illustration (attribution, if any possible, is at the end of the article)
Karma is about intentional tendencies, and about intentions having real consequences (as I regularly say, « intentions do matter »).
The most common mistake
Karma is explained differently to different people (gplus.wallez.name/hgFfP8nWnhL), but it is most often presented in its 'simple' version (for beginners) rather than a version compatible with selflessness. The simple version easily leads to misinterpret karma as some balancing mechanism, or some universal 'justice'… So let's try to pass beyond the first classical mistake.
Karma is not a retribution mechanism. Karma is about intentional tendencies, how we 'tend' to react (given our preferences, biases, ignorance, habits…); and it is about intentions having real consequences.
The appearance of 'justice' simply comes from the fact that, if you repeat an act enough (habit), at some point the most 'natural' consequence will of course manifest. You might avoid the usual course of causality a few times, be 'lucky' (or 'unlucky'), but repetition ensures that you'll face the unwholesome (or wholesome) nature of the act at some point! The appearance of 'justice' is directly tied to the idea of repetition, cyclical life, habit, tendency…
I previously rejected any literal interpretation of "the wrongs other people do to us are the direct result of our past actions" (gplus.wallez.name/gBnAkroVezT). I previously related individual karma to collective karma (gplus.wallez.name/YtL4KW7LDJF).
The next two common mistakes
After understanding that karma is not a retribution mechanism, the next two common mistakes are:
• believing in 'inherent' karmic seeds, or 'inherent' causality,
• believing in the 'accumulation' of karma.
Karma doesn't dictate what will happen. No ordinary mind can explain events by looking at past karma.
It is explicitly erroneous to state « this happened because (s)he did so-and-so previously » (in this life, or even in a previous life). So it is impossible to find a single act that would explain a consequence; it is always a combination of factors that leads to a phenomenon.
It is erroneous because karma finds a manifestation in relation to a context: no karmic seed has a 'fixed', pre-defined consequence. No intentional act will automatically lead to a specific karmic consequence.
And you don't "have" karma, you cannot "accumulate" karma (neither wholesome nor unwholesome). This is, in fact, linked to the previous point: no karmic seed may be carried forward independently of a context. All your karmic acts will have consequences but some consequences will turn into such insignificant events that you might not even perceive them!
You don't "have" meritorious karma, but you may well "be" meritorious!
Your present deeds (incl. habits) are who you presently are.
Both common errors are important to see through, because there's no liberation possible if you conceive that karma will always have 'hard' consequences: one act would lead to conditions and circumstances which would lead to a similar act, and the "cyclical life" could never be extinguished.
The very possibility of "extinction of lust, hatred and ignorance" (not of life, not of compassion…) also known as nibbāna, by following the eightfold path, relies on a cultivation.
This cultivation is a way to change tendencies, and to change contexts so that one may become free from old karma (by changing how old karma is manifested, beyond a mere repetitive pattern).
One may even reach a time from when no new karma is created (one's response is appropriate to the situation at hand —neither based on, nor creating, tendencies, habits, prejudices, biases, preferences…).
Appropriation of karma
Karma doesn't affect 'you', it is 'causality' and as such it is impersonal, unless you make it yours, unless you "take things personally"!
You need to remember that you come into being by 'clinging', by 'making yours' a causal continuity… that is to say you make some karma, some tendency, 'yours'. An example might be the way you say "I was born in this-or-that-country": with such a statement, you're already 'appropriating' concepts (about the world, and about the legitimacy of arbitrary claims on resources…) that have been created many lives ago, you're making these views yours, you're 'embodying' views that were created before you were born but to which you cling now (is rebirth —different from reincarnation— so hard to see? Is "making a causal continuity yours" so hard to see?).
It is because you appropriate karma that you can learn how to ungrasp it (and one day might even ungrasp in practice!). It is because you can let go, that karma cannot be a permanent curse and that everyone may manifest his/her buddha-nature. It is because nothing forces you to cling to karma, that nirvāṇa is 'unconditioned': you 'just' have to let go, there's no 'condition' which would / could forbid you from attaining nirvāṇa.
I know it may sound like saying to victims that they're to blame for their experience, but this is not the proper reading.
The proper reading is about « What do you make, here&now, of this experience? Do you use it to create a better world? Do you withdraw (in the pointless hope that nothing will ever hurt you again —even though you and your loved ones are subject to sickness, ageing and death)? Or do you use the experience to make the world even worse (e.g. out of bitterness, based on hatred for the 'unfairness' of the world or hatred of others, etc.)? »
From horrible situations, some people draw the strength to make a difference, they rise so that no one else has to experience what they went through… while some other people fall into victimhood, expecting to be protected by others forever (because they're 'fragile' now), or never trusting anyone anymore… That is what karma is about: your intention will have consequences, which one should you cultivate, which tendency do you make yours here&now? Selflessly improving the world, or selfishly spiralling into darkness? Your choice might reflect a tendency (optimistic / defeatist); it might also allow you to take a turn and cultivate a new tendency, more wholesome, more oriented toward a world with less suffering (for all, including yourself). I previously addressed the envy of "good karma" (gplus.wallez.name/H9zVuuof3sU), and how "letting go" really means "engaging afresh" (gplus.wallez.name/dkSHC1SuavV).
A key sutta which explains the above is the Loṇaphala sutta (AN 3.99). It starts abruptly with, and also concludes with:
For anyone who says, "in whatever way a person makes kamma, that is how it is experienced," there is no living of the holy life, there is no opportunity for the right ending of stress.
But for anyone who says, "when a person makes kamma to be felt in such & such a way, that is how its result is experienced," there is the living of the holy life, there is the opportunity for the right ending of stress.
Loṇaphala sutta (AN 3.99):
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