Friday, January 07, 2005

About Karma

This in response to wonderful post, and its comment thread, at Via Negativa

It's easy to misconstrue karma as justice. Some sort of intrinsic cosmic justice, whereby everyone gets what they deserve. But Buddhist karma is not justice. People don't get what they deserve. Their suffering is not their own fault.

"Karma" has become an English word, and as an English word, that's what it means, now. People use it commonly, and that's what they mean by it. Cosmic justice. But that's not what the word means as a Buddhist term, and it's important to be clear about the distinction, because to say that people only get what they deserve is, I think, abhominable. (This is not to say that all Buddhists have this distinction clear. Not by a longshot. There are plenty of Buddhists, East and West, who share this misunderstanding.)

Mind generates its own dukkha. We do say that. And possibly the least bad translation of dukkha is "suffering." But it -- like karma -- is a technical term. It has a broader application than "suffering" -- I've seen it translated by terms as widely apart as "dissatisfaction" and "agony." But that's not the problem. The problem is that dukkha, as a Buddhist term, refers specifically to the suffering (dissatisfaction, agony) entailed by delusion. We entertain the delusion that we are (or should be) permanent, and so we dread our destruction. We entertain the delusion that we are individuals, locked up inside our bodies, so we are lonely and alienated. We entertain the delusion that worldly pleasures and achievements will give us lasting happiness, so we yearn for them, and fret about losing them, constantly. We entertain the delusion that worldly pain and misfortune will give us lasting misery, so we panic at the very thought of them. That's dukkha.

One thing dukkha does NOT refer to is, for instance, the storm of nerve-activity caused by being punched in the face. I don't know if you remember that scene in "The Apartment" when Jack Lemmon is hit in the face right after realizing that Shirley MacClaine cares for him. He sprawls against the wall with blood running down his chin, smiling seraphically. "Are you all right?" asks his doctor-friend. "It doesn't hurt a bit," he says. And we know what he means. He doesn't mean that his nervous-system malfunctioned, and failed to report the damage. He feels the pain. He just doesn't care. He is completely free of the delusion that this pain has any importance beyond itself. (He's free of this because he's laboring under the delusion that requited love will bring him lasting happiness, but never mind that, for now.)

So. Mind generates its own dukkha. That is, in my opinion, true; it's maybe tautologically true -- that's simply the definition of dukkha. Does that mean that people deserve their dukkha?

It doesn't. People are what they are because of the thoughts they've had and the actions they've done in the past. That's what karma means, and all it means. Because of those thoughts and actions they are prone to dukkha. But they didn't deliberately choose it; in fact they were trying to avoid it. They just didn't understand how to do so. Some teachers (not mine) say that even our external circumstances were established by our karmic history. But that still doesn't make them our fault. There is no such thing, in Buddhist thought, as deliberate evil. There's only confusion about how happiness can be obtained. We never chose to be confused about that. We just are, and always have been.

It is supposedly possible -- I certainly wouldn't know -- for someone's understanding of dukkha to be so clear that he or she can avoid generating it under any circumstances. Such a person, we're told, would fall under the Tsunami, or watch their child marched away to the gas chamber, with plenty of pain, maybe, but with no dukkha whatsoever.

Dukkha may be caused by delusion, but it is not itself a delusion. Suffering is real. It matters. Lasting happiness may come only from spiritual realization, but someone who is suffering intensely enough can't even reach out for spiritual realization. We lessen people's suffering when we can -- our own, and others' -- to establish the conditions under which we all can reach out. Neither you nor I nor anyone deserves to suffer; nothing in the universe is restored to equilibrium by anyone suffering. Wicked deeds are not set right be being punished.

Karma is not a process by which the universe heals itself by making sure everyone gets their just deserts. It is simply cause and effect. Whether it reaches beyond the bounds of this lifetime or not, it has nothing to do with settling moral accounts. The events that I set in motion by speaking angrily today, are going to be part of the world -- internal and external -- that I live in tomorrow. No one's punishing me by making me live in an angry world. It's just that I've made my world an angrier place.

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