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by Thanissaro Bhikkhu
Karma is one of those words we don't translate. Its basic
meaning is simple enough — action — but because of the weight
the Buddha's teachings give to the role of action, the Sanskrit
word karma packs in so many implications that the English
word action can't carry all its luggage. This is why we've
simply airlifted the original word into our vocabulary.
But when we try unpacking the connotations the word carries now
that it has arrived in everyday usage, we find that most of its
luggage has gotten mixed up in transit. In the eyes of most Americans,
karma functions like fate — bad fate, at that: an inexplicable,
unchangeable force coming out of our past, for which we are somehow
vaguely responsible and powerless to fight. "I guess it's just my
karma," I've heard people sigh when bad fortune strikes with such
force that they see no alternative to resigned acceptance. The fatalism
implicit in this statement is one reason why so many of us are repelled
by the concept of karma, for it sounds like the kind of callous
myth-making that can justify almost any kind of suffering or injustice
in the status quo: "If he's poor, it's because of his karma." "If
she's been raped, it's because of her karma." From this it seems
a short step to saying that he or she deserves to suffer,
and so doesn't deserve our help.
This misperception comes from the fact that the Buddhist concept
of karma came to the West at the same time as non-Buddhist concepts,
and so ended up with some of their luggage. Although many Asian
concepts of karma are fatalistic, the early Buddhist concept was
not fatalistic at all. In fact, if we look closely at early Buddhist
ideas of karma, we'll find that they give even less importance to
myths about the past than most modern Americans do.
For the early Buddhists, karma was non-linear. Other Indian schools
believed that karma operated in a straight line, with actions from
the past influencing the present, and present actions influencing
the future. As a result, they saw little room for free will. Buddhists,
however, saw that karma acts in feedback loops, with the present
moment being shaped both by past and by present actions; present
actions shape not only the future but also the present. This constant
opening for present input into the causal process makes free will
possible. This freedom is symbolized in the imagery the Buddhists
used to explain the process: flowing water. Sometimes the flow from
the past is so strong that little can be done except to stand fast,
but there are also times when the flow is gentle enough to be diverted
in almost any direction.
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Suggested Further Reading
Source: Copyright © 2000 Thanissaro Bhikkhu.
Reproduced and reformatted from Access to Insight edition
© 2000 For free distribution. This work may be republished,
reformatted, reprinted, and redistributed in any medium.
It is the author's wish, however, that any such republication
and redistribution be made available to the public on a
free and unrestricted basis and that translations and other
derivative works be clearly marked as such.