say, Alex, that if “we can’t objectively prove or disprove whether or not the principle of karma operates or that God exists, it seems we have only two choices: either accept we will never know these answers or seek alternative means besides objective experimentation to discover the truth of them.”

    I want to suggest a third option: that we proceed through life with our eyes as open as they possibly can be and try to do right as much as we can and see if the truth seeks US.

    Or am I missing your point entirely? Is it that you want the feeling of certain knowledge?

    rdp: I absolutely am in earnest in wanting to grapple with these issues and very much appreciate the opportunity to dialogue. It’s actually quite helpful to have my thinking challenged (how else could I find the holes in it?).

    I agree, as you say, that “people tend to seize on moral, religious, or philosophical notions to excuse their bad behavior.” Yet I don’t view that risk as a reason not to put one forth. Nor do I view the purpose of exploring how things really work to be to motivate people to behave in any particular way, good or bad (your point about not arguing theories in a vacuum is important, but I wouldn’t use it here for the same reason I wouldn’t use it to argue Einstein shouldn’t have theorized E=mc squared. It gave us the ability to build an atomic bomb, true, but it also gave us nuclear power and a host of other incredibly valuable discoveries and technologies. How we use them, in my mind, really is a separate issue). Further, though I recognize the notion of karma could easily be used to justify tolerating the suffering of others (if everyone, by definition, causes their own misery), more importantly for me it opens up the possibility that any suffering is conquerable (for if I created it, I can un-create it). Though many may indeed find it difficult to feel pity for a smoker who gets lung cancer, I’ve found that watching a smoker (who has family they love and who love them) actually die has the sobering effect of inducing great compassion. I think to myself: how tragic that they weren’t able to conquer such a horrible addiction in time to save themselves. Though I may not suffer from the particular thought process that leads another to take up smoking, I suffer from others that create problems for me in other realms. To really understand the principle of cause and effect is to recognize it operates in everyone’s life without prejudice or pardon. In this sense, it’s the great equalizer.

    As to the third option you mention for finding truth, I wish it were so. I have to admit my doubt that the truth about how things actually work will bop me on the head if I’m not earnestly seeking it. I do, in fact, want the feeling of certain knowledge for the simple reason that I find knowledge without certain belief has little power to combat suffering. If I only suspect reincarnation is real without really being convinced of it, how will that knowledge help eliminate my fear of death?

    Thanks as always for your truly thoughtful comments.

    Alex

  • rdp

    I value your thoughts, too, Alex, even if I can’t help quibbling just a tad about your analogy to Einstein’s theory of relativity on the grounds that no scientific theory actually affects the action of the entities it purports to describe. Newton’s theory didn’t change the action of gravity nor Einstein’s, matter and energy. But theories about life and meaning DO change the way people conduct their lives. So I feel that extra caution may be in order when disseminating theories (although not in contemplating them, for sure) that may lead to bad ends.

    Because you are compassionate you are led to want to investigate ways to alleviate suffering. And yet I wonder if knowledge plus certain belief is the only way to do this. Much to think/write about there.

    Did you see the piece in the NYTimes about happiness a week or so ago? I made a copy of one of the reader’s posts that left an especial impression on me. Here’s what was written:

    “Having just recently moved to Budapest from Lisbon this post fit me like a glove this morning.

    Yesterday took a train and then a bus up to check out Visegrad. A trip that should have taken no more than 30 minutes anywhere else in Europe took an excruciating 2 hours in a humidly hot HEV and then in a bouncing-stop-everywhere volantbusz.

    Getting there decided to go up to the castle overlooking the Danube like any tourist would do. I chose to walk the 5 km road. My mind racing with thoughts of the very things you talk about in your essay. Nevertheless, the heat and humidity and resulting perspiration (and the empty soda bottles lying around) are the only memories I have of that hour or so, the moment having passed.

    On the way down went through a hiking path with stone markings for all the stops on the cross, as if the minor physical suffering of those climbing up could be somehow accepted if seen in that frame of mind.

    And then it dawned on me that was what it was all about: THE SUFFERING. We must search for it, accept it and not flinch, in much the same way women forget the pain of childbirth and have more children.

    Therewith lies HAPPINESS.”

    rdp: Good point about my analogy. I didn’t see NYTimes piece but will check it out. Thanks for the copy of that reader’s comment. Interesting.

    Alex

  • Dr. A:

    The following thoughts are right off the top of my head, quite unbaked. But while reading what you say about karma and the problem of causation, I couldn’t help but think about a book that I’m slowly plowing thru, called “How Brains Make Up Their Minds” by Walter J. Freeman. Freeman applies chaos theory paradigms to the neural network outlines of brain-mind operation, and comes up with some really deep insights about what “intention” is and about how perception, conception and interaction all intermix. (I’m going to need to read this book twice).

    In one of the later chapters, Freeman gets into a discussion of causation as it applies to chaotic processes (i.e., in a “Rube Goldberg” mechanism) where “attractors” somehow emerge from the static, thus representing a “state of mind” or a “decision” (really, a unified intention-action event).

    Well, again, this is not fully thought thru on my part, but there seems to be much overlap between Freeman’s exciting application of chaos theory concepts to the mind, and your sophisticated discussion of the true (truer, anyway) nature of karmic cause and effect. Freeman makes the point that cause and effect in the brain is nothing like linear causality, and linear concepts of how the mind works (perception, conception based on pre-formed concepts, decision, action) soon reach the end of their usefulness. He says that even a “circular” concept of causality is just a quick-fix to linear causation. It’s perhaps beyond what we have word for at this point, although maybe it perceivably unfolds amidst math equations and computer graphic simulations of chaotic dynamics.

    Chaos (in the scientific sense of the word, not the “street sense”) amidst the sea of neurons in a healthy working human brain results in a hugely interactive emergence of a unified conception-perception-action-updated perception-updated conception-follow up action loop (or a better geometric metaphor is a sphere, with simultaneous crisscross interactive movement in every direction at once).

    As such, what we do CAUSES what we conceive and perceive about the world; simultaneously, what we conceive and perceive about the world CAUSES what we do. To the degree that we have some form of free will emerging as an “attractor” at the highest levels of brain integration, perhaps we can learn to feed-back our “highest thinking” into this chaotic emergence, by a simultaneous mix of right action and right thought. Right thought will fail if not “caused” (in the higher-order sense) by right action. Right action will likewise fail if . . . you get the pic.

    Then take it up a notch, to a higher level, i.e. the chaotic networks of society and social interaction. TO THE DEGREE that society somehow HAS a “higher awareness”, one somehow invested / distributed amidst the best women and men amongst it, perhaps that society can inject a simultaneous right-thought / right-action “attractor basin” into the social network (although those sages / bodhisattvas typically have to suffer for doing that). Is that positive social karma? And thus it is also subject to negative “attractor basins” (Hitler, Stalin, etc.)…perhaps even the lone good woman or man though can likewise set a good attractor loose in the “local neighborhood” of her or his social network.

    Is karma a “strange attractor?” Is evil one form of this karma-attractor, as might also be truth, beauty and goodness? And then, just what could “get above” the chaotic attractor to “see” and “judge” the difference between these karmas? Is there a “meta-attractor” of sorts that somehow perceives some really deep signals and patterns in the universe, patterns or signals that silently, unperceivably (unperceivable to normal mind / attractor emergence) form a “basin” that distinguishes truth and life’s goodness from evil and life’s decay (on both the individual and social level)?

    Or is it all just a Dawkins-like matter of feel-good, feel-bad; support to my body’s continued existence, threat to my body’s continued existence; with a hint of long-term best interest thrown in?

    Hmmm, not sure if this babble went anywhere; might just be a side-effect of the heat and humidity here on the east coast. Not sure if this takes the idea of karma anywhere aside from a “random walk.” Maybe I’ll get a chance to re-ponder this over the weekend, if it manages to cool down.

    Jim G.

    Jim: I have to confess I’m going to need to read your comment several times and think about it. It does seem at one level you’re pondering how thought, intention, perception, and conception can possibly arise out of physical matter. I’d recommend “A Brief Tour of Human Consciousness” by V.S. Ramanchandran for a fascinating dissection of the mind/brain dichotomy. And don’t let the heat make you sweat. ;)
    Alex

  • jstele

    I don’t think karma invalidates the notion of right and wrong. At some point, we were all new souls. Someone had to be the first to do something wrong, which led to negative consequences for the victim. The first victim could have been faultless. Also, there are different kinds of karma. Sometimes, people choose to experience certain things to learn certain lessons. They may not deserve to be treated poorly, but chose to face adversity to develop inner qualities like strength and compassion. Or they may need to learn self-esteem or self-love and stay away from destructive people.

    I think that it is counterproductive and just really pointless to take responsibility for everything that happens to you. I think that one should look for the root cause of the event and consider the possibility that they caused it. But some things are really hard to trace. I think you just need to live as consciously and responsibly as you can and just do your best because you are the one constant in your life, so you will have the most influence over your life.

    When we see someone victimized, we should not ask whether they caused it or not. Unless we are psychic, how can we know? We should just be compassionate. If karma works, then everything will balance out in the end.

  • Thanks, Dr. A.; Ramachandran is always a great read. As to karma and its relationship to chaos theory, I did a quick web search, and there is a book on this topic. Here’s a site:

    http://books.google.com/books?id=t3-BsN3lF7sC&printsec=frontcover&dq=Karma+and+Chaos+:+New+and+Collected+Essays+on+Vipassana+Meditation#v=onepage&q=&f=false

    Also, here’s the first 3 pages of the chapter on chaos theory:

    http://host.pariyatti.org/articles/Karma_and_Chaos.pdf

    I haven’t read the book yet, but perhaps I wasn’t just hallucinating!

    Also, it seems that I was taking the notion of attractor patterns / karma amidst the neurons in the brain, and extending that to the scale of social functioning. It just struck me, there’s something rather fractal about this! Now, if I really wanted to get metaphysically imaginative, I could push this “fractal pattern repetition across varying scales” even further, zooming down to the microworld of the quantum, and then bursting out to the macroworld of galaxies and maybe even universes. Voila, Karma is then both a quantum and a meta-universal form of order! Akin to those wild speculations in some parts of Hindu literature including certain of the Upanishads. Perhaps I should quit while I’m ahead, though.

    Jim G.

  • Lex DeNovo

    @Ivan et al.

    A new friend shared with me the following: “The illusion of free will empowers the fiction of the ego to accommodate the existential error of the separate self.”

    Now, back to finishing reading your comment…
    :)

  • Evelyn

    I view karma as creating an ethical obligation to the future that other philosophies don’t have.

    For example, Christianity has a view of ethics that lasts only as long as your lifetime, then you’re in a different environment (heaven/hell), which doesn’t affect this one.

    A karmic view has all of your actions affecting you and the world now, and in the future, in all of the many possible worlds.

    A great responsibility and a great gift.

  • Janice

    Oh, this is so true. At least to me. I’ve believed this my whole life for whatever reason. It doesn’t have anything to do with blame or morality, although some may see it that way and choose to dismiss (or accept) it on those grounds.

    I believe that we are part of the natural world and therefore part of the delicate balance of nature. And nature itself can hum along quite nicely thank you without any help from outside influences, but yet there’s man and all that we do to influence nature both positively and negatively, but there’s also hurricanes and tornadoes and whatever else which can destroy everything in its path.

    i believe that in each of us is a similar ecological balance that we are always struggling with (like the expression “trying to stay even”) and that our beliefs (externally formed) and our actions (expressions of our beliefs) have the capacity to transform events and create circumstances that come back to us, just like in nature. It may not happen right away and it may not be obvious, but it happens. We have infinite power over everything including what happens to us even if it’s being in the right (wrong) place at the right (wrong) time.

    Somewhere I read something that in making critical decisions one should think about the consequence in 5 minutes, 5 hours and 5 years. Although the author didn’t specifically say so, this was about karma.

  • JB

    Having read all of the above, I still have a a question that nags me—how does one deal with intermittent verbal abusive attacks and other non-physical, but nevertheless hurtful attacks, over a long period of time, by a person who is trying to reform their former self, and who apparently now firmly believes in karma in all of its glory?

    The connection is familial (father-daughter relationship).

    Is it the (karmic) duty of the one being attacked to allow this to continue, to continually turn the other cheek, and forgive and keep a loving relationship with the attacker (who is apologetic and promises to reform after each incident), as the two individuals being related implies some kind of karmic bond/debt that needs to be worked out? Or is it just plain old emotional abuse that should not be tolerated?

    Where does one draw the line?

    Many thanks in advance for your opinions; they are really important in helping me sort this mess out.

    JB

    JB: The law of cause and effect as described by the practice of Nichiren Buddhism doesn’t justify, promote, or even suggest that you should passively accept any negative situation simply because you yourself are responsible for creating it by the causes you’ve made in the past. Rather, you should take full ownership of whatever part you may be playing in the negative interactions you have with your father (even if you don’t know what they are) and resolve with all your might to change them. It may seem a daunting task to try to change something about yourself you haven’t even identified, but often simply being willing to look at “your side of the street” will enable you to discover what it might be. This in no way excuses his negative behavior toward you. But as you can’t change him, your only chance to improve your relationship with him is to change yourself. If you manage to make a genuine change, he won’t be able to prevent himself from being affected by it. The challenge lies in viewing your current troubles with your father as an opportunity to improve your own life. Imagine he is the universe itself delivering an important message to you about yourself. What is this situation saying to you? You should never allow anyone to treat you with disrespect, but neither do you need to respond with anger in kind in order to preserve your dignity. He is responsible for his attacks on you. You are responsible for having a father who attacks you. Every experience can be transformed into an opportunity for growth that heals relationships if you approach it not with prescriptions for how someone else should change their behavior toward you, but how you can improve your behavior toward them. If you can rise above the hurt he makes you feel and view him as someone who must be suffering greatly to attack his daughter of all people, you’ll find yourself in the best position to manifest the wisdom you need to improve the situation. I hope this helps!

    Alex

  • JB

    Thanks for you most eloquent reply!

    It is interesting to hear you say that I need to change something about my behaviour in order to move this situation forward.

    I did just that 2 weeks ago, in response to his latest attack—I finally told him how much I was hurt by his emotional and psychological abuse that I had to silently endure for many, many years but which was never discussed. I told him of the long term effect that had on my life, in terms of health, and choices I did or did not make because I had it drummed into me that I was “not worthy.” I told him that this was the reason why I would not leave my daughter (his granddaughter) on her own at his house. These were issues that were always swept under the carpet for the sake of his happiness, for the sake or peace and family unity, never to be discussed.

    So, yes—I did do something different, the universe was telling me to speak up (finally, at the age of 41), hand over the burden to him to carry for a while (interestingly, I had an unexplained lump in my throat for weeks before, that simply disappeared after I unburdened myself). I did not do so with anger; as much as I hate to put such things in writing, I had to do so in this case, as he is not the type to let anyone finish a sentence before the yelling starts. Not to mention that he only hears what he wants to. So, I chose my words very carefully and put them in writing so he can refer back to them over and over.

    It has taken a week for me to stop shaking, for my hands to steady after my outpouring. I have established my boundaries; for the time being I need to heal again after having to rip open my healed wounds in order to show him why and what was hurting. Unfortunately, his (written) response was that it is all a fabrication of my imagination. I will not take his calls or see him; I need to regain my emotional equilibrium. Having a family of my own, I must ensure that they are not also affected.

    Having spoken to a qualified person about my father, I was told that going by the description of his behaviour, he may have a personality disorder. If I place myself in his path again before he gets some help, am I not just enabling him to continue creating karma between us? I feel his problems are deeper, and our relationship problems are just symptoms of his greater issues. I feel duty towards him as my father, but there is a limit as to how long I will be part of this Punch & Judy show.

    Thanks again,
    JB

    JB: I can only imagine how difficult that discussion must have been. Congratulations on mustering the courage to defend yourself. Telling the truth as you honestly see it in the spirit of compassion (for yourself as well as him) is never a mistake. He may not be in a place where he can make use of it now, but you never know whether or not one day your words may break through his veneer of denial that his relationship with you is broken and help him heal as well. If he does have a personality disorder he will be extremely difficult to treat. Medicine just doesn’t yet have good tools to help. Sometimes, if a person represents poison, even if they are the closest person in the world to us, we must detach from them with love in order to preserve our own well being and that of our family. This is sometimes the most appropriate action to take. The best of luck to you!

    Alex

  • Arthur

    Thank you for the post. I enjoyed reading it and I have a few questions:

    1) Do you really mean that a “good cause” will return a “good effect”; or do you simply mean a “cause” will return an “effect”? If the former, what is “good”/”bad”? If the latter, how can I become more capable of understanding the law? (I do sometimes see connections between certain “causes” and “effects” in my life; and I feel very peaceful when they occur to me rather spontaneously.)

    2) Is there any way I could control the “effects” with my intended “causes”? Would that even be possible before I truly perceive their relationships and even that seems quite difficult since ‘it requires nothing short of a great awakening—enlightenment itself—for a person to perceive the workings of this law of cause and effect in his or her own life’? Or perhaps understanding this law itself is already the ultimate purpose?

    3) What texts would you recommend for someone who wants to learn more about Buddhism?

    Arthur

    Arthur: According to Nichiren Buddhism, yes, a good cause will return a good effect. I consider a “good” cause any cause acted upon with the intent to alleviate suffering and/or bring joy and a “bad” cause any cause acted upon with the intent to induce suffering. In Nichiren Buddhism, there is no need to understand which specific causes lead to specific effects (I’m not sure even an enlightened being would be able to make those connections), but rather the point is to perceive this law of cause and effect within your own life. I recommend The Buddha in Your Mirror to learn more about Buddhism.

    Alex

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