I APOLOGIZE FOR THE LENGTH OF THE FOLLOWING ... IT MAY TAKE SEVERAL LIFETIMES TO READ!
It's been a couple of weeks since our last "BIG Questions". But now fate has led us to the next which, though seemingly some of the trickiest, I find not so tricky at all ...
What about KARMA?
Mr. D asked ...
In a nutshell, Karma means our volitional actions (which includes words and thoughts) are causes which have effects good and bad. Our lives are (in whole or part ... for there are other, non-Karmic causes too such as natural and environmental factors) the product of past Karmic causes, and our life contains the causes of future effects. Usually, this is coupled with a belief that our Karmic volitional actions in this life will help determine future rebirths.The thing about Karma is this: I don't really see how the Buddhist belief in Karma is compatible with the possibility that the universe is random and unintended. Karma for me means that there are no 'coincidences' and nothing happens just 'by chance'. We find ourselves where we find ourselves and with certain people for a reason. Karmic relationships and patterns are at work, and maybe we even get exactly what we need... As such, if Karma is true then it would be a kind of proof against the idea that the universe is random and unintended. You can't believe in Karma AND consider the possibility that this is all random and unintended. This is to assume of course, that the Buddhist notion of Karma refers to more that mere materialistic determinism or mechanistic cause and effect: a cause yielding an inevitable effect which in turn acts as the cause of another inevitable effect and so on... But as far as I'm aware, this idea is usually supported by those who believe that there is only matter, and nothing else, and I would never have associated Buddhism with that sort of thing. And Karma always seemed to have more to it than that...
Buddhism says that Ignorance and delusion bind us to the cycle of birth and death. As such, when one who hasn’t realised his/her true nature and remains in ignorance dies, they are subsequently reborn. But what happens to one who has realised their true nature in life, attained enlightenment , Satori...? What happens to a Buddha when their physical body disintegrates, if they are not reborn and they are egoless?
But the details of what that all entails, and exactly how the system works, can be rather fuzzy.
The idea of Karma, and a belief in a rather mechanical system of rebirth (or reincarnation ... not quite the same thing, more about that in a moment) existed in Indian religion long before the time of the Buddha. What is more, it seems highly likely that Guatama Buddha himself believed in a rather mechanical system of rebirth resulting from Karma (Kamma in Pali). There is some small debate about this, because the Buddha's words were passed on as an oral tradition, and not written down for centuries after his death ... and because the Buddha often adapted his teachings to the ears of his listeners, and adapted many Hindu concepts (in order to attract Hindus to his ideas). However, it certainly seems hard to doubt that the Buddha himself taught a very mechanical, detailed system of rebirth ... and that Buddhists continued to believe as much ever since ... much as in the following system (explained by a teacher in a Vietnamese tradition)
According to Buddhism if a human does not obtain nirvana or enlightenment, as it is known, the person cannot escape the cycle of death and rebirth and are inevitably be reborn into the 6 possible states beyond this our present life, these being in order from the highest to lowest;
Heaven. In Buddhism there are 37 different levels of heaven where beings experience peace and long lasting happiness without suffering in the heavenly environment.
Human life. In Buddhism we can be reborn into human life over and over, either wealthy or poor, beautiful or not so, and every state between and both as it it is served up to us. Anything can happen, as is found in human life and society all around us as we are familiar with in the day to day human world in is myriad of possibilities. What we get is a result of our Karma of what we have dragged with us from previous existences and how it manifests in our temporary present lives.
Asura. A spiritual state of Demi-Gods but not the happy state experienced by the gods in the heavens above this state. The Demi-Gods are consumed with jealousy, because unlike humans, they can clearly see the superior situation of the gods in the heavens above them. They constantly compete and struggle with the gods due to their dissatisfaction with their desires from the others.
Hungry Ghost. This spiritual realm of those who committed excessive amounts of evil deeds and who are obsessed with finding food and drink which they cannot experience and thus remain unsatisfied and tortured by the experience. They exhaust themselves in the constant fruitless searching.
Animals. This realm is visible to humans and it is where spirits of humans are reborn if they have killed animals or have committed a lot of other evil acts. Animals do not have the freedom that humans would experience due to being a subject constantly hunted by humans, farmed and used in farming, also as beasts for entertainment.
Hell. This realm is not visible to humans. It is a place where beings born there experience a constant state of searing pain and the various types of hell realms reads like a variety of horrific torture chambers. Those with a great deal of negative Karma can remain in such places for eons of time.
In later Buddhist philosophy (not only popular belief), the details could become ... well, quite detailed (such as in these descriptions of Buddhist 'Hells'!
* Arbuda – the "blister" Naraka. This is a dark, frozen plain surrounded by icy mountains and continually swept by blizzards. Inhabitants of this world arise fully grown and abide life-long naked and alone, while the cold raises blisters upon their bodies. The length of life in this Naraka is said to be the time it would take to empty a barrel of sesame seed if one only took out a single seed every hundred years.
* Nirarbuda – the "burst blister" Naraka. This Naraka is even colder than the one above, and here the blisters burst open, leaving the beings' bodies covered with frozen blood and pus.
* Sa?gh?ta – the "crushing" Naraka. This Naraka is also upon a ground of hot iron, but is surrounded by huge masses of rock that smash together and crush the beings to a bloody jelly. When the rocks move apart again, life is restored to the being and the process starts again. Life in this Naraka is 10,368*1010 years long.
* Raurava – the "screaming" Naraka. Here beings run here and there looking for refuge from the burning ground. When they find an apparent shelter, they are locked inside it as it blazes around them, while they scream inside. Life in this Naraka is 82,944*1010 years long.
The reason that this is said to be a system of "rebirth", and not "reincarnation", is based primarily on the very fine distinction that the Buddha denied an eternal "self" or "soul" that would pass on from life to life. Buddhist philosophers have struggled for generations, often bending over backwards, thus to explain how there can be a "you" which is reborn when there is no "you" ...
Here are a couple of modern attempts, one from the London Buddhist Vihara ...
The non-existence of a permanent soul or spirit that reincarnates from one life to another is fundamental to the Buddha’s teachings. A permanent soul cannot exist in the ever-changing, interdependent process of mind and matter which constitutes a living being. However, the momentum of accumulated kamma results in a new existence. The individual so born is neither the same nor different from the previous being. Buddhism, therefore, describes this process as ‘rebecoming’ or ‘rebirth’ in preference to reincarnation which implies a resurrection of the same entity. It is the force of one’s accumulated kamma which drives life onward from one existence to another. Only an enlightened being (arahant) creates no more kamma.
The modern Theravada scholar Walpola Rahulan, in his book What the Buddha Taught (1959), asked,
"If we can understand that in this life we can continue without a permanent, unchanging substance like Self or Soul, why can't we understand that those forces themselves can continue without a Self or Soul behind them after the non-functioning of the body?
"When this physical body is no more capable of functioning, energies do not die with it, but continue to take some other shape or form, which we call another life. ... Physical and mental energies which constitute the so-called being have within themselves the power to take a new form, and grow gradually and gather force to the full."
Ideas of Karmic Rebirth have been just as present throughout the history of Ch'an/Zen Buddhism as well. It varied from teacher to teacher, but there is no reason to believe that Zen Buddhists of old believed less in Karmic Rebirth than other Buddhists. HOWEVER, the emphasis in Zen Buddhism on "living in this life, in the present moment" quickly began to make the question less important to Zen Practitioners. Be a good human being here and now, seek to do no harm now in this life ... and what happens after this life will take care of itself. As well, the pivot point of "birth and death" in right this moment, where birth and death are ever occurring ... and the place of realization and release from "birth and death" is right this moment too, right in this life now.
Based thereon, many modern teachers (me included ... and may I burn in a hot Buddhist hell if wrong) do not find the question so important or central to Buddhist Practice.
Now, don't get me wrong: I believe that our actions have effects, and I believe that we create "heavens" and "hells". I see people create "hells" within themselves all the time, and for those around them, by their acts of greed, anger and ignorance. .I see people who live in this world as "Hungry Ghosts", never satisfied. I also believe that we are reborn moment by moment by moment, so in that way ... we are constantly reborn, always changing (the "Jundo" who began writing this essay is not the same "Jundo" who will finish it). Futhermore, I believe that our actions will continue to have effects in this world long after this body is in its grave ... like ripples in a stream that will continue on endlessly.
But what about those future lives, heavens and hells? Will I be reborn as an Asura or a cocker spaniel?
My attitude, and that of many other Buddhist teachers, is that ...
If there are future lives, heavens and hells ... live this life here and now, seek not to do harm, seek not to build "heavens" and "hells" in this world ... let what happens after "death" take care of itself.
And if there are no future lives, no heavens or hells ... live this life here and now, seek not to do harm, seek not to build "heavens" and "hells" in this world ... let what happens after "death" take care of itself.
Thus I do not much care if, in the next life, that "gentle way, avoiding harm" will buy me a ticket to heaven and keep me out of hell ... but I know for a fact that it will go far to do so in this life, today, where I see people create all manner of "heavens and hells" for themselves and those around them by their harmful words, thoughts and acts in this life.
And if there is a "heaven and hell" in the next life, or other effects of Karma now ... well, my actions now have effects then too, and might be the ticket to heaven or good rebirth.
In other words, whatever the case ... today, now ... live in a gentle way, avoiding harm to self and others (not two, by the way) ... seeking to avoid harm now and in the future too.
In closing, a couple of (more like 5) final notes ...
Buddhists all through history, including Guatama himself, always spoke of our escape from the cycle of birth and death, heaven and hells ... and that largely involves emptiness, and tasting a realm beyond all such states. So, in that way, the Buddha himself implied and often directly said that "Karma" and "Rebirth" only exist so long as you see the world that way, and they each vanish when you pierce through them (for example, this from the Nibbana Sutta)
There is that dimension where there is neither earth, nor water, nor fire, nor wind; neither dimension of the infinitude of space, nor dimension of the infinitude of consciousness, nor dimension of nothingness, nor dimension of neither perception nor non-perception; neither this world, nor the next world, nor sun, nor moon. And there, I say, there is neither coming, nor going, nor staying; neither passing away nor arising: unestablished, unevolving, without support (mental object). This, just this, is the end of stress.
Remember too that being "reborn" was never seen as a positive thing in Buddhism (despite how modern practitioners often want to "come back"), but was seen as something to be escaped!
Second, even in the most mechanical of mechanical views of Karma, what is truly important is (not past causes) but our harmful and beneficial actions here and now, in this present life. We are not prisoners of Karma, but have great freedom in this moment to make our lives and the future. So, again, what is vital is the here and now.
Third, on the question of why "bad things happen to good people" and such ... one Buddhist view has always been "because of their 'bad' past Karma". For example, this explanation of why so many folks died in the great Tsunami a few years ago ...
To Ananda Guruge, former Sri Lankan ambassador to the United States who teaches at the Buddhist-affiliated University of the West in Rosemead, the Buddhist doctrine of karmic law, not random chance, determines who lives and dies in any disaster. The region suffered collective bad karma, he says, perhaps prompted by oppression, unjust war or other negative actions that invited the calamity.
In Sri Lanka and Thailand, both majority Buddhist countries hit by the tsunami, people tend to believe that those who perished were paying the price of accumulated demerits in this life or past ones, Guruge said, while the survivors were reaping rewards.
“Buddhist doctrine makes people responsible for their own fate,” said Guruge, whose own family in Sri Lanka largely survived. ...
But he said such doctrines of cause and effect provide solace by empowering people to take corrective action. By doing good deeds, he said, people can improve their own futures and transfer their merits to deceased loved ones to help bring them a better rebirth.
However, another Buddhist view is that there is a perspective by which we can drop all thought of birth, death, Tsunami and victims, suffering and such. By that view, there are no "bad things" to happen to "good people" ... and no "people, for all is empty! This is a view that I often teach when asked about these questions.
Fourth, even if the Buddha did have an incomplete, or even dead wrong, view on "birth and death" ... no harm to my Buddhist Practice. For me, Guatama Buddha was much like the Wright Brothers in a glider at Kitty Hawk, while now we can board a Boeing 777. I even say that maybe, just maybe, the Buddha was not infallible on every darn thing and, while he was 90% right in his proposals, he also had some klunkers and narrow ideas here and there (as fits a man who lived in a traditional, myth based society some 2500 years ago in ancient India). No matter, as that 90% he taught was so wondrous that I happily bow to him in gratitude.
Yes, I see that death is an illusion anyway. So, the whole question is moot from that perspective. We'll talk about this more in our next edition of ...What happens when we die? Some say that death is an illusion. How so? ... Why is it said that Satori destroys the fear of death?
Jundo Tackles the 'BIG' Questions !