Yet karma is not something the self has; rather, it is what the sense of self is, because one’s sense of self is transformed by one’s conscious choices.
Many Buddhist teachings seem quite modern in their emphasis on such things as impermanence and interdependence (evolution, ecology), insubstantiality (physics), and the deceptions of language (philosophy). Yet the same cannot be said for karma, which points to an inexorable moral law built into the cosmos. This doesn’t mean that the doctrine of karma should be dismissed or ignored, but it does encourage us to interrogate those teachings and to ask, what does karma mean for us today?
There are at least two problems with the ways that karma has often been understood. Although the earliest teachings are quite clear that laypeople can become enlightened, the main spiritual role of lay Buddhists, particularly in non-Western societies, has been to support the monastic sangha. In this way non-monastics gain “merit,” and by accumulating merit they can hope to attain a more favorable rebirth. This approach commodifies karma into a form of “spiritual materialism.”
Karma has also been used to rationalize sexism, racism, caste, economic oppression, birth handicaps, and almost everything else. If there is an inevitable cause-and-effect relationship between one’s actions and one’s fate, social justice is already built into the moral fabric of the universe. So why bother to struggle against injustice?
For these reasons, karma is one of the most important issues for modern Buddhism. Is it a fatalistic doctrine or an empowering one?
Karma and rebirth were already widely accepted in pre-Buddhist India, but Brahmanical teachings understood karma mechanistically: performing a Vedic sacrifice correctly would sooner or later lead to the desired consequences. The Buddha transformed this ritualistic approach into a moral principle by focusing on cetana, meaning “volitions” or “motivations.” As the Dhammapada emphasizes, “If one speaks or acts with an impure mind, suffering follows just as the cart-wheel follows the hoof of the ox…. If one speaks or acts with a pure mind, happiness follows like a shadow that never departs.”
As Rita Gross points out, the term “karma” literally refers to one’s actions. To focus on the eventual consequences of our actions puts the cart (effect) before the horse (cause) and misses the revolutionary significance of the Buddha’s approach. Karma can be understood as the key to spiritual development, revealing how one’s life situation can be transformed by transforming the motivations of one’s actions here and now. Yet karma is not something the self has; rather, it is what the sense of self is, because one’s sense of self is transformed by one’s conscious choices. By choosing to change what motivates me, I change the kind of person I am.
From this perspective, we experience karmic consequences not just for what we have done but also for what we have become, and what we intentionally do is what makes us what we are. In other words, we are “punished” not for our “sins” but by them. And, as Spinoza put it, happiness is not the reward for virtue; happiness is virtue itself. To become a different kind of person is to experience the world in a different way. And when we respond differently to the challenges and opportunities the world presents to us, the world responds differently to us.
This understanding of karma does not necessarily involve rebirth after we physically die, and there is an agnostic “I don’t know” thread in the conversation that follows. The emphasis is on “moment-to-moment” rebirth, as our motivations and actions change right now. Yet that does not mean excluding other, perhaps more mysterious possibilities regarding the consequences of our actions. In either case, karma is not a fatalistic doctrine. In fact, it is difficult to imagine a more empowering teaching. We are not enjoined to accept passively the problematic circumstances of our lives. Rather, we are encouraged to improve our situations by addressing them with generosity, loving-kindness, and wisdom.
Written by David Loy as an introduction to a conversation between Rita Gross, Larry Ward and Andrew Olendzki for Buddhadharma: The Practitioner’s Quarterly, Fall 2013.
David Loy is a professor of Buddhist and comparative philosophy and a Zen teacher in the Sanbo Kyodan tradition. His books include The World Is Made of Stories and Money, Sex, War, Karma, both published by Wisdom.