What is Karma? Traditional, Modern, & Zen Answers

Karma. Karma, karma, karma (chameleon). The West isn’t a fan of karma, and it’s easy to see why.

Karma is like a force or inertia that, like how a river carries a boat, creates and carries us along from experience to experience, moment to moment, and life and to life. Karma isn’t divine, it’s created by the motives behind our thoughts, words, and actions.

If we’re motivated by generosity, loving-kindness, and wisdom, then it carries us to bliss, well-being, tranquility, and clarity in the future. If we’re motivated by greed, hatred, and ignorance, it pushes us toward pain, sadness, stress, and confusion. If we don’t have a motive, we don’t create karma (This is important later).

Views vary on exactly which elements of our experiences are determined by karma, and which ones aren’t. The least extreme view is that karma determines our preferences, which is what makes us define some experiences as pleasant and others not. At the most extreme end, karma determines every experience we have, from stubbing our toe, to the color of the sky.

Since karma is what creates the contents and context of our next experience, when we die, our mindstream is drawn to a form whose first conscious experience naturally follows from our last conscious experience. From that moment on, our karma continues to be created and play itself out in that new form.

Another view is that our next life is determined by our desires. If, when we die, we’re craving cheesecake, then karma will push the mindstream toward a life that has cheesecake in it. Morality, our helpful and harmful intentions, determines how clear that, “I want cheesecake,” message is.

If it’s crystal clear, we’ll move toward a life full of cheesecake and clarity (which also means bliss, well-being, etc.). If it’s muddy, we move toward a life full of cheese cake and confusion (If the message is too muddy, we don’t even get the cheesecake at all).

If you have no karma and no craving, you enter Parinibbana.

It’s a neat view. Literally, it’s very neat and tidy. But, there’s no empirical evidence behind it, which is one of the reasons why the West doesn’t dig it. Also, there’s an ongoing 2,000 year long debate about how karma and rebirth are possible in light of Buddhism’s not-self and emptiness doctrines.

However, karma doesn’t have the same problem that a lot of metaphysical views do.

Karma could be tested in a longitudinal experiment by one person following the Five Buddhist Precepts to the letter, and then keeping a journal of their pleasant, unpleasant, and neutral experiences throughout life. Then, another person doesn’t follow the Precepts, and keeps the same kinda journal.

If experiences are determined by the moral intent behind our actions, then we should be able to see the precept-following person have more pleasant than unpleasant experiences in life over time. If they don’t, then that weakens karmic theory.

Of course, proponents of it could just say, “Karma isn’t always instant. Their unpleasant experiences could be caused by things they did several lifetimes ago.” So, we can only experiment with it up to a point before we hit a metaphysical wall.

As to the rebirth element it naturally links to, we can’t experiment with that at all. A lot of people have reported experiencing memories from past lives, but we don’t have a way to test whether those memories are based on facts or if they’re 100% fictional. I’ve read some uncanny reports of kids recalling past lives that do sync up with certain deceased people’s histories, but still, we can’t totally rule out coincidence.

I’ll say two things, having spent a lot of time on both sides of the tracks: 1) Life’s more fun when you believe in karma, rebirth, and other-worldly beings like Guanyin and Amitabha. 2) There is a pragmatic side to karma that is useful in meditation practice and day-to-day life (Which are not-two).

Practical Karma

Karma is the force behind our repetitive thoughts, words, and actions. When we say or do something one time, that makes it more likely that we’ll do it a second time. Then again, again, and again. Depending on the behavior and the situation, our habits can have helpful, harmful, or neutral effects.

If our habits are littered with things like the Three Poisons and Five Hindrances, then the force of our habits is probably gonna lead us into catastrophe. If our habits are full of things like the Six Perfections, Four Immeasurables, the Bodhisattva Vows, and the Seven Factors for Enlightenment, they’ll be more likely to lead us to health and well-being in this life.

Why? Because when we do things motivated by something like greed (one of the Three Poisons), then our actions are probably gonna be more destructive to ourselves and others. Overeating (Something I’ve always been a fan of) is a type of greed, and it has harmful health consequences over time. Hatred and anger usually push us into destructive behaviors as well. When we can’t concentrate (One of the Seven Factors), we tend to make bad decisions based on biased or confused views.

All of these things also affect our meditation. If we’re full of hate, for instance, then when we sit down on that cushion for 30 minutes, that hatred is gonna sit with us. And, since it doesn’t have an outlet, it’s probably gonna turn on us and become a long stream of negative self-talk and unpleasant feelings.

All the various ethical and doctrinal views in Buddhism are all geared toward us being able to meditate well, since meditation is viewed as the primary means to (or expression of) Awakening. Without Awakening, meditation is still an all natural means to joy, well-being, tranquility, and clarity that doesn’t depend on anything but us.

So, whether we approach Buddhism with Awakening or the good life in mind, meditation is still the heart of it, and everything we do helps or hinders it.

Practical Rebirth

Rebirth is the other sticky notion in the West. Most Western Buddhists take it as a metaphor for our state-of-mind from moment to moment. We don’t just die and be reborn once, but with each experience we have. Karma, as the creative or destructive force of our habits, influences the way we view our experiences, and it can also influence the experiences themselves.

One way to approach the self in Buddhism, is as a series of situational selves, each one with its own array of thoughts, feelings, desires, and experiences. If we’re attentive, we might even be able to see how Angry Me is, in a lot of ways, a completely different person than Peaceful Me or Loving Me. Our moods change the landscape of our minds, they rearrange the furniture and redecorate the room.

Angry Me has a different set of readily available tools on-hand than Peaceful Me does. With those tools, I interact with my environment in different ways and create different situations for myself and others.

In traditional Buddhism, when we die, we’re reborn in one of the Six Realms: Hell, hungry ghost, animal, human, fighting demon, and heaven. These can all be viewed as state-of-mind that correspond to different versions of ourselves that we can be reborn into as at any given moment.

When I’m suffering and forlorn, I’m a hell-dweller. When I want something I can’t have, or when I have something that no longer seems to be enough, I’m a hungry ghost. If I have a selfish, stubborn, black-and-white, A to B mindset, I’m an animal. When I’m human, I’m a host of creativity and contradictions. Angry and violent, I’m a fighting demon. Happy and at peace, without a care in the world, I’m in heaven.

We all cycle through these different realms, but most of us tend to spend more time in one than the others. According to tradition, the human realm gives us the most opportunities to Wake Up.

Buddhism offers two alternatives to situational cycling: 1) Adopting views and methods that give us a heavenly mindset, and/or 2) Step outside of the Six States of Mind model altogether.

That’s nibbana, the end of rebirth. We’re no longer carried from mood to mood pushed along by our harmful and helpful habits and the situation. We’re free. Free from being told how to think and feel by the situation, and free from our stock replies to those environmental cues.

A sunny garden wouldn’t force us to be reborn in heaven, or a warzone force us to be reborn in hell or as a fighting demon. We’re no longer pushed and pulled, because we’re no longer pushing and pulling.

Of course, Buddha recommended nibbana, but admitted that attaining a heavenly state-of-mind was easier.

Zen

We can find all of those views on karma and rebirth in Zen, in both their literal and metaphorical forms. But, that’s mostly just a way for Zen students to get their feet wet.

Since Zen is a nondual school, samsara (being pushed around by our habits and situations) and nibbana (not being pushed around) are viewed as being neither the same nor different from each other. And samsara isn’t viewed as bad and nibbana good.

No good, no bad, no sameness, no difference. Just This. A Zennist isn’t trying to escape samsara and enter nibbana, their mission is to see them as equally empty, equally Such.

Hell-dwellers, hungry ghosts, animals, humans, fighting demons, and heavenly beings are all equally Buddhas, nothing they can say or do can change that.

Karma and rebirth are viewed as mind-made illusions, like someone dreaming that they’re this or that. Form is emptiness, a human is not-human; emptiness is form, this not-human is all hell-dwellers, hungry ghosts, animals, humans, etc.

Emptiness is the reason why we exist, and why we cycle through different states of mind. It’s also the reason why we can stop cycling through them. It’s also the reason why some Zennists say, “We’ve never cycled through anything.”

In Zen, there’s an emphasis on no-thought (wunian), no-action (wuwei), and no-mind (wuxin). That doesn’t mean there’s an absence of those things, but that there’s no motive behind them—benevolent or otherwise. Zen’s prototype isn’t Siddhartha, but the Taoist sage, the, “True Person of No Rank.”

Since there’s no motive behind thoughts and actions, there’s no karmic creation. Since there’s no fixed mind to inherit experiences, there’s no karmic effect.

All that said, the ethical precepts have always been part of Zen because there’s a difference between understanding the nondual nature of samsara and nibbana, and actually seeing it directly.

Even though speed limits are arbitrary, if you drive 20mph over the limit, you’re still gonna get a ticket. That’s like having an intellectual understanding of nonduality but not an experiential one.

When you have an experiential understanding of nonduality, you see that speed limits are arbitrary, not because people arbitrarily decided that that’s what the limit should be, but because there aren’t any roads. Since there aren’t roads, you don’t drive anywhere, so you don’t break the speed limit.

Conclusion

We have a tendency in the West to totally toss out karma and rebirth altogether. But, when we do that, we kind of toss out Buddhism, because they’re fundamental givens behind almost all Buddhist views and practices.

Without them, we’re not really practicing Buddhism anymore, but a type of contemplative humanism. Which is fine, but the downside of that is we don’t know how that’ll play out in practice. Buddhism is well-established, and the effects of the views and practices have been observed for thousands of years.

In short, if you’re practicing Zen, you don’t have to concern yourself with karma, rebirth, nibbana, and samsara as much. But, it’s still helpful to be familiar with them and use those models as needed.

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