Karma in Action



Tesshin Roshi continued our discussion of karma this week and reiterated how karma is the foundation of our existence and our practice.  Roshi started by relating a story about when he was in the airport.  As the food there is so expensive, he stopped off at McDonalds before his flight to get some snacks.  While waiting in the departure lounge, a woman walked up and got excited and asked where she could get McDonalds in the airport.  Roshi explained that he picked up the food before coming to the airport, but he would be willing to share.  At this point, the woman was thrown into turmoil as she wanted those fries, but should she accept food from a stranger?  After the woman left “fryless” another passenger commented, “Dude, you will get some good karma for that!”  


Roshi noted that this is how most people think about karma.  They think it is a linear flow of events.  You do X and then Y happens to you as a result.  However, historically, this is not how people thought about karma.  For instance, in the Hindu tradition, caste is linked tightly with karma.  One is in the caste they are in due to karma accumulated in all space and all times.  In Japan the concept of karma was used to make the Samurai more effective fighters.  Fear of death is not relevant as any give life is simply an illusion in the movement of karma.


Roshi then noted that in Dogen’s time Buddhist philosophy began to change to be much more inclusive.  It was not just monks and Samurai who were considered worthy of enlightenment.  The new thinking was that everyone was already enlightened all that is required is to realize one’s true nature through practice.  This practice included understanding the mechanism of karma.  Roshi noted that it is important to note that karma means “Action” in the Pali language.  Action does not mean blind fate.  One is not passive in the face of karma.  Dogen is teaching that action leads to action which is why wholesome actions are so important.  Everyone from peasants to kings can improve their lot by doing wholesome acts.  Wholesome acts originate when we understand the true nature of reality, our interconnectedness, and the compassion which arises from this knowledge. 


Dogen tells the following story to illustrate this point…


Long ago, King Kanishka of the nation of Gandhara had a eunuch—one born lacking normal male genitals—who supervised the affairs of the court. While momentarily departing from the city, he encountered a herd of cattle, at least five hundred in number, being led in through the city gate. He asked the herdsman, “What kind of cattle are these?” The herdsman replied, “They are bulls being taken to be castrated.” Upon hearing this, the eunuch thought to himself, “Due to evil karma in a past life, I received a body lacking normal male genitals. I shall now use my wealth to rescue these bulls from just such a hardship.” He ultimately paid their price and then set them all free. 


Because of the power of this good karma, the eunuch’s body was fully restored to that of a normal male. Filled with profound joy, he went back into the city and, standing at the palace gate, sent a messenger to ask the king’s permission to enter for an audience. The king had him summoned, wondering why he had asked for an audience. Thereupon, the eunuch presented the above in great detail. Upon hearing it, the king was surprised and delighted. He generously bestowed on his servant great treasure and, in turn, promoted him to a high office, making him privy to the external affairs of state. 


Good karma like this inevitably receives its fruits, either immediately or in a future life.


Roshi noted that this story still shows a linear flow of karma.  The eunuch rescues the cattle and he is THEN restored.  Dogen had a much more expansive view of karma.  This is why he talks about karma in the three periods including this life, the next life, and all lives.  According to Dogen, karma, and for that matter, time is not linear and predicable.  An action you take changes your condition which affects your action which changes your condition … and so on.  In this view, time moves forward and backwards.  An action taken in the “future” could change your condition in the perceived present.  If we practice deeply, this truth becomes apparent.  Put simply, we cannot impatiently expect a result to come immediately after an action.  The mechanics of karma are much more complicated and subtle than that.


Tesshin Roshi wrapped up by noting that this fluidity of karma is why all of the periods of karmic effect are so important in Dogen’s system.  Next week, we will explore what is meant by the “next life” and why this is important in our understanding of karmic effects.