Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Karma: Actions, Imponderables, and Orders

Seven Dharmachari & Amber Dorrian (Wisdom Quarterly, ongoing Karma Class series)

Karma (intentional action capable of bearing welcome and unwelcome results) is one of the most important and difficult subjects in Buddhism. The Buddha was originally called a Karmavadin (a teaching of the efficacy of action).

Most "bad karma" has no fixed way of turning out. If and when it matures, it will turn out badly. Exactly how is impossible to know with certainty. But we can certainly know in general.

Harm done to oneself and others -- on account of the intention to harm (or motivations based on greed, delusion, and/or fear) -- will bring "suffering." That is, the karmic results (called phala and vipaka) will be unwelcome, unwished for, painful, distressing, not what we wanted, not what we aimed for.

Karmic results should not be confused -- as happens 99 percent of the time with people talking about karma in Buddhism -- with immediate results. As if karma were "common sense," intuitively satisfying, or bound to some linear logic we want to impose on reality! It is not.

The "working out of karma" is one of the Four Imponderables*

For example, when one steals, the immediate result is a gain, but the karmic result is a terrible loss. When someone kills, nothing happens to that person right now, except maybe some PTSD, or court, or in some cases jail. So people seeing the killer pass away comfortably, rich, well respected, and apparently peacefully think that nothing came of the killing.

If only people were there to see the fruition -- the death(s), the misery, the future lives cut short, the sickliness, not to mention any psychological resultants rooted in that deed... -- people would never again think to say "nothing comes of killing (except what we see immediately)."

So when does karma mature, come to fruition, bear its results? It does so as soon as it gets the opportunity, as soon as it finds suitable circumstances. In this sense, karma is analogous to seeds, not all of which sprout and grow, but all of which are limited to doing so only when they meet the proper circumstances and conditions.

Will everyone therefore experience all the results of all the things they've done in this and innumerable past lives? No, not everyone. Those who become enlightened release themselves from samsara. And karma can bear results only in samsara. A liberated one is no longer the heir to the results of past deeds (even though they have never exhausted themselves) because, like seeds tossed on a barren field, they are no longer capable of coming to fruition. They are obsolete (ahosi-karma).

The happy news is that the opposite is true for "good karma." What intentions make actions "good"? When mental, verbal, or physical deeds are rooted in compassion (adosa), unselfishness (alobha), wisdom (amoha), or courageousness (adosa), they bear welcome, pleasing, profitable results. Again, this is not to say that it will be pleasing to do good (such as restraining oneself). But that immediate displeasure is not the result of

There is, however, a totally different kind of "bad" karma that does have a fixed result. The Buddha spoke of five such heinous deeds. The deeds are deeds (karma) because they are intentional, but not because of their intended result. They are intentional because they are motivated by greed, anger, delusion, or fear. That is, they are not incidental or accidental. They're purposeful, given birth in the mind before manifesting as words or bodily actions.

Ninety-nine percent of the time people misunderstand what "intention" (cetana) means, confounding it with our English sense of the word, ignoring that it's an imperfect translation. Again, "intention" does not mean one intended or did not intend a particular result, like the breaking up of the Order. What constitutes "karma" is willful action, volitional action, motivated action. Motivated by what? Motivated by any of these very general roots (categories or classes) of karma:
  • non-greed (selflessness, generosity, want to help oneself and others)
  • non-hatred (loving-kindness, compassion, altruistic joy, equanimity)
  • non-delusion (insight, wisdom, understanding, knowledge, learning)
  • non-fear (courage; psychologically, fear is a manifestation of hatred)
  • greed (selfishness, stinginess, lust, avarice, hoarding. discontent)
  • hatred (aversion, annoyance, disliking, fear [yes, fear], sadness)
  • delusion (wrong view, ignorance, misperception, misunderstanding)
  • fear (aversion, resistance, disgust, motivation to avert, cowardice)

Heinous karma fruits immediately after this life in worlds-of-woe, the most unfortunate destinations, in tormented states. And it is believed, to the limits of our understanding, nothing can be done to intervene or alter the consequences. (There are five niyamas,** or "orders of things" that make it this way).

Most good and bad deeds have disproportionate results as it is. But heinous karma is all out of proportion with what one intended or realized would happen. Such deeds include causing a "schism" in the monastic Order, the Sangha, which is meant to preserve the Buddha's teaching, to practice it, and to advise and set an example.

But what does it mean, "schism in the Order"? Fortunately, Upali asked the Buddha about it.

*The Four Imponderables
A.IV.7 (based on Wings of Awakening translation)

These Four Imponderables are not to be pondered (speculated about). Anyone who persisted in pondering them would come unhinged and experience vexation. What are the four?

  1. The sphere of a Buddha's influence (Buddha-range of the Buddhas, i.e., the range of powers a Buddha develops as a result of becoming a perfectly enlightened teacher)...
  2. The jhana-range of one absorbed in jhana (the range of powers that one may develop from meditative absorption]...
  3. The results of karma...
  4. The [first moment, purpose, etc., of the] universe...

These Four Imponderables, if pondered (and persisted in, speculated about), lead to madness and vexation.

**The Orderliness of Things (Five Orders)
Based on nutshell explanation by Ven. Narada Thera (accesstoinsight.org)

According to Buddhism, there are Five Orders or processes (Niyamas) that operate in the physical and mental realms:

  1. Karma Niyama, order of action and result: such as good and bad actions producing corresponding desirable and undesirable results.
  2. Utu Niyama, physical order (inorganic matter): such as seasonal phenomena.
  3. Bija Niyama, seed or genetic order (organic matter): such as rice being produced from rice-seed, sweet taste from sugary plants; cells, genes, and heredity may be ascribed to this order.
  4. Citta Niyama, order of mind: such as processes of consciousness (citta vithi), psychic power, perception.
  5. Dhamma Niyama, order of phenomena: the natural phenomena occurring at the birth of a Bodhisatta in his last birth, gravitation, and so on.

[The Buddhist term dhamma is tricky. It is best translated as "things" or "phenomena," which can include the Dharma (Doctrine or Teachings) though it is usually distinguished from it by capitalization. The Buddha's Teachings point at the Truth.]

Every mental or physical phenomenon can be explained by these five all-embracing Orders, which are lawful processes in themselves. Karma is only one of the Orders that prevail in the universe. It is a "law" (orderly process) in itself without a governing law-giver. "Laws of nature," such as gravitation, need no law-giver. They operate in orderly ways within their own fields or domains without the intervention of any external independent ruling agent.

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