Friday, February 15, 2008


A few days ago, Kavita raised a question about karma, so I thought I'd post this to see if I can get a discussion started:

In simple terms, what does karma mean? It means that whatever we do, with our body, speech, or mind, will have a corresponding result. Each action, even the smallest, is pregnant with its consequences. It is said by the masters that even a little poison can cause death, and even a little seed can become a huge tree. And as Buddha said: "Do not overlook negative actions merely because they are small; however small a spark may be, it can burn down a haystack as big as a mountain." Similarly he said: "Do not overlook tiny good actions, thinking they are of no benefit; even tiny drops of water in the end will fill a huge vessel." Karma does not decay like external things, or ever become inoperative. It cannot be destroyed "by time, fire, or water." Its power will never disappear, until it is ripened.

- Sogyal Rinpoche, The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying.

The Buddha identified karma as a volitional activity. That is, each volition in the mind is like a seed with tremendous potential. In the same way that the smallest acorn contains the potential of a great oak tree, so too each of our willed actions contains the seed of karmic results. The particular result depends on the qualities of mind associated with each volition. Greed, hatred, and delusion are unwholesome qualities that produce fruits of suffering; generosity, love, and wisdom are wholesome factors that bear fruits of happiness. The Buddha called the understanding of this law of karma, the law of action and result, the "light of the world," because it illuminates how life unfolds and why things are the way they are. The wisdom of this understanding allows us the freedom to make wise choices in our life.

- Joseph Goldstein, "Insight Meditation"; from Everyday Mind.

My view of karma: when a mind acts (by deciding, by refusing to decide, by choosing, by noticing, by ignoring, by fantasizing, whatever), it changes not only the body in which it is most immediately embedded, but the mind also changes itself. Most of the choosing that a mind does, it does without the choices ever reaching a conscious level, so it can be hard to track the operation of karma precisely. But by bringing more of our thought processes to the stage of awareness, where thoughts can be seen directly and evaluated explicitly begins to facilitate understanding of karma. Also, becoming aware of the "background noise" of a mind -- quieting enough to see directly the thoughts, memories, and etc., that seem to arise of their own accord -- allows us to begin to trace the occurrence of a particular thought or memory back to a mind-action that created the karma (causal situation) that brought that particular thought/memory to mind in the present.

As I think about all the possible thoughts, memories or etc. that could arise in this exact moment of mind, there is a reason that a particular memory occurred. Karma is the method of explaining that occurrence. Either those thoughts arise without a cause, in which case those thoughts and the world that is perceived as a function of those thoughts are inexplicable, or they arise due to a cause (or due to several causes).

Seeing karma is an exercise in interpreting the mind-events of the present by reference to prior actions. Living karma is creating future mind-events by the way we act in the present. At this point, it may be worth noting that while I refer to "mind-events," everything that we experience, we experience through a mind (though I use the term "mind" quite broadly, including all that we experience subjectively, whatever the mechanism or inclusion of others within that term).

From such a stance, it's easier for me to understand how various articulations of karma can seem (or can even be adopted by those who perceive it so) to be pre-rational magical thinking. Do I think that rain falls on my crops because I paid my tithing (or sacrificed my lamb, or gave water to the thirsty, or fasted, or chanted some mantra a thousand times)? No. I don't. But I'm confident that how I perceive the rain or lack of rain, and especially how I choose to respond to the rain or lack of rain will in the future affect my perceptions and thoughts about crops or drought. Also, I'm reasonably confident that I can trace my perceptions of and reactions to the crops or the drought by finding mind-events in the past that have conditioned those perceptions and reactions.

Finally, in this discussion, it may be helpful to make clear that my notion of "self" is not limited to the space inside my skin, especially when it comes to considering karma. An event inside my tiny little mind is as much an event of the Earth or the Cosmos as it is of the neural pathways in my brain. Modern science has done a wonderful job of helping us perceive some aspects of karma -- of how our actions affect the world around us and inside us -- but there are yet many ways that we affect the world that we haven't figured out, yet. So while I don't think it rains on my crops because I did something good previously, I'm interested in understanding more about how my actions -- even those we usually think of as "just mental actions" -- may affect the world outside my skin.