On a list I read (the kagyu group at yahoo – in fact I’m the “owner” which means that, technically, I’m the big cheese there, for which reason I make a deliberate effort not to dominate the conversations) somebody recently made a passing remark that reminded me of some of the stupid ways the “karma” doctrine is sometimes misrepresented.
It’s well known that Buddhism puts a lot of store by karma, in the sense that whenever we act (“karma” literally just means “action”) we create consequences; these consequences will rebound sooner or later. The idea is that actions leave traces in the “substratum of our being” (so to speak), and that these traces eventually, when conditions permit, draw us back to circumstances that correspond to the original action.
Well you may or may not feel that what I’ve just said makes sense. But what am I complaining about? Most of all I’m complaining about the suggestion – and you do hear this suggestion – that literally everything that happens to us is a result of our past karma. This is such a disastrous idea that even if it could be true (which it can’t) one would wish for people not to believe it. Consider this:
I smash you in the face! Don’t blame me! It’s your karma. You are the one to blame. Hey, really I’m the victim here, as your karma made me do something bad! Oh and while we are about it, it’s your karma, and therefore your fault, that you are poor, ugly, stupid, deformed, sick, uneducated, born in a family and social class that gives you no options. What bad thing did you do in the past? Obviously only the rich, beautiful and powerful have good karma, so they deserve to be rich and powerful. The poor, the starving, slaves and everyone else has clearly earnt a hard life. Ha ha! I larf, and I larf and larf out loud at your misfortune!!!
So it’s an objectionable idea. It also makes no sense. The very idea of karma is that we can act, and our acts have consequences. What happens next therefore *has* to be open ended – conditioned in part by karma, perhaps, but not determined by it to the last detail. I may act in an unexpected way – so may you.
The possibilities of what the future might become therefore shift, within the constraints of karma and karmic “seeds” which might germinate or might lie dormant. It is like being in a river with a very powerful current – karma.You can’t avoid being swept along by it, but you can still swim, and this can affect whether you are smashed against the next rocks or manage to find your way to the bank.
So the idea is nonsense because, if every detail of what happens is a result of past karma, we are not free to act, therefore we cannot be responsible for our actions, and the whole silly doctrine disappears up its own backside.
For Buddhists it should also be significant that
- according to “scripture”, events – death, for instance – can have several causes, of which karma is only one. Malice, environmental factors, and sheer bad luck are also possible causes, and
- all the Buddhist practices intended to “purify past karma” make no sense if karma has already fixed everything that is happening and is going to happen.
End of rant, and not even a picture!