Thursday, September 14, 2006

Interfaith Blog Event #1: Karma

Welcome to the first Interfaith Blog Event! In each installment of this series, which we're hoping to do on a monthly basis, we'll explore a single topic across three different religious traditions. I am, obviously, writing from the Mahayana Buddhist tradition. Jon, from Jesusfollowers Journal, will be writing from a Protestant Christian perspective, and Sojourner from A Pagan Sojourn, will be writing from a Pagan perspective.

The first topic we'll be discussing is the following:
How do you view karma, the thought that your actions in some way determine your experiences, in your spiritual path?

[Jon's Essay] [Sojourner's Essay]

Buddhism is about relationship: relationship to others, relationship to self, relationship to all sentient beings, and relationship to all insentient beings. Primary to Buddhism’s experience of relationship is what Thich Nhat Hanh terms interbeing—all of us, and by "us" I mean sentient as well as insentient beings, are interconnected. Nothing can exist without something else existing to comprise it. Thich Nhat Hanh writes,
If we look into this sheet of paper, we can see the sunshine in it. If the sunshine is not there, the forest cannot grow. In fact, nothing can grow. Even we cannot grow without sunshine. And so, we know that the sunshine is also in this sheet of paper. The paper and the sunshine inter-are. And if we continue to look, we can see the logger who cut the tree and brought it to the mill to be transformed into paper. And we see the wheat. We know that the logger cannot exist without his daily bread, and therefore the wheat that became his bread is also in this sheet of paper. And the logger's father and mother are in it too. When we look in this way, we see that without all of these things, this sheet of paper cannot exist. ... You cannot point out one thing that is not here—time, space, the earth, the rain, the minerals in the soil. ... Everything co-exists with this sheet of paper. [1]

Since everything inter-is, nothing exists in and of itself, independent of all else. Hence, everything exists based on prior causes and conditions. Interbeing forms the basis of Buddhist karma.

What is Buddhist karma? It is often summarized as "This is, because that is; this is not, because that is not." In the same way as all things come into being based on causes and conditions, all of our thoughts, actions, and feelings arise based on causes and conditions. In other words, if you're raised in a household in which your dad responds in open anger to many things, you are likely to develop the same trait. Or if you learn that feigned kindness gets you what you want, you'll repeat that behavior; and the more you repeat it, the more deeply a feigned kindness response will be embedded in your psyche. In psychological terms, you could say you learned this behavior through Skinner's operant conditioning. In Buddhist terms, you've accrued negative karma.

Karma does not imply predestination, however. Technically, Buddhist karma is nonlinear. Note, however, that by "nonlinear" I do not mean that future events affect the present in a circular fashion. Rather, present input—your current thoughts, behavior, and intentions—feed into, and thus combine with, past causes and conditions to affect the next moment. This present input makes karma nonlinear according to systems theory, as it (karma) is not based solely on past causes. The existence of the "present input" also eliminates predestination because we can affect, and even change, our next thought, action, or speech that our past would have made most likely.

In other words, in every moment, we will be predisposed to certain thoughts, actions, and speech. If we act according to this predisposition, we strengthen it (i.e. "greed begets greed"). But we also have the ability to be mindful of this process and act differently from our predisposition, or at least consciously choose to think or act or speak according to our predisposition. Hence, our present thoughts, speech, and behavior can work to support our karmic predisposition, or counteract it.

I should note here that the terms "positive" and "negative" karma have no absolute value. These can only be relative terms because with no godhead to decree right from wrong, no absolute basis exists from which to dogmatically define "good" versus "bad." The question that cries out to be answered is, therefore, how do we know which behaviors, thoughts, and speech will develop what we might call "good karma."

In short, the answer is observation and analysis. The Buddha observed for himself that certain thoughts, speech, and behaviors generally led to a decrease in suffering, both in himself and others, and to an increase in inner happiness. It was on the basis of these observations that he developed the precepts not to kill, not to steal, not to engage in sexual misconduct, not to use intoxicants, and not to lie. He did not intend for the precepts to be dogmatic rules to be followed unswervingly because, as previously noted, they contain no inherent value, good or bad, in and of themselves. Rather, he observed that when one kills, one's underlying mental state is such that one's suffering increases, in addition to the suffering clearly inflicted on the killed being. Related to this, he also observed that when killing became abhorrent to a person, that person's underlying mental state was one that reflected true inner happiness, peace, contentment, and love. Additionally, not only did this reduce the suffering of other beings (since they were not killed), it also increased others' happiness because of the manner in which our non-killing person now interacted with those beings around him, in his loving, peaceful state. Similar observations underlie the remaining precepts.

In a sense, the Buddha was an early proponent of the scientific method. He observed that all beings suffered. He developed the hypothesis that suffering could be ended and true, complete, inner happiness achieved. Then he began experimenting. He trained with many great teachers of his day, and though he found value in their Hindu thought, they did not confirm his hypothesis—they did not eradicate suffering completely, nor result in complete inner happiness. Just as importantly, they did not invalidate his hypothesis because he was successful in reducing his suffering and increasing his inner peace.

Finally, after 6 years of experimentation and testing, while meditating throughout the night under the Bodhi tree, he personally experienced the affirmation of his hypothesis. He obtained direct knowledge that suffering could be ended and true, complete, inner happiness achieved. And he directly determined the path that leads to this result.

The process of karma has been shown to exist by the great psychologists of our day. Freud showed us how our experiences in childhood directly affect our thoughts, actions, and speech in adulthood. Jung showed us how archetypes function in our unconscious to predispose us to certain responses. Skinner and Pavlov gave us the means by which we actually learn many of our responses via operant and classical conditioning, respectively. Even our everyday common sense tells us that a karmic process operates in our lives. How many times have you thought, "Oh, that runs in our family!" The Buddha, however, not only observed the functioning of karma in our lives, he also personally discovered that suffering is caused by karmic influences. Through experimentation and observation, he obtained direct knowledge that we could end our suffering and achieve total inner peace, love, happiness, and compassion. And he taught us the path so that we could achieve the same.

The Heart of Understanding. Thich Nhat Hanh. 1988.


Anonymous said...

I wouldn't say that the psychological theories of Freud, Jung, etc show that karma exsists. For example, most of Freud's theories have been discredited through the years.

Some of the theories that you state are way too scientific or behavioral to use to show the existance of karma. In fact, this is just the type of thing that most of these theorist would deny the existance of.

The psychological theories that you may want to look at in regards to karma are more along the lines of the transpersonal. Transpersonal Psychology says that there are many ways of knowing and that they are all valid. Example - intuition is valued in this branch of psychology. The concept of karma is something that this branch would look at.

However, when looking at Transpersonl psychology, you may want to take into account that the psychological association doesn't recognize Trans psych as an offical branch. (This doesn't bother me, but some people are bothered by it.)

- Sojourner

Mike said...

Hi Sojourner,

You raise some interesting points, so perhaps I should clarify my use of those theories and the scope of my essay. Buddhist karma is cause-effect, with the addition of present input into the mix. Simple as that. So Freud's theories of sexuality being the "prime mover" in psychological development play no role - and you're right that many of these theories have been discredited. However, what he DID show us well is how much our childhood affects our adulthood. Many of our adulthood responses are unconscious responses that we learned in childhood. That is what I meant when I drew Freud into the mix.

You said, "Some of the theories that you state are way too scientific or behavioral to use to show the existance of karma. In fact, this is just the type of thing that most of these theorist would deny the existance of." If you asked them, I think they would agree. But I would argue that their theories show exactly what I'm talking about—that our past, our learned responses, play a HUGE role in our future thoughts and actions. It is in this manner that they provide evidence of Buddhist karma.

Most of the time, we're not aware of what drives our actions and thoughts. Somebody who is mean to you may not really bother you that much, but another person who is just a little annoying may consume your thoughts completely. Why? Something in your psychological development, which is based on your past.

So the Buddha's conception of karma is such that these past experiences drive our actions. But more so, he said that every last one of our previous thoughts and actions drive our future actions. And he observed that he could affect those past habits through current input into the system. Notice that I am NOT discussing any past-life karmic influences here. Buddhist karma does, philosophically, contain such influences. However, pragmatically, that's not very important. More often that not, we get caught up in metaphysical ponderings of such things and fail to notice what we have right here, right now. If we contain Buddhist karma to this present life, which is the approach I took in my essay, the concepts can be grasped more easily because we don't have to conjecture about whether past lives exist, emptiness, etc. All we have to do is stop and notice, in each and every moment, that we react based on habitforce. When we notice this, we can begin to interject conscious, present input into that response to change it. Over time, with enough repetition and contemplation on intention, we can develop a more beneficial habitforce, one based on compassion, love, and peace. Ideally, however, we also retain the mindfulness to allow us to consciously know our habitforce at every point in time, and apply the effort to interject our conscious choices into our habitforce at all times, regardless if that interjection is to counteract, or affirm, the habitforce.

LV7 said...

Respectfully, :), I'm missing where you actually end up talking about karma in that thought process..

Is there a specific definition of karma you're thinking about? To me, it's way bigger than the [habitforce?] that drives our daily actions... It's one event (observed to be independant from a prior one) being manipulated through force to have a different outcome than the former may've normally had.

My childhood may have an impact on the decisions I make towards others, but karma defines why my childhood impacts the way that -YOU- make decisions related to me.

We talked about this a few months back with that ATM thing.. My friend and I pulled up to an ATM with the intention of making a deposit. She had me grab an envelope, which she'd then need to completely fill out before actually transacting with the machine. Just as I took one out, another car approached behind us, so I pulled out and around, to let the person behind do their thing while she wrote the stuff up.

If karma is present and functioning in the world, another driver (not in any way related to this story) will move for me in a similar situation. (arguably karma may return this favor in a manner of its choosing instead.. which makes it nearly impossible to actually measure/validate)

She felt I was a wuss, weak for allowing the world to take advantage of me (through ... karma? how would the world know? :) ), and demanded I go back in line and make whomever else wait for us. :)

So.. on karma, and buddhism.. I think I don't know how to take what you've written and apply it.. There are certainly reasons that dictate why I moved. More still to dictate why she felt the way she did. But are there reasons based in Buddhism to explain why the driver in front of me at the ATM tonight will move? Is it exclusively because of his/her past experience? Or is it through karmic(?) force? Moreover, was his/her childhood shaped through karma[/destiny?] to lead to that decision-point when I, personally, arrive? Was mine?

Mike said...

Hi Loki! You raise some very good concerns, and as a matter of fact, I attempted to structure this essay to combat the very points you mention. First off, yes, I do talk "around" karma a lot in this essay, but that has a purpose which I'll get back to in a moment.

Is there a specific definition of karma you're thinking about? Yes. I am delineating Buddhist karma, in particular, and I'm purposefully discussing it in a non-traditional way (no scriptural references, no talk of past lives), to get away from the religiosity in which people tend to get caught up. To be sure, there ARE versions of karma that invoke the idea of an "energy" that one puts out unconsciously that forces a different outcome, as you noted. That karma is NOT Buddhist karma.

Let's use your ATM example to contrast the type of karma you described to Buddhist karma:

If karma is present and functioning in the world, another driver (not in any way related to this story) will move for me in a similar situation. No. (I don't mean you're wrong; I mean the Buddhist view differs :) ) The Buddhist view of this is to consider your intention for moving. Was it out of consideration of the person's time behind you? Or was it out of fear of angering the person? Buddhist karma says that your response (which is FIRST manifested in intention and only secondarily in behavior) to the situation presented (before having given it conscious thought) is the product of karma, of your past. The fact that that situation presented itself to you is probably not karmically based.

In the same way, your friend's (habitual) response was completely different, and based on her past experiences, her karma. But the fact that she was "placed" in that particular situation is not karmically based. Buddhist karma is much more about skillful vs. unskillful intention or habitforce. See, if you chose to move out of compassion for the person's time behind you, that compassion is a positive trait and likely manifests itself elsewhere in your life. And the more you allow compassion to surface, the better you treat others. The better you treat others, the better they tend to treat you, which then may SEEM to act as an "energy" that puts you in more positive situations; but really, it's just the natural effect of the cause of increased compassion. It doesn't act as a force to manipulate and change what otherwise would have happened (although admittedly, you could model it in that fashion to some degree). Rather, it is just the natural byproduct of compassionate intention. However, if you moved out of fear, then that also is something whose habitforce affects your life. You can extend that one out to its possible effects.

In all likelihood, it was a mixture of things, compassion, fear, patience, etc. And here is where Buddhist treatment of skillful vs. unskillful actions (and hence karma) applies. Buddhism defines compassionate, kind action as skillful and (unnecessary) fear as unskillful. So then how to apply this, you notice the skillful habitforce that manifests itself, AND you notice the unskillful habitforce that manifests itself (sometimes they do so at the same time!). The key is to really, honestly, notice whatever is present. And then to consciously change your intention to the more skillful behavior, away from the less skillful. Sometimes you can't just "flip the switch," so in that case you contemplate the benefits of the skillful intention over the unskillful until you generate the motivation. And then you consciously change the response. This mindfulness of "what is there" is what gives you the ability to enhance your skillful intentions and remove your unskillful ones (you can't change what you don't know is there!). Then repeatedly contemplating the benefits of the skillful action increase its habitforce in your life, and you then act in that manner more naturally. Until eventually, compassionate action IS your habitforce.

Again, though, even when you reach this point, you must still not fall into habit and lose your mindfulness. I'll leave that discussion for another day. :)

There are certainly reasons that dictate why I moved. More still to dictate why she felt the way she did. But are there reasons based in Buddhism to explain why the driver in front of me at the ATM tonight will move?

She will move if she moves. Your karma has no bearing on that. What your karma affects is YOUR response to whatever she does. If she moves, will you naturally and immediately feel thankful? Or will ego jump out and say, "Guess I did good in the past!" Or maybe you were in a rush and even her momentary pause brought out an anger response in you, with no subsequent thankfulness (that's anger habitforce getting in the way). I think you can notice which of those responses is skillful (the ones that cause you to feel compassion, love, generous, and helpful) versus the ones that are unskillful (the ones that cause you pain and suffering).

Is it exclusively because of his/her past experience? Or is it through karmic(?) force?
Her response is based on her karmic potential, and perhaps her conscious intervention in that habitforce.

Moreover, was his/her childhood shaped through karma[/destiny?] to lead to that decision-point when I, personally, arrive? Was mine?
Nope. Look hard enough, and you can probably find a causal link somehow (hence my talking "around" karma a lot, especially in relation to interbeing). But can we really call that karmic force forcing the events to unfold as they did? I don't think so. Again, at least not according to Buddhist conceptions of karma.

See, if karma were truly forcing worldly situations to occur in a manner different from the way they otherwise would have sans karmic force, then I can always sit there and second guess, "Why am I stuck in this situation? What did I do to deserve this?" And as you said, that makes this nearly impossible to measure or validate. But whatever the situation, my "automatic" response is what causes me suffering, or not. In your ATM example, you moved. You didn't suffer and, in all likelihood, the person behind you was thankful. And you reinforced a pleasant behavior. Your friend did clearly suffer. She was upset by your moving ("[she] demanded I go back in line and make whomever else wait for us"). You could argue that you suffered in dealing with your friend's response. Possibly. But that only brings out yet ANOTHER karmic response on your part - the way you chose to respond to her "challenge." And see, this CAN be validated. I can see logically why compassion is a more skillful response, both to myself and to others, than anger or greed or egotism. I can see how to generate "positive karma" and how "negative karma" hurts me. All I need to do is to look honestly at all my automatic responses, and consciously practice to enhance skillful responses and reduce unskillful responses.