Sunday, June 2, 2013

A Fellow Buddhist Sends a Written Opinion About Karma

Response of a Buddhist to my Comments About Karma

I found this encouraging.

The idea that someone with a disability or who has been the victim of some great
misfortune has somehow been cursed by God is a pernicious one that is present in
all cultures.  It comes from fear.  The biggest factor in most people's life is fear,
especially the fear of things that are outside our control.  It seems to me that
the vast majority of people who believe in some sort of deity approach that belief
out of a state of fear, and in a state of fear, and with a strong desire to placate
what is seen to be an implacable and dangerous deity - what other sort of deity would
"punish" people for no apparent reason? So, there must be a reason, and that reason
must be that those people are somehow "not right with god".  Whether it's an xtian
deity, a Buddhist based deity (note there are no Buddhist deities per se, only those
belonging to the pantheon of whatever religious traditions have included Buddhism
into their dogma and practice), whatever sort of deity it is, people fear destinies
that are outside their control to such an extent that they must attribute the misfortune
of other's to be due to some sort of character flaw or evil intent or deeds, because
then we can avoid the same fate by "being right with god".  In Buddhism, it isn't
god per se that defines and controls the state of a human being, it is karma.
The first monk you spoke to is correct, the view that suffering is the result of
karma IS a Hindu thing, and the Buddha was raised as a Hindu.  Of course his Hindu
upbringing strongly influenced his beliefs later in life, whether in being specifically
rejected (as in the idea of caste system and a belief in gods as superior beings)
or by coloring the philosophy he was developing (as in the ideas of karma and rebirth).
The problem arises in taking the idea of karma and rebirth to the extreme, eg the
idea that all misfortune is a result of karma from past lives and is presumably just
punishment.  This is compounded by the (I believe erroneous) belief that "life is
suffering" and that there is no merit in relieving the suffering of others because
suffering is always a result of karma.  Any attempt to interfere with karma would
be futile at best.  The Buddha did specifically reject this extreme belief and countered
with the idea that karma is only one of several contributing factors that results
in suffering; he specifically rejected this sort of fatalism in favor of a doctrine
of free will.  Regardless of past karma, we are free to choose, and do not have to
become the puppet-slaves of some past karmic load.
However, humans tend towards dualistic thinking - good vs evil, dark vs light, death
vs life, etc. So people will insist on falling back on the most simplistic view of
karma, which is that it is the ultimate power that controls people's place in life.
This is the view that has been used, off and on, to greater and lesser extents, for
nearly 4000 years to justify the caste system in India.  It is also used by certain
factions within Buddhism as the exclusive cause of suffering.  Essentially, karma
replaces god as the theistic font of all human conditions.  And, as god, karma is
thus seen to be the ultimate power guiding the human condition.
There is a second feature of Buddhism that leads to this split between what we are
taught - the importance of compassion - and what we see in action - the fact that
many Buddhists seem to believe the doctrine of relief of suffering as an act of no
merit.  That is that historically, in most places and at most times, Buddhism has
been largely a monastic, reclusive institution.  In order to attain enlightenment
and spiritual growth, the doctrine of withdrawal from the world has held the most
sway.  While holding to the Buddhist view that all men and women are equally capable
of enlightenment, by and large the idea has been that the only way to actualize such
potential is by becoming a monastic.
This has led to a subtle, but powerful, aura of superiority attributed to those who
choose withdrawal from and uninvolvement with the world.  Thus, monastics became
an elite priest class supported (as is usual for such) by the majority laity, and
yet by and large isolated from that majority, with said isolation seen to be a desirable
and even worthy condition by both the elite priest class and the majority laity.
The connection between monasticism/withdrawal and the inevitable desire to maintain
elite status is practically codified in most established Buddhist institutions.
This is nothing new in human experience and is not peculiar to, nor even particularly
powerful in (compared to other more rigidly structured religious organizations),
Buddhist practice.
In short, between falling back on treating karma as god in order to explain and justify
suffering that otherwise is unjust and unjustifiable, and the development and maintenance
of a Buddhist priest class, the impetus has historically been to turn inward rather
than outward, towards passivity rather than action, and towards introspection rather
than inspection.
All of that is not really a Buddhist thing but rather a human thing.  That's just
the way people tend to be, and the strength of Buddhism has been that despite that
fact, Buddhist organizations have historically tended to be a little less this way
than most other religious structures.  Unlike most other religions, whatever power
politics may be in play within a monastic organization, historically (unlike xtianity
and many other religions) there has been little spill-over into the wider political
climate.  A notable exception to this in recent history was the involvement of the
Rinzai and Soto Zen temple hierarchy (and other schools of Japanese Zen Buddhism)
in the promotion and support of Japan's war of aggression in the 1930's to 1940's.
But the root cause of the whole problem is not Buddhism per se, but basic human character.
Whatever is externally wrong with someone's life must be attributed to some internal
character flaw in order for the observer to be able to feel safe from a similar fate;
the idea that suffering could be the result of random chance being intolerably frightening.
So humans label each other.  We ascribe fault and blame to something inside "you"
but outside "me".  Whatever is different is usually "wrong"; whatever is "wrong"
results in punishment; punishment has been "earned"; therefore the state of suffering
is "deserved".  Compassion is sacrificed on the altar of the false idol of complacency
and avoidance of uncomfortable thoughts.  Ultimately it doesn't matter whether we
ascribe control over this "just punishment" to a god or to karma, the whole idea
is to bolster a false sense of security - where "There but for the grace of god go
I" is translated to mean "I'm in god's good graces, too bad you put yourself on god's
sh**list.  Helping you would probably only put me there too."  Blame it on god, blame
it on karma, ultimately it amounts to the same thing - magical thinking in the service
of damping down the fear of what is outside our control.
Science and the rise of secular humanism hasn't helped much with this attitude, it's
just come up with its own terminology.  Someone who doesn't fit in is increasingly
held to suffer from some sort of disorder; we describe these disorders and give them
names; we apply these names to people who make us feel uncomfortable because they
behave differently than we think they"should"; having labeled a person in such a
way, that person is now seen to be in a state of pathology; and if their state is
pathological, we are thus absolved of all responsibility for changing the way we
think and act towards that person and the responsibility for change is shifted back
to the sufferer.  There is a lot of lip service in psychology about not "labeling"
people, but an insistence on scrupulously adhering to politically correct labels
(eg "a person who has schizophrenia" instead of "a schizophrenic") merely shifts
the form of the label; the person is still defined in terms of pathology rather than
holistically as a complete person, including their suffering.
It is the times when some of us manage to overcome these natural human tendencies
to dichotomize (us vs them, good people vs bad people, etc) and express compassion
in action that give us all hope, and despite the institutional tendency toward policy
that supports the institution, people still reach out to each other.  There are Buddhist
organizations that support community work, and in the last 100 years or so there
has been an increasing tendency among the Buddhist communities toward involvement
with community and the causes of social justice.
Whether you call it "engaged" Buddhism, humanistic Buddhism, socially involved Buddhism,
whatever.  The most recent growth in Buddhism has been in the direction of increased
community involvement.  Won Buddhism, Engaged Buddhism (Thich Nhat Hahn), are examples
of this sort of Buddhism.  If they seem to have made more inroads in the West than
in the East, well, partly that's because the West in general has more people who
have the leisure and financial resources to attend to matters above and beyond the
scrabble for daily bread, and also because, being in the West, our view is naturally
We're not in the East; what's going on locally there isn't going to be easy for us
to find out about.  The Internet drives much of what we know in the world and a lot
of what is going on in countries lacking the sort of infrastructure we are privileged
to have access to just doesn't get onto the Internet.  People tend to favor bad news
over good; so the horror stories get a lot more "airplay" than ordinary or even extraordinary
human kindness.  We have to believe in those little sparks of hope even when we don't
get to see them.
I don't think Buddhists are actually any less concerned about their fellow human
beings but I do think that many Buddhists in other countries with strong Buddhist
traditions struggle more with economic and human rights issues that directly impact
their lives than we do, and thus have less energy and fewer resources to devote to
the causes of others, or to overcoming the tendency to make pariahs of people who
are different.
And frankly, the record of xtian missions of "mercy" isn't really all that great.
98% of the time the intent is not so much to relieve suffering in and of itself,
but to gain converts.  In the course of doing an Internet search on the issue of
Buddhism and medical missions, one of the first links that popped up on a Google
search was to a site describing how to structure a "mission of mercy" to exploit
the perception that relief of suffering is of no value (because of the view that
suffering is the direct and just sequel of past karma) in order to convert Buddhists
to xtianity.  That's pretty cold.
If Buddhists are right - and I think they are - that intent matters, that makes all
those xtian "mercy" missions a lot less attractive.
As far as the idea that karma builds up in past lives and then spills over into this
one, personally I can't see any sense in that.  As obvious as it may seem to someone
who believes in the idea of karma as the only explanation for suffering in this world
because they just can't accept that suffering is often arbitrary, unjust, and unfair,
it's just as obvious to me that the world IS arbitrary, unjust, unfair, and dangerously
capricious.  Given that this is so, it seems obvious and rational to me that the
only possible sane response is to practice applied compassion.
As much as it probably flies in the face of traditional Buddhist beliefs, I have
no belief in a pre-life, an after-life, or karma that stems from past lives.  I believe
in karma, but as a factor in every day life stemming from your actions and reactions
in THIS life and no other.  As attractive as is the idea of a whole series of "do-overs"
until we get it right, whether or not reincarnation actually exists is a irrelevant.
We can only work with what we know and can experience, and the idea of punishment
for invisible, forgotten, age-old transgressions that we can't even remember is just
not helpful.
Even if reincarnation is a literal fact, and even if past-life karma could be proven
to be the root cause of suffering in this world, I would reject the notion that alleviating
suffering is an act without merit.  How can anyone believe that a soul cannot benefit,
learn, be healed, and grow when shown compassion?  Compassion doesn't depend on what
is just, but what is merciful.
We know that humans learn poorly from punishment. From punishment, we learn pain,
suffering, and fear.  The strongest lesson we learn from punishment is how to avoid
more punishment.
From compassion, we learn compassion; by mercy, we are healed; and when we are healed,
we are open to possibilities, we are stronger, we are more free, we are less likely
to fall into fear-driven responses.  We are more resilient, better able to hold onto
hope during adversity, and quicker to recover. We are less likely to take actions
that bring about suffering for others, to contribute to driving others into fear-based
responses that add to the burden of their karma when they respond in kind to others,
and thus lead to a chain of events that adds suffering to the world.  Sort of the
domino effect of karmic burden.
None of which helps a lot from a practical standpoint.  In the main, those of us
suffering from any sort of disability have it a lot easier in the US than we would
if we were born under the same conditions in many places in the world - not because
of the religious tradition in those areas, but because of the economic conditions,
primarily, and political climate, secondarily.
So no, people who have disabilities or are otherwise suffering are not reaping a
just punishment courtesy of past-life karma, or because they're being punished by
god. There is no support in doctrine for the idea that suffering is some kind of
justly deserved punishment which frees the observer from the obligation to behave
compassionately and do whatever is in their power to alleviate suffering.
Buddhism hasn't deserted you.  That's all I'm trying to say.  This isn't about who's
suffering more or who has it easier; it's not an issue of "you should be grateful
because that guy over there is sooo much worse off".  The fact that a lot of people
seem to have bought in to the idea of karma as the sole arbitor of the human condition
isn't supported by actual Buddhist doctrine, it's a fear-driven response to their
suffering in the face of the suffering of others when it seems there is little they
can do of a practical nature, and the fear that something similar could happen to
them, too.  Sometimes people are so overwhelmed by compassion, and so helpless in
the face of suffering, that the only way they think they can survive is to turn away.
Sometimes that's even true.
As hard as it is to pick up and keep going when we are repeatedly faced with people
who are hard-hearted and unkind, even cruel, in their responses to us, that's really
all we can do.  It isn't right, fair, or just.  The world is in dire need of more
boddhisatvas. To be honest, I've always felt that (if reincarnation existed) perfect
enlightenment wouldn't lead to stepping off the wheel of life; but that the perfectly
enlightened would choose to stay and keep helping others.  It's a comforting thought

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