July 26, 2020

“Karma,” Susan Ryder

Matthew 7:12 Jesus said, “In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets.”

Gal 6:7-9 Do not be deceived, for you reap whatever you sow. If you sow to your own flesh, you will reap corruption from the flesh; but if you sow to the Spirit, you will reap eternal life from the Spirit. So let us not grow weary in doing what is right, for we will reap at harvest time, if we do not give up.

Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, 7th Century BCE
Now as a man is like this or like that,
according as he acts and according as he behaves, so will he be;
a man of good acts will become good, a man of bad acts, bad;
he becomes pure by pure deeds, bad by bad deeds;

And here they say that a person consists of desires,
and as is his desire, so is his will;
and as is his will, so is his deed;
and whatever deed he does, that he will reap.

The word karma seems to be tossed around quite a bit in modern conversation – especially these days. We hope that “karma” will come and pay someone back for the evil they are doing. We imagine all of the bad karma someone is collecting because of their actions.” You reap what you sow? Welp,” we think to ourselves, “There sure are going to be a lot of people reaping some bad karma after the last several years.” We typically think about karma as it relates, or we hope it relates, to someone else. Occasionally we consider those awesome human beings who we imagine must be raking in some great karma, but if we are being honest, we are usually referring to it in the negative.

But the truth is, while in modern vernacular thoughts and statements about karma are usually directed toward someone else, those who actually believe in karma in its most pure, spiritual form relate to it in terms of themselves – their own karma, not someone else’s. And the actual meaning of karma goes much deeper than our colloquial understanding of it. We tend to think of karma as being synonymous with fate or destiny, which it’s not. Simply put, karma is based on our actions, what WE put out to the universe, while fate is something that happens inevitably TO us, or something that is predetermined. For our purposes this morning we’ll focus on the true meaning of karma and how it relates to us, beginning with where karma originated.

The concept of karma is very ancient, and initially began in India. In Sanskrit, the word karma translates very simply to “actions” – and over time has been equated with Newton’s Third Law of Physics, “For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.” Interestingly, that is not how it was perceived in the beginning. Our first glimpse of karma comes from the Rig Veda, which is dated to about 1900 BCE, and was part of a Brahminical religion that was a precursor to modern Hinduism. In the Rig Veda, there’s an allusion to rebirth from the heavenly realm, but in its earliest understanding, karma had nothing to do with good or bad actions determining that rebirth. Karma was actually about performing purifying rituals correctly in order to please the gods.

Moving forward, between the 8th and the 3rd century BCE there was a remarkable period of transformation across many cultures, during which some of the world’s great religions were formed. This period is often called the “Axial” age, coined by German philosopher Karl Jaspers because it was a “pivotal” era that experienced tremendous growth from the expansion of traveling traders and scholars, which led to an increase of small cities and the merchant class. It was during this time many religious and spiritual traditions emerged in Eurasian societies. The concept of the Axial Age developed out of the observation that most of the current world religions (Buddhism, Hinduism, Daoism, Judaism, Islam, and Christianity) can trace their origins back to a specific period of Antiquity around 500 to 300 BCE, and that this period is the first in human history where religious and philosophical teachers appeared who still are a source of inspiration for present-day religious and spiritual movements: Socrates, Pythagoras, Buddha, Confucius, Lao Tzu, Hebrew prophets, etc.

It was also during this period that the Upanishads appeared, offering the earliest explanation of karma as a spiritual doctrine within the Hindu tradition. The Upanishads, part of the Vedas, are ancient Sanskrit texts that contain central philosophical concepts and ideas from Hinduism, some of which are shared with religious traditions like Buddhism.  Within these texts the views of karma and rebirth began to change from purifying rituals to a kind of spiritual law connected to rebirth and reincarnation, related to one’s station in life. People’s actions in this life were believed to lead to an appropriate destiny hereafter, either in a heavenly or hellish realm, prior to being reborn.

About the same time as the Upanishads emerged, Siddhartha Gautama – who became known as the Buddha – also appeared. As a spiritual seeker, he practiced deep meditation and severe austerity for six years, during which he came to realize that self-denial practices all were based on external things, while everything that really matters happens internally, within the mind.  As a result, the Buddha radically redefined earlier interpretations of karma to mean ethical intention, which leads to ethical action. He considered people autonomous individuals who could make choices and be responsible for themselves. Therefore, any sort of rituals to gods were unnecessary.

Additionally, for the Buddha the word karma meant not only the action, but also the intention behind the action. Because intention is key in the Buddha’s definition of karma, he excluded many of the things peopled believed happen to a person as a result of karma. In one of his earliest sermons, he preached that conditions brought about by health, illness, weather, were not the result of good or bad karma, as previously believed. Only actions brought about by intention resulted in karma. So, for example, if someone fell ill, the Buddha did not consider that to be a result of bad karma.

Ambaa Choate describes Karma this way: “The law of action, which most people know as karma, is a system that is in place in the universe. It is easy to see it. You make a mistake and then you learn from it. Could there be anything more loving than that? It’s how the universe is set up. Every action has a reaction. It is reliable and steady and requires no intervention. When you do something that causes you to feel bad, your ‘punishment’ is that it feels bad and doesn’t take your life in the direction you want. So over time you learn to act with compassion and love because those are the things that bring you good results. No one has to man that machine; it just does what it does. Karma is not a being that metes out rewards and punishments. Karma as a word means nothing more than ‘action.’ You only have to look around you to see that every action has a reaction. Ask a physicist. That’s one of the most beautiful things about the world: how balanced it is.”

In other words, karma means that each action is ripe with consequences, and that nothing we do is unimportant. Whether one believes our actions have relevance to any future reincarnated life – we can agree that our actions certainly have consequences in this life. Westerners sometimes look at the idea of karma the same way they view Calvinist predestination — that there is a ball and chain of consequences that we drag behind us that makes our future in this life or any subsequent lives inevitable. But the true meaning of karma is the opposite of predestination. As Sogyal Rinpoche says: “Karma means our ability to create and to change.” It is creative because we can determine how and why we act – with intention. We can change. The future is in our hands, and in the hands of our heart and intention – and at any point we can have an impact and create change.

Some believe Jesus may have studied Buddhism, perhaps during that 18-year gap in time from the boy in the temple to the man gathering disciples. We can’t know for sure, of course – but we do know that Nazareth was not a hick town in the middle of nowhere. Jesus’ hometown was a suburb of the major city Sepphoris. As the wealthiest empire of the time, the Romans participated in multi-national trade, much of which came across the Mediterranean and through Judea, making Jerusalem a cosmopolitan trading hub. Because of this, the area enjoyed a broad global perspective as news from other lands passed through, as well as diverse spiritual traditions like Zoroastrianism and Buddhism, which were well known to the people in Judea. This meant that Jesus would have been influenced by the global diversity the region offered, as well as the political and religious tensions that were characteristic of his time. Perhaps that is why some of his teachings sound similar to those of the Buddha – or perhaps they sound similar because they are based in the same fundamental laws of the universe.

For me, the meaning of karma as expanded by the Buddha, and how to intentionally cultivate good karma, is a message of hope, especially during these trying times. It’s not a fatalistic view that things will happen to us that we can’t do anything about, or that everything that happens to us is the result of what we did in this lifetime, or worse yet, some other lifetime we don’t know about. Nor is it about worrying about someone else’s karma, and what might be coming to them because of their bad actions. The message karma offers us is to be aware of OUR intentions, and make sure we cultivate intentions that bring kindness to ourselves and to others. The more we act in ethical ways, the more we are inclined to continue to act in ethical ways. Each wholesome action adds to a pattern of wholesome actions and becomes what one automatically does. This is the way to cultivate good karma.  Knowing that our actions reverberate throughout time and space and make up the legacy of our lives, we have the choice to make that a legacy of love and compassion, or one of neglect and thoughtlessness.

As I think about how dark these days appear – with images of our government sending private security contractors to attack peaceful protestors, politicians looking out for their own well-being over that of the most vulnerable, the seeming rise of racist attacks and actions, and the mockery of science by an administration more concerned about the Dow and poll numbers leading to needless COVID-19 deaths, it’s easy to become depressed and filled with despair. It’s tempting to give in to the darkness, throw up our hands at the seeming inevitability of evil winning over goodness, and lose hope. And THAT is exactly when the meaning of karma is most compelling and powerful. I can’t determine the actions of others, nor control them. Nor is it my job to point my finger at the actions of others and hope their bad karma eventually catches up to them. At the end of the day, I can only determine and be responsible for my own actions, my own intentions – and so it becomes even more important for me to set my intention for good, for love, for compassion, for charity, for trustworthiness, as Bob mentioned last week.

In this way, Lao Tzu’s words have become a kind of mantra for me – “Watch your thoughts, for they become words. Watch your words, for they become actions. Watch your actions, for they become habits. Watch your habits, for they become character. Watch your character, for it becomes your destiny.”