What I’ve come to understand of karma

“Monks, these four types of kamma have been directly realized, verified, & made known by me. Which four? There is kamma that is dark with dark result. There is kamma that is bright with bright result. There is kamma that is dark & bright with dark & bright result. There is kamma that is neither dark nor bright with neither dark nor bright result, leading to the ending of kamma.

“And what is kamma that is neither dark nor bright with neither dark nor bright result, leading to the ending of kamma? Right view, right resolve, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, right concentration. This is called kamma that is neither dark nor bright with neither dark nor bright result, leading to the ending of kamma.”

~ from the Ariyamagga ( or Noble Path) Sutta

“Now what, monks, is old kamma? The eye is to be seen as old kamma, fabricated & willed, capable of being felt. The ear… The nose… The tongue… The body… The intellect is to be seen as old kamma, fabricated & willed, capable of being felt. This is called old kamma.

“And what is new kamma? Whatever kamma one does now with the body, with speech, or with the intellect: This is called new kamma.

“And what is the cessation of kamma? Whoever touches the release that comes from the cessation of bodily kamma, verbal kamma, & mental kamma: This is called the cessation of kamma.

And what is the path of practice leading to the cessation of kamma? Just this noble eightfold path: right view, right resolve, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, right concentration. This is called the path of practice leading to the cessation of kamma.

~ From the Kamma (Karma) Sutta

Many of the Western lay Buddhists I’ve come in contact with over the internet have taken an agnostic or atheistic approach to the central doctrines of karma and rebirth in Buddhism, labeling them “mystical” or “supernatural” and therefore often discarding them almost completely. I’ve never been able to do this as rebirth (or probably better, re-becoming) and karma are found countless times throughout the sutras, in both the Pali and Mahayana cannons.

After trying to wrap my mind around how these two doctrines work, if they work, what that means, if they can be proven etc.. I just gave up on them both for awhile. But after reading through The Wings to Awakening, I stumbled on the excerpt up at the top, and suddenly things started to make sense.

However, I didn’t really have a desire to understand karma on a metaphysical level. Instead what I’m interested in is how it affects me in the here and now, and what I should be doing about it. I figure the more profound insights will happen as they happen, all in due time and when I’m able to take up a formal meditation practice once again.

So what I’ve come up with is more of a practical survey on karma, one that will keep me “mindful” (*puke* – I hate that word!) of karma as I continue to create it. It seems to me that karma is simply that which binds one to samsara, to re-becoming. We do this through our identification with the skandas, and living in ingnorance of impermance, and the dukkha that surrounds us.

The odd thing about samsara though, is that it appears to provide a cure to itself in the form of itself. This is why we reach out for it, crave more of it, and cling to it. Our constant wandering about this world, running from one experience to the next in order to scratch the itch is probably best explained by comparison to a drug addict. The best cure for an addict is rehab, and this is where Buddhist practice hits us right in the gut.

Ending karma is the work of ending the mental conditions we’ve come to associate with everything. Often I see discussions about non-attachment to money, or power, or fame, or worldly possessions. These are all no doubt valuable endevours. But they also fall short of that ultimate mark. What about your attachment to your skin? Your view of the thing you’re looking at right now as a “computer screen”? This is why renunciation doesn’t solve all of your problems. Even a monk in retreat still has to deal with the issue of “trees”, “fart”, “feet” “wet” “ground”. These are the type of attachments that ultimately create our most incredible dukkha, the dukkha that keeps us bound to the conventional world.

I write this post not as a “what karma is” type of post. This isn’t instructional. This is simply a statement of where it is that I’ve been focusing my thoughts around Zen at. I’m simply not interested in what the ultimate answers to the karma and rebirth questions are. At this point in time, I’m more concerned about how they play out in real life, in my day-to-day struggle to maintain a Buddhist practice. Understanding deeply the process of rebirth and how I was an ocelot in a previous life isn’t going to get me very far, at least not at this point. But understanding that it is these mental fetters that keep me stuck in the conditional world, now that is something I can work with.






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3 responses to “What I’ve come to understand of karma

  1. Miracles fill the Bible because they were common sense during their writings. Liberal Christians go out of their way to make “resurrection” work by redefining it so it lack anything but commonsense meaning.

    Karma & Rebirth was common jargon and superstitions when those books (which someone declared scriptures) were written.

    I get how it is helpful for you to suspend belief about the issue. I do worry a bit about what sounds like you idealize some mental world and disparage samsara. For if samsara and nirvana are one — no disparaging is needed.

    For example, you said:

    keep me stuck in the conditional world,

    Looking for a better world can be problematic. Never fulling embracing the world you live in with your job, family, hobbies etc and only idealizing some imagined renunciate unattached life is mistaken — I feel. But you probably aren’t saying that.

    Sorry if I misread your post.

    • Well, I think you’ve understood at least some of what I was talking about, as you make mention of “suspend”, rather than discard, which is my approach to these issues. When dealing with karma as creating mental states, no gymnastics are needed to ammend any historical account of karma, only that this approach only focuses on one aspect of karma.

      I do think that at times, going into alternate… states of mind… can be quite the escape, and even can become addicting. An excellent book I read a couple of years ago, “Practicing the Jhanas” details the attachement that can form to these types of blissful states of mind, and how they can become an escape, and what to do about it whent that happens.

      As for what I was getting at, it isn’t a renunciate life, or even a renunciate way of viewing the world. This is part of the reason that Zen is so appealing to me, because Zen forces us to deal with the issues we face while we face them. Yes, there are monastaries and a long history of lengthy retreats, but every story of the realized Zen master has him comming back down into the marketplace, knee-deep in samsara.

      Or maybe what you’re talking about is seeing the conditional world as a problem, like seeing my job, family, school as a hindarance or something. I think this view would be easy to take if the problem of dukkha, (which we recently discussed) is viewed as a problem of suffering.

      Ted Biringer (http://flatbedsutra.com/) is a contemporary author that writes very well, and very eloquently about Dogen’s take on practice and enlightenment, and how to apply it in real life, while still being able to charish your family, job, and all the rest of the world we find ourselves in. I don’t deny that escapism is an easy trap to fall into. But I have no ambition to escape samsara in any real sense of the word. The idea, I think, is to transcend the thinking mind, not to eliminate it in favor of some jhana state. And once transcended, then samsara and nirvana can be experienced as one. Or something like that. 🙂

      I think one of my favorite quotes that helps point to the connundrum is the following:

      Before I had studied Zen for thirty years, I saw mountains as mountains, and waters as waters.
      When I arrived at a more intimate knowledge, I came to the point
      where I saw that mountains are not mountains,
      and waters are not waters.
      But now that I have got its very substance I am at rest.
      For it’s just that I see mountains once again as mountains,
      and waters once again as waters.

      I don’t know if this cleared up anything or not. 😉

  2. Great post. The guys who are all about non duality might be interesting for you. I really enjoy contemplating the ideas of non duality and we are all one or the individual is an illustion / we are all nothing and all those ways you can think about this.