In writing of Sigmund Freud, one master diagnostician of human suffering, the psychoanalyst and philosopher Erich Fromm observes:

The attempt to understand Freud’s theoretical system, or that of any creative systematic thinker, cannot be successful unless we recognize that, and why, every system as it is developed and presented by its author is necessarily erroneous…. The creative thinker must think in the terms of the logic, the thought patterns, the expressible concepts of his culture. That means he has not yet the proper words to express the creative, the new, the liberating idea. He is forced to solve an insoluble problem: to express the new thought in concepts and words that do not yet exist in his language…. The consequence is that the new thought as he formulated it is a blend of what is truly new and the conventional thought which it transcends. The thinker, however, is not conscious of this contradiction.

The Buddha, of course, was himself a master diagnostician, and while there are obviously great differences between him and Freud, I think that we can apply Fromm’s point to the Buddha’s own “liberating idea.” Even the most creative, world-transforming individuals cannot stand on their own shoulders. They too remain dependent upon their cultural context, whether intellectual or spiritual—which is precisely what Buddhism’s emphasis on impermanence and causal interdependence implies. The Buddha also expressed his new, liberating insight in the only way he could, using the religious categories that his culture could understand. Inevitably, then, his way of expressing the dharma was a blend of the truly new (for example, the teachings about anatta, or “not-self,” and paticca-samuppada, or “dependent origination”) and the conventional religious thought of his time. Although the new transcends the conventional, as Fromm puts it, the new cannot immediately and completely escape the conventional wisdom it surpasses.

By emphasizing the inevitable limitations of any cultural innovator, Fromm implies the impermanence—the dynamic, developing nature—of all spiritual teachings. As Buddhists, we tend to assume that the Buddha understood everything, that his awakening and his way of expressing that awakening are unsurpassable. But is that a fair expectation? Given how little we actually know about the historical Buddha, perhaps our collective image of him reveals less about who he actually was and more about our own need to discover or project a completely perfect being to inspire our own spiritual practice.

Understanding this becomes especially helpful when we try to understand Buddhist teachings about karma, which has become a problem for many contemporary Buddhists. If we are honest with ourselves, most of us aren’t sure how literally it should be interpreted. Karma is perhaps most often taken as an impersonal and deterministic “moral law” of the universe, with a precise calculus of cause and effect comparable to Newton’s laws of physics. This understanding, however, can lead to a severe case of cognitive dissonance for modern Buddhists, since the physical causality that science has discovered about the world seems to allow for no such mechanism.

In contrast, some key Buddhist teachings may well make more sense to us today than they did to people living at the time of the Buddha. What Buddhism has to say about anatta, for example, is not only profound but consistent with what modern psychologists such as George Herbert Mead and Kurt Lewin have discovered about the constructed nature of the ego-self. Likewise, what Buddhist thinkers such as Nagarjuna have said about language—how it tends to mislead us into assuming that the categories through which we describe the world are final and absolute—is consistent with the work of linguists and philosophers such as Ludwig Wittgenstein and Jacques Derrida. In such ways, Buddhism dovetails nicely with some of the best currents of contemporary thought. But such is not the case with traditional views of karma. Of course, this by itself does not refute karma or make it impossible to be included in a contemporary Buddhist perspective. It does, however, encourage us to think more deeply about it.

There are at least two other major problems with the ways that karma has traditionally been understood. One of them is its unfortunate implications for many Asian Buddhist societies, where a self-defeating split has developed between the sangha and the laity. Although the Pali canon makes it quite clear that laypeople too can attain liberation, the main spiritual responsibility of lay Buddhists, as commonly understood, is not to follow the path themselves but to support the monastics. In this way, lay men and women gain punna, or “merit,” a concept that commodifies karma. By accumulating merit, they hope to attain a favorable rebirth or to gain material reward, which in turn redounds to the material benefit of the monastic community. This approach reduces Buddhism, quite literally, to a form of spiritual materialism.

The other problem is that karma has long been used to rationalize racism, caste, economic oppression, birth handicaps, and so forth. Taken literally, karma justifies both the authority of political elites, who therefore must deserve their wealth and power, and the subordination of those who have neither. It provides the perfect theodicy: if there is an infallible cause-and-effect relationship between one’s actions and one’s fate, there is no need to work toward social justice, because it’s already built into the moral fabric of the universe. In fact, if there is no undeserved suffering, there is really no evil that we need to struggle against. You were born crippled, or to a poor family? Well, who but you is responsible for that?

I remember reading about a Tibetan Buddhist teacher’s reflections on the Holocaust in Nazi Germany during World War II: “What terrible karma all those Jews must have had. …” And what awful things did the Tibetan people do to deserve the Chinese invasion of 1950 and its horrible aftermath? This kind of superstition, which blames the victims and rationalizes their horrific fate, is something we should no longer tolerate quietly. It is, I think it is safe to say, time for modern Buddhists to outgrow it and to accept one’s social responsibility and find ways to address such injustices.

In the Kalama Sutta, sometimes called “the Buddhist charter of free inquiry,” the Buddha emphasized the importance of intelligent, probing doubt. He said that we should not believe in something until we have established its truth for ourselves. This suggests that accepting karma and rebirth literally, without questioning what they really mean, simply because they have been part of the Buddhist tradition, may actually be unfaithful to the best of the tradition. This does not mean disparaging or dismissing Buddhist teachings about karma and rebirth. Rather, it highlights the need for contemporary Buddhism to question those teachings. Given what is now known about human psychology, including the social construction of the self, how might we today approach these teachings in a way that is consistent with our own sense of how the world works? Unless we can do so, their emancipatory power will for us remain unrealized.

Buddhist emphasis on impermanence reminds us that Hindu and Buddhist doctrines about karma and rebirth have a history, that they have evolved over time. Earlier Brahmanical teachings tended to understand karma mechanically and ritualistically. To perform a sacrifice in the proper fashion would invariably lead to the desired consequences. If those consequences were not forthcoming, then either there had been an error in procedure or the causal effects were delayed, perhaps until your next lifetime (hence implying reincarnation). The Buddha’s spiritual revolution transformed this ritualistic approach to getting what you want out of life into a moral principle by focusing on cetana, “motivations, intentions.” The Dhammapada, for example, begins by emphasizing the preeminent importance of our mental attitude:

Experiences are preceded by mind, led by mind, and produced by mind. If one speaks or acts with an impure mind, suffering follows even as the cart’s wheel follows the hoof of the ox.

Experiences are preceded by mind, led by mind, and produced by mind. If one speaks or acts with a pure mind, happiness follows like a shadow that never departs.

To understand the Buddha’s innovation, it is helpful to distinguish a moral act into three aspects: the results that I seek; the moral rule or regulation I am following (for example, a Buddhist precept or Christian commandment, and this also includes ritualistic procedures); and my mental attitude or motivation when I do something. Although these aspects cannot be separated from each other, we can emphasize one more than the others—in fact, that is what we usually do. Not coincidentally, contemporary moral philosophy also has three main types of theories. Utilitarian theories focus on consequences, deontological theories focus on general principles such as the Ten Commandments, and virtue theories focus on one’s character and motivations.

The Sanskrit term karma (kamma in Pali) literally means “action,” which suggests the basic point that our actions have consequences—more precisely, that our morally relevant actions have morally relevant consequences that extend beyond their immediate effects. In most popular understanding, the law of karma and rebirth is a way to get a handle on how the world will treat us in the future, which also—more immediately—implies that we must accept our own causal responsibility for whatever is happening to us now, as a consequence of what we must have done earlier. This overlooks the revolutionary significance of the Buddha’s reinterpretation.

Karma is better understood as the key to spiritual development: how our life situation can be transformed by transforming the motivations of our actions right now. When we add the Buddhist teaching about not-self—in contemporary terms, that one’s sense of self is a mental construct—we can see that karma is not something the self has; rather, karma is what the sense of self is, and what the sense of self is changes according to one’s conscious choices. I (re)construct myself by what I intentionally do, because my sense of self is a precipitate of habitual ways of thinking, feeling, and acting. Just as my body is composed of the food I have eaten, so my character is composed of conscious choices: “I” am constructed by my consistent, repeated mental attitudes. People are “punished” or “rewarded” not for what they have done but for what they have become, and what we intentionally do is what makes us what we are. An anonymous verse expresses this well:

Sow a thought and reap a deed
Sow a deed and reap a habit
Sow a habit and reap a character
Sow a character and reap a destiny

What kind of thoughts do we need to sow? Buddhism traces back our dukkha, “dissatisfaction,” to the three unwholesome roots of evil: greed, ill will, and delusion. These problematic motivations need to be transformed into their positive counterparts: generosity, lovingkindness, and the wisdom that realizes our interdependence with others.

Such an understanding of karma does not necessarily involve another life after physical death. As Spinoza expressed it, happiness is not the reward for virtue; happiness is virtue itself. We are punished not for our “sins” but by them. To become a different kind of person is to experience the world in a different way. When your mind changes, the world changes. And when we respond differently to the world, the world responds differently to us. Insofar as we are actually not separate from the world, our ways of acting in it tend to involve feedback systems that incorporate other people. People not only notice what we do; they notice why we do it. I may fool people sometimes, yet over time, as the intentions behind my deeds become obvious, my character becomes revealed. The more I am motivated by greed, ill will, and delusion, the more I must manipulate the world to get what I want, and consequently the more alienated I feel and the more alienated others feel when they see they have been manipulated. This mutual distrust encourages both sides to manipulate more. On the other side, the more my actions are motivated by generosity, lovingkindness, and the wisdom of interdependence, the more I can relax and open up to the world. The more I feel part of the world and genuinely connected with others, the less I will be inclined to use others, and consequently the more inclined they will be to trust and open up to me. In such ways, transforming my own motivations not only transforms my own life; it also affects those around me, since what I am is not separate from what they are.

This more naturalistic understanding of karma does not mean we must necessarily exclude other, perhaps more mysterious possibilities regarding the consequences of our motivations for the world we live in. What is clear, however, is that karma as “how to transform my life situation by transforming my motivations right now” is not a fatalistic doctrine. Quite the contrary: it is difficult to imagine a more empowering spiritual teaching. We are not enjoined to accept and endure the problematic circumstances of our lives. Rather, we are encouraged to improve our spiritual lives and worldly situation by addressing those circumstances with generosity, lovingkindness, and nondual wisdom.

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