In a previous meditation I wrote about rebirth and why I don’t think it’s something we need to be concerned about. Now, I know what some of you were thinking, “But what about Karma? If we’re not reborn how does positive and negative karma affect us?” Good question, but I believe it’s based in a flawed understanding of karma based on the skillful means that the Buddha used when discussing it.
In 6th Century BCE India the concept of karmic consequences was firmly taking hold along with the concept that these consequences were worked out by the rebirth you achieved in either higher or lower realms of existence. This was enhanced by the societal inability to move from one caste to another - one was considered born into a certain caste as part of karmic justice. The Buddha taught from this accepted paradigm, although if we look at the most ancient sutras (and thus the ones most probably closest to the actual teachings of the Buddha as opposed to the teaching of his later followers) he didn’t put much emphasis on it.
Within the Atthakavagga - considered by many scholars to be the very earliest collections of teachings by the Buddha - he doesn’t mention karmic consequences at all and rarely even mentions the concept of rebirth. As I pointed out in the meditation on rebirth he is mostly interested in focusing us on what we need to be doing now, in this life. Does this mean that Karma in Buddhism is only a later addition to the teachings and is not something we should consider within Western Buddhism? No. Karma has a crucial role in Buddhist thought and practice; it’s just not what you’ve come to believe it is.
Ryugen Fisher Roshi - the teacher of my teacher - said that karma is simply the prescientific world’s word for physics – and that it applies to humans as well as to the rest of the physical world. To understand what he meant we have to understand the interconnectivity and interdependence of dependent origination. I have talked several times about dependent origination and how it is worked out in our lives so I’ll just summarize here.
Dependent Origination is the teaching that all compounded things in this universe arise from previous causes. You can think of it in purely physical terms by genetics - I would not exist without the physical cause of sex between my mother and father. However, it also applies to non-physical reality. I am who I am as a person due to multiple factors: my parents, my teachers, friends and enemies, the decisions and actions that I have made in the past, etc. The important thing is that dependent origination not only applies to how existing things arose but to how our own actions will give rise to future things in their turn. Because of dependent origination there is an inescapable interconnection between beings - whether we are able to discern it or not. This interconnection and its concurrent interdependency is the very working out of karma in the real world.
Our actions in this world affect not only others but ourselves as well. The oil company executive responsible for a major oil spill is not only harming the environment but in turn being harmed by the polluted environment he is helping to create. The teacher who spends that extra time with a struggling child is helping not only the child but being helped by the world that child will go on to create. The fact is, however, that these effects are sometimes very subtle and we want deep down for karma to truly be a bitch. Unfortunately - or fortunately - karma is not a cosmic Judge Judy handing down judgement, reward and punishment. Sometimes it takes the very mindfulness that leads us to understand interconnection to see the consequences of negative karma - but we humans want that oil executive suspended in a vat of oil now!
This is why karma is - for many - so inextricably linked to rebirth. We may not be able to see the effect of negative karma on someone right now, but rebirth gives us the hope it will be visited on them in their next life. We may not be able to feel the effects of positive karma in our own life, but rebirth gives us the hope that it will result in a better life for us next time around. Both of these views are fetters holding us back from living this life the best way we can. We are attached to the concepts of reward and punishment so strongly that we cannot let go of them and we let ourselves be carried away by the flood of emotions that they themselves give rise to. This is the flood of which the Buddha speaks in the Atthakavagga when he says, “That person will be burdened with troubles and unease will overwhelm them like water entering a broken boat.” But also when he says, “Having understood perception the wise will cross over the flood; they are not mired in desire. Having controlled passion they do not cling to a desire for either this life or another.”
Karma is not your servant to punish those who offend you, but if you cling to it as either a source of hope or fear in a life to come it can be your jailer - holding you back from achieving liberation from dukkha in this life.