Sixteen Questions and Answers on Karma. Views on Good and Evil

An exploration of karma (actions/deeds with consequences) needs to be brought into public conversation in the West on personal, social and political issues.

Every year in the 20 days of retreat in the Royal Thai Monastery, Bodh Gaya, India,  invited the retreatants to write down a Dharma question on a piece of paper. It was not unusual to receive a 100 or more questions. I collected the narrow strips of paper over years and kept them at home in large plastic bags.

I read out the question and answer and respond. Here are some of the questions on karma written down over the years. I have edited the questions and responses down to the bare bone.

Sixteen Questions on Karma

1. Is there rebirth?

Rebirth means the continuity of the ‘self,’ of ‘I’ ‘me’ and ‘mine,’ as habits and tendencies from one life to the next. This view of rebirth expresses the traditional Buddhist approach.

In Dharma language, ending of rebirth means the cessation of the rebirth of the ego. Karma and rebirth have a clear-cut relationship. When the karma stops, so does the rebirth of the karma (unsatisfactory views/actions/deeds stop. In some cases, it is too late to stop the consequences (the painful fruit of karma).

Inquire into karma. What is your view about rebirth in the next life? If there is rebecoming? What is your response to your daily life? If there is no rebecoming, what is your response? In the Kalama Sutta, the Buddha adopted a provisional view of rebirth. There is no evidence to show any kind of substantial self in this life, let alone a self moving from one life to the next.

Those who assert rebirth believe in a future arising of self after death. Those who assert only one life believe in the self of this life that ceases with death.

Reflect on the metaphor of waves dependently arising and falling through underlying forces in the great ocean of existence.

2. Should we try to develop good karma?

Religions of the East often advocate the practice of developing good or wholesome karma through making merit, wholesome deeds and taking religious vows. Such practices help to reduce the impact of negative and unhealthy karma. Practitioners derive benefit from doing good and others get benefit as well. Many Buddhists believe that life is about doing good and experiencing the benefit of such merit in a future life.

Yet, the intention to do good easily becomes a shadow over seeing clearly. Doing ‘good’ can contribute to a disconnection from insight into what arises and get in the way of knowing wisdom in the face of what arises. Religious/secular people can spend much time in supporting their religious/secular beliefs and doing good deeds, charitable deed, only to experience a crisis through doubt. Their good work can end up as distress and disillusionment.

3. Why are people, who do good, happier people than those who cause harm or put themselves before everybody else?

Selfishness manifests as forms of human behaviour where self-interest functions at the expense of others. This shows itself as the desire to place oneself above others and at the cost to others.
What is the relationship between unhappiness and selfishness. As selfishness increases, then happiness decreases due to self-obsession, self-righteousness and thought trapped in the small box of myself before all else. It is hard to love narcissists whose priority focuses on themselves and getting what they want,

When self-interest takes priority, then fear, agitation and anger are not far away – at the expensive of peace of mind, empathy and love. Enlightened self-interest means the reduction of selfishness. Those who neglect themselves for the sake of others, under the deluded idea of being selfless, will also suffer. Such a person will find it difficult to handle rejection, failure or results different from what he or she hoped. Wisdom does not engage in selfishness, nor romantic ideals of selflessness.

An irate parent can put pressure on their children: “I have sacrificed my whole life for you.” A happy person responds to the welfare of themselves and others.

4. If I stop creating good karma, will I sit around and do nothing?

The concept good deserves attention. What is good? Who believes this activity is good? In frequent activities, we honestly believe we act because it is for our good or for somebody else’s good. It is not always the case. We can cause more harm than good in the name of doing good.

Where does the not good, the bad, the evil come from? It is from the idea that something is good to do – from making more money, to pursuing the self-interest of the individual, the company or the nation state or adopting a certain ideology. Is that always good or far removed from what is good? Can there be any good sending an army, navy and air force to attack another country? Can increasing the wealth of the superrich and withdrawing benefits from the poor show what is good?

Where there is good, there is the not good, the bad or the evil. Free from holding to idea of doing good and doing what is not good, you will act with awareness and wisdom. You will change the world. The everyday mind hides action beyond good and bad.

5. Are there people we can describe as good people?

Yes, such people express love, kindness and generosity. We naturally appreciate men and women who offer wisdom and compassion to others. They have a most important function in society – to remind all of us of deep values. They offer skilful means and insights into reality. They share what they know free from favouritism. Such people do not live in a world of us and them. They do not see themselves as purveyors of the good and against those who do not share their view.

Such people emanate love and empathy without setting limits to its healing potential and power to resolve issues. We might refer to such people as good people but they tend to shrug off such views of themselves. If they grasp onto the idea of the good and the ego feeds on it, it will sow the seeds of self-importance, plus stress and beliefs in us and them.

6. Are there karmic consequences due to clinging to the idea of the good?

Yes. The tendency to grasp the idea of the good has consequences. It is easy to for the self to become identified with doing good. It then feeds pride, self-righteousness and division. The personal desire for success, to get one’s own way, may seem good at one level but such clinging supports intolerance. The individual, the group or the nation state become trapped in a harmful, destructive way of life.

The doer of the good becomes impatient or stressed out to the point of burnout. Do-gooders remain vulnerable to exhaustion. It is healthier to allow others to use the language of the good. Others may say he or she is such a good person. Such people mean that the other lives a loving and caring life that benefits others. A loving/caring life is not the ultimate goal. Freedom from karma takes priority.

7. Does the ending of karma mean the ending of activities of doing good and doing harm through body speech and mind?

Ending of karma means ending the view “I am doing good.” The realised ones (called the noble ones in Dharma tradition) know the emptiness of such views of the self while responding compassionately to people and situations in the short and long term.

Disciples of spiritual masters and gurus, who believe their teachers are free to do as they wish, show delusion. The realised ones find skilful means to address immediate situations without exploiting another for their own ends. Go deep. Respond to the other with wholehearted attention and wisdom.

Your responses then emerge from a wise seeing, not coming from childhood conditioning, nor from the demands of another(s) or a desire to be a perceived as a good person. The acts of wisdom emerge from depths of being. If a person boasts about what they do, it is an ego trip. There will be consequences, painful ones, for self-elevation. You will find it difficult to handle feedback, criticism, blame and rejection from others who think in a unique way.

8. Do we always get the fruits of what we sow?

No. Some die before karma bears fruit. In India, it is said that if you sew the sweet mango seed and nourish it, it will become the sweet mango fruit. Villages regard mangos as the sweetest of all fruits. If you plant the seed of the bitter neem, you will get the neem fruit with its bitter taste as the outcome. What we sew bears fruit.

You could describe that as natural justice, the process of cause and effect. At times, it is hard to see natural justice. Certain people commit obscene crimes and appear to get away with them. They seem immune from recognition of the suffering they have inflicted. Religion has tried to explain away these phenomena through concepts of eternal damnation or endless rebirths in hell realms or reincarnations of suffering. Terrible things happen to people who live with tremendous love and compassion for others. We want life to be fair. Life is not fair. The good can suffer and the wicked can avoid suffering. It is a naïve idealism to imagine that life is fair and everybody gets their just deserts.

9. Do good and evil reveal an independent reality or show a state of mind?

Good and evil show a state of mind. Good is a certain construction of mind, a certain kind of attitude. Evil refers to the deliberate volition to cause suffering in the short and long-term. Immediacy of action can cause suffering even if the intention engaged to end suffering.

A child playing in the garden gets a thorn in the hand. If it is neglected it will become infected. The parent takes a pin or even another thorn to prise open the skin and squeeze the thorn out. It hurts; the child screams even though the parent intends to stop the suffering. The parent aims to reduce suffering right from the start.

10. Do we have a choice to be good or not good?

Psychologists and spiritual teachers tell us that everybody has a choice. There is always freedom of choice. The harsh reality doesn’t give support to this ideology. We did not choose our DNA. We did not choose to be born, nor choose our parents, nor our biological makeup. Who can change their past? Who can choose to stop ageing? We did not choose multiple events impacting upon us.

We sometimes destiny dominates our life, an accident, chance or the will of God, Let us acknowledge we have limited control over our life. We make choices and still be neither happy nor wise as a result.

11. Are you saying there is no such thing as choice? Are we simply swept along by forces? Do you call these forces karma?

Choice belongs to a belief system – legal, personal, political, psychological and social. You chose to engage in this course of action and now you will pay the consequences, we are told.

It is easy to slide from one extreme view to the other, such as everybody has a choice and nobody has any choice. Does the dominating tendency in the mind determines what we do?

If we reject choice totally, we revert to a deterministic view of our existence. We believe circumstances govern our daily lives. Evolution, DNA, hereditary factors, childhood experiences explain the past as if we exist in the present as helpless creatures, under influence of past forces or karma. . Both views, choice and no choice, seem unsatisfactory.

It is easy to argue that we have choices to make. We choose to eat more organic food than processed food. We choose to wear single colour clothes rather than multi-coloured clothes or choose not to own a car.

Consider the skilful application of choice. The exercising of choice requires calmness, clarity of mind and the recognition of the wise step to take. We can legitimately use the language of choice in such circumstances.

The alcoholic may lack the power of mind to make the choice to stop drinking. The same for the gambler, sex addict, smoker, workaholic, obsessive eater, mobile phone addict and more.. It is unhelpful to say to the person “Well, that’s your choice.” It is equally unhelpful to regard people as helpless and hopeless. Both show extreme standpoints. Look carefully for the middle way. Develop the discourse expressing the middle way. Clinging to views of choice or determinism block clarity.

12. Is there a collective karma?

No. None whatsoever. People use the idea of a collective karma when a group of people suffer such as the bombing of a city, a famine or an earthquake. “That’s their karma.” This is a misuse of the term.

The suffering of the collective occurs regardless of whether it is related or unrelated to their past conditioning or karma. A Tibetan lama, who ate fish and meat, told his followers all the fishermen who died in a Tsunami because of their bad karma they made through fishing. This is a gross projection, a mediaeval view, projected onto the fishermen. A tsunami could drown a Buddha and a whole of host of realised ones.

13. Why is important to dissolve clinging to views of good and evil?

Individuals and groups of people such as the nation state believe their actions such as to hit someone or start a war or engage in war making is a good thing to do to fight evil, to fight the enemy.

Good and evil belong to unexamined states of mind – personal, social and political. These divisive views in our species block inquiry into causes and conditions for the arising of suffering at any level. The support for violence – we are right in our view and they are wrong, we are the good guys and they are the bad guys – confirms delusion in the mind.

14.Does karma account for all the differences between people? Why are some people born a genius and others are so ignorant? Why are some born with incredible talent and some have no gifts at all?

Karma accounts for certain differences between people. Causes and conditions contribute to the formation of the range of stares of mind. Know the complexity to causality rather than determine a single cause, such as karma or past lives. Karma (actions or deeds in our world) contribute to the difference between people and their circumstances, and the classification of people into high and low states.

15. What matters most in karma?

The Buddha said: “I declare that volition is Karma. Having willed one acts by body, speech, and thought.” (Anguttara Nikaya).

Volition here includes the formation of the condition of the self arising from the past, acting in the present and influencing future result. A murderer takes the scalpel and sinks into the heart of another. A surgeon takes the same scalpel and save the life of a patient. Outcome for surgeon and murderer can become feelings of success or failure, triumph or remorse.

16. Does understanding karma dispense with belief in God?

Yes. Karma operates without the intervention of any belief in a ruling agency or power, such as God. There is no all-powerful God who dispenses rewards and punishments. It is also naïve and arrogant to claim the poor, handicapped and sick suffer these conditions due to the karma of their past lives. Some claim God tests what we can withstand. It is equally irresponsible to claim that the rich and healthy developed good karma in their past lives.

Some confuse karma with fate, destiny and predestination. What are our blind spots? What is the light that dissolves these blind spots enabling karmic actions and painful consequences to take place. Our blind spots (ignorance) give rise to formations of states of mind, speech and body influencing the quality of our life and our world.

Reflect on karma and its influence in your life.

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