The early Buddhist notion of karma focused on the
liberating potential of the present moment
Karma is one of those words
we don't translate. Its basic meaning is simple enough -- action. But because of the weight
the Buddha's teachings give to the role of action, the Sanskrit word "karma'' is packed
with many meanings and the English word "action'' can't carry all its luggage.
This is why we've simply airlifted the original word into our vocabulary.
But when we try unpacking the connotations the word carries, now that it has arrived into
everyday usage, we find that most of its luggage has gotten mixed up in transit.
In the eyes of most Westerners, for example, karma functions like fate -- bad fate, at
that: an inexplicable, unchangeable force coming out of our past, for which we are somehow
vaguely responsible and which we are powerless to fight.
"I guess it's just my karma,'' I've heard people sigh when bad fortune strikes with such
force that they see no alternative to resigned acceptance.
The fatalism implicit in this statement is one reason why so many people are repelled by
the concept of karma, for it sounds like the kind of callous myth-making that can justify
almost any kind of suffering or injustice in the status quo: "If he's poor, it's because
of his karma.'' "If she's been raped, it's because of her karma.''
From this, it seems a short step to saying that he or she deserves to suffer, and so
doesn't deserve our help.
This misperception comes from the fact that the Buddhist concept of karma came to the West
at the same time as non-Buddhist concepts, and so ended up with some of their luggage.
Although many Asian concepts of karma are
fatalistic, the early Buddhist concept was not fatalistic at all. In fact, if we look
closely at early Buddhist ideas of karma, we'll find that they give even less importance
to myths about the past than most modern Americans do.
For the early Buddhists, karma was non-linear. Other Indian schools believed that karma
operated in a straight line, with actions from the past influencing the present, and
present actions influencing the future. As a result, they saw little room for free will.
Buddhists, however, saw that karma acts in feedback loops, with the present moment being
shaped both by past and by present actions; present actions shape not only the future but
also the present.
This constant opening for present input into the causal process makes free will possible.
This freedom is symbolised in the imagery the Buddhists used to explain the process:
flowing water. Sometimes the flow from the past is so strong that little can be done
except to stand fast, but there are also times when the flow is gentle enough to be
diverted in almost any direction.
So, instead of promoting resigned powerlessness, the early Buddhist notion of karma
focused on the liberating potential of what the mind is doing with every moment.
Who you are -- what you come from -- is not anywhere near as important as the mind's motives
for what it is doing right now. Even though the past may account for many of the
inequalities we see in life, our measure as human beings is not the hand we've been dealt,
for that hand can change at any moment.
We take our own measure by how well we play the hand we've got. If you're suffering, you
try not to continue the unskilful mental habits that would keep that particular karmic
If you see that other people are suffering, and you're in a position to help, you focus
not on their karmic past but your karmic opportunity in the present: Some day you may find
yourself in the same predicament that they're in now, so here's your opportunity to act in
the way you'd like them to act toward you when that day comes.
This belief that one's dignity is measured, not by one's past but by one's present
actions, flew right in the face of the Indian traditions of caste-based hierarchies, and
explains why early Buddhists had such a field day poking fun at the pretensions and
mythology of the Brahmans.
As the Buddha pointed out, a Brahman could be a superior person not because he came out of
a Brahman womb, but only if he acted with truly skilful intentions.
We read the early Buddhist attacks on the caste system and, aside from their anti-racist
implications, they often strike us as quaint.
What we fail to realise is that they strike right at the heart of our myths about our own
past: our obsession with defining who we are in terms of where we come from
-- our race,
ethnic heritage, gender, socio-economic background, sexual preference -- our modern tribes.
We put inordinate amounts of energy into creating and maintaining the mythology of our
tribe so that we can take vicarious pride in our tribe's good name. Even when we become
Buddhists, the tribe comes first. We demand a Buddhism that honours our myths.
From the standpoint of karma, though, where we come from is old karma, over which we have
no control. What we "are'' is a nebulous concept at best -- and pernicious at worst, when
we use it to find excuses for acting on unskilful motives.
The worth of a tribe lies only in the skilful actions of its individual members. Even when
those good people belong to our tribe, their good karma is theirs, not ours. And, of
course, every tribe has its bad members, which means that the mythology of the tribe is a
fragile thing. To hang onto anything fragile requires a large investment of passion,
aversion, and delusion, leading inevitably on to more unskilful actions in the future.
So the Buddhist teachings on karma, far from being a quaint relic from the past, are a
direct challenge to a basic thrust -- and basic flaw -- in our culture. Only when we abandon
our obsession with finding vicarious pride in our tribal past, and can take actual pride
in the motives that underlie our present actions, can we say that the word karma, in its
Buddhist sense, has recovered its luggage.
And when we open the luggage, we'll find that it's brought us a gift: the gift we give
ourselves and one another when we drop our myths about who we are, and can instead be
honest about what we're doing with each moment -- at the same time making the effort to do
- Thanissaro Bhikkhu (Geoffrey DeGraff or Acharn Geoff), is an American-born Theravada
Buddhist monk. He was ordained in Thailand in the forest tradition in 1974. He is now
abbot of Metta Forest Monastery near San Diego, California. He is author of The Mind Like
Fire Unbound, The Buddhist Monastic Code, and The Wings to Awakening. For more information
about his work, visit www.accesstoinsight.org.