This talk was originally delivered on October 7, 2017.
Karma may sound esoteric and mysterious to the Western ear. It’s not part of our traditions.
But we know guilt. Some Western religions say our very nature is corrupt from the moment of conception: we're born guilty. This is called “original sin.” We’re so bad we can’t fix ourselves without the help of Divine power.
Even if we don’t buy this theology, the traces of it are deeply embedded in the Western psyche. It crops up in expressions like “No pain, no gain,” implying that we can’t learn anything good without suffering first. That is simply not true!
The ideas also manifests as an inner critic –– an inner place that enthusiastically blames us for bad things that befall us. It is a vestige of the idea of original sin.
On the other hand, guilt is esoteric and mysterious in the East. They know remorse. They know we make mistakes. But in the East these mistakes grow out of innocence — we are ignorant and don't know how life really works. Therefore we blunder. But the notion that we are inherently bad is foreign in those cultures. It took a group of psychologist several hours to explain to the Dali Lama what low self-esteem is. As astute as he is, the concept seemed weird to him.
But guilt and low self-image are so deeply familiar to the Western mind that we think every human in every culture must know about them.
So when the idea of karma is brought to the West, it’s easy to conflate it with guilt or original sin. We may think bad things happen to us because of something bad we did in the past.
As we become more familiar with Buddhist thought, karma more becomes confusing. The Buddha taught anatta, a word usually translated as “no self” or “non self.” For many people, non-self is nonsense: “Of course I have a self. It’s right here. I can see it, feel it, touch it! Besides, if I have no self, how are bad karma and good karma transmitted? Without a personal self, how can there be personal karma?”
These questions may stir other questions like:
The Buddha had no interest in philosophical or metaphysical speculation. In fact, he called some of the questions about karma “imponderable.” Trying to answer them is impossible and vexing. The question, “Why did this particular thing happen to me?” is considered imponderable because the web of causation is so vast and complex that we don’t have enough brain cells to sort it all out. It’s useless and unwise to even try.
Nevertheless, he did teach karma. There are good, practical reasons he did so. The notion of karma was deeply embedded in the culture around him. By tweaking its meaning, he could speak efficiently and effectively to his contemporaries about issues in their lives.
However, since most of us are not familiar with the ideas the Buddha’s contemporaries had about karma, we don’t have a good framework for understanding his tweaks.
To sort this out, let me begin with a story that may give us a handle for untangling some of the messiness around the notions of karma, guilt, and the path to freedom.
I felt I had done pretty well on my first retreat with Bhante Vimalaramsi twelve years ago. On my second retreat with him, I asked if I should start over with the beginning instructions and work through them all again.
He said, “No. Just continue on with the seventh jhana.”
I said, “I wasn’t in the seventh jhana.”
“Yes you were,” he said and asked a series of questions about my meditation experience. My answers confirmed to him that I had indeed been in the seventh jhana. It’s called “the realm of nothingness.” I was pleased that I had done better than I had imagined.
In the coming years, I found it easier and easier to get into the seventh. But three years and half a dozen retreats later, I was still in the seventh. The eighth eluded me.
My intellectual understanding of the eighth increased. I told Bhante, “I can’t get into the eighth” with emphasis on “I.”
He laughed. “That’s right. Any sense of a personal I can be enough to block the eighth.”
But I still wasn’t able to advance. I felt discouraged.
Then I had a series of vivid images while meditating:
I was a detective tracking down a serial killer. I’d been trying to catch him for a long time.
One day I unexpectedly came upon him. We were both in a L-shaped room in which two walls projected out into the middle of the room forming a corner with a hard edge. I grabbed the guy and threw him headlong into that hard-edged corner. In a frenzy, I smashed his head against that corner over and over until he was dead and blood and pieces of tissue were spread all around.
I calmed out of the frenzy and was overcome by the gruesomeness I’d created. A previously unknown violence had overrun my senses. The guy may have deserved it on some level. But I had never imagined I could lose control so completely that I could create that kind of mayhem. I was stunned and afraid of what else might lie within me.
I made a quiet and sincere promise to myself to never again let go of control to such a degree that I could do something so horrific.
The images felt faraway and dream-like. At the same time they were vivid and immediate.
I reported all this to Bhante. He accepted the story as a memory from a past life. He said, “The vow you took to stay in control is keeping you from entering the eighth jhana. I suggest you formally renounce it.” And he told me how to do it.
I wasn't so sure about all this. But I didn't feel the need for that old vow. And Bhante was my teacher, so I wanted to give it a try.
So I followed his suggestion. I went to my kuti, put a little statue of the Buddha in front of me, and formally renounced the vow three times. As an after thought, I took a different vow to be kind and aware.
It felt as if some deep, barely recognizable tension in me quietly softened.
Later that day I went into the eighth jhana.
It seemed Bhante was right. Perhaps those images had been a memory from a past life. My difficulty in getting into the eighth was the result of karma from a distant life and a vow to never lose control of myself. Renouncing that vow freed up my system to go deeper.
However, there are other ways to explain what happened. My father had been an athlete and was physically quite powerful. He kept tight control of his emotions and expected me to control mine. I was scared of him.
He never physically or verbally abused me. He never spoke harshly to me. Yet I could sometimes feel the tension rippling through him like a volcano with a cork in it. I feared if I poked him the wrong way, he might erupt like Mount Saint Helens. When Saint Helens did explode in 1990, the blast flattened entire forests five miles away.
As a kid, I didn’t worry about my dad attacking me directly. But I worried if the cork got knocked out of his volcano, I’d be collateral damage. I’d be squashed flat.
Maybe those images of me smashing a serial killer were psychological manifestations of growing up around a scary and tightly controlled father.
Which is true? Were those images from a past life or were they from childhood feelings in this life?
Empirically, it is impossible to prove or disprove either of these theories.
But it doesn’t make any difference. The practical implications are the same for both scenarios. The Buddha had little interest in theories. He was only interested in the practical issue of how to relieve suffering. And it’s the exactly the same for both.
Both stories point to deeply held unconscious tension. My working hypothesis is that karma is tension. That’s all. The mechanism that carries karma is tension for bad karma and ease for good karma.
The tension might come from recent action, childhood experience, past lives, chemical imbalances, the environment, or other sources. It doesn’t matter. Tension is tension.
The theory of past lives can be useful to the extent that it reminds us that the potential sources of tension are so vast and varied that we might never trace them down correctly. But it doesn’t matter. If we can recognize the tension itself, release it, relax, allow uplifted qualities to flow into our system, and radiate them out, then we’ll be fine. That is the formula for cleaning up old tensions or cleaning up old karma. The six Rs are all we need most of the time.
To support this working hypothesis about karma cleaning, I’d like to mention several of the Buddha’s teachings about karma and related topics. Then we’ll look at the practical implications these have for how we practice.
First, where did the word “karma” come from?
During the Buddha’s time, if we wanted to have a bountiful harvest, strong livestock, a satisfying marriage, healthy children, or other good fortune, we might go to a Brahman priest skilled in the Vedic scriptures and ask for help. In return for an offering, the priest would say appropriate prayers, sing relevant chants, and perform rituals to bring us what we wanted.
If the priest was skillful and performed the rites and rituals well, the result was called “good karma.” The root of the word “karma” is “kar” which means “action.” His ritual acts were effective. If he wasn’t so skilled, the results were “bad karma.”
These rituals and beliefs were part of life for the Buddha’s contemporaries.
When the Buddha became famous, people asked him, “How can I get good karma?”
He could have said, “I don’t believe in those rites and rituals” because he didn’t. But instead, he used these requests as teaching moments. He’d say, “If you want to have good fortune, then be generous to others, speak truth with kindness, be compassionate for those who suffer, cultivate a quiet mind and an open heart. This will bring you good karma.”
In other words, he took the beliefs of his time and tweaked them in order to teach people how to have less suffering and more wellbeing. He by-passed the argument about the efficacy of rites and rituals and went to the heart of the matter.
The term “karma” originally meant the result of rites and rituals. The Buddha turned it to mean the result of living wisely.
One day the Buddha was talking with some lay followers about past lives and karma. When they left, one of his monks asked why he taught about karma and rebirth. He replied, “Because it gladdens their minds.”
He didn’t say, “I teach this because it’s absolutely true and I want them to have the right ideas about how the universe works.”
Instead he said, “I spoke about these issues because it gladdened their minds.” If he had elaborated, he might have said, “They already believe in those things. I have no desire to argue with anyone about cosmic theories. I only want to give them a way to hold their beliefs that gives them faith and confidence, that uplifts and clears their minds, and that moves them on the path to freedom. A light, confident, clear mind will teach them directly all they need to know. It opens them to the present it."
The Buddha’s teachings about how to work with karma are grounded in his three essential practices. In modern vernacular, we could describe these three essential practices as Turning toward. Relaxing into. And Savoring.
We turn toward whatever life brings along, including suffering. We don’t run away. But we turn toward it so that we might better understand how suffering arises, hangs around, and passes away.
As we understand how suffering operates, we see our experience of difficulty originates in a deep, instinctual tightening called tanha. The Buddha said we should abandon tanha. To turn toward difficulty and relax the tension in it feels like relaxing into whatever life brings us.
As we relax, we create the conditions in which peace, ease, and wellbeing are more likely to arise. When they do, the Buddha said it is wise to savor them. Let them soak into our bones.
I talked about these three practices in detail else where. So I won’t elaborate more on it here. But I wanted to give this thumbnail sketch so you can see that his teachings about karma resonate perfectly with these three essential practices. We turn toward difficulty or bad karma rather than away. We relax into it. And we savor any wellbeing or good karma that transpires.
Another reason the Buddha was not interested in tracing down the stories of what gave rise to difficult experiences is that it’s not all our fault. The universe does not revolve around us.
Some of the Buddha’s disciples were talking about a man who was very sick. They asked the Buddha, “Is he sick because of some bad past deeds?”
The Buddha said, “That might be so. Or it might be because of phlegm. Or it might be because of bile.”
The Buddha said that what the man did in the past affects his condition. So does the nature of disease, the nature of the body to fall apart, the environment we live in, the age we were born in, the parents we had, and an almost endless number of other factors over which we have no control.
Yes, our words and deeds have a deep effect. But so do a lot of other things. Even saints and Buddhas die. We have influence over our lives. But we don’t have full control. We aren’t responsible for everything. We are only responsible for how we respond. The ways our lives unfold are not always about us and what we did.
The role of what we do or say might be better understood by reflecting on hyperthymesia. Hyperthymesia is an extremely detailed autobiographical memory. People with this condition have near perfect memory of everything that ever happened to them. If you give them a specific date 30 years ago, they can tell you what they ate for breakfast that day, the news headlines, what jokes were said at work, and other details as if they happened a few moments ago.
Several years ago on 60 Minutes, Leslie Stahl interviewed a number of people with this ability. She asked one person, Louise Owen, what it was like to live with this. She said it makes relationships difficult because she never loses an argument. Leslie asked if the condition was a burden. Louise Owen said, “Oh no. It’s a blessing. I am very mindful of everything I do or say because I know I’m going to remember it forever. I want to give myself kind memories.”
The Buddha suggested that we should live as if we have hyperthymesia. Whatever we do or say may have a lasting impact on us. Unlike people with perfect recall, we may not always remember what we experience. But everything we do or say leaves a trace within us.
The Buddha said that using the notion of karma to rummage through our past to figure out all the bad things we did is not wise or skillful. The teachings about karma are not meant to focus on the past. They are meant to remind us to pay attention to what we are doing now because it will have a long-term effect on us in the future. To cultivate an awakened mind, we want to cultivate wholesome qualities for now and the future.
Even without hyperthymesia, we may still remember unkind, mean, covetous, or mean-spirited things we have done and feel remorse. In these cases, AA has it right. It is helpful to do whatever we reasonably can to make amends for our mistakes. If nothing else, the process of making amends creates a more uplifted memory.
When there is nothing more we can do, Sayadaw U Tejaniya says, “There are no mistakes, only lessons.” We can learn from our mistakes. This is where most of our wisdom comes from.
When asked if there is anything more we can do about the “bad karma” (i.e. tension), the Buddha said, “Yes.” In the “Lonaphala Sutta: The Lump of Salt” (Anguttara Nikaya 3.99) he said:
Suppose a man would drop a lump of salt into a small bowl of water … Because the water in the bowl is limited, thus that lump of salt would make it salty and undrinkable. But suppose a man would drop a lump of salt into the river Ganges … Because the river Ganges contains a large volume of water, thus that lump of salt would not make it salty and undrinkable.
The implication is that we should make ourselves less like a small bowl and more like the large Ganges River. It won’t remove the bad karma. But it will dilute its effects until it is no longer a problem.
My only difficulty with the metaphor is that I’ve seen what the Ganges is today. On our first day in the city, my son Nathan and I got up early to walk down to the river. We passed an intersection in which a cow had died during the night. Twenty men gathered around the dead animal, lifted it up, carried it a few blocks to the river, and threw it in. We watched the carcass float past people bathing and brushing their teeth in the water.
Today, the Ganges is a sewer.
I don’t find it inspiring to imagine a lump of salt dissolving in a sewer. So I adapt the metaphor to stirring a teaspoon of salt into a glass of water versus stirring it into a five-gallon cistern.
In the Buddha’s time, the population in the Ganges Valley was a tiny fraction of what it is today. There weren’t enough people and industries to pollute it. The river was pristine.
The Buddha probably used the Ganges for his metaphor because it was pristine and also because it was considered sacred. It was said to be a crack between the worlds. The mundane and the sacred realms meet at the Ganges. If we die there, we have easy access to the Brahma or heavenly realms because the two touch at the Ganges.
So when the Buddha said, let your bad karma, your ill deeds, and thoughtless words be like a lump of salt dissolving in the Ganges, he was suggesting that we let our sense of self expand not only into a large river but also into sacred space. Let who we think we are dissolve and spread out into a vast, endless, clear space. Don’t fight the salt, just let yourself grow bigger, expand out and thin out until there is hardly anything left but the endless expanse of time and space and sacred consciousness.
Shall we try it now? Let’s close by trying his advice about how to deal with karma:
Close your eyes and relax. Meditate in a way that is comfortable. Settle in.
As thoughts and images arise, Six-R them and come back to sending out peacefulness and well-being …
Now, as you send out uplifted qualities, flow out with them. Rather than just send peace and ease, flow out along with them …
Expand to include more and more …
The awareness looking through your eyes and thoughts may be the same awareness that looks through the eyes of those around you. It is just looking through different eyes, listening through different ears, thinking through different brains.
It’s the same awareness but a different perspective …
Be with the awareness itself. Release the perspective …
Expand … spread out … thin out into everything.
— by Gael Turnbull
I remember once
in a far off country
it doesn’t matter where
or even when
it had been a hot day
and a lot of work to be done
and I was tired
I stopped by the road
and walked across a field
and came to the shores of a lake
the sun was bright on the water
and I swam out from the shore
into the deep cold water
far out of my depth
for a moment
where I had come from
where I was going
what I had done yesterday
what I had to do tomorrow
even my work
even my name
even my name
alone in the deep water
with the sky above
and whether that lake was a lake
of the shore of some great sea
or some lost tributary of time itself
for a moment
I looked through
I passed through
I had one glimpse
as it happened
one day in that far off country
for a moment
it was so
Note 1: Gael Turnbull, There are Words: Collected Poems (Exeter:Shearsman Books, 2006), 211-212.
Copyright 2017 by Doug Kraft
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How to cite this document (a suggested style): "Karma, Guilt, and Freedom" by Doug Kraft, www.dougkraft.com/?p=KarmaGuiltAndFreedom.
Jens, April 12, 2020
What a great article!
Duck, April 17, 2020