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    The Gaze of the Abyss B. de Corbin's Avatar
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    Questions about "karma" and/or other concepts in Buddhism

    I'm learning a lot about Buddhism, what with being a Buddhist and all.

    As I learn I've found that a lot of what I though I knew about Buddhism was mistaken because (often) of mistaken understanding of terminology - for example, "karma" probably isn't what you think it is...

    In order to help me make sense of what I'm learning, I would be grateful if you could ask me questions about "What do Buddhists mean when they say...?" That would give me the operatunafish to try to articulate a coherent response.
    Every moment of a life is a horrible tragedy, a slapstick comedy, dark nihilism, golden illumination, or nothing at all; depending on how we write the story we tell ourselves.

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    PF Ordo Hereticus MaskedOne's Avatar
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    Re: Questions about "karma" and/or other concepts in Buddhism

    Let's go with the low hanging fruit. Can you give us a quick overview of what Karma is?
    "It is not simply enough to know the light…a Jedi must feel the tension between the two sides of the Force…in himself and in the universe."
    ―Thon

    "When to the Force you truly give yourself, all you do expresses the truth of who you are,"

    Yoda

    Yoda told stories, and ate, and cried, and laughed: and the Padawans saw that life itself was a lightsaber in his hands; even in the face of treachery and death and hopes gone cold, he burned like a candle in the darkness. Like a star shining in the black eternity of space.

    Yoda: Dark Rendezvous

    "But those men who know anything at all about the Light also know that there is a fierceness to its power, like the bare sword of the law, or the white burning of the sun." Suddenly his voice sounded to Will very strong, and very Welsh. "At the very heart, that is. Other things, like humanity, and mercy, and charity, that most good men hold more precious than all else, they do not come first for the Light. Oh, sometimes they are there; often, indeed. But in the very long run the concern of you people is with the absolute good, ahead of all else..."

    John Rowlands, The Grey King by Susan Cooper

    "You come from the Lord Adam and the Lady Eve", said Aslan. "And that is both honour enough to erect the head of the poorest beggar, and shame enough to bow the shoulders of the greatest emperor on earth; be content."

    Aslan, Prince Caspian by CS Lewis



  3. #3
    The Gaze of the Abyss B. de Corbin's Avatar
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    Re: Questions about "karma" and/or other concepts in Buddhism

    Quote Originally Posted by MaskedOne View Post
    Let's go with the low hanging fruit. Can you give us a quick overview of what Karma is?
    Part 1

    LOl - I put the fruit basket on the low branch because "karma" is a pretty interesting study in the difference between a magical explanation, and a reality-based (scienticic) explanation. I think I need to explain...

    If you ask "Why does a rock fall to earth when you drop it?" and the answer you get is "Gravity pulls it toward the center of the earth," you will have been given a magical explanation. The magic is that a power (called "gravity") reaches out, grrabs hold of thngs, and pulls on them. We call this a "scientific explanation," but without further explanation (what is gravity? How does it work? If I can answer these two questions, how can I USE that information?) there is no science, just woo woo.

    Most people are happy with the woo woo. Some people can explain how gravity is formed by the deformation of space-time by mass. A few others can provde the understanding of this phenomenon that allows a space mission to arrive at a planet millions of miles away. And a very few others are working to discover how mass deforms space time... This is the science of the thing. Understanding how it works, in enough detail to serve a purpose.

    The same is true with Karma.

    So, to explain karma - even a simplified version - I actualy have to answer three questions:

    1. What iss the basic idea behind karma (if I stop here, I've teaching woo woo. I don't do that, though, so...)
    2. How does it work? (If I can't explain this, again, it's woo woo)
    3. Why does it matter in Buddhism? (i.e.: what is the practicle application of this knowedge?)
    Every moment of a life is a horrible tragedy, a slapstick comedy, dark nihilism, golden illumination, or nothing at all; depending on how we write the story we tell ourselves.

  4. #4
    The Gaze of the Abyss B. de Corbin's Avatar
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    Re: Questions about "karma" and/or other concepts in Buddhism

    Part 2: The basic idea of karma

    If you ask the average person "What is karma?" you will most likely get the magical explanation - something like "Karma is the principle that what you do - the good or the bad - comes back to you, or, explained another way, what you do/don't do becomes your karma, and you either pay for it, or benefit frome it, or you recieve a mixture of karmic bills and bennies.

    Whhile this explanation is basicly correct it is also a magical expllanation because it proposes an unexplained force (called "karma") that creates some sort of cosmic accounting service keeping track of what you do and issuing rewards/punishments based on actions.

    I don't care for woo woo, and neither do Buddhist thinkers. These Buddhist thinkers are scientists. The want to know how karma works, and so do I.

    In order to explain "How does it work?" I have to start by asking you to rethink your basic understanding of karma - rather than thinking of karma as a cosmic balancing principle, start thinking of karma a the psycho-physical-historical matrix in which each sentient being is embedded.

    In other words, while karma does (somewhat) reward and punish, it isn't a thing that happens outside of the individual, it is a fundimental principle derrived from acknowledging that all sentient beings are embedded in a reality based on cause and effect relationships which began long before they were born, and which will continue long after the sentient entity is dead and gone.

    In short - the best non-woo woo way to understand karma is that the term "Karma" is shorthand for "the long chain of cause and effect relationshis which began with the beginning of the universe leading to you as you are RIGHT NOW, and that you are a part of that chain of cause-effect relationships, and that your actions will continue to reverberate in this system.

    If you understand that idea, you can simplify the idea of karma even further to something like this: People are the victims and beneficiaries of the context in which they live.

    While I can provide real world examples to support this idea, the concept of cause and effect relationships (spread out through long history) in affecing the quality of life of each individual is so basic to our understanding of the historical, social, psychological, and physical make up of all of us that arguing against it would require arguing against cause-effect relationships.

    That would be anti-science.

    Karma, correctly understood, isn't woo woo. It is science. Arguing against karma is anti-science = woo woo.

    So, we've arrived at the point where "Karma" is a term that means "cause and effect relationships."

    No magic, no mystical weirdness, no woo woo. Just the simple fundamental principle that is the basis of all science.

    The next question is "How does it work?" Since I've turned karma into cause and effect relationshps, it would seem that this question is easy to answer. We all know how cause/effect works... A bumps into B, which bumps into C and D, which bump into E, F, G, etc.

    But Buddhist scientists wanted a far more detailed explantion of how these relationships work in terms of creating each individual's perception of reality. And even more importantly, how do these cause/effect relationships lead to the MISperception of reality - in Buddhist terms, this misperception is called "illusion."

    In Buddhism, the suffering that is an inherent part of life is caused when one fails to accept what "is really there" (believes the illusion; see the Four Noble Truths that provide the rationale for Buddhism). Therefore, the Buddhist scientists needed to look closely at EXACTLY how present perceptions are affected by karma, because karma frequently causes misperceptions.

    To take the deep dive into "How does it work?" I'll have to get into some very deep Buddhism. Let me introduce you the Abhidharma... after I rest. The Abhidharma is... extraordinarily detailed and highly complex...
    Every moment of a life is a horrible tragedy, a slapstick comedy, dark nihilism, golden illumination, or nothing at all; depending on how we write the story we tell ourselves.

  5. #5
    The Gaze of the Abyss B. de Corbin's Avatar
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    Re: Questions about "karma" and/or other concepts in Buddhism

    Part 3 - How does Karma work?

    I have avoided giving sources for the information I presented previously because if you do a search for "Karma Buddhism" you'll find that what I've said is pretty much accepted by Buddhists. However, for this part, I will give a source: The Abhidharma. I want to cite this because Buddhist teaching is divided into three groups (referred to as "baskets"). These baskets are: 1. Vinaya: Rules aand procedures for Buddhist communities (this basket will vary depending on the specific Buddhist group using it), Sutras: the collected teachings of Buddha (similar for all groups, but varies slightly depending on a specific group), and Abhidharma: The expanded explanation of Buddhist principles (an analogy for this might be the "source code" of Buddhism).

    The Abhidharma was composed post-Buddha by Buddhist scientists, and most Buddhists won't spend any time studying this because understanding how a thing works isn't generally necessary in using a thing - kind of like "I only have a vague idea of how this computer works, but I can make it work without knowing that."

    However, if you want to know how it works, the Buddhists got your back with The Abhidharm (p.s.: The Abhidharma is a highly detailed look at human perceptions. I read one estimate that the complete Abhidharma is roughly 80,000 pages. I'm not an expert on this - I'm only on about page 40 of a introducory text).

    The Abhidhrma describes a 17 step process that occures when a full act of perception takes palce - called "Complete Eye-Door Process." This entire process takes place in a tiny fraction of a second...

    Steps 1-4 all take place before you are consciously aware that you are beginning to percieve something.
    Steps 5-7 take in the object and recognize or define it.
    Steps 8-14 are all one thing repeated 7 times. The things are called "javanas," which translates to something like "running swiftly." You can think of these as a feedback loop, or mental reverberations, possibly neurons firing (? although the Buddhist scientists didn't tie any of this into brain physiology. The were interested in the process, not the mechanics) where the object of your perceptions connect to past memories and experiences, leading to your thoughts/feelings/beliefs about the present perception.
    Steps 15-17 are the meaning you attach to a perception, and how that creates a mental formation.

    According to the Abhidharma, it is steps 9-17 that create future Karma, while steps 1-8 are the result of past karma.

    So- the upshot of all this is that Karma is created when your present perceptions are affected or influeced by your past, already processed, perceptions.

    If all that confuses you, forget it - the idea here is that EVERY SINGLE PERCEPTION that every sentient being has is colored/flavored/intertwined with previously experienced and processed experiences. And, if that is true, then nobody can actually have a pure uncolored/unflavored/unintertwined perception of anything. In Buddhist terms, this results in percieving illusion (illusion is misunderstanding what you percieve - due to the coloring of Karma, not the idea that we experience some kind of not real hallucination).

    There is nothing particularly weird, illogical, or mystical about this - it should be self-evident. My perception of a dog is dependent on my previous experiences with dogs (including things I have seen in movies or cute videos on the internet). My perception of a hammer is based on all my previous experiences with hammers (inclding true crime stories where a person is killed with a claw hammer).

    In part 4 I will try to eplain why this matters in Buddhism.






    p.s.: how am I doing with the quick overiew thing?
    Last edited by B. de Corbin; 17 Sep 2021 at 11:44.
    Every moment of a life is a horrible tragedy, a slapstick comedy, dark nihilism, golden illumination, or nothing at all; depending on how we write the story we tell ourselves.

  6. #6
    PF Ordo Hereticus MaskedOne's Avatar
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    Re: Questions about "karma" and/or other concepts in Buddhism

    Quote Originally Posted by B. de Corbin View Post
    p.s.: how am I doing with the quick overiew thing?
    Three posts is a lot less then 80k pages and I'm mostly entertained so profit?
    It's 1 AM so I don't have much that's coherent and useful to say but this has been interesting.
    "It is not simply enough to know the light…a Jedi must feel the tension between the two sides of the Force…in himself and in the universe."
    ―Thon

    "When to the Force you truly give yourself, all you do expresses the truth of who you are,"

    Yoda

    Yoda told stories, and ate, and cried, and laughed: and the Padawans saw that life itself was a lightsaber in his hands; even in the face of treachery and death and hopes gone cold, he burned like a candle in the darkness. Like a star shining in the black eternity of space.

    Yoda: Dark Rendezvous

    "But those men who know anything at all about the Light also know that there is a fierceness to its power, like the bare sword of the law, or the white burning of the sun." Suddenly his voice sounded to Will very strong, and very Welsh. "At the very heart, that is. Other things, like humanity, and mercy, and charity, that most good men hold more precious than all else, they do not come first for the Light. Oh, sometimes they are there; often, indeed. But in the very long run the concern of you people is with the absolute good, ahead of all else..."

    John Rowlands, The Grey King by Susan Cooper

    "You come from the Lord Adam and the Lady Eve", said Aslan. "And that is both honour enough to erect the head of the poorest beggar, and shame enough to bow the shoulders of the greatest emperor on earth; be content."

    Aslan, Prince Caspian by CS Lewis



  7. #7
    The Gaze of the Abyss B. de Corbin's Avatar
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    Re: Questions about "karma" and/or other concepts in Buddhism

    I pick up my repaired computer today, so I'll be able to finish this soon.

    In the meantime, this video echoes the Abhidharma (you'll see the connection most clearly in the bit right before the title sequence comes up:

    Every moment of a life is a horrible tragedy, a slapstick comedy, dark nihilism, golden illumination, or nothing at all; depending on how we write the story we tell ourselves.

  8. #8
    The Gaze of the Abyss B. de Corbin's Avatar
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    Re: Questions about "karma" and/or other concepts in Buddhism

    Well, it’s time to wrap this up. I see that numerous bots have scanned these pages and I don’t want a bunch of bots to run off with an incomplete understanding of karma in Buddhism. Sorry to take so long to get back to this, but I have has a series of adventures of distinctly odd character. I’ll maybe tell about them later, but, in the mean time, off I go...

    First, I have to admit that I lied a little bit earlier when I described “Karma” as cause-effect relationships. The truth is that Karma is a subset of all the cause and effect relationships that tie all things and all times together.

    So – imagine the lie I told; that karma is ALL cause and effect relationships. Personally, I visualize an infinite sphere in which every point is connected to every other point (both in time and in space), not necessarily directly, but eventually by branching and reaching through other connections (you might visualize the internet or some other linked network).

    But the word “karma” translates to something like “action.” This changes things in a profoundly philosophical way.

    “Action,” as used here, includes the idea of “intentionality” - a choice, as in “I pick one of these choices.” So, from that big mess of interconnected cause-effect relationships, remove EVERY cause-effect relationship that DOES NOT involve the individual actor making a choice.

    Since only sentient beings can make choices, karma does not apply to not-sentient things, even though they, too, are part of all cause-effect relationships.

    Here's the practical effect of this:

    In 2011 a tsunami struck Japan, killing about 20,000 people. The tsunami was the result of cause-effect relationships (shifting tectonic plates >undersea earthquake>displaced water>big wave) but there was no “choice” involved, therefore, the tsunami was not the result of karma. Not only that, but those people who were killed – although all of them made choices that ultimately led to them being there at the right time to die – did not die as a result of their karma because there was absolutely no way they could have known a tsunami was coming, and, therefore, could not have made a choice that would have prevented their death.

    Sometimes really bad shit just happens, and it isn’t always karma. For fun, you can try out different scenarios to determine whether karma applies; if I join the military, I know I may have to kill or die, so future killing or death will be the result of my choice (karma). On the other hand, if I am living in a country that is suddenly overrun with civil war, and I am killed, it was not a result of my karma to die. I just got screwed royally. Have fun with this. A Buddhist calls this activity “meditating on karma.”

    (Note: People sometimes say “that was his (or her) karma,” which doesn’t make sense when one understands that karma means action. The correct formulation is “that is the result of his (or her) karma.” Also, in Buddhism, the result of karma is neither good nor bad. I is described more correctly as "wholesome," "unwholesome," a mixture, or karmically inert).

    OK, so now we’ve cut out a big chunk of cause/effect relationships (c/e) – not because they are irrelevant (they can have massive impacts, like a civil war), but because they are not included in the definition of “karma.”

    Now, to think like a Buddhist, you need to cut out one more, massive, massive chunk of c/e connections.

    For me, it’s easiest to understand the awesomeness of this concept if I visualize it. I imagine myself in an unbounded space (very sciencefiction- y). We’ll call this place “everything and everywhen.” Face in a direction and imagine seeing all those cause/effect relationships, minus the inanimate connections that led to now.
    Now, turn around. In this direction, which are the karma branches of the future …

    … a Buddhist sees nothing. Because there is no karma in the future.

    And, if the Buddhist looks down at that impossibly tiny spot in which the Buddhist, and all other sentient beings always, only, and constantly exist – the present – that being will notice that the result of karma is (remember that this is a visual metaphor of the idea, and not to be taken as a literal description of what is happening) constantly extruded into the past.

    Ergo, since the past can’t be altered, and the future doesn’t yet exist, any possibility of affecting your own karma has to be done in the one place where you are and that something can happen, the present.



    However, this would not be true if you were a Hindu (more correctly, I guess, is the term Sanatana Dharma, which means something like “aways, forever, everywhere”).

    In the Ghitta, Krishna, after describing the Dharma and eventually explaining that this supports a caste system where everybody knows their place and the role they are born to live out, tells Arjuna:

    In thy thoughts
    Do all thou dost for Me! Renounce for Me!
    Sacrifice heart and mind and will to Me!
    Live in faith of Me! In faith of Me
    All dangers thou shalt vanquish, by My grace;
    But, trustng to thyself and heeding not,
    Thou canst but perish! If this day thou say’st,
    Relying on thyself, “I will not fight!”
    Vain will the purpose prove! Thy qualities
    Would spur thee to the war...

    In my Redneck Buddhist dialect , Buddha responds “Sorry, but nope. There’s a backdoor out of this, and I know where to find it.” *






    *By the way, this is why asking questions like “Did Buddha believe in God(s)?” are ultimately pointless - The correct response is:

    If

    Buddha is correct and there is an exit from unalterable karma

    and God(s) exist

    Then

    the God(s) are lying about no way out,

    or Buddha found a back door they don’t know about.


    The other possibility is if God(s) do not exist, and Buddha is correct, then the backdoor exit is still there...
    Every moment of a life is a horrible tragedy, a slapstick comedy, dark nihilism, golden illumination, or nothing at all; depending on how we write the story we tell ourselves.

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