Zen Buddhism and Martial Arts

Home » Literature Archives » Dharma and Karma

Author of this essay:

Ming Zhen Shakya, OHY
(May 1997)

by Ming Zhen Shakya

Karma is another word that seems to thrive on verbal abuse. Distort it, pervert it, employ it in the most repugnant ways and it grows ever more rosy cheeked and vibrant. Subject it to metempsychotic tortures and it positively glows with hygienic verve. In messing around with it I donít know whether the cops might come to assist me or arrest me. We live in complicated times.

Letís start by saying what, in our Zen path, karma is not. Karma is not divine tribute or retribution, some reward or punishment for deeds done in a previous life. We have had no previous lives. Not in Zen, we havenít.

Zen requires that we live in the moment and that we free ourselves from the illusions of separation, of being free-thinking, self-ordained egos. Ultimately, we have to understand that the ego does not exist, and it follows that if we as individuals donít exist now we didnít exist before and wonít again.

It cannot be said often enough: All religions at their base levels are merely civilizing media. They take disparate groups of savages and impose law and order on us whether we like it or not. They get us to behave in reasonably ethical ways by cajoling us with promises of heaven or of upwardly mobile rebirths until we reach the pinnacle of being born rich, beautiful, and really smart persons with a MainLine Philadelphia address. Likewise, they are not averse to threatening us with everlasting hellfire or with a rebirth-skid that takes us through Camden down to something that dwells on the bottom of Delaware Bay.

Of course, the system of reward and punishment works. Who among us would spend a dime on dinner dates were it not for post-prandial enjoyments or pay taxes were it not for the IRSís invitation to sup at Leavenworth?

This is not to say that just because we deny the possibility of future lives filled with justified pleasure or pain, we are exempt from experiencing either in our present lifetime. (Curiously, a large number of observers and an even greater number of commentators seem to believe that Zen practitioners strive to feel neither pleasure nor pain. Nirvana is equated with catatonia and the perfect man, an extra in a George Romero film. Take that Happy Buddha, slim him down to 80 pounds and reduce his smile to a grimace - and there you have it.) In fact, we Zen Buddhists know to a certainty that ordinary life can function quite sufficiently as a perfect hell of bitterness and pain and that the purpose of Zen discipline is to transport us to Nirvanic rapture while we are still breathing. Heaven and hell exist and they exist here and now and in our own minds. So, unless weíve been decapitated, we carry our heaven and our hell with us wherever we go.

Letís be clear about this. Our Zen approach may not accept the doctrine of reincarnation but this doesnít mean that the doctrine is unworkable. Every Path has its own ethical system and a creed which gives meaning and direction to it - providing that the system is accepted in its entirety. The doctrine of reincarnation, when taken as an integral part of a specific regimen of salvation, is, within the context of that regimen, an effective doctrine. However, every religion which believes in reincarnation believes also that once a person succeeds in the prescribed regimen and attains Nirvana, he is freed from the inconveniences of further transmigrations. In short, even the doctrine of reincarnation, like a raft used to ford a river, ceases to have a meaningful purpose once Salvationís other shore is reached.

Each great world religion supports a mystical ladder and those who climb it usually do not constitute a criminal class; and thus, being somewhat above the inducements of common amusements, they no longer require the threats or promises of postmortem excitements. This doesnít mean that persons who are not officially enrolled in their religionís mystical program canít ascend to mystical heights. Altitude is a function of Grace.

The ascension of the ordinary person is the more difficult route of the mountain climber. No one gets to the top of a mountain circling its base or jumping from one path to another. The climber who succeeds stays on one path, following it from beginning to end, committing himself to traversing it with faith, accepting both what he understands and what he finds incomprehensible. All will become clear if he does not yield to the temptation to inflict his own personal judgments upon its dogma and tenets or to leave his path to follow some New Age Natty Bumppo - one of those glib Pathfinders who assume that because they have managed to stumble upon one smooth stretch of path they are qualified to lead multitudes to the summit.

Zen is the alchemical achievement of archetypal integration. To attain it is to experience the ecstasy of divine union which, in turn, produces the tranquillity of being complete unto oneself - independent of and impervious to the manipulations of others. Zen is not group therapy nor warm squishy feelings of togetherness under the jaded eye of some occasionally divine master. Zen is not a club. It is a religion.

Zenís denial of karma as past life punishment or reward, does not, however, extend to invalidating the maxim, "What goes around, comes around." And indeed, trouble seems always to befall troublesome people. Likewise, acts of generosity often are repaid in the most pleasant and unexpected ways. This colloquial use of the term karma is useful and as far as it goes, accurate. Egotistical, self-centered actions are characteristic of people who know no other way but the manipulative schemes of gaining status. These machinations invariably break down or spin out of control leaving their operators stranded in "bitter and painful" situations. On the other hand, acts of genuine kindness are not prompted by any promise of future reward, and, being possessed of such Nirvanic character, engender, by that lovely infectiousness of spiritual generosity, further acts of goodness.

Thereís no problem, then, in invoking karma as an inducement to obey the Golden Rule, "Do unto others what you would have them do unto you," or its negative, "Donít do unto others what you wouldnít have them do unto you." This is just moralistic common sense.

Letís conclude this brief outline of non-definitions of karma by saying that anyone who is still inclined to murder, rape, pillage or pretend to spiritual rank in this or any other life ought not to plan on prowling Zenís sacred precincts. And as to the locutions of the inexperienced, weíve already heard enough from those practitioners who mistake a flickering in the groin for Kundaliniís spinal conflagration, who suspect, while woolgathering, that a startle is Satori, and who convince themselves that the Purkinje Effect is Kenshoís auric afterglow. Weíve all had enough of this silliness.

Well, ok, if this is what karma isnít, what, then, is it?

Although Iíve described karma in many other articles, Iíll try to approach the subject a little differently here.

Karma is action - ongoing, endless action, action which constitutes samsaraís network of cause and effect at any given moment. And that moment is the mere "now."

All things are in flux, said Heraclitis, and he meant it. Just as there is no thing that is fixed and permanent, there is no singular, discreet reaction which can be attributed to any one action. An infinite number of causes contribute to each and every effect. And since everything is ongoing, t (time) can never really equal zero. The slate is never a tabula raza. One of Zenís most difficult problems is understanding that what a person does at any given moment is not the result of some spontaneously generated act of free will. Additionally, we cannot judge an action as good or evil since the question "relative to what" needs always to be answered, and this can never be done. A fox kills a rabbit and takes it back to its den, which is good for the fox kits who will now not starve to death and bad for the bunnies who will. Further, we do not know what other event might have occurred had the one under consideration not taken place.

We would all certainly agree that the murder of an 8 year old child would be a terrible thing, but we cannot say this absolutely. Letís consider this by first referring to an old World War II joke:

Adolph Hitler, an avowed astrology buff, consults his astrologer and asks when the stars predict that he will die. The astrologer, properly fearful of his client, studies his horoscope and intones, "The stars say that you will die on a Jewish holiday." "Which date is that?" asks Hitler. The astrologer stammers, "I donít know." Hitler calls him a fool and demands to know the date. "Mein Fuhrer," meekly explains the astrologer, "any day you die will be a Jewish holiday."

How would anyone who knows the horrors of WWII feel if young Adolph had been killed in a drive-by shooting while he was walking to grammar school? But who would have known then? No one. Further, who could know what else might have happened that would have had even worse consequences than Hitlerís rise to power? Every effect has an infinite number of causes and, in becoming a cause itself, contributes to an infinite number of effects. There is no way to isolate a single event for praise or blame, to pull one knot out of the network without effecting the connecting lines and knots. We cannot ever be sure of whether an event is good or bad beyond the immediate moment. Was there a single cause of WWII? No. There was an infinite number of causes.

History is the record of samsara. It attempts to isolate and examine causes, singly or in groups, for any given event, which in the final analysis is not only impossible but, given that every generation is born anew, is usually a waste of time. World War I neither prevented nor facilitated World War II. Nothing in samsara is that simple.

The trick in Zen is to get ourselves into such a good place, such a spiritually satisfying place - which can mean only a transcendent, Nirvanic experience - that if we were given the opportunity to live our lives over again we wouldnít change a single thing, no matter how terrible it was.The changing of one small event might have set in motion a sequence of events which would have deflected our path from whatever trajectory it was on that delivered us to such direct and unitive knowledge of God.

Stardate 3134.0. In a time warp accident, Doctor McCoy beams down to Earth of the l930ís Great Depression. Kirk and Spock come looking for him and Kirk falls in love with sweet, young social worker Edith Keeler. She gets sick and McCoy wants to save her life but Kirk discovers that if she lives she would start a pacifist movement so effective that it would delay the U.S. entry into World War II thus giving Nazi Germany enough time to develop the A Bomb and to conquer the world. By changing the course of just one life, or of even one small event, history might be drastically altered. McCoy canít pull one knot out of the karmic network without affecting all the other knots. The line of Edith Keelerís karma is already intertwined with many other lines.

However nice it was to see a youthful Joan Collins in that particular Star Trek episode, it might have been a more interesting plot (but who would have done it?) to see Kirk, armed with all that hindsight, simply dispatch young Adolph. (Maybe Joan could have played his mutter.)

Indeed, why not go right to the source of all that evil? Well, for one reason, the Enterprise might not have been out there at all if Hitler hadnít been superstitious and declined to defend Normandy. Another Fuhrer might have invested more funds in Werner Von Braun and Peenemunde and then the whole Western Hemisphere might have been sieging heil. (Iíll digress a bit to recall an article in Harperís magazine, I think it was, back in the days of Sputnik and our pathetic Vanguard rocket program, in which the ABC network was lauded for having been the only news carrier to reveal that on the loudspeakers at Cape Canaveral before a launch came the word "Achtung!") Yes, things might have worked out differently for Spock and Kirk and McCoy and the whole gang of us Trekkies. Itís hard to imagine, but it could have been worse.

Karma is the network of causes and effects.. the samsaric actions and reactions in which we are enmeshed. Because of this, we have that and because of that, we have the other, and it is pointless to judge whether any cause or effect is good or bad. The fact is that we are here. We have survived sufficiently to consider our situation. Any alternative might have resulted in our being excluded from the ranks of conscious survivors. The only question is, "Will we be sufficiently inspired to turn our attention away from the world and to seek refuge in the Buddha?"

For the Zen practitioner it is sufficient to accept the fact of a mechanical universe with which God does, indeed, play dice. We can will nothing spiritual without the inspiration to do so. Those of us who are lucky are in the right place at the right time... and the Spirit enters us and we are transported. We rise like a lotus rising from stagnant water and bloom, undefiled by all the sordid experience that has preceded that lucky moment of inspiration - that marvelous chance.

Again, we are born with certain propensities, certain inherited tendencies and talents, strengths or weakness which subsequent experience will exploit... or not. Much in our environment may help or hurt us. We grow not knowing when the influential processes will cease. At which point do we graduate from being apprentices to becoming journeymen or masters? On the day we wake up to discover that itís our l8th or 21st birthday? No.. itís an ongoing and totally mechanical action and reaction of infinite possibility and fact; and not until we experience the indwelling presence of the divine does anything really change.

Free Will is had by those who attain liberation and are, therefore, at liberty to enjoy it. Everybody else is sadly deluded when he believes that he is the master of his fate. He is caught in the web of karma, the conditional world of constant change, in which not only his environment is altering, but he, himself, the observer of that environment, is also changing.

A final word about two practical applications of karmic lore. The first is a specific meditation technique in which a person focusses his attention inward upon his own thoughts or experiences and tries to trace back the various causes of any single idea or action. Aside from leading him into a deep meditative state, he may gain ethical benefits. If he is proud of something he has done, he should meditate on all the contributing factors, all the fortunate occurrences that were responsible for his success.Even if he was extremely self-sufficient and, for example, worked his way through college and medical school, he must still acknowledge that his good genes, nutrition, and upbringing did him more than yeoman service. Likewise, if he is ashamed of something he has done, he may trace back the reasons for his action and see more clearly the events that led him towards that action. Understanding even a little of an actionís genesis develops in a person an enormous amount of understanding, appreciation or compassion for others.

The second use of karmic principles is to use action itself as both a discipline and a devotional offering. A simple but determined shift in attitude can convert a chore into an opportunity to gain humility, lessen pride, and acquire a gentle spiritual demeanor. Work is then done not for a paycheck or to avoid criticism or to gain praise, but as a constructive regimen, an offering to Dharma. When we separate ourselves from the fruits of our labor and offer that labor as a little sacrifice on the Buddhaís altar, we attend even more to the quality of our product. As architects say, God is in the details.

Additionally, concentration on the task makes time pass quickly, and without boredom or distractions we work more efficiently. No matter how menial the task, meditative training consists in keeping the attention fixed on the action, carefully excluding extraneous thoughts or daydreams Walking meditation is performed in exactly this manner. The meditator restricts his consciousness to the actual movements he is making such as, "Now I am shifting my weight onto my left foot and lifting my right foot which I bring forward and place on the floor... " and so on.

Karma yoga requires that we work for the pleasure of being able to do the work and devotionally to sacrifice the results of our labor. This doesnít mean that we are not compensated when compensation is in order, but merely that we impart a sacred quality to our task and make our work a "prayer in motion."

Our work, after all, is only what we do. It isnít what we are.

Humming Bird
Valid XHTML 1.0 Strict