Sunday, August 16, 2009

Parsing kamma

I was born a white male in a middle class family with five other children in a relatively affluent community in the United States where the residents believed in an exceptional school system. I am also gay. Is all this the result of kamma? And if it is, what portions of the above could be interpreted to be the fruits of skillfulness, and what portions would be the fruits of unskillfulness?

There are a lot of different ways people talk about kamma, some skillful and many not so skillful. But even among the skillful discussions, people can appear to be saying something different, as was pointed out in a post a month ago at Dharma Folk. That’s unsurprising because kamma is a sin quo non of Buddhism. Because it is so critical to the doctrine, it invites impassioned discussion. We recognize its importance, and we want to understand how it works. Yet this essential concept to the Buddha’s doctrine cannot be so easily explained, despite the efforts of many to do so.

I am not about to try to provide a definitive description of kamma and how it works. I am, however, going to share some thoughts about how I’ve digested these divergent descriptions. And rightly or wrongly, one of my conclusions is that when you have a discussion about a concept that is critical to attaining the unbinding, and that discussion is carried out among unenlightened people, you will get some pretty bogus assertions mixed in with the insightful ones.

Let’s identify a starting point. In his book “Refuge,” Thannisaro Bikkhu writes in the section about kamma the following:

“Put briefly, it states that action is real, effective, and the result of one’s own choice. If one chooses to act skillfully and works to develop that skill, one’s actions can lead to happiness, not only on the ordinary sensory level, but also on a level that transcends all the dimensions of time and the present.”

OK, kamma is not just action, but it’s intentional action. So if I’m driving down the road and a rabbit darts out in front of my car and I run over it, killing it, there is no kamma involved, right? (except for maybe the rabbit’s) After all, I did not get into my car with the intention of killing a rabbit, right? The rabbit ran into the path of my car so suddenly I could not stop or swerve. I never saw the rabbit coming.

What if we substitute the word “child” for “rabbit”? There would be plenty of consequences facing me, including legal and financial ones, even though when I got into my car I had no intention of killing a child.

Thannisaro Bikkhu didn’t just say kamma was intentional action, he also included the descriptive word skillful. And if I am inattentive while driving, I could strike and kill a child. But if I am not making the intentional decision to remain attentive, if I am carelessly being inattentive without thought, does that mean I de facto intended to be a threat to that child?

You can see how this notion of kamma gets all tied up in knots the more we try to rationalize and explain it. And along the way, we often attach value judgments to the idea of kamma as well, going so far as to differentiate between “good kamma” and “bad kamma.”

Look at my opening paragraph. Was the fact that I was born white in a middle class family that valued education the fruits of my good kamma? Am I better off than being born among a small tribe of indigenous people in the jungle of Brazil into a family of prominence within that local society, to be given skillful instruction on how to be an effective leader of my klan? Was my kamma good and the Brazilian baby’s less good? There are too many people who would say that me being born white was the fruit of good kamma, while someone born in a black middle class family might be viewed as having to “work through” his or her kamma accumulated in past lives.

The idea that we have to work through our accumulated kamma is not a bogus one; consider the Lonaphala Sutta: The Salt Crystal as a reference (AN 3.99). But I’m wondering if this desire, particularly among Western Buddhists (at least that’s been my observation) to qualify kamma, casting it not only as the consequences of action, but as being negative or positive in nature, is actually a hindrance to anyone really grasping the Buddha’s words, as well as a hindrance to attracting others to his doctrine of truth. It appears to me to be a carryover from the Judeo-Christian hegemony. And this is particularly true when it comes to homosexuality.

In the discussion about sexuality at Dhamma Spread, the author perpetuates the idea that being homosexual is a consequence of one’s kamma; given the way society at large tends to perceive “difference,” this consequence is most often perceived as a negative one. But the author does make what I believe to be a very significant distinction: “Thus, in the end it is not about being homosexual, lesbian, or heterosexual, it is about how you deal with the mind, and how you respect and look after the mind.”

So much of the discussion about homosexuality gets trapped within a narrow and self-serving interpretation of the Third Precept. And it also gets inappropriately colored with references to the Vinaya, the monastic code. What people fail to realize is that the Vinaya addresses very specific behaviors and outlines consequences for these behaviors – some of which are homosexual in nature, and some of which are heterosexual in nature – with the goal being the maintenance of order within the sangha: it’s about action, not about nature. Outside of the Vinaya, the issue of sexuality is barely addressed at all, and when it is, the discussion is focused on whether the intention behind the action is skillful or unskillful.

So am I suffering the consequences of the kamma I’ve accumulated in past lives by being born gay?

Not any more or less so than are my straight brethren suffering the consequences of their kamma for the conditions of their birth.

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