71 - Buddha's Teachings 9: The Four Brahmaviharas, or Sublime Social Attitudes - Part 3
73 – Is Buddhism Religious, Spiritual, or Secular?

In Episode 38 I talked about how Buddhist practice has two sides – samadhi power and karma relationship. Samadhi power is about cultivating a direct, real-life experience of the nondual aspect of reality, while karma relationship is about taking care of our lives in order to reduce suffering and reflect the truth of the nondual in the midst of the relative. In this episode I focus on karma relationship – why it’s so important, what it involves, and the main Buddhist practices we do to work on our karma.

 

Quicklinks to Transcript Content:
Samadhi Power Doesn’t Fix Everything
Investigation of Our Karmic Package
The Relationship Part of Karma Relationship
Buddhist Practices for Working on Karma
Don’t Forget to Cultivate Samadhi at the Same Time

This episode is about “Karma Relationship.” I introduced this concept in Episode 38, where I talked about how Buddhist practice has two sides – samadhi power and karma relationship. Samadhi power is about cultivating a direct, real-life experience of the nondual aspect of reality, while karma relationship is about taking care of our lives in order to reduce suffering and reflect the truth of the nondual in the midst of the relative. We work on samadhi power through meditation, mindfulness, and studying Buddhist teachings. We work on karma relationship by studying the self, taking responsibility for our negative habit patterns, and trying to make our actions of body, speech, and mind appropriate and free of self-attachment. In this episode I’m going to focus on karma relationship – why it’s important, what it involves, and the main Buddhist practices we do to work on our karma.

Samadhi Power Doesn’t Fix Everything

In Episode 38 I talked at length about how and why our practice – if we want it to be fruitful – can’t neglect either samadhi power or karma relationship. If you haven’t listened to that episode yet, I recommend doing so before listening to this one so you have a sense of how samadhi power and karma relationship differ but also complement one another. To briefly summarize, though, if we neglect taking care of our everyday lives and changing our behavior for the better (karma relationship), either samadhi power will elude us because our life’s such a mess, or any experience we end up having of the nondual aspect of reality will remain shallow and disconnected from our embodied existence. On the other hand, if we neglect cultivating a deeper sense of, and intimacy with, the absolute nature of reality (samadhi power), our work to become better people can get bogged down or discouraging – because, frankly, it never ends. Samadhi reminds us of the sense in which our lives are already complete and precious just as they are.

Before I go into detail about karma relationship, let me again emphasize its importance. Sometimes people think (or hope) Zen or Buddhism is all about samadhi power. I don’t know whether you’ve ever had any of the following thoughts, but many of us have:

  • “Maybe, no matter the state of my life, no matter how much unresolved stuff I have from the past or how much conflict is happening in my life now, I can just meditate, access deep peace, and make it all go away.”
  • “Maybe, though insight or practice, I’ll reach some mind state or attitude where nothing bothers me anymore.”
  • “Maybe, if I meditate hard enough, I’ll end up with a permanent sense that everything is precious, luminous, and empty, and I’ll no longer be inspired to do anything selfish. Surely awakening will rid me of my delusions and bad habits – so no need to struggle to change them in the meantime! After all, the process of wrestling with karma is so messy and slow… I’d rather just meditate and think about profound teachings.”

Sadly, these assumptions (or hopes) are false:

  • First, applying spiritual teachings or practices in order to alleviate our immediate discomfort, but not taking the practice any further, can easily turn into spiritual bypassing. Spiritual bypassing is like taking a pain reliever and ignoring the underlying condition that’s causing the pain to begin with. Fortunately, there are plenty of tools in Buddhism for addressing our underlying conditions – but those tools are part of the karma relationship aspect of our practice.
  • Second, even if we gain some insight into the absolute dimension of our lives, do we then always have the large perspective? Do we constantly experience equanimity or joy? No. Over time we may end up with deeper and deeper faith in the absolute. We may perceive it more and more often, or find ourselves able to remember it more quickly. But for ordinary mortals (that is, all the people I’ve ever met), samadhi is not some permanent attainment. We can’t rely on some particular mind-state or attitude to inspire and guide all of our actions. Instead, we have to establish new habits and ways of operating in the world that will carry us even when we don’t “feel” enlightened – that is, karma relationship.
  • Finally, even if we attain some insight or experience, enlightenment isn’t a place we go to, or badge we wear because of something we understood in the past. Enlightenment arises in how we meet each moment. Unless we put it into practice – manifesting it in our everyday lives – enlightenment doesn’t even exist. But it can be very difficult to bridge the gap between what we’ve realized through samadhi power and the nitty-gritty of daily life, and working on this is karma relationship.

Investigation of Our Karmic Package

Okay, now let’s get into what working on the karma relationship aspect of our Buddhist practice looks like.

The first step in karma relationship work is, arguably, adopting a moral code. As I talked about in my Episodes on the Buddhist precepts, or moral guidelines, from the beginning the Buddha emphasized the importance of appropriate and moral speech, action, and livelihood. He taught that such behavior was a prerequisite for deep spiritual practice, as well as being the best way to live if you wanted happiness and harmonious relationships.

In karma work, a moral code provides context and direction when we start working on our lives. The code isn’t imposed by an outside entity; it reflects our own aspirations – or, at least, the aspirations we think we ought to have. And yet we find ourselves facing many challenges in trying to follow precepts or live according to the Eightfold Path’s Appropriate Action, Speech, and Livelihood. Those challenges are our points of inquiry in karma relationship work, because our motivation to break or bend our moral code – to kill, steal, lie, cheat, indulge anger, etc. – always has its root in greed, hate, or delusion. Noticing when we break precepts, or even just think about it, highlights for us where our grasping or self-attachment remains. We learn to become more aware – noting areas of tightness and reactivity, and basically what’s going on with our body-mind throughout the day.

Then what do we do? This isn’t a grim process of self-judgment or relentless self-improvement. Instead, we accept that learning to behave in more skillful ways will be a lifelong process. Over time we become more and more familiar with what Buddhists call “our karma.” When we use the term karma in this way – your karma, my karma – we’re talking about a very specific phenomenon. Each of us has, or is, a unique karmic package – a body and mind brought about and shaped by an immeasurable number of past causes and conditions. While we lack any inherently existing, enduring self-nature, we definitely have a karmic package shaped by genetics, family of origin, physical conditions, past experiences, personality, tendencies, other people, our culture, etc. You may think Buddhism encourages you to forget about this package, but it doesn’t. You’re supposed to see through it, in a sense, and recognize it’s not the be-all-and-end-all you think it is, but you still have to take responsibility for it. As long as you’re alive, you have a body and life to take care of, no matter how rarefied your spiritual insight.

In karma relationship, then, we get to know our conditional, contingent selves, or our karmic package. We pay attention to our thoughts, speech, and actions in the context of our moral code and notice tendencies. We honestly face and acknowledge our harmful qualities, including our uncharitable thoughts, arrogance, bitterness, greed, and anger. In this process we let go of trying to lay blame at someone else’s doorstep for why are the way we are, or why we’ve done the things we’ve done, because blame doesn’t help. This is why we state in the Buddhist karma or repentance verse, “All my past and harmful karma, born from beginningless greed, hate, and delusion, through body, speech, and mind, I now fully avow.” Where did it all start? It’s actually impossible to trace all the causes and conditions back to their source, so what we do is take responsibility for our karmic package from here on out. No one else is going to do it.

Experientially, extended and deliberate karma work is a bit like gradually locating the skeletons in your closet (oh, they’re there!). If we can’t manage to permanently eject them, at least we get them out into the light of day. In doing this work, we’re grateful for things that call our attention to yet another skeleton: Our mistakes, hurting someone’s feelings, bearing the brunt of someone else’s criticism, or facing karmic obstacles. A mature Buddhist practitioner should be very familiar with the skeletons in her closet, and grateful when something leads her to uncover one that has escaped her attention. We relate to our skeletons – our harmful tendencies, habits, attachments, limitations, and delusion – as dispassionately as possible, taking responsibility for them and always nurturing the aspiration to be free of them. This isn’t about creating a fixed idea about ourselves that doesn’t change, admitting our shortcomings without apology as if the harm we do others is just something others will have to accept. “Yup, that’s my speaking harshly skeleton, that’s me. That’s just the way I am.” Instead, we say, “Yup, that’s my speaking harshly skeleton, sorry about that. I’m working on it.”

If we don’t get really familiar with our karmic package, the good and the bad, we’ll be enslaved to it. Our harmful behavioral patterns and delusions will just keep rolling along, perhaps even picking up momentum. Unless we run smack-dab against something that challenges our karma, we’re unlikely to wake up to it unless we set out to do so. Even then, it’s very easy to blame everyone and everything else for our problems and fail to learn lessons about our own karma relationship.

The Relationship Part of Karma Relationship

What about the relationship part of “karma relationship”? Relationships we need to explore occur at a number of different levels. At the moment I can think of four:

1) Our relationship to our karma. We’re not actually separate from our karma, of course, but it can feel that way – like the Executive I is burdened by it all. As I’ve already discussed, learning to see, accept, and take responsibility for our karma is crucial. It can also be challenging, especially when our karma is affected by circumstances beyond our control, such as past abuse, trauma, or neglect, limitations due to physical or mental handicap or illness, or current injustice. Still, it’s deeply healing and transformative to accept our lives as they are and then feel empowered to work from there.

2) Our relationship to the law of karma. This is a foundational aspect of Buddhist practice in which we: 1) Recognize we contribute to suffering, both our own and that of others; 2) discern how it is we do so, and 3) let go of the thoughts or actions which contribute to suffering. I talk about how we go about this process in practice in Episode 27 on the Four Noble Truths.

3) Our relationship to other people and their karma. There are few areas of our lives in which negative karmic tendencies become as obvious as in human relationships – both our negative tendencies and those of others. This is a wonderful opportunity, because as a Zen teacher once said to me, “Relationships bring out the worst in us.” From a Buddhist point of view this is a good thing, because otherwise the worst may stay hidden as a skeleton in our closet. Once we see a skeleton, we can do something about it.

Including other people in our karma relationship work also strengthens our compassion. We begin to see other people’s karma more clearly and objectively, and we’re less likely to fall into the trap of blame.

4) Our relationship to karma that is bigger than just us (familial, cultural, racial, country, species). This isn’t something the Buddha himself emphasized, but in modern times we’re recognizing is very important. Our responsibility doesn’t stop at the boundary between our personal lives and “the rest of the world” (as if there was such a boundary, anyway). Our participation in society means we’re partially culpable for what society does, and affected by what it does.

Karma relationship is turning your attention toward all these causal relationships and to the conditioned body-mind karmic package you are, and doing whatever you can to decrease suffering and increase wisdom and compassion.

Buddhist Practices for Working on Karma

What are some specific Buddhist practices we can use for karma relationship work? This certainly isn’t an exhaustive list, but it’s a good start:

1) Wrestling with the Four Noble Truths. As I briefly mentioned earlier, the foundational Buddhist teaching of the Four Noble Truths is a valuable tool for uncovering the workings of karma in our life and then finding ways to let go of the ways we’re contributing to suffering. As I discuss in Episode 27, the Four Noble Truths aren’t dogmas to be accepted, they’re truths we need to investigate and verify for ourselves, in our own direct experience: 1) Acknowledging the presence of dukkha, which is suffering or dissatisfactoriness, in our lives; 2) discerning the causes of that dukkha; 3) experiencing relief from dukkha when we manage to let go of its causes, and 4) becoming convinced of the importance of diligently practicing the Noble Eightfold Path in support of this whole process.

2) Studying the Self. This is a Soto Zen approach advocated by Zen master Dogen, who said in “Genjokoan,” “To study Buddhism is to study the self.” Practice goes on from there, but it starts with studying this very person. We can’t skip over it just because we know intellectually that it’s empty. This self – our body, mind, emotions, desires, fears, hopes, assumptions, habits, conditioning, etc. – is our vehicle in this life. It’s only when we know it intimately and honestly that we can transcend it. In Genjokoan, Dogen also says ordinary beings are deluded about enlightenment, while buddhas are greatly enlightened about delusion. For more on this, see Episode 15 – To Study Buddhism Is to Study the Self (and Why That’s Not Selfish).

3) Precepts. I’ve already talked about how this practice helps us with karma relationship, but I’ll add that for many Buddhists precept practice is central. As I discussed in Episode 60 – Taking Refuge and Precepts: The Significance of Becoming a Buddhist, Buddhists often formally vow to follow traditional sets of moral guidelines in their lives. Working with precepts can be a deliberate and thoughtful part of your life; for example, at my Zen center we study our 16 precepts every year for a period of 8-10 weeks, carefully reexamining the relationship between our aspirations and our behavior.

4) Engaging with Sangha, a Real, Live Buddhist Community. Many of us assume Sangha is about support and harmony in a group of nice, like-minded people. It certainly can be, but people are people, and as I mentioned earlier, relationships “bring out the worst in us.” Our negative or unresolved karma is rarely triggered if we can manage to stay in our comfort zones, around people of our choice, in our favorite places. Sangha offers an excellent opportunity to explore karma in relationship because – at least in theory – we’re all trying to take responsibility or our karma instead of blaming each other. I discuss this at length in Episode 16, Sangha: The Joys, Challenges, and Value of Practicing in a Buddhist Community.

5) Engaging with Buddhist Forms. Forms are established ways we do things as a Buddhist community. Forms include simple procedures such as taking off our shoes before entering the meditation hall and lining them up neatly along the wall, as well as bowing, the use of altars, ceremonies, and practice positions within a Sangha. Forms are a brilliant way for our karma to be revealed to us and to our sangha and teacher. If we get to choose everything – where we go, how we do things – we can hide out without even meaning to. Naturally we choose what we prefer, which is generally what doesn’t trigger our karma. When we’re asked to do something the same way everyone else does, or the way it’s traditionally been done, our reactions – positive or negative – say a lot about our karmic package (remember, this is not to be judgmental, it’s all just an opportunity to study the self). I cover practicing with forms in Episode 18 – Zen Forms (Customs and Rituals) and Why They Matter.

6) The Practice of Vow. When we make a vow, at least in theory, we carefully choose a course we want for our lives and then do our utmost to stick to it. Almost inevitably, we eventually encounter obstacles and challenges to keeping our vow and consequently face all kinds of uncomfortable thoughts and feelings: Disappointment, frustration, doubt, fear, judgment, etc. We may wonder if we ever should have made our vow, but the tension we experience in trying to keep it is exactly what vows are for.

If we never make a promise or clearly state an intention, no tension will arise when we give up on something valuable just because the going gets tough or we get bored. Vows give shape to our karmic lives and show us where our obstacles and limitations are. Most forms of Buddhism include opportunities to make vows – taking precepts, formally committing to a teacher, ordaining as a monk or priest, or temporary vows of practice. Of course, we can also bring the spirit of practice to other areas of commitment in our lives, including marriage, raising children, and devoting ourselves to our work.

Don’t Forget to Cultivate Samadhi at the Same Time

In closing, let me remind you that as we go about working with our karma, we can’t forget to work on cultivating samadhi power at the same time. Just as some of us hope samadhi power will solve all our problems, others of us figure Buddhism is just about trying to be good person. In other words, it’s all about karma relationship. However, as I discussed in the first episode on samadhi power and karma relationship, these two aspects of our practice support and complement each other.

Our meditation practice teaches us to sit still and face reality instead of running away or distracting ourselves, so it’s necessary for doing karma work. The larger perspective samadhi power gives us keeps us from getting too down on ourselves or discouraged in our efforts to change our karma, and this is extremely valuable because it’s really hard to change ingrained habits of body and mind. A sense of the absolute aspect of reality balances and sustains us as we do the hard work of karma relationship; it reminds us to appreciate our lives just as they are, and not get too caught up in a self-improvement project.

 

71 - Buddha's Teachings 9: The Four Brahmaviharas, or Sublime Social Attitudes - Part 3
73 – Is Buddhism Religious, Spiritual, or Secular?
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