Karma IS created by our motivations.
Luckwaldt: You are a valued critic when it comes to the integration of traditional Buddhist teachings and values into our western societies. What are you currently missing in our Western discussion of Buddhist ethics?
Loy: One big issue we need to rethink is how we understand Karma. In many ways Buddhism seems to be a modern religion—if you want to call it religion. A lot of its teachings are quite compatible with modernity (e.g., the concept of no-self). However, it’s interesting and important that the key aspects of Buddhism which are real stumbling blocks for people are Karma and rebirth. The question is how do we understand them today?
There are some people who are concerned about modernizing or secularizing Buddhism, which I think is not so simple. However, we do need to rethink [Karma and rebirth] in a modern context. Rather than simply accepting them, because this is what the Buddha seemed to have believed and talked about in this lifetime, or rejecting them, because they do not seem to fit into how we understand things now. I think there is something to think about there.
I wonder if we may have misunderstood how the Buddha understood Karma. When you look at the Pali canon, there is a lot of discussion about Karma, and it’s not always clear that it is consistent. There is a variety of things going on when we remember the Buddha’s emphasis on motivation or intentionality. I was wondering if that will give us a different approach, rather than the usual objective idea.
In the time of the Buddha most people already believed in Karma, but it tended to be more understood in a mechanical way. (If you would perform a ritual or sacrifices in the right way, you would get what the ritual was for). A part of the Buddha’s spiritual revolution was the emphasis on motivation…
Karma IS created by our motivations.
If I’m motivated by greed or the other two poisons, it is not only that I’m going to act differently than if I’m motivated by generosity, loving kindness and wisdom, but it is also that I am going to experience you and indeed the whole world in a different way, and other people will experience me differently and respond to me differently.
If I am motivated by greed, I will relate to people in terms of what can I get out of them or taking advantage. I also could get angry, which forces a sense of separation–which is the third poison, the delusion. If I can really transform those to positive attributes, I will become a different kind of person, and that is why I am going to experience the world in a different way. I can be transparent, I can be open, and I don’t have to pretend to be anybody different, to manipulate situations to get what I want to get out of them.
This understanding of Karma doesn’t necessarily presuppose that it’s cosmological or [about] rebirth. What it says is, if you want to transform how we experience the world, how we experience other people, how other people experience us, how they respond to us, the golden key is to transform our motivations.
Our sense of self is composed of mostly habitual ways of thinking, feeling, acting. It is not a hardcore of a consciousness inside, separate from the rest of the world outside. [What is] most important in this process, in how we relate to the world, it really comes down to our motivations. That is such an essential thing. Just by changing our motivations we change the world.
Stay tuned… more from Luckwaldt’s conversation with David Loy is coming soon!
David R. Loy is a Sanbo Zen teacher and the bestselling author of a Money, Sex, War, Karma: Notes for a Buddhist Revolutionand A New Buddhist Path: Enlightenment, Evolution, and Ethics in the Modern World.
Matthias Luckwaldt is a freelance journalist and student of Religions and English and American Literature at the University of Hamburg. The Buddha Dharma helped Matthias to rediscover his Christian roots.
The content from this post was originally published in Quaker Universalist Voice, April 2017 as 21st century Buddhism: Facing institutionalized suffering, An interview with David R. Loy