…karma is not something the self has but what the sense of self is.
Sweeping Zen: In Sanskrit, karma literally means “action” while vipaka is the karmic result of that action. Even thoughts are said to produce karma, because they lead to actions. You have argued that this simple conception of karma as cause and effect leads to the tendency in many Buddhist traditions to view a person’s situation (usually negative) as the result of something they’ve done in the past. What, in your view, is a better way for Buddhists to view karmic cause-and-effect?
David Loy: Karma is one of the biggest areas of controversy in modern Buddhism, along with its corollary, rebirth. Shakyamuni Buddha grew up in a culture where belief in rebirth and karma was generally accepted. The question for us today is whether karma and rebirth, in the way that they came to be historically understood in Asia, are teachings essential to Buddhism. Many Western Buddhists, such as Robert Thurman, would say yes. Others, such as Stephen Batchelor and myself, understand karma and rebirth as issues that need to be rethought.
SZ: You’ve made a comparison between traditional Buddhist views on karma and the Christian notion of sin.
DL: I’m fascinated by the parallels. In the first few centuries after Jesus sin was understood in a more general way as alienation from God. Sin was separation from God and the fire of Hell was experiencing that separation. With the Papal Revolution in the eleventh century, sin became institutionalized into a very complex judicial system and God became more of a judge. This turned out to be very convenient for the Church, giving it more control over people. The other idea was that the Church inherited so much merit from the sacrifice of Jesus that could be distributed as it chose. For example, the Church could grant individuals relief from time in purgatory after they died.
Sin became objectified and commodified, something that could be dispensed according to the policies of the church. I’m referring to the indulgences that Luther railed against and that to a large extent led to the Reformation.
On the other side, when you look at the way Buddhism developed it is interesting how karma (which in the Pali Canon is presented in a more nuanced way) became objectified into a preoccupation with accumulating merit. It’s the mirror image of what happened in Christianity: merit is positive and sin is negative but both become something commodified.
In both cases, this works to the benefit of the institution. It’s widely believed that how much merit you accumulate depends not only on your gift but also on the spiritual status of the recipient. Therefore, it is always better to give it to a monk or temple, because of course they must be more spiritually developed than some poor homeless person on the street who may actually need that food or money much more.
My book Money Sex War Karma has a chapter on “How to Drive Your Karma,” which presents an alternative perspective:
karma is not something the self has but what the sense of self is.
Just as the food that I eat is digested and becomes part of my physical body, so the intentional actions that I perform, as they become habituated, end up forming my character. That is why the Buddha emphasized intention so much – that was his revolutionary new perspective on karma, in place of old Brahminical emphasis on ritual and sacrifice.
One way to understand how karma works is to see how habitualized intentions tend to create certain types of situations for us. Rather than seeing karma as something magical or transcendent, the habitual ways of acting and responding which form my sense of self involve consequences. If I am usually motivated by greed, ill will and delusion – the three poisons – I will tend to find myself in certain problematical situations.
Habitual ways of thinking and acting not only construct the sense of self, they also transform the world that we live in, in effect. We relate to the world in certain ways and the rest of the world tends to respond to us according to how we relate to it. Our karma isn’t something external or internal but the medium with which we approach the world.
SZ: I think what we’re seeing today is a struggle between fundamentalism and the ability to see the metaphor, you know?
DL: That reminds me of something Joseph Campbell wrote: “Half the people in the world think that the metaphors of their religious traditions are facts. And the other half contends that they are not facts at all. As a result, we have people who consider themselves believers because they accept metaphors as facts, and we have others who classify themselves as atheists because they think religious metaphors are lies.”
What’s fact, what’s metaphor? I think that right now it’s important for modern Buddhists to be agnostic about doctrines like physical rebirth. What happens when we physically die? We may believe that something will happen but if we’re honest we don’t really know. It’s important to leave that issue open, to interrogate it, and not to say that because we’re Buddhists we must believe in karma and rebirth the way that they have been understood historically in Asia. We have to look at what modern science has discovered and what modern psychology has discovered and consider what that implies.
The question of karma brings us back to the issue of social justice. As I read the Pali Canon, the Buddha never meant for karma to justify the authority of kings and so forth. If you accept karma in a deterministic way, then the king in some sense deserves his power, and the impoverished and oppressed must deserve their conditions as well. I once heard a Buddhist teacher talk about the Nazi Holocaust during the second world war: “What horrible karma those Jewish people must have had.” We need to question that way of thinking.
SZ: Your view of rebirth is perhaps more analogous to the Phoenix Bird mythology, where the individual is transformed and reborn in this life itself (perhaps many times). To me, this is a more practical understanding of rebirth. That our actions, thoughts and feelings form how we interact with the world and, as a consequence, affect how the world views those interactions. We transform ourselves, through transcendence of the world of opposites, and are thus reborn.
DL: Whether or not we believe in the more traditional view, from a Zen perspective, at least, the most important rebirth is the one that happens every moment. The six realms are not necessarily places where we are reborn after we physically die but where we find ourselves moment by moment according to what is motivating us right now. “Transmigration” is happening all the time. There is a Zen story about a samurai who asks a master, “What is the difference between heaven and hell?” and the master replies, “What a stupid question. I will not waste my time answering something like that.” The samurai gets angry and begins to pull out his sword, whereupon the Zen master says, “That is the birth of hell.” He got the point and put his sword back in its sheath. The Zen master said, “That is the birth of heaven.”
David R. Loy (born July 27, 1947; Dharma name David Tetsu’un Loy) is a Buddhist philosopher who writes on the interaction between Buddhism and modernity. He has been practicing Zen since 1971 and is an authorized teacher in the Sanbo-Kyodan tradition of Japanese Zen Buddhism.
Interview transcript originally published on the Sweeping Zen Website on April 5, 2011.
Image: Zen, by Masahiko Satoh, CC by 2.0, from Flickr.com