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Switch to Forum Live View Karma: Justified Suffering?
6 years ago  ::  May 13, 2008 - 8:46AM #1
MatisyahuSk8er
Posts: 52
I am new to Buddhist philosphy and there is something I have always wondered about karma which I hope others can clear up for me. Does the law of karma (whatever you do comes back to you) mean that people who are suffering deserve it? I mean, do starving children in Africa deserve that life because of something they've done(most likely in a past life), isn't this a bit cruel? Can't we just accept that suffering is? And how does Zen philosophy fit in with all this, I would really like to know because Zen the most appealing aspect of Buddhism to me.

Thank you
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6 years ago  ::  May 13, 2008 - 12:06PM #2
RenGalskap
Posts: 1,420
The Buddha taught that both "I have a self" and "I have no self" are wrong view. To say that suffering is justified is to say that there is something to which punishment accrues because of that something's bad deeds. That something is a self.

Buddhism doesn't teach that suffering is justified because it doesn't teach that there is a self that deserves punishment. The fruits of karma are just the fruits of karma itself, not retribution for the actions of a self.

That may seem a bit dry and cold blooded; it seems to suggest that suffering doesn't matter because there's no self that suffers. It may help to remember the Zen saying "Everying is delusion, but we still have to give medicine to the sick." The English word "compassion" is usually used as a translation of the Buddhist concept of "karuna", but karuna includes doing something helpful, not just compassionate feelings.
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6 years ago  ::  May 14, 2008 - 9:01AM #3
MatisyahuSk8er
Posts: 52
Thank you RenGalskap, that really makes a lot of sense to me and actually doesn't sound cold to me at all. The idea that the fruits of karma are just that, they just are eases my mind a little. So, are you saying that the good and the bad in life just are? That they have nothing to do with what you do or not do? I hope I understood it correctly.
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6 years ago  ::  May 14, 2008 - 10:17AM #4
RenGalskap
Posts: 1,420
[QUOTE=MatisyahuSk8er;498327]So, are you saying that the good and the bad in life just are?[/Quote]

The first truth is that there is duhkha. It's generally taught in Buddhism that duhkha is without beginning.

[QUOTE=MatisyahuSk8er;498327]That they have nothing to do with what you do or not do?[/QUOTE]

I wouldn't put it that way. Karma acts immediately, as well as long term. If I get angry at someone, there will be an immediate response. In general, all actions have consequences.

However, something that happens now may be the result of intentions (karma) that happened a long time ago. And the Buddha pointed out that not everything happens because of karma. People have the power to choose their actions. We have enough food to feed the world, but some groups of people are able to affect the way food is distributed in ways that make it difficult to distribute food where it's needed the most. That may not be karma; it may just be someone's economic choices.

In general, we don't know the ultimate reason that someone is suffering, but we do know that they are suffering. Drug dealers, prostitutes, gang members, children in Africa, and irrascable Zen Buddhists like me; we're all the same. There's no difference between people who are despised and saints.
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6 years ago  ::  May 14, 2008 - 11:58AM #5
MatisyahuSk8er
Posts: 52
I think I'm beginning to understand, I think, forgive me but I'm fairly new to this. If karma acts based on your actions then does that still mean that there is no self? Isn't it the self that is acting to which karma is responding?

Oh, I didn't know that not everything happens because of karma, that does make more sense to me now rather than karma being responsible for all the good and bad in the world. I never seemed to understand that and now I know it's because that's not the way it is lol.
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6 years ago  ::  May 14, 2008 - 11:15PM #6
RenGalskap
Posts: 1,420
[QUOTE=MatisyahuSk8er;498668]If karma acts based on your actions then does that still mean that there is no self? Isn't it the self that is acting to which karma is responding?[/Quote]

It's the intention that is the karma. If you try to help someone and make a mistake and cause harm instead, your good intentions are still good karma. Because the harm is unintended, it is not karma. Obviously, the harm has consequences, but it is not part of karma. You won't be reborn in the hell realm because of unintended harm.

Buddhist use conventional language, which means that we use personal pronouns: "I", "you", "she", etc. So I can say that I myself generate karma, because that's the conventional way of talking. However, Buddhism ultimately discards the concept of "I". There are intentions, but no intender. There is hearing, but no hearer. There are thoughts, but no thinker. There is liberation from duhkha, but no "I" that is liberated.

There is a phenomenon labeled RenGalskap, and another phenomenon labeled MatisyahuSk8er. Buddhism doesn't deny that these phenomena exist. However, Buddhism teaches that all phenomena are without self. My thoughts are not myself, my body is not myself, my feelings are not myself; when I search for my self, no self is found.
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6 years ago  ::  May 17, 2008 - 8:18AM #7
Cinorjer
Posts: 124
Hi Mati.  Just to elaborate on Renscape's fine answers, some Buddhists including monks who should know better treat karma like it means "fate", and talk about even children suffering due to things they did in a past life.  But that's a wrong view of how Buddhists view karma, which is simply a general rule that actions have consequences.

I illustrate this by recounting an article I once read about Thailand's sex industry, and an interview with a 12 year old girl sold into prostitution by her parents who said, "I must have been very bad in my previous life to suffer so much in this one."  That's wrong, wrong, wrong!  I wanted to take her in my arms and tell her, "You did nothing to deserve this.  You are suffering because ther are people in the world with sick minds who pay to take advantage of a little girl!"

You see, as Renscape points out, looking at karma as something that is "your fate" means you are clinging to the notion of an independent self.  If someone shoots you, and you think of karma as fate, that means you caused yourself to suffer by shooting someone in a previous life, or at least perhaps killed someone.  I've heard otherwise good monks say exactly that.  But that means your karma forced someone to commit an act of violence!  But then that person later has to pay the karmic dept of shooting someone that your karma caused....and so on for eternity. 

Do you see the circle such a wrong view causes?  There are other people in the world, and each and every one has karma, and each and every one affects you in some way.  You are not an independent self operating and being acted upon in isolation, and neither is anyone else. 

Karma is not fate, and everything that happens to you including the station and circumstances of your birth is not predetermined by past actions in this life or previous.  That is the Hindu concept of karma and one of reasons why Buddhism exists as a separate religion.  We see karma as more of a direction your chosen actions take you in.  "Those who live by the sword die by the sword." is a statement of karma.  Sure, there are plenty of warriors who die in bed of old age.  But we understand that to mean certain actions contain risks of consequences.  That's all karma is saying.
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6 years ago  ::  May 28, 2008 - 2:48PM #8
Wonderwheel
Posts: 71
[QUOTE=MatisyahuSk8er;495837]I am new to Buddhist philosphy and there is something I have always wondered about karma which I hope others can clear up for me. Does the law of karma (whatever you do comes back to you) mean that people who are suffering deserve it? I mean, do starving children in Africa deserve that life because of something they've done(most likely in a past life), isn't this a bit cruel? Can't we just accept that suffering is? And how does Zen philosophy fit in with all this, I would really like to know because Zen the most appealing aspect of Buddhism to me.

Thank you[/QUOTE]

The most important thing for beginners to karma to rid themselves of is the concept of "deserving".  Karma is not about deservning. It is about the laws of nature.  If you put your hand in a fire do you "deserve" the pain and blisters?  The Buddhist takes deserve out of the equation.  This being so, this happens. That no longer being so, that no longer happens.  There is no "deserving" or "judgement" or "reward or punishment" in the equation. 

In other words, it it the judgemental factors in our deeds, words and thought that create the karmic effects.  To approach karmic effects as "desserts" to be deserved or not is to have a judgemental thought that itself creates more karma. 

For example, if we look at a poor person and say "he deserved it due to his past karma" then that attitude is an abuse of karma that becomes our karma in this moment and plants the seed for our own future poverty to experience that which we hadno compassion for or with. The crucial point was the moment when we lost empathy and compassion in viewing the condition of another and we bought into the thought "he deserved it" which has nothing to do with karma. "Deserved" is a word in the lexicon of judgements and karma itself is not driven by judgements being nothing more than a law of nature.

In other words, karma is the nonjudgemental law of how judgements create their own consequences. So if we make judgements about others and their circumstances then we are creating that karma in the very moment we are being judgemental. But the karma effects are not judgemental and not reward or punishment.

Getting out of the "good and evil", "reward and punishment" mindset is an important step in Buddhism.  That step also has its misunderstandings but for now it is enough to know that karma is cause and effect without judgements or a divine personage handing out rewards or punishment.
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6 years ago  ::  May 28, 2008 - 3:19PM #9
Wonderwheel
Posts: 71
[QUOTE=Cinorjer;505287]I illustrate this by recounting an article I once read about Thailand's sex industry, and an interview with a 12 year old girl sold into prostitution by her parents who said, "I must have been very bad in my previous life to suffer so much in this one."  That's wrong, wrong, wrong!  I wanted to take her in my arms and tell her, "You did nothing to deserve this.  You are suffering because ther are people in the world with sick minds who pay to take advantage of a little girl!"
.[/QUOTE]

Yet there is truth on both sides because all sides contain a bit of truth. To see that all sides contain some truth is a way to see that right and wrong, good and evil are not absolute categories of human life.  Yes, the little girl probably had some karma involved in her circumstances.  She also creates karma by how she deals with those circumstances.  And every person who comes in contact with her creates karma in how they relate to her. 

Saying she must have been "very bad" is how the parents taught her to grasp a concept that ends up creating more continuing karma.  Our karma is intimately associated with our identity.  It is our identity in the broadest sense of the word, as it includes everything about us and our self-image, that is the shape of our karma.  The parents who use karma as a rationalization or justification for infliciting suffering on their child are abusing the concept of karma as well as abusing their child.  At some point the little girl becomes responsible for how she thinks about her life and what she does about it. 

Most of us live in the prison of our self-identity accomodated to our suffering rather than seek the way out. And it is very sad to see karma made a part of the prison decorations rather than the teaching it is intended to be as a pointer to freedom.

_/|\_
Gregory
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6 years ago  ::  May 28, 2008 - 2:48PM #10
Wonderwheel
Posts: 71
[QUOTE=MatisyahuSk8er;495837]I am new to Buddhist philosphy and there is something I have always wondered about karma which I hope others can clear up for me. Does the law of karma (whatever you do comes back to you) mean that people who are suffering deserve it? I mean, do starving children in Africa deserve that life because of something they've done(most likely in a past life), isn't this a bit cruel? Can't we just accept that suffering is? And how does Zen philosophy fit in with all this, I would really like to know because Zen the most appealing aspect of Buddhism to me.

Thank you[/QUOTE]

The most important thing for beginners to karma to rid themselves of is the concept of "deserving".  Karma is not about deservning. It is about the laws of nature.  If you put your hand in a fire do you "deserve" the pain and blisters?  The Buddhist takes deserve out of the equation.  This being so, this happens. That no longer being so, that no longer happens.  There is no "deserving" or "judgement" or "reward or punishment" in the equation. 

In other words, it it the judgemental factors in our deeds, words and thought that create the karmic effects.  To approach karmic effects as "desserts" to be deserved or not is to have a judgemental thought that itself creates more karma. 

For example, if we look at a poor person and say "he deserved it due to his past karma" then that attitude is an abuse of karma that becomes our karma in this moment and plants the seed for our own future poverty to experience that which we hadno compassion for or with. The crucial point was the moment when we lost empathy and compassion in viewing the condition of another and we bought into the thought "he deserved it" which has nothing to do with karma. "Deserved" is a word in the lexicon of judgements and karma itself is not driven by judgements being nothing more than a law of nature.

In other words, karma is the nonjudgemental law of how judgements create their own consequences. So if we make judgements about others and their circumstances then we are creating that karma in the very moment we are being judgemental. But the karma effects are not judgemental and not reward or punishment.

Getting out of the "good and evil", "reward and punishment" mindset is an important step in Buddhism.  That step also has its misunderstandings but for now it is enough to know that karma is cause and effect without judgements or a divine personage handing out rewards or punishment.
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