Dynamic Karma



This week Roshi continued our exploration of Dogen’s perspective on karma.  One translation of Dogen’s Shobogenzo we can use is located at:   http://www.urbandharma.org/pdf/Shobogenzo.pdf

(search for case 89 “Sanji Go” towards the bottom of the document )


Roshi wanted to emphasize the fact that Dogen considered Karma to be like a shadow.  If you think about it, you can never get away from your shadow because it is you, after all!  It is always with you no matter how you may try to get away from it or ignore it.  Roshi also wanted to remind us that Karma is dynamic and not strictly linear.  Karmic results may not show up right away, but could take time to manifest.


It is exactly this non-linearity which Dogen is expressing when he talks about karmic effects in the “next life.”  Whether you believe in rebirth or not, the message is clear.  Your deeds affect what happens to you, however the karmic effects are not always obvious and temporally linked with the original act.  This is the dynamism of karma which Dogen is teaching us.  Yes, our actions cause karmic repercussions, however karmic effects can also change our actions.  Cause and effect are the same thing – there is no difference!  According to Dogen, an effect can influence a cause.


Dynamism is one reason why karma is sometimes hard to understand and may seem “unfair.”  Any religious tradition needs to explain why it seems that “bad” things happen to “good” people, and Buddhism is no exception.    Dogen makes it clear that karma is not a value judgement made by Buddha or any deity.  It is simply cause and effect operating in the universe.  Is an action – evil?  In one sense, we cannot really answer that question as we are not omniscient.  We really do not understand the flow of time or understand all the various acts going on which affect our “karmic package.”  What we do know is that all actions will generate karmic consequences.  However, we need to get away from “Hollywood” interpretations.  If one does an “unwholesome” action, they will not automatically receive karmic retribution within a 30-minute TV plot.  The gears of karma turn in many strange ways.  It may take a slow and circuitous path which we don’t really understand.  However, just as we are confident that the sun rises in the east, karma will have its way and each action will generate its appropriate response.  Roshi again reminded us to always remember that the flow can go the other way as well.  Karmic effects always change our actions which generate new flows of karma in new directions. 


Dogen tries to explain the dynamism of Karma and how it could affect “future lives” by telling us a story which Roshi related to us.   In this story there are two individuals.  The first person practiced what we would consider an ethical life dedicated to the alleviation of suffering in all beings.  At the end of their life, they had a vision of being reborn into a hell realm.  How can this be?  This is especially bothersome to Westerners who are taught that a “good” life leads to Heaven and a “bad” life leads to Hell.  The story goes on to note that through an ethical life dedicated to the Dharma, the individual realizes that there could still be karmic effects which are “hidden” but need to be worked through.  This upcoming hell realm is simply just another aspect of practice and nothing really has changed in what must be done – namely the alleviation of suffering.  At that moment, according to Dogen, the individual has processed their “hidden” karma and thus they achieve Nirvana.    Why was the karma cleared?  This person could have become bitter.  They could think, “I did all of this good and I am still given a hell realm?”  If that was the thought, the hell realm would have happened as it would have been clear that the person was “exchanging” good deeds for a favorable rebirth.  There is no merit in this – in fact this motivation generates more negative karma.  In this case, however, the good deeds originated from right action – thus when the challenge of the hell realm rose it was not a problem for this person.  Could we be so strong in the face of adversity?  Would our practice hold firm in the face of such an unexpected tragedy?  


Dogen’s story then provides the inverse example to emphasize the point.  There is a second person who has led a life of indulgence, ignorance, and greed.  They have vastly increased the suffering of the world in the pursuit of private pleasure.  At the end of their life, the evildoer sees heaven opening up before them.  This person’s reaction is cynicism!  The thought is, “Karma, Dharma, and practice are all a sham!  I did everything I wanted with no regards to others and I am still reborn into heaven!!”  Again, perhaps the evildoer was seeing the heaven realm due to past good, but hidden karmic experiences.  However, the denial of Dharma, karma, and practice generated just too much negative karma and the outcome switched to a hell realm for this individual.  Again, the question for us is one of cynicism in the face of challenges and hubris in the face of positive events.  We naturally center on ourselves, but it is practice which we should be focused on.  Diligent practice insulates us from the extremes of cynicism and hubris and helps us to generate better karma.


Roshi wrapped up by reminding us that karma is everywhere and is wrapped up with our whole being – past, present, and future.  He reminded us not to think of karma in simple linear terms.  Our past, and even our future, can affect us right here.  He left us with a final challenge.  Is there anything in Dogen’s teaching of karma which seems to clash with our broader understanding of Zen.  That will be the topic for next week.