Friday, April 6, 2012

Why karma is NOT fair

Dharmacharis Seven and Ashley Wells, Wisdom Quarterly (EXPLANATION)
What's not fair about it? It does not accord with our sense of fairness, but that is a benefit.

It's true. Karma is not fair. And it's a good thing it's not.

How could it be when for most of us "Justice delayed is justice denied"?

Our comeuppance won't come fast enough. So we have time. There's no reason to expect anyone in politics to burst into flames on TV for lying or worse. Yet, we love a juicy tale about a meteoric rise and dramatic downfall, like the governor of New York or a Hollywood starlet.

Such tales make poetic sense and remind us that karma is true. But it is rarely clear cut. If we expect karma to be clear cut, we will be sadly disappointed most of the time, doomed to doubting it. Faith (saddha, shraddha) is better.

Ye of little faith, with nothing to fear of what may come as a consequence of misdeeds, often engage in actions that lead to remorse. Those with faith, conviction, full of confidence concerning the Dharma, even without understanding, sense that ill done deeds are best left undone. Wait! What counts as a "misdeed"? Tell us and we would bear it in mind for the future.
  • All unskillful, unwholesome, unprofitable karma stems from only three sources, three roots, three motivations, three intentions: greed, aversion, delusion.
Therefore, we can check ourselves by asking, "Is my underlying motivation rooted in greed (lobha), fear or hate (dosa), or foolishness (moha)?" And if so do I really think that it is possible that when and if such deeds ripen and bear their results it can possibly be pleasant? The Buddha said it is impossible. Happiness cannot be the result, the fruit, the consequence of their ripening.

But one can certainly feel happy before then. If one steals, one can find the ill gotten gain enjoyable or useful, pleasant and worth the risk. What one will not find enjoyable will be the karmic result of stealing when and if that deed ripens, which could be in this life, in the next life, or in some future life far in the distance.

Because we foolishly mistake our ill gotten gain to be the karmic result of stealing, we doubt the teaching karma. And in delusion we assert something akin to, "What goes around DOESN'T always come around."

It certainly does not come around fast enough to teach us that it will eventually be coming around just as soon or late as it gets around to it. And that could be a long time, too delayed to teach one of the great lessons the Buddha, a karmavadin, was trying to teach us.

The Buddha was distinctive in his day for being a "teacher of action" (vadin = teacher).

Karma is subtle. Karma "works in mysterious ways." Karma is ever-present, adaptable, and only rarely inflexible. There are only four heinous acts with "fixed results." Does that sound fair? It shouldn't because it means that there are countless acts with no fixed results, just tendencies and weight, pleasant and unpleasant probabilities and prospects.

What we choose at every moment matters as to what karma in our vast store ripens and, moreover, how we respond/react to it right now.

So the chorus "Karma's not fair!" is not a complaint. It's a triumph!

First of all, if we were to suffer for our every indiscretion, even we would not release ourselves from torment. Would we? How then does one explain our unremitting guilt, shame, conscience, scruples, and misgivings?

If we "get away with" a crime, shouldn't we be happy? Why do we waste our time feeling guilty and worried about it instead?

We worry about what may come as a result of our actions, but why? What'll come'll come, so why are we tormenting ourselves before it's come? 'Kay Sarah Sarah? (Que sera sera).

Worry, restlessness, a guilt or inferiority complex -- that constitutes our mental karma (intentional action). It is not simply the mental-resultant (vipaka) of our karma.

And knowing that we have a choice, we would do well to choose another course of action.

What to do after an ill done deed
Given a choice -- and we really do have a choice -- it is worse for anyone to feel and think this way.

Guilt should not be indulged in but avoided. Worry should not waste our time. Remorse is not any way to make good karma.

Think differently.

Should we be shameless and stripped of conscience? No, of course not! Instead, it is wise to do some good.

Why? Our karmic store is like a cup of water to which a teaspoon of salt has been added: Ill done deeds make the water salty, bitter, and sour.

In this example, if bad karma is like salt, well done deeds are like fresh water. So what to do? The way to make our store of karma less bitter is to increase the freshwater content. Soon the freshwater will so outweigh the salt in the cup that it is again sweet and pleasant.

The more harm we fear, the more help we should engage in.

A Store of Merit

Merit (punya) is always of benefit, whatever we wish for, or however we later choose to live. Even for things we may wish that are unwholesome, merit is of benefit.

Merit actually benefits criminals more than it benefits noncriminals since criminals need more of it to stay afloat and prosper.

This is a strange thing about karma. It does not judge. It is quite impersonal but so involved and omniscient and omnipresent that it is far easier to think of it as the ultimate judge, knower of all, seer of all, capable of all things.

Foremost in Wisdom

Sariputra, male disciple declared "foremost in wisdom" by the Buddha, was drawn to the Dharma when Ven. Assaji told him that his teacher teaches the paths to all destinations, that is, the karma that leads to all places in the universe and beyond to nirvana, final liberation.
  • IMAGES:; ethics (; salt shaker; Saint Barbie, bumper sticker (Bhakti Omwoods/Facebook); Patience (Creative_Jen/; Bodh Gaya Japanese monument (
This struck Sariputra to the core. My teacher teaches that everything has a cause, and he teaches those causes. (Cause = karma). When Ven. Assaji revealed to Sariputra the Buddha's message -- his karmavada -- that concise teaching, implying the Four Noble Truths, Sariputra glimpsed nirvana and became a stream enterer. Stream entry is the first stage of enlightenment.
  1. There is disappointment.
  2. Disappointment has a cause.
  3. There is also an end of all suffering (nirvana).
  4. There is a path leading to nirvana.
Sariputra had been very disappointed with the teachings of other teacher. He and his best friend had gone in search of a better teacher. They settled for a clever one who, taking no firm positions, seemed all the wiser.

While searching he had seen the Buddhist monk Assaji, whose countenance suggested he was onto something. Sariputra followed him, approached, and asked what teaching he followed.

Ven. Assaji explained very briefly. And that was enough due to Sariputra tremendous store of merit.

Before going to meet his new teacher (since one can have no teacher other than the one who leads one to verified faith in the path to enlightenment), Sariputra went to inform his friend Maha Moggallana, whom the Buddha later declared male disciple "foremost in supernatural abilities" by the Buddha.

Together with others in their school, their foolish teacher being too proud to come with them, they went to meet the Buddha. The Buddha saw them in the distance and declared them his male chief disciples. (His two chief female disciples were Khema and Uppalavanna). The four were the Buddha's only four "chief disciples" among a group of about 80 "great disciples."

How fortunate that their karma brought them all together again. The Jatakas ("Rebirth Stories") reveal that they had been together before, so there meeting was neither their fixed destiny NOR due to mere chance. Karma is that way.

How is it unfair?

But karma is "not fair" for a much better reason. Intentional actions (karma) performed towards an ordinary virtuous person have positive ramifications for many lifetimes. (Similarly, unskillful actions towards such people can long be a hindrance).

Volitional deeds (a fancier way of referring to karma) performed for the benefit of a noble person, whose virtue is superior to that of ordinary persons, becomes "incalculable." It benefits are exponential. The follow one for a LONG time, for aeons, far into the future, ripening in innumerable lives.

Even a "saintly" person who has attained absorption (jhana), and who is temporarily purified by the suppression of the defilements, is an amazingly fruitful recipient of our skillful karma. What is done toward them is much more profitable.

The belief that karma means "every action has an equal and opposite reaction" is completely mistaken. There is nothing equal or opposite about it. Benefit begets benefit, harm beget harms, and it is often all out of proportion to what we did. The crucial difference is whom we did it to. Not only are noble persons, the arya, tremendously fruitful "fields of merit for the world," so are our parents and teacher, our helpers and those who bring us peace or understanding.

Good karma

But what is skillful karma (kusala-kamma)? That is easy to define, hard to enumerate. Skillfulness is anything that falls under these three very broad umbrella categories:
  • non-greed
  • non-aversion
  • non-delusion

Generosity, unselfishness, detachment, and renunciation are all forms of "non-greed" (alobha).

Kindness, compassion, and joy-in-others'-happiness fit the bill for non-aversion (adosa).

Knowledge, insight, understanding, and wisdom -- even studying and reflecting, or simple mindfulness and clearing the mind of distractions -- all move in the direction of "non-delusion" (amoha).

So it's fair or unfair?
Karma as we experience it in the human world is not fair, and that's a good thing.

Karma (how deeds bear results of all kind) may not be "fair," but knowing that, we can benefit ourselves and others by practicing for the benefit of both.

To find a noble disciple (someone "worthy of gifts, honor, and hospitality"), send Wisdom Quarterly a message via a private comment. We will point them out.

They exist. Having cultivated samadhi and insight, having loosened the grip of unwholesome motivations (kilesas) and entered the stream that ends in full enlightenment, there are those living today who constitute an "incomparable field of merit" for the world. Look for them. Become one of them. They really exist today.

We would neither believe it nor say it without having seen and understood it -- because many of them are not clad in all white garments or formal saffron robes. And that, too, is "not fair." The best result of karma, the overcoming of karma, is not easy to see.