Karma and Freedom – Florian Demont
Karma et liberté
Teachings – Resources
By Florian Demont
Karma. We often take it as synonymous with fate or determinism. Karma, then, is a result and we are damned to experience it. We can find something along these lines (even though in a much more sophisticated form) in Vedic culture, the Upanishads, but also in Western culture, especially in Scientific Materialism, according to which we are indeed damnedto experience the mechanical play of cause and effect as described in our best scientific theories—and there is, according to this view, no other experience possible.
However, if we see Karma as a result, this might not be due to a particular theory we endorse. From the Buddhist point of view, there are psychological reasons for fatalism. If we feel isolated, misunderstood and humiliated then we are held hostage by what we experience. If we see ourselves as victims of our circumstances, of our past, of our character or of other people then we really do feel damned to experience what we experience. Such fatalistic mindsets are the basis of life entangled in suffering.
Buddha’s own teachings on karma are meant to show a way out of suffering. It is meant to break the spell of fatalism. He did this by focusing on the meaning of the word karman: action. So, for Buddhists, karma is all about actions and much less about results. How does that work? First, we must understand the power of our mental, verbal and bodily actions. By judging as we do, by saying what we say and by doing what we do, we continuously shape our reality. If we reduce our actions to repeating the same old patterns we always followed, our reality will be a boring, stupid reproduction of what it always was—eternal recurrence of the worst sort. But if we open our minds, consider the options at hand and then attentively shape our actions, reality will be rich and satisfying.
Indeed, it must be, because that is the law of karma. Results are still inevitable, but for calm and wise minds actions are fully malleable and that makes all the difference. So, the Buddhist take on karma makes us realize that we are not hostages nor victims. Such fatalistic mindsets are the very core of our entanglement in suffering. It is the very core of the wrong perception Buddhists call ignorance.
Realizing the full potential of mental, verbal and bodily actions means seeing reality as it is: interdependent malleability. There are many varieties of Buddhism, but all of them seek to correct our perception and give us direct access to reality. All teach ethical discipline, some add love and compassion, some teach through the body, others utilize visualizations and mantras and all of them ascribe full, direct access to reality to a serene, clear and sharp mind for which suffering is atmost a distant memory from the past. All these methods teach us to focus on our intentions, the will behind our actions. We learn to identify intentions behind our judgments, what we want to achieve through our speech acts and all the little wishes, drives and needs behind our bodily actions. The more clearly we see how intention works, the more we can influence actions. This is the main point and we can clearly observe it during Zazen: intentions, wantings, drives and needs appear and call for action, but we do not move.
So, freedom in Buddhism comes down to this: you do not always have to do what you want to do. And this, once realized, gives us enough leeway to influence actions. This influence on action, in turn, allows us to consciously shape reality. And this is how, ultimately, we will be able to abandon all suffering. Note how different this is from Western conceptions of free will. All theologians, philosophers and scientists interested in free will were very much aware of fatalistic mindsets and worldviews based on them. They felt threatened by them, because they either found such mindsets inevitable, highly probable or just extremely widespread. But instead of shifting the focus of their investigation onto the present moment, where it becomes clear that we are not simply victims and hostages, always damned to experience what we experience, they tried to reason their way out of the problem. They sought to fight fatalism with conceptual thinking. More particularly, they sought to find out what sort of conscious control we have over ourselves and the world. They wanted to find out whether it is possible to grasp phenomena and to give them a different direction.
Looking at people on the streets, on public transport, at work, at home and elsewhere, while observing their eyes, the color of their skin and their posture, we must conclude that such investigations on free will did not do much good. If we are entangled in suffering, trying to grasp a bothersome phenomenon in order to give it a different, better direction, is not a viable strategy. It does not work. All we get is more frustration, more isolation, more suffering and we really end up feeling that we are victims and hostages of others, our circumstances, the world.
Buddhism all forms of Buddhism offer us a way out. Focus on what you can do. Realize that you do not always need to do what you want to do. Explore the interdependencies right in front of you. Explore their malleability. And most important of all: relax a bit and do not take everything so dead serious. Give everybody a break and turn your inner cynic to mute. After all, all this suffering is the illusive play of distorted perception. In reality, we and the universe are basically well, things change and we all can shape