Karma and Christian Providence. Misunderstandings about karma in the West.

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  • YuimaSLC
    • Aug 2012
    • 93

    Karma and Christian Providence. Misunderstandings about karma in the West.

    Good day Dharma friends,

    Some people speak of “good” karma much like other’s speak of providence, or rewards of good-works. But I sometimes wonder if karma is somewhat like thermodynamics,
    by implying that so-called “bad” karma (and I wince to use such a judgmental word)
    is like heat, and karma which is neutral or having no-recourse is like cold....which in
    thermodynamics is actually the absence of heat. Thus, there is karma that is some kind of energy/seed that needs to be worked out; and there is no-karma. This is very, very different than Christian providence.
    (maybe even Judaic....thinking that the story of Job is about faith, obedience and providence)

    I was thinking of an acquaintance of mine recently. He has been an ardent, practicing buddhist (and teacher of same) for decades, and many years ago gave up a career in the medical/pharmaceutical business to take up the environmental cause of restoration of wildlife (particularly song birds) in the impacted urban/suburban regions of Utah. Leave it to say, a non-profit community group provided him a modest income, but no security. (ahh, the wisdom of insecurity)

    Way back then, his change in career lead to a divorce. It didn’t cause the divorce but was indicative of many changes in his life at that time. Later he remarried, and he and his spouse were loved, noteworthy figures in the local environmental and buddhist communities.

    A few years ago, the spouse inherited a more-than-modest estate from her parents, and then sadly, she died of cancer just over a year ago. He, coming to retirement age was still not showing much materially/economically for his right livelihood/efforts (no retirement plan in the NPO). But, he was fortunate inasmuch as he was able to retire from the inheritance of his spouse’s estate. Neither were directly responsible for the creation of this financial resource, but nonetheless “blessed” to be recipients.

    One might say that the untiring, compassionate efforts resulted in today’s modern cultural axiom of “what goes around, comes around” although that was never his motivation.

    But, such a scenario does invite us to reflect on whether we (and maybe particularly western-culture human beings) equate terms of karma and christian providence too closely.

    If you look at an original definition of providence, it implies a very marginal divine assistance (God provided them just enough to survive the harsh winter); whereas modern culture has morphed it into abundant divine assistance.

    But karma doesn’t seem to be this way. And I often see karma as “seeds” coming from the fruits of previous thoughts, beliefs, words and actions; that sprout under right conditions. But, admittedly it implies something coming to fruition requiring release/purifying, letting go; otherwise, conditions are content to produce new seeds. That suggests a more “negative” aspect of karma. Is your first thought, upon hearing "You reap what you sew" some negatively tinged?

    And “good” karma is like no-karma.....no baggage....no trace.

    Other TreeLeafer’s thoughts?

    Should karma ever be seen as other than energy/seed that manifests under an appropriate condition, resulting in fruition ?

    I know we’ve touched on karma in previous strings. I suppose I am interested to know if y’all have a knee-jerk reaction to beliefs in providence (or the lack of it....as some of you have shared some rather difficult stories lately) and how you attempt to “see” or “live” within karma in your ordinary and extraordinary experiences.

  • Kokuu
    Treeleaf Priest
    • Nov 2012
    • 6791

    Hi Richard

    Interesting thoughts but I must admit I don't tend to think about karma much. Just as in practice, my only job is to turn up and sit, so I tend to think in life my sole concern is with my thoughts, words and deeds. What arises from that or comes from past actions I don't worry about and leave the workings of karma to philosophers. I know all kinds of people who have been left a decent inheritance so can't see that is a just reward for any more than having a rich parent, uncle or spouse.

    Often I think that people don't like dwelling in the mystery of life and Hindu and Buddhist notions of karma fill in an explanatory void similar to Christian providence and 'God's will'. Threads of causation are so intertwined, though, that the outcome of actions is often unpredictable and out of our hands. My own approach is to act well and let the results take care of themselves.



    • Jundo
      Treeleaf Founder and Priest
      • Apr 2006
      • 39472

      Hi Richard,

      The question is too abstract for me.

      Traditionally, Buddhist views on Karma pointed to something quite mechanical: Good and bad results in this or future lives were partly the result of volitional good and bad actions (respectively) in this and\or past lives. I say "partly", because the Buddha seems to have described other, non-Karmic factors too, such as chance, environmental and social factors and the like. I would say that Karma is a kind of "providence", except that the system may not have been tied to a creator and was simply a natural fact.

      Whether such a system actually exists in such a literal fashion accounting for why events happen in people's lives, I cannot say. It is certainly one possible explanation (among others such as "God's will or secret plan" "the ways of nature" or "just bad luck") to explain such perpetual questions as "why bad things happen to good people" or why one child is born poor in Africa while another is born wealthy in Beverly Hills.

      But beyond that ... your question is too abstract I feel. I am afraid that the most anyone could offer by way of comment has to be a kind of speculation and "wheel spinning".

      Gassho, J
      Last edited by Jundo; 06-15-2013, 05:11 PM.


      • Tb
        • Jan 2008
        • 3186


        in my limited view, you are not asking about karma, action, but the fruits of it, phala, and even then, what is good or bad but a viewpoint?
        For example, maybe not a subtle one, but, horsemanure is a very good fertilizer but it may not be so good when baking cakes..

        But yes, i believe a good guestion is spawning here, might you elaborate a bit as to further it?

        thank you for your practice.

        Life is our temple and its all good practice
        Blog: http://fugenblog.blogspot.com/


        • MyoHo
          • Feb 2013
          • 632

          Karma. Always an interesting topic!

          Seems to me, as soon as we start talking karma, ego comes around the corner closely chased by samsara and “gate”. When does poverty start? When we look at past present and future and decide we want more. When does suffering start? When ego-we lose sight of all that IS given to us, think of past, present and future and start asking “Why me?”. Not to mention wishing someone else a part of the old comes around goes around karma. And that is where things get sticky I think. That is all about not accepting life the way it is. The urge to fight for something that ego-we think should come sooner or later. Because ego-we think we or someone else earned what’s coming to us or them.

          How could we determine if a curse came disguised as a blessing or a blessing disguised as a curse? Seems to me the only answer is time. Time and karma are always connected in that way it seems and this leads to our limitation to fathom karma. When we say there is no real time only our concept of time, only events placed on a timeline to determine past, present and future, it holds both the problem and the answer. Very little good or bad karma in the “right now” don’t you agree?

          So that’s my “spin at the wheel”? I guess in the end I’m with Karasu on this one.

          Deep bows



          • Myosha
            • Mar 2013
            • 2974


            Karma is action. The universe law of 'cause and effect' is a fair substitute for "providence".

            "Recognize suffering, remove suffering." - Shakyamuni Buddha when asked, "Uhm . . .what?"


            • YuimaSLC
              • Aug 2012
              • 93

              Thank you for the replies thus far. I hate dipping over into the theorhetical...and this does have something to do with present, personal experience.

              I tend not to think of karma as "payback" or "paid up". In modern culture it is one of those words that is sorely abused, because it is referred to, often lightly, as those very things: payback and paid up.

              And, I don't like mentioning it much. I may be "stingy" about sharing thoughts on the dharma in this case and therefore would like to bring it up to all of you.

              And perhaps the reason why I bring it up now is that energies, something I'll currently call karma, have been quite involved in my practice....especially when sitting, but also at times in active-zen/mindfulness.

              I am 60 now and it's been noteworthy to sit shikantaza with recurring psycho/emotive reflections that go back some 40-45 years. Psychologically, they might be unresolved tensions which when nurtured or somehow "fertilized" under the right conditions, start to manifest, like seeds sprouting. If one gets caught-up (and beat up) in these reflections, then we go from sprout to plant to bearing new fruits. If we just watch them, then like waves, they arise and return to the source. I suppose in some way they might be cleansed, purified, dissipated....don't quite know the words, but as Rev. Taigu will occasionally simply say, "poof". But, poof doesn't mean gone-for-good.

              Part of self wants to get all sad and sentimental about it, or replay it with a "fix it" mentality....like wishing to rewrite the story. But, after recognizing those mental functions, I come back to just sitting, seeing clouds in blue sky that seem remotely familiar, and flows of emotion that seem hopelessly immaterial/irrelevant (that is, sitting with those reactions, too)

              Karma is an interesting concept when asking if it is benevolent (whether good or bad....it might be meant to teach, or provide another change to work-it-out); or malevolent or neutral.
              But, perhaps karma is like nature..... to the perceiver, it can be any one of those things, but only so because "thinking makes it so." Nature is...naturing. It nurtures, it kills, it creates, it destroys.
              And yet, all those descriptors themselves seem to be flavored with judgement.

              What we know of the past are currently held fragments, like mental collections. Think back to some event when you were eight. It can be positive, negative or neutral. You think you know it, like it's some earlier footage of a film.....the past is just over there on that other reel. But what you find is that the memory is quite sketchy: usually some emotions, a sense of the players, the props, etc.
              But honestly quite vague. And it's only your self's interpretation of what really happened. So, original perspective with just fragments remaining. And yet, emotively....those pieces can be rather
              powerful at times. Wow! The past (that is, our psycho/emotive sense of it) really does have quite a role to play in providing a definition (though a false one) of who we are, and what we ought to be thinking or feeling.

              To me, it's all like seeds. When conditions ripen, they manifest.

              Is there a purpose or value to examining? Or should we just recognize the subtle, momentariness of them and "poof" they go. (this doesn't, however, guarantee that some recurrence of similar seeds when happen later that day, tomorrow or the next day.)

              So, I am wondering if much of this is making sense to you? Do you experience and sit through such phenomenon? At this point, I feel that identifying with these perceptions/mental phenomenon can be a bit dangerous if one gets caught up in identifying them....as "me".




              • Eika
                • Sep 2007
                • 806

                To the extent that the idea of karma keeps us from attributing events to being determined by a supreme being or divine plan, I think it is a helpful concept. When it causes us to attribute labels of "good" and "bad" to actions and the fruits of actions, I'm not so sure it isn't a distracting concept. If it causes me to venture into speculation about big "whys" ( why is the world the way it is? why did this happen to me? What did he do to end up like that?), I see that as being beyond the veil that, despite our hubris, is always unknowable with any certainty.



                Sent from tapatalk
                [size=150:m8cet5u6]??[/size:m8cet5u6] We are involved in a life that passes understanding and our highest business is our daily life---John Cage


                • Kokuu
                  Treeleaf Priest
                  • Nov 2012
                  • 6791


                  I understand more what you are referring to now so thank you for expanding on your thoughts.

                  This notion of karma arising through returning thinking I tend to think of as habitual patterns. We can see from our own experience and, more recently, neuroscience, that the more we think about something in a certain way, the more we strengthen that view. Shikantaza, while useless, seems to let those patterns fall apart a little and become subject to scrutiny.

                  So, in answer, yes I think that our past experience and ways of looking at life definitely feed into how we are now. As an old saying goes 'those who do not learn from history are condemned to repeat it'.

                  Thank you for having the mettle to address such a difficult topic as karma.



                  • Daitetsu
                    • Oct 2012
                    • 1145

                    For me personally, Karma is pretty much like cause and effect. The effect does not necessarily come right away.
                    Just one example: I might treat another person like shit, and when I meet him three years later he might be in a position in which he can get back to me if he wishes to.

                    Now a very big BUT:
                    Even if there is something like Karma, that does not mean that everything that happens to us can be attributed to our own behaviour. There are still things like coincidence, accidents and (bad) luck...
                    Thinking that everything that happens to us is a result of our doing might become a trap, where we could say about someone in need "He probably deserved it, must be his karma."

                    So again, there is something like karma, but not everything can be attributed to it IMHO.


                    no thing needs to be added


                    • YuimaSLC
                      • Aug 2012
                      • 93

                      Thanks to all these contributions.