Innocent By-Standers and Collective Karma

eye_poke_defenseIn the previous segment of this blog I brought up the idea of collective karma. This may be the biggest stumbling block to understanding the Buddhist theory of karma — that karma is not something that happens just to individuals.

Karma is not the idea that I do something bad and later on something bad happens to me. When trying to understand the idea of karma, it’s good to remember that in Buddhism there is no I or me.

We all have a sense of self that we feel is indivisible and cannot be shared with any other self. It seems to be bound in terms of space by the dimensions of our body, and possibly in terms of time by our birth and death. Some folks imagine self exists before birth and after death, and some folks feel self is something separate from the body that rides along inside the body — even though nobody can provide any good evidence of these claims.

But everyone agrees that if Moe pokes Curly in the eyeballs, Moe feels a mild sensation in his fingers and Curly feels a much stronger sensation in his eyeballs. Moe, in turn, feels nothing in his eyeballs and Curly feels nothing in his fingers. Therefore, Moe and Curly are two completely and eternally separate beings.

A lot of people think that the theory of karma holds that someday Curly will poke Moe in his eyes. Or perhaps Larry will poke Moe in the eyes in the future as the karmic result of Moe’s eye poke to Curly. Or perhaps one day Moe will get a nasty eye infection with no apparent cause, but this eye infection actually came about as the karmic result of Moe poking Curly in the eyes.

Dogen writes about karma in his essay Sanji No Go, or Karma in the Three Times. The “three times” are past, present, and future. In this essay Dogen says that sometimes one receives the effects of the causes one enacts immediately, sometimes the effects come after a little while, and sometimes the effects happen a very, very long time later.

So maybe Moe doesn’t even get poked in the eye in this lifetime. Curly died in 1952 and Moe died in 1974. This means there has been sufficient time for each of them to have been reincarnated and to have settled the karmic score of Moe’s many pokings of Curly’s eyes during the 1930s and 40s.

That aspect of karma is easy to understand, but hard to accept unless you believe in reincarnation. But reincarnation is not actually part of the Buddhist belief system*. Rather, the preferred term tends to be rebirth.

This is because reincarnation assumes the existence of an I or a me who takes on a series of different bodies over time. Rebirth is more about how the causes and conditions that created and sustained you continue after your death as an individual and may manifest as a conscious being who mistakenly believes themselves to be an I or me, but actually is not.

For reincarnation to be true, you have to be a thing that lives forever. The idea of rebirth, on the other hand, does not imply that anyone lives forever. It just says that causes always have effects.

But karma is not just what happens to individuals. We are all linked together. Most of the time we are not conscious of our links to each other.

Conscious awareness seems to be confined spatially and temporally. However, our sense of self often includes things of which we are not conscious. I slept for most of last night and I don’t remember any of it. Yet I still imagine that something called “I” did a thing called “sleeping.” When I lose all feeling in my butt after a few hours of doing zazen, I still think it’s my butt that’s asleep. My butt is still part of “me” even when its sensations don’t enter conscious awareness.

But Buddhists also say that this whole idea of self is an illusion. The words me and I describe something that really exists. But this something is not limited to the things we conventionally call I or me. The conventional usage of I or me just describes where and when a thing happened.

I fell off my bike at 11:30 am on Thursday under the bridge where Sunset crosses over Silver Lake Blvd. We may think the “I” part of that statement describes who it happened to. But actually it’s just another way of locating the event. It helps other people understand what you’re talking about.

If you just said “a thing happened in the universe” that doesn’t mean much. But it’s a better description, a more complete one. Because the entire universe is involved in every damned thing that happens anywhere and at any time. But the feeling of a skinned knee occurs in that part of the universe I call “me” and you call “that asshole who writes the blog that makes me so mad because he’s obviously a total Trump supporter and climate change denier and white nationalist.”

And while I am not any of those things, the fact that I’m not doesn’t enter into the attributes you associate with Brad Warner. I may understand what Brad Warner actually is better than you because I’m closer to it at this moment, but in the end even I don’t know all of it.

I know Brad Warner doesn’t like Trump, deny climate change, or believe in white superiority because I’ve been with him for long enough to know that. But you need to limit the attributes you assign to the Brad Warner in your mind so that you can decide if you want to continue being challenged by the things he writes. If you decide he’s a white supremacist, you can write off anything else he says as wrong and be done with him. (Guess what I considered doing when I first heard my teacher’s political views)

But let’s get back to karma. Karma is not confined to you the same way the action of a hammer hitting a nail is not confined to the hammer or the nail. That’s just where a lot of the action takes place. But action also happens in the wood the nail is being driven into, and in the pieces of wood that are attached to that, and in the plot of land on which the house (of which that nail is part) is being built, and in the hand of the person holding the hammer, and in the wife of that person who has to deal with how cranky he is because he hurt his shoulder from pounding in so many nails, and, and, and, and…

So you and I are never innocent by-standers. I am part of whatever thing I believe happened to me for no good reason, with no causal connection. In conventional terms maybe I am an innocent by-stander. In legalistic terms maybe I am. But in reality I’m not. And that’s because there are no innocent by-standers. The very concept of “innocent by-stander” is absurd.

Before you commit to decades of meditation practice, all of this sounds crazy. So I get it when I hear people get all frothing at the mouth upon hearing me say this crazy stuff.  I don’t understand what you’re saying so I will reframe it in a totally ridiculous way and then be be offended by what I made up!! I get that.

After you meditate for a couple-few decades this becomes the only way to make sense of anything. It is no longer possible to accept your former view because it makes absolutely no sense anymore.

*There are lots and lots of things called “Buddhism” out there — just like there are lots and lots of things called “Christianity” — and some of those “Buddhisms” do believe in reincarnation, but reincarnation is not part of most mainstream Buddhist belief systems.

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