Wednesday, September 12, 2007

My Karma Ran Over Your Dogma

It's an old joke, but Pandit included it in his presentation of the role of action/choice in Buddhist thought, helping to lighten what can be a complex and heavy subject for many. The only problem is that "karma" is a Sanskrit term and Theravadan Buddhists like Phra Cittasamvaro Bhikkhu (also known as Pandit), an ordained British monk in Bangkok, generally use the Pali word "kamma." The joke might work if you were a Bostonian and drove a "caa."

A half hour before Pandit's talk, the third in a series of six Tuesday night programs at the new Baan Aree Library, the skies opened and the rain poured. Even though proceedings were delayed a half hour, many of the seats were empty. Others were filled with people soaked to the skin. When the deluge is accompanied by gusts of wind, umbrellas are of little use. Was it my good kamma that I arrived early to have dinner with Panida and coffee with Pandit and the two Marcuses (one from England and the other from Australia via Japan), and therefore stayed dry? Did the attendees who looked like drowned cats have bad kamma?

Pandit quickly disabused the audience of two misunderstandings. The first, a western notion, looks at kamma as good or bad luck: "I've got good traffic light karma," is one version (I know people who have "parking karma" -- when the spot is needed it will be there.). But kamma doesn't affect the physical world, only our mental reaction to something. People die for physical reasons and not because of bad karma. Burmese monks were recently beaten by police because they protested political policies, and not because their kamma dictated it.

The second misconception is the idea that everything happens because of: God's will, chance, karma. According to Pandit, the Buddha said all of these explanations are mistaken, ways to avoid responsibility. I found this to be a very meaningful insight, for it also took in the Christian predilection to praise God for saving one person in an airplane crash without blaming him for slaughtering the rest; you can't have it both ways. Religious explanations of natural events (or atheist in the case of chance) often turn out to be deterministic, and fail to account for human choice and responsibility. The Buddha eschewed most big explanations. The basic reaction to suffering, said Pandit, is that "samsara sucks! Samsara isn't fair!" You can't explain it away.

My knowledge of karma has come from a long study of the Bhagavad Gita where karma is one of the three yogas or paths to the divine, along with jnana (knowledge) and bhakti devotion). The paths are not separate, however, but intermingled. Karma is one of the key concepts contained in the Upanishads. Buddhism accepts most of them but rejects the notion of atman, the divine Self. Karma in the Gita is the law of cause and effect. It's the basic law underlying creation. But the important moral message is that although one has no choice but to act, this action must be without any concern for the results. The Buddhist notion of making merit, doing something in order to win a reward (which may have something to do with animism), is totally foreign to the Gita.

Choice, rather than action, is the term Pandit said he preferred to define kamma. "The Buddha changed religion, away from who am I to what should I do. He put the onus on us." We are purified not by heredity or ritual, as in the Brahaministic Hinduism into which the Buddha was born, but by our actions, our choices. Kamma should not be used to explain the past or the present. "What matters is what you do, not what amulets you wear." It's about planting seeds for the future. Good choices train the mind. This sounds to me much like viritue ethics, the ethical philosophy (from Aristotle to Alasdair MacIntyre) that character matters more than rules or consequences. I've always been attracted to this notion, and it influences the way I look at prayer. I believe that prayer has more affect on the pray-er than it does on God the Ultimate Mystery, and it seems to me that thinking of others can also help to fertilize and grow community.

The Buddha, according to Pandit, classified kamma as one of the four imponderables and said that the "head would break into seven pieces" while trying to figure it out. His followers, however, did not listen and tried to understand it in more detail, helping the original group to break into 18 different schools. Right view, the first step on Buddhism's Eightfold Path, holds there are actions and they have consequences. As for what we should do, Pandit suggested Monty Python's Meaning of Life: "Be nice, don't worry." Kamma, he said, does not lead to enlightenment.

This sounds remarkably similar to the Christian theological point that good works are not sufficient for salvation. The grace of God is necessary, and that cannot be earned. I've always had some trouble with this notion, emphasized by the Apostle Paul. It seems to downgrade good deeds and undercut support for social justice. The Calvinists thought success in business was a sign of God's grace and forgot the model of his mercy, allowing sweatshops to exist. If kamma is necessary, but not sufficient for enlightenment, what then is the relationship between good deeds and release from samsara, the wheel of suffering? Perhaps the answer is similar to the Gita's, that actions must not be performed for the sake of a result, but only as dictated by one's dharma.

In the Q & A period after the talk, Pandit compared the Buddhist idea of kamma with the Christian doctrine of sin, saying the first is dynamic and the second is a matter of rules. Sin, of course, is now seen mostly as a stain on the soul, either self-inflicted or the result of The Fall, and not by the original understanding of "missing the mark." Pandit did not discuss the affect of kamma on rebirth, which he promised to come later. And he also indicted that the role of forgiveness in Buddhism would be a future topic. There was some talk about merit and the possibility that merit could be transferred (metta?), but Pandit resisted the idea that there was a cosmological accounting scheme. His loose and flexible approach to Buddhist doctrine is very helpful and I look forward to future talks and perhaps a workshop where some of the more difficult ideas can be chewed over and debated by the apparently large audience (although not on a rainy night) hungry for teachings in English.

I encountered another approach to Buddhism last Sunday at the monthly abhidhamma class held at the World Fellowship of Buddhists headquarters in Benjasiri Park next to the Emporium shopping mall. Abhidhamma, according to Wikipedia (my online guru), "is a category of Buddhist scriptures that attempts to use Buddhist teachings to create a systematic, abstract description of all worldly phenomena. The Abhidharma represents a generalization and reorganization of the doctrines presented piecemeal in the narrative sutra tradition." An important component of Theravadan Buddhist, abhidhamma has been called a Buddhist psychology or, better yet, Buddhist science. It attempts to describe all of material and mental reality in Buddhist terms, giving just the sort of big explanations that Pandit cautioned about.

I walked into an ongoing class and was immediately confused. The discussion leader, Amara Chayabongse, speaks excellent English and moderates the WFB web site. But the thick sheaf of papers I was handed was filled with unfamiliar terms and it was all I could do to keep up with the topic (or even know what it was). Dhamma, I heard, consists of "things as they really are...the truth of what exists." One of these things is the illusion of a self. Abhidhamma apparently classifies reality independent of selves that supposedly perceive it, counting 89 different types of citta, or consciousness, infected by lobha (attachment, greed), dosa (aversion, hatred) and moha (ignorance). Amara pointed out that the Buddha predicted there would be eight quarks at the sub-atomic level, which science apparently has now confirmed. It reminded me of Christians who believe the future was foretold by Old and New Testament scripture.

There was a lively discussion by the Thais in attendance and a half-dozen farang who expressed skeptical interest in what appeared to be a recitation of claims rather than a class in which pedagogical methods help students discover new truths. I've heard that Thailand's education style favors memorization over critical analysis, and it seemed to me that in order to understand abhidhamma one must memorize a galaxy of glossaries and take certain statements as gospel truth ("The meditator can hear certain sounds of a celestial being," was one opinion expressed). In the literature I've come across, some Buddhists believe abhidhamma is a later addition to the canon, one that perhaps violates the Buddha's caution about big explanations. But at the WEB I was in the presence of fundamentalists, true believers who seemed to think that panna, or wisdom and right understanding, could lead to enlightenment, perhaps more quickly than meditation and mindfulness training. I will return next month to try and learn more with an open mind.

One good outcome of the afternoon was that I met four old farang like myself and we went off to have coffee and sit outside to talk while watching the passing parade on Sukhumvit. Herb, 76, has been here a couple of years after a career in the mental health system in Los Angeles. He has a long-term retirement visa and an occasional girlfriend, but isn't much interested in traveling outside Bangkok. Bill and Tom are both in long-term marriages to Thai women and are raising their families here. Tom is a Canadian who got a Master's in ESL in Calgary and now teaches English, film and drama at the Ekamai International School. I didn't hear much about Bill except that he has an accent of some sort (Russian?). Frank is helping Amara to translate some of the abhidamma texts. He and I talked a bit about Berkeley in the 1960's when he was present during the People's Park uprising. Like Herb he is unmarried and a connoisseur of Sukhumvit night life. Only Tom showed up at Pandit's talk last night so I can only assume the rain kept the other three away.

Tomorrow night there is a discussion of Tibetan Buddhism by a Russian scholar at the Siam Society headquarters. My dance card is filling up!


littlebang said...

Interesting thoughts. I would much like to explore the issues of karma and forgiveness, and the idea you introduced of karma and sin - which I have not really considered before. Virtue ethics is a new one on me too. While centre stage I must shy away from the fields I don't know much about, since the Buddha is the teacher there, not myself, and we have to respect the wishes of the owner to stick to Vipassana (Insight) meditation. However I am sure the monks university would give us one of their conference rooms for a day if there are enough people to participate.
4 imponderables:
*The Buddha-range of the Buddhas (i.e., the range of powers a Buddha develops as a result of becoming a Buddha)...
*The jhana-range of one absorbed in jhana (i.e., the range of powers that one may obtain while absorbed in jhana)....
*The results of kamma...
*Speculation about (the first moment, purpose, etc., of) the cosmos is an imponderable that is not to be speculated about. Whoever speculates about these things would go mad and experience vexation."

Anonymous said...

"Whoever speculates about these things would go mad and experience vexation"

Hmm, that would explain my current state..... LOL!

Yes, it seems the more we investigate, the more there is to study and discuss.

Thank you so much Will for your thoughts on your wonderful blog, and thank you too to 'Littlebang' (Phra Cittasamvaro Bhikkhu) for the talks which have prompted all this wonderful activity.

Peace and Happiness to all,