Transcribed from a talk by Gil Fronsdal on June 1, 2003

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This morning I would like to talk about karma. The inspiration for talking about it was that last week I was talking about one of the people who sits with us a lot and she has been sitting with us for years. She asked a question of me and she has a wonderful way of asking questions. She used to come a lot on Thursdays to the introductory class. I would offer some teachings and instructions on how to bring mindfulness to different parts of life. If she were there, inevitably she would raise her hand. I would be very eager to hear what she had to say and also, at the same time, I would gulp and say to myself, “Oh, no!” She was a social worker at a county hospital, and she worked often in the emergency room. She was on the front line of meeting people who had terrific tragedies, unspeakable tragedies, in their lives. So here I was doing the intro class on mindfulness and she would raise her hand and say, “That’s fine, but what about when…” and she would go on to describe some kind of amazing event. She would say, “What would you do then? How does what you say apply there?” She was asking some questions this last week about karma. She told the story of a man who had been speeding on his motorcycle as the police were chasing him. He was going 120 miles per hour. He crashed, and he survived. He had a lot of bruises and scrapes, but no broken bones. And then she told about someone else who was a stagehand and simply took a step backwards on the stage very innocently. He fell back and ended up being a quadriplegic with no use of his arms and legs. So she wanted to know about karma. Why was there this difference? Why is it that some people who had broken the law got off quite lightly while someone else who was just doing his work had this terrible thing happen to him? Then she extended it to another example of a mother who had two children. Every day she would pick up one of her children from school. She had the routine of picking up the first one and then going to another school to pick up the second one. On one particular day, she decided to do a small errand on the way to picking up her second child. Her second child was run over and killed at school as she waited for her mom to pick her up. The second child was very far from the road, way up on the lawn close to the building, and someone in their new car had a malfunction or lost control of the car and drove up on the lawn and ran over the child. The mother was wracked with regret and even guilt—“if I had not gone and done that errand, my child would be alive today.”

So this woman asked about karma. How does it work? Are we responsible? Is it the working of karma that determines how things turn out? Where is the justice in this world, where someone who is breaking the law can get off so easily, and where someone who is minding their own business can break their neck? How does the cause and effect chain work? Was it karma that had the child killed? Was it karma that made the mother have a child like that?

My response to her was that my understanding of the Buddha’s teachings on karma was that they were not meant to explain why things happen. We have a tremendous drive to know why things happen certain ways, and we want to assign meaning—local meaning, cosmic meaning, and ultimate meaning. One of the drives for meaning is the drive for justice, and part of the function for some people who offer a theory of karma is to give a theory of justice, of how justice works out, and that the world is a just place. They say that if someone does horrific things, they will reap what they sow. Something horrible will happen to them in return. That is how justice works. But you look around and you watch people who do terrible things, and who get wealthy and then die normally, so then we say, “Where is the justice?” People with a theory will say that the justice will happen in the next life. They say that because the rich people were really greedy in this lifetime and did terrible things, and they will be reborn as a slug or something similar. There are many such ideas that you find in Buddhism and in other religions that have the notion of karma. These ideas explain how things happen over lifetimes. Yesterday there was a class here on the life of the Buddha, and there were these handouts that had many of the events that happened in the Buddha’s life which were recorded, like once he had a splinter in his toe, and once someone tried to kill him. He also had a bad back. A Buddha is someone who is not only enlightened, but fully perfected. In the mythology that develops around a Buddha, they are saintly and like saints, they become more perfected the further you get away from their lifetime. So how can someone so perfect get a splinter or have a bad back? The theories offered are that because in a past life, the Buddha did X, Y, and Z. A theory of justice is thus being offered. There is a drive in us that wants the world to be just. We want to see justice occur.

As you listen to my talk today, you really should try to see it as my own effort to come to terms with karma, my own digestion, my own understanding of this whole thing. Listen to my reflections and then reflect on your own. Some of your ideas might be different from my own. This is my best take on all this.

My own understanding, my own view, is that the Buddha’s teachings are not meant as a theory of justice, as much as we might want them to be. The Buddha’s teachings on karma were not teachings about why things are the way they are. Rather, they were meant to help us focus on the following: given how things are, how do we respond? How do we respond in relationship to how things are? How do we react? The Buddha’s teaching on karma really focuses on how we are in the present moment. Instead of spending a lot of time focusing on the past, or thinking about the future, the Buddha’s teachings on karma are a focal point on what is happening in the present moment, and how we are responding to that. How are we reacting to that, and what are the choices we are making in relation to what is happening? That is not to deny that there is a temporal element in the Buddha’s teachings. The past and the future also come into play, but this is not something that is in absolute terms. In fact, the Buddha was critical of some of the absolutist ways of understanding karma. The term “karma” simple means action. An extension of karma, of this word “action,” is how activity unfolds in this universe. There are various ways that things unfold, that things happen. The Buddha was critical of some of the theories.

One theory criticized by the Buddha is that in some way, things are predetermined absolutely. He even criticized karmic determinism, which states that because of your past action a certain thing will happen, or because X happened, Y will happen karmically.

Any kind of absolutist or deterministic idea which states that because of your past certain things happen, certain things in the future will happen, Buddha wanted to negate. He wanted to negate those ideas because he said that that kind of view leaves no space for a spiritual life. It leaves no space to try to make a difference by liberation or freedom in the mix of this life. .

The other thing he was critical of was any ideas that the gods determined things. India had a lot of gods. Nowadays, we are kind of god poor, since we only have one. Buddha was critical of the idea that some kind of god or gods were responsible for what happened to you. Buddha negated this idea partly for the same reason he negated determinism, because if it is up to the gods, you have very little control over your own destiny, your own activities, your own happiness, unless you do all kinds of things in relationship to the gods. In ancient India, people often did sacrifices to make the gods happier. This was a kind of exchange relationship with the gods so that the gods, if they were in a good mood, did good things for you. The Indian gods were kind of like the Greek and Norse gods. They were not necessarily good all the time, and they were kind of moody.

The other theory that Buddha was critical of was that everything was accidental, that things just happen randomly in every way, and therefore we do not have much say in what happens. Things just happen randomly and we have no involvement of entering into the stream of activity, and we cannot enter the stream of cause and effect to make a change.

There is an interesting place in the suttas where someone comes to the Buddha and asks questions about this. There are some wonderful dialogues where someone comes and asks Buddha questions. Here, someone comes and asks, “Is a person, a self, responsible for one’s own happiness or unhappiness?” The Buddha said, “I would not say it that way.” The next question is, “Are others responsible for one’s own happiness or unhappiness?” Buddha said, “No, I would not say it that way.” So the next question is, “So is it that both self and others are responsible for one’s happiness or unhappiness?” “No, I would say it that way,” was the Buddha’s answer. “Is it that neither self nor others are responsible for one’s own happiness or unhappiness?” “No, I would not say it that way.” So the questioner asked, “So how would you say it?” The Buddha then said that in order to understand the causes and conditions for happiness and unhappiness, you have to understand that there is a cause and effect relationship that does not have a single point of beginning, a single point of responsibility. So to say that the self and only the self is responsible was to put it on a singular point of responsibility and denies the field of cause and effect that comes into play. The same applies if you blame someone else. The Buddha did not want to say it this way or that way, but rather he pointed to the causes and conditions that bring about happiness and unhappiness. The teachings of karma are part of this quest, this effort, to look at the causal relationships that bring about happiness and freedom, freedom from suffering, and to look at those which cause suffering. So the Buddha essentially said, “Don’t blame others, and don’t blame yourself.”

There was an interesting event that happened in my sister’s life, a painful one for her. When she was fourteen, a friend of hers committed suicide. She had spent the day with the friend and was actually in the apartment building when her friend jumped out the window. She spent years wracked with guilt and the feeling that, “I could have done something.” It was a real burden for her. She came across a Zen teacher once after many people told her she that there was nothing she could have done. The Zen teacher told her, “You know, there was probably was something you could have done. But you were only fourteen, and at fourteen you probably did not have the wisdom to understand what that was.” That advice got my sister to relax and let go. She realized that there may have been something she could have done, but it was not in her domain to figure out what to do.

There was a place where the Buddha defined karma in his terms. Karma is an Indian term that was used quite broadly in India and now it is used here in the West. When something happens to you, you say, “It’s my karma.” What does that mean? Implied in that is a predestination approach, that this was destined to happen, and that there was nothing you could have done. But that is not a Buddhist view. It might have something to do with your karma, with something you did in the past. However, you must be very careful when analyzing what is going on.

We live in a field, an ocean, of cause and effect. When I was a little child of eight or nine years, I used to have a lot of reflections about this field of cause and effect. When I was six, I brought home a long pole to the apartment complex we were living in. One evening, there was a party in the back of the apartment complex, and some grownup took that pole and tried to use it to pole vault over a fence. Even though it was a small fence, in his attempt to jump over it, he broke his leg. I thought I was responsible for bringing the stick there. This made me think of the field of cause and effect that we live in. I also used to think about things like the situation of my walking down the street and asking someone for the time of day, which takes the person two seconds to give to me. But then the person continues walking down the street and gets run over by a car, just barely. If the person had not stopped for those two seconds, he or she would not have been hit. Therefore, am I to blame? But then I would reason that I had stopped the person two seconds, but the storekeeper before had delayed the person another two seconds when they could not find the change quickly. Soon it gets very complicated in trying to figure out who was responsible and which two seconds were responsible. Or we might ask why the person was in the street that day. We soon get lost in a huge field of cause and effect. Why would we single out one thing when there are so many things that come into play? The image I have is of a pond where you take a pebble and throw it in, and you get one ripple. If you throw a lot of pebbles in, the ripples start hitting each other, and the ripples that are hitting each other make further ripples and further ripples. You get an amazing pattern of ripples. Where is the cause and effect relation? It becomes hard to tease it all apart because the way things bump into each other makes it very complex.

My understanding is that the Buddha looked at this great field of cause and effect and picked one particular aspect of it. That area was the area of intention. He chose the causal effect of our intention, our intentional actions. Buddha defined karma by saying, “What I call karma is intention.” Rather than calling karma any activity or unfolding of activity, he called it any activity that has an intentional base. There are lots of things we do that have no particular intention. You may walk out of the center here and an ant is on the sidewalk, but you do not see it and squash it. You never even knew that the ant was there when you killed it. There is no karmic effect for having killed the ant. There is a cause and effect relationship for having killed the ant. The ant is dead, and the next person who walks out of the center looks at the dead ant and gets delayed two seconds, and that person’s life changes forever in some way or another. Then the person goes to the store and buys a lottery ticket that wins and lives happily ever after. The ant sets in motion a causal chain of things to happen, but because you were oblivious to it, there was no intention to kill the ant and no karmic effect for you.

Someone else walks out of the center and sees an ant. That person thinks, “I hate ants. I’m going to squash that ant.” There is an intention of hate, animosity, and fear. So the person then squashes that ant with intention. That intentionality sets in motion a certain causal chain of effect within the person. It is like being in water, and you push the water. The water gets pushed away, but you also get pushed away because the activity you do affects where you are in the water. If you push in one direction, you get pushed in the other direction by the water. So the activity of the mind, the intentionality, causes an external kind of cause and effect to get formed, but there is also a kind of back-pull or back-push that happens. We could say, in our psychologically oriented Western society, that there is a psychological effect that happens internally. Many things could be said to happen to the mind. Some of them are quite clear, as we may say that we have just reinforced the habit of being hateful or angry. Any particular activity may oil the wheels of anger or hate or fear, or oil the wheels of kindness and generosity and happiness. So the way we act on our intensions affects the habits in the mind. It makes it easier to do it again in the future.

The intentions we have when we act can also have an effect on how we view the world. You have probably had the experience of being filled with hateful or angry intentions for someone and it distorted your view of who they were. Or you had fearful intentions for them and this distorted your view of who they were. There are many times in our lives when we have fear of people or desire for people and all kinds of ideas about them, and these prevent us from seeing who they really are. Intentionality can affect our perception of the world, and in affecting our perception of how the world is, it reinforces our tendency in the future to respond in the same way. Sometimes it is self-reinforcing our views. For example, we are afraid of someone and that person picks up on our fear, and then that person gets afraid and gives you reason to be afraid. But if you had not been afraid in the beginning, the whole cycle would not have happened.

Sometimes intentionality, reactions, and emotions are very closely related. Psychologists will often say that an element in most emotions is intentionality. There is also the effect in our body. Some Buddhists will put a tremendous emphasis on the embodied consequences of intentionality. They say that if we react angrily or happily or kindly, it affects what happens in our body—the tensions, the holding patterns. When we are filled with very strong resistance to the world, bracing ourselves strongly against the world, some of the tension generated from this can last a lifetime. Sometimes you see people after they have died and their faces have relaxed. This is due to the holding they have carried around for a lifetime, and they are no longer making that effort which is deeply subconscious. We hold our intention, our karma, the cause and effect, and this goes into our body.

It is said in Buddhism that the channels in which this kind of karma unfolds over time is often unseen. A long time may pass before the seed that you have planted bears fruit. It might be that you reinforce certain tendencies to be angry in certain settings, and that setting does not occur for twenty years. But then it occurs, and that seed is right there. A little bit of anger can created huge disasters in a person’s life. It is sometimes said that it can take months or years to make a good friend, but you can lose your good friend in one sentence if you don’t pay attention to what you are saying.

It is this internal cause and effect relationship that has to do with our intentions and the chain of effect that the intentionality sets up that the Buddha is encouraging us to look at and take responsibility for. That is where we can add something and have some effect on the path to liberation. We can have some effect on our happiness or unhappiness. You will not have an absolute effect because things happen in this world that are outside of our control. To say that any sickness you have is your karma is not a Buddhist thing to say. To say that accidents happen because of your karma is not a Buddhist thing to say. We do not know the unfolding of cause and effect. But how we respond to accidents or to the presence of an illness–that is where the locus of practice is, that is where spiritual life occurs. We can understand how we react. One of the reasons we cultivate mindfulness is not to be calm, but rather to see in the present moment where the choices are that we can make and make a difference in how we respond and how we react. As we look at that place of choice, then maybe we can choose not only in a way that is beneficial for the people around us and for ourselves and how we affect external cause and effect relationships, but also, we can choose what is best for our inner life. We can choose the conditions for the inner life that are freer, more at ease, more compassionate, and more supportive of the values that we want to live by.

I will give an example of looking at that place of choice. It is an example I have given before. One day I was coming off of 280 at Sandhill. There was a stop sign for everyone as you come to the intersection. I stopped and as no one else was stopped at the intersection, it was my turn to go. There was a car coming in from the left which was supposed to stop at the stop sign. But the car did not stop, and I was already going into the intersection. We missed each other by a hair. I thought about it afterwards and I thought that if there had been an accident, from a legal point of view, the responsibility would be with the person who ran the stop sign. That was pretty clear. If I were to look at my karmic involvement in that with a Buddhist analysis, I would look at where my intentionality somehow came into play in this kind of event. I was on my way to teach on a Monday, to teach how to be present and mindful and calm and pay attention to your intentions. I was so much in a hurry to get there and was pushing my speed just a little. I had not really noticed it until I reflected on it after the near accident. If I had just been a little greedier and pushed a little more to get where I was going, we would have had the accident. Legally, the other person would have been responsible, and I would not have gotten out of my car and said to the other person, “Let me tell you about my karmic responsibility.” I do not think that my intentionality almost caused the accident; but it had a contributing effect. I would not have blamed myself for it. Still, it is important to be aware of how my intentionality affected the situation, of how it was playing itself out, and had an external result in a sense.

What is more interesting is that the accident did not happen. But my unhealthy intentionality was still there and still operating. Because there was no accident, am I not supposed to reflect on that? I got away with something? I got away with pushing the gas pedal because I did not have an accident? The chain effect of intentionality continues regardless of whether the accident happened or not. Because I was pushing the gas pedal, I was creating a little bit of tension in my shoulders, and because there was a bit of tension in my shoulders, that exasperated a lifetime of tension in my shoulders, and pretty soon my upper back goes out because I have had a lifetime of intentionality, of how I hold myself in relation to the world. Or the near accident maybe reinforces the idea that it is all right to drive a little bit fast, and so I do it again with the same kind of mindset. It is that mindset that gets reinforced. It is the mindset that creates unhealthy conditions that will somehow or other come into play or blossom in the future. But we have no idea how they will blossom.

The spiritual life is meant to be a wedge that goes in between the karmic unfolding of things. Once you set in motion a karmic pattern, it does not mean that things are set and have to unfold in a certain way. They will not unfold in that precise certain way, but they will unfold in relationship to what happens around you. Depending on what happens around you, events will unfold in a different shape. It is not a mechanical rule that says, because you drive too fast, therefore this will happen to you. Because you are greedy in the way you drive, that will set up certain conditions that, depending on what those conditions meet in the external world, might or might not unfold in certain ways. We do not know.

The practice is a wedge where we can make a difference. So we take what has happened to us, and we learn how not to be in conflict with what has happened to us. We learn how not to add more karma by being in an aversive or clinging relationship to what has already occurred. If something has already occurred, and we hate it and try to push it away, we are creating new karma. If we are able not to be in conflict with what has happened, then that lack of conflict can mean that we are not adding more karma to the event. That is the beginning.

There is also what is called the working out of karma. Some Buddhist teachers put a lot of emphasis on doing that through meditation practice, in particular on doing meditation practice that is focused on mindfulness of the body. A lot of this stuff gets carried in our body, into our muscles, into our posture. One way to purify yourself from your karma is to purify your body. To sit in meditation and to feel the knots, to feel the holding patterns, and to be patient and let them unravel themselves in the field of awareness, even though you feel them painfully, is to some teachers a kind of purification of that karma. Certainly if there is a cause and effect relationship between the holding patterns in our body and the intentions, reactions, and responses, then we are more likely to respond to the world in further tense ways since we are tense in our bodies. If we can learn how to release the tension that is the result of past karma, then we are less likely to create new bad karma.

To some degree, what Buddhist practice requires of us is a level of responsibility for taking care of ourselves. We are not looking externally for magical solutions to our happiness. We are not looking for the lottery to do it, and we are not looking for gods to do it, but rather our focus is to be in the present moment enough so we can see how we are choosing to react. Can I see my choice? It is not easy to see our choices. People who do not see their choices do not have choices. Part of the function of mindfulness is to see the place of choice and slowly, slowly, slowly, see how there is more choice and choose how to respond.

I will tell you about when I came back from spending three years in a Zen monastery. In a Zen monastery, almost everything is choreographed, like in a theater. How you stand, how you sit, how you eat, how you chant, how you meet someone on a pathway is all done in forms so that it is very clear what you are supposed to do. But when I left the monastery, I was living in San Francisco, and there were no more forms. There was no one telling me this is how you act. I had left the theater, so there was no longer a particular way of being. Because of my three years of being in the theater, I saw that I had much more choice in simple things like how I sat in a chair than I saw before I went to the monastery. Before the monastery, I just sat down. But after I came back from the monastery, I saw that there were a variety of ways that I could sit in a chair. How do I want to sit in the chair? Sitting in a chair had something to do with my intentionality. The range of choices had increased after I had lived in the monastery. The point of mindfulness is to see where the place of choice is, and then in a wise, kind, compassionate, non-conflicted, non-burdensome way, maybe even in a joyful way, to begin to massage and work with and explore the areas of choice and reactivity. It is a fascinating world, and it ties into so many things in our lives. It can tie into our belief system, and you can explore your beliefs and share them with your friends and get some feedback. It can tie in with our past, and you can see how our past affects how we see the present and the choices that we make. It can tie into what we feel is the goal of our life, the point of life, the meaning of life, and what we are hoping to get out of life. It addresses the issue of how we are related to other people and how our life affects others and others’ lives affects ours. A lot of things unfold as we try to stay seated in the present moment.

The last thing I will say is that the present moment is such a phenomenally rich nexus of so many different influences and meeting points, of so many different aspects of our lives. It is the most fascinating place to be. I think it is much more fascinating than the two-dimensional world of our memories and the two-dimensional world of planning the future. So I hope you all discover the joy of the three-dimensional, four-dimensional, five-dimensional world of the present moment, and I hope that this little discussion of karma is useful and a little clarifying. I have offered to you the way that I have tried to clarify it for myself. Thank you.