Buddhist Karma: more than just cause and effect…

img_2116Karma is one of the major tenets of Buddhism, and one of the most misunderstood. The issue of past lives I’ll save for later; first let’s deal with this life. The basic idea is that if you do good things, then good things will happen to you. And if you have to take at least one religious tenet on pure faith to qualify as religious, then I’ll take that one, which I firmly believe, that by doing good, the world is thereby incrementally vaccinated against evil. Thus karma is frequently called the law of ’cause and effect’, BUT…

That’s not exactly correct. It’s better than that. It’s more than that. It’s purer than that. If I give you a five-spot and you hand me a hot dog, that’s not karma. That’s business, and bad health. Thank me for my custom, bloke. And if I pick up the neighborhood kids to take to school on Wednesday, because that’s my day to man the carpool, then ditto. That’s an agreement, therefore a transaction, maybe not business, since no money changed hands hand, but not karma, either…

Bottom line: for it to be karma, it has to be a good deed, just for the sake of its goodness, not for any potential reward, though by inference, that would be the case. I just won’t know where, or when. That’s why it’s an article of faith. Thus faith is critical, as well as intent—AND non-directionality, i.e. it has to come from somewhere unexpected. If I do something for you, and then you do something for me, well, there’s another word for that—marriage (since we’re being polite). Bottom line: it ain’t karma…

Then there’s the dark side of karma…

…in which it supposedly will jump generations just to come back and bite you in the butt for something you did two or three past lives ago. Current theory is that it jumps exactly one generation (probably to provide cover for the weakness of the theory). Now this is a sore subject for me, since I am a big fan of science, and any debate on the subject should have ended with discovery and widespread acceptance of modern microbiology—DNA…

But it hasn’t. Just like there are those who deny modern climate science, there are those who prefer the romance of reincarnation, or rebirth, for whatever reason. This is a specialty of the Tibetan school of Buddhism, with decreasing importance as you follow the Buddhist tradition east, so that in Zen it’s hardly an issue and largely forgotten, Zen mostly a Buddhism of meditation. That’s what the word means…

The Theravada tradition lies somewhere between, the Tibetan-related Burmese most attached to the old superstitions. This is intertwined with theories of time in Buddhism, and goes back to the Abhidharma era, analogous to the era of Christian apocrypha, in which the north Indian ‘Sarvastivadins’ held as sacred all of past, present and future, with the Theravadins holding to a present-only view, at least for mental processes…

And there are all degrees of adherence to the idea of rebirth, which is directly related to those theories of time, which is ironic, considering that Buddhism is defined by its doctrine of no-self and no-soul. My own view is that the Buddha, however enlightened, maybe never even considered the subject, and if he did, simply could not reconcile himself to ditching the reincarnation, despite the contradictions, since it was so ingrained in Indian thought. That would be like an American dissing democracy—step lightly…

And whether or not it’s time for that or not (I vote ‘yes’), karma survives either way, good karma or bad karma, either Karma Lite, similar to the ‘golden rule’, or Karma Obscura: divine retribution. Sound familiar? It should. Christian Heaven and Hell evolved the same way, toward divine retribution. Without the threat of punishment, what’s to keep you in line?

My own pet theory is that Heaven and Hell were primordial intimations of Light and Gravity. So would Christianity lose anything if it lost the wrathful father, Paradise above, and fire in the hole below? Would Islam lose anything if it lost the seventy-two houris? Who knows what we might achieve if only we could tame our worst instincts first. What might religion truly become if not forced into its role as Divine Creator and Executioner? Maybe it’s time to find out…

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