Dharma Topic: Karma and Concepts

Dharma Topic: Karma and Concepts

Discussion date: Thu, Dec 09, 2004 at our weekly Thursday evening practice

Dear Still Water Friends,

Last week I was at a workshop on Buddhist Psychology at theBarre Center for Buddhist Studies. Toward the end of the course we had, for me,a very interesting discussion about karma.

In the teachings of early Buddhism karma is used in severaldifferent ways. It was said that the Buddha on the night of his enlightenment atage 35 stopped producing karma. During the next 45 years he exhausted the karmathat had been produced earlier in his life. When he died, at 80 years of age, hewas free from karma.

But also, the Buddha taught that at any given moment we canrespond to the current situation with wholesome/beneficial intentions andactions or with unwholesome/nonbeneficial intentions and actions. The formerleads to beneficial consequences (sometimes called "good" karma), thelatter produces nonbeneficial consequences (sometimes called "bad"karma.) Over time the notions of good and bad karma became reified in folkBuddhism into "things," which one could possess, hoard, or pass on toothers.

One way of linking these two ways of thinking about karma isto think of karma not as a substance but as an energy formation that keeps usfrom being fully present. When the Buddha was enlightened he stopped creatingnew karma, but was still affected by all the misperception and emotional knotshe had had up to that point in his life. One by one he worked through themisperceptions and emotional knots, freeing himself and allowing the energy toflow. [The five hindrances of greed, hatred, sloth, restlessness, and doubt inthe practice, are hindrances because they keep us from the present moment andbecause when we manifest these qualities, we condition their futurereappearance.]

Though in shorthand, we can talk about "good" and"bad" karma, at a psychological level karma is just about being moreor less present. The Buddha, in freeing himself from karma, became a beacon toothers that they also could reduce and eventually eliminate their karma. Thoughone could say he created "good karma" for the world, his great giftwas in not producing karma for himself, or for the world. Within this framework,one can also see how karma exists in things: in some books and movies, and inrelationships filled with anger and blame. Similar, there are many books andmovies and relationships which have little or no karma in them, they lighten ourlives by showing us the possibilities that exist for presence, true love,compassion, and deep contentment.

As I went to bed that night, with notions of karma,hindrances, and other Buddhist psychological terms filling my mind, I happenedupon an essay, the Deceits of Knowing, by Upasika Kee Nanayon, a mid-20thcentury Thai lay woman teacher. Like the Buddha with his simile of the raft (seebelow), she cautioned against getting caught up even in Buddhist concepts andmissing what was truly there.

The basic challenge in the practice is this one point and nothing else: this problem of how to look inward so that you see clear through.

. . when you turn to look inward, you shouldn’t use concepts and labels to do your looking for you. If you use concepts and labels to do your looking, there will be nothing but concepts arising, changing, and disbanding. Everything will get all concocted into thoughts-and then how will you be able to watch in utter silence? The more you take what you’ve learned from books to look inside yourself, the less you’ll see.

So whatever you’ve learned, when you come to the practice you have to put all the labels and concepts you’ve gained from your learning to one side. You have to make yourself an innocent beginner once more. Only then will you be able to penetrate in to read the truths within you. If you carry all the paraphernalia of the concepts and standards you’ve gained from your learning to gauge things inside you, you can search to your dying day and yet won’t meet with any real truths at all. This is why you have to hold to only one theme in your practice. If the mind has lots of themes to concern itself with, it’s still just wandering around-wandering around to know this and that, going out of bounds without realizing it and not really wanting to know itself.

You are invited to join us this Thursday for our meditationperiod and to talk about karma, concepts, and turning to the present moment.The best times to join us are just before 7:00pm for walking meditation, at7:25pm at the beginning of walking meditation, or at 7:35pm, at the beginning ofour second sitting meditation.

Warm wishes,

Mitchell Ratner 
Senior Teacher

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The Buddha’s Simile of the Raft, from Thich Nhat Hanh’s ThunderingSilence: Sutra on knowing the better way to catch a snake.

"Bhiksus, I have told you many times the importance ofknowing when it is time to let go of a raft and not hold onto it unnecessarily.When a mountain stream overflows and becomes a torrent of floodwater carryingdebris, a man or woman who wants to get across might think, `What is the safestway to cross this floodwater?’ Assessing the situation, she may decide to gatherbranches and grasses, construct a raft, and use it to cross to the other side.But, after arriving on the other side, she thinks, ‘I spent a lot of time andenergy building this raft. It is a prized possession, and I will carry it withme as I continue my journey.’ If she puts it on her shoulders or head andcarries it with her on land, bhiksus, do you think that would beintelligent?"

The bhiksus replied, "No, World Honored One."

The Buddha said, "How could she have acted more wisely?She could have thought, ‘This raft helped me get across the water safely. Now Iwill leave it at the water’s edge for some one else to use in the same way.’Wouldn’t that be a more intelligent thing to do?"

The bhiksus replied, "Yes, World Honored One."

The Buddha taught, "I have given this teaching on theraft many times to remind you how necessary it is to let go of all the trueteachings, not to mention teachings that are not true."

in: Dharma Topics
Discussion Date: Thu, Dec 09, 2004


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