Karma In This Life



Roshi will be leading us through the study of the concept of “Karma” for the next few weeks.  We are commonly told that there is nothing outside of Zen and that Zen is karma.  As such everything we experience is karma or cause and effect.  As we are in the Soto lineage, we will study karma through the writings of Dogen Zenji.  


Roshi started our talk by noting that modern people do not normally consider literature from the distant past as being authoritative in modern life.  For instance, we would not consult a book on alchemy to produce EV car batteries.  In addition, we would not consult Aristotle for a cancer diagnosis.  Why is this?  One reason may be that we have gained incredible experience in many scientific areas over the centuries.  However, Roshi suggested another reason may be because our world views are so different.  In the modern age we are really all “Radical Materialists.”  By this, Roshi means that we consider reality as being defined exclusively by what we perceive.  People in the past had a very different mindset, however.  In the past things like heavens, hells, daemons, dragons, and gods were very real.  In the modern age, we do not really consider these things when deciding to take an action.  For instance, when we are sick, we do not consider it the result of evil spirits.  Roshi thought this is important to bring up as this background “colors” the writing and thinking of ancient masters like Dogen.  So, we may find some of Dogen’s writings strange or mystical, but we should not forget the deep wisdom and truth in Dogen’s writings.  This especially extends to the topic of karma.  Many people get wrapped up in the topic of rebirth and spirituality.  One can still gain from the wisdom of karma even if they have different beliefs about the soul and what happens after death. 


To open our discussion on karma, Roshi read from fascicle “Sanji Go” of Dogen’s masterwork, Shobogenzo.  It should be noted that there are many translations of Shobogenzo.  In fact, the Soto Zen organization just released an eight-volume version this year.  Included at the link below is one translation found for free on the Internet.  http://www.urbandharma.org/pdf/Shobogenzo.pdf

In this version, Sanji Go is fascicle 89.


In this fascicle, Dogen talks about karma in the three periods of time.  These include our current life, our next life, and all future lives.  Dogen begins with telling a brief story where a monk asks the perineal of why bad things happen to good people.  


When our Nineteenth Ancestor, the Venerable Kumorata, arrived at a country in Central India, there was a virtuous monk there named Shayata who raised a question with him, saying, “My parents have always had faith in the Triple Treasure, but they have continually been subject to illnesses and all their endeavors have come to naught, whereas our neighbor, who persists in behaving like Chandala the Outlaw  (NOTE:  someone who deals with killing or corpses), has always been fit and healthy and his illegal undertakings successful. How come he has had such good fortune and where have we gone wrong?”


In the story Kumorata responds by asking, “Why do you entertain such doubts?  The karmic effects of good and bad actions will come to fruition in one of the temporal periods.”  In other words, the rules of cause and effect always work, however they may not always work on your schedule.  Karma is always present and is always operating.  Down deep we know this at an intuitive level.  If you act in a certain way, your life is changed in very specific ways.  If you steal, you may get away with it, but you become a “thief.”  Your life changes in specific ways and certain negative things will start happening to you.  For instance, you may fall in with others who flout the law or you may take bigger risks as you got away with the small crime.  Over time the gears of karma will turn and unwholesome things will happen to you.  The thing to remember is that karma works on its own timeline.  The other key element is that there is no god or daemon controlling karma.  This is how the universe simply works.  It is akin to the sun rising in the east.  This is simply how it is.  


Roshi next shared the story of the woodcutter as an example of “karmic retribution” happening in the first time period, which is your current life.  Remember, that the story serves as a metaphor or a teaching tool.


There was once a woodcutter who had gone off into the mountains when he encountered a blizzard and completely lost his way. It was at that time when the day was coming to an end. The snow was so deep and it was so freezing cold that he knew he would certainly be dead before long. He made his way onwards and had just entered a dense, dark patch of woods when he saw a bear. There it was, right before him in the woods. Its body was a deep blue-black, and its eyes were like two glowing coals. The man was filled with terror, certain that he would lose his life, but the creature was, in truth, a bodhisattva who had manifested in the form of a bear. Seeing the man’s dreadful fear, it then spoke in a consoling manner, counseling him, “Now you must not be afraid. Though one’s parents may sometimes harbor wrong intentions towards their child, I do not harbor evil thoughts towards you.” It then came forward, lifted the man onto its back, and carried him into a cave where it warmed him with its own body until it completely resuscitated him. Gathering some roots and berries, it encouraged him to eat what he would. Fearing lest the woodcutter should die, it lay down and held him in its arms. In this way it kindly tended him until six days had passed.

On the seventh day, the sky cleared and the pathway became visible. The bear, having realized that the man desired to return home, again gathered sweet berries to satisfy his hunger and sustain him. It accompanied him out of the woods, and ever so politely bade him farewell. The man fell to his knees and said, “How can I ever repay you?” The bear replied, “I seek no recompense now. I only pray that, just as I protected your body these past days, you will also do the same with my life.” The man respectfully agreed.

As the man was coming down the mountain shouldering his firewood, he encountered two hunters, who asked him, “What kind of creatures have you encountered on the mountain?” The woodcutter replied, “I haven’t seen any creatures apart from just one bear.” The hunters begged him, “Can you show us where?” The woodcutter replied, “If I can have two-thirds of your prey, I will gladly show you.” The hunters agreed and they all went off together, ultimately slaying the bear. They divided the meat into three parts. As the woodcutter was just about to pick up the bear’s flesh with his two hands, he lost the use of his arms, as if they were a string of pearls that had been cut or a lotus root that had been sliced off. The hunters were startled by this and, in their concern, asked him what had happened. The woodcutter, feeling deeply ashamed, gave a detailed account of what he had done. The two hunters upbraided the woodcutter, saying, “That bear had such great compassion for you! How could you possibly have carried out such a wicked act of betrayal now? It is truly a wonder that your whole body hasn’t rotted away!”  

Thereupon the hunters, in company with the man, gave the meat in charity to a monastery. At that time, the elderly and virtuous abbot, one who had the wondrous ability to fathom what others desired, had entered a state of deep contemplation, thereby knowing that it was the flesh of a great bodhisattva who had created benefits and joy for the sake of all sentient beings. Coming out from his meditative state, he then spoke to his assembly concerning this matter. The assembly, hearing the story, was appalled and saddened. Together, they gathered fragrant wood and cremated the bear’s body. They then collected what bones remained, placed them in a stupa, and made prostrations and offerings to them.



Roshi wrapped up by asking us to think deeply on these two stories.  We need to ask why it seems that bad things happen to good people.  Is there such a thing as “justice” with karma?  Can we contemplate that there something more complex going on when we perceive karma which we do not fully understand?  Is there such a thing as “bad luck?” in the universe?  Could a bad experience actually make the “good person” grow and become better because they are inherently good whereas a “bad” person would react very differently to the same situation?  Also, what really is the karmic retribution described in the second story?  Of course, our arms will not fall off if we act in a truly malevolent fashion.  However, there always is a cost to our actions.  This is the message Dogen is describing to us in the second story.