Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Durrian and potatoes and simsapa leaves

There is a lively discussion over at Sweep the Dust, Push the Dirt, where John wrote an excellent post about comments made by the Dalai Lama recently at the University of Wisconsin. John notes in his post that within Buddhism, there is no concept of original sin, and he references a statement made by the Dalai Lama at Madison that our basic nature is pure rather than sinful.

This has led to a very interesting litany of comments raising the issue of original sin versus kamma; isn’t the idea of kamma similar to the concept of original sin? If Christianity posits that we are born with the burden of original sin, isn’t that parallel to the Buddha’s teaching on kamma, that our current birth condition and life is the result of our kamma, our previous actions both in the recent past and from previous lives?

I thought about leaving my own comment, but I realized my response would be far too long. Because, essentially, I believe the discussion to be frivolous. John is correct to say that there is no original sin within Buddhism; the Dalai Lama is correct to say that our basic nature is pure, that we corrupt this pure nature through our misunderstanding of how things really are.

And the comments by those who say that our current life condition is premised upon our past actions – kamma – both within this life and from earlier life times are correct as well.

But the effort to draw parallels between the two concepts of original sin and kamma is contrived and pointless, as they are not the same thing at all, nor are they even similar. It’s not that we’re talking apples and oranges here; the concepts of original sin and kamma are so fundamentally different that we might as well be talking about durrian and potatoes, and any discussion or effort to identify similarities between the two is to be concerned with the simsapa leaves up in the trees above our heads, rather than with the few leaves held within the Buddha’s hand. It is Wrong View.

First, there’s the fundamental difference between sin and kamma. A sin is an offense; to commit an offense, someone must be offended. Our vernacular reflects this with such phrases such as a “sin against nature” or a “sin against god.” Although nature is not a person, we personify it. Kamma is action and the results it brings. The crux of kamma is intent; when our intentions are turned into action either via doing or speaking, we create kamma because all action has a consequence, every cause results in an effect. The result can be either pleasant or unpleasant; there really isn’t any good or bad kamma, it’s all just kamma. That’s why the Buddha talked about liberation is achieved when we end kamma.

The effects of kamma can either be immediately manifested, or be delayed, or both immediately evident and delayed. And this is where, I believe, the discussion gets off track and people start to draw parallels between kamma and original sin. But let’s examine the concept of original sin first, because all I described above was sin.

As I recall from my catechisms, Original Sin originated with Adam and Eve. In the Garden of Eden, God gave Adam and Eve everything they needed, but He warned them not to eat the fruit from the Tree of Knowledge. Satan manipulated Eve and tricked her into eating the fruit anyway and sharing it with Adam. This annoyed the hell out of God, and so he burdened not only Adam and Eve, but all of their progeny with Original Sin. So in Christian doctrine, or at least Catholic doctrine, we are born with the burden of the original sin – the first sin – committed by Adam and Eve. It’s not even our own sin! And the only way to lift this burden is to appease god and seek his forgiveness. As a gay man, I have no chance with this transaction.

However, I am the owner of my kamma. It is not a burden laid upon me, causing me to start my life in the hole, so to speak. It just simply is. And no matter what my current state of affairs are, no matter what my previous life had been, I always have the opportunity to eliminate my kamma and liberate myself in this life time, perhaps even in this moment. It is for me to accomplish, no one else, and no one else can prevent me from accomplishing it should I see its potential – not god, not a devil, not another person, just me.

I think people become fixated on the notion that “life is suffering,” the First Noble Truth. But that is really just one way of saying it. Life contains suffering, but it’s not all suffering all the time. So to suggest that “life is suffering” is the Buddhist rendition of original sin is to miss the mark of what the First Noble Truth is really telling us. In my post on the Four Noble Truths, I simplified the first truth into the absurd statement that “life sucks.” But the reality is that life doesn’t suck, life is simply life. We tend to say it sucks because life never fully meets our expectations, or at least when it does, it’s only temporary. Hence we become disappointed because we expect permanence where none exists. Ergo, we experience dissatisfaction.

Sariputta: “Now what, friends, is the noble truth of stress? Birth is stressful, aging is stressful, death is stressful; sorrow, lamentation, pain, distress, & despair are stressful; not getting what is wanted is stressful. In short, the five clinging-aggregates are stressful.” (MN 141)

Yes, life is stressful! Birth is stressful! Right from the freaking start, life is a bloody morass of stress! But it isn’t specifically stressful for just we humans; it’s freaking stressful for all forms of life. Even plants experience stress!

This is not, however, equivalent to original sin. While we enter this world kicking and screaming and wanting to crawl back into the womb, we are nonetheless born into this world unburdened by any debt owed to some deity or higher power. Our ultimate happiness is not dependent on appeasing external forces; rather, the seeds to our happiness are already within us. We enter each lifetime fully equipped to stop the cycle on our own. Whatever burdens we carry from previous lives are our own; we made them, we can undo them.


  1. I have a few thoughts about original sin. Firstly, it is a pessemestic view and horribly so. Secondly it makes Jesus mandatory in your spiritual life. Karma does neither of these things. You are not victim to karma...karma is simply the natural law that exists. It requires no creator or creation.

    The same with the First Noble Truth. It is just a fact of life. No real extrapolation is needed.

    Now I do hear karma being used as the reason for current states. Do you have a diability? Then karma. Are you gay? Then karma. and so on and so on.

    But I don't think it is that simple. I think that sort of thinking falls right into the "wrong view" category.

    My karma is there. Seeds planted in the world that sprout in me and around me. Those seeds can be nurtured by me and then perpetuated into future generations (both my genetic prodigeny and those that happen to be around me). I need to have the will to pluck that plant and be rid of the karmic seeds.

    For some this is easy and a simple task. Others have to pull and tug for a lifetime or lifetimes (lol. "pull and tug")

    Either way, karma is a process like evolution that we put a label on in order to understand. I am beginning to think that Christian Original Sin could be a reworking of karma in theistic terms or at least another (granted a poor way) of understanding the same overall process.

    Sort of like comparing observable evolution with a creationist POV. One is a process that already is set in motion and we simply explain it and the other is a focused entity molding us poor mortals.

    Anyway, expect a larger post in the future on karma. It is simply to deep a topic to be able to tackle in just one post.

    Thanks for this!


  2. Good analysis Richard, I couldn't agree more. Kamma/karma is one of the most misunderstood concepts. Trying to compare anything in Buddhism to Christian concepts I think is a waste of time. I suppose it is only natural given our Judeo-Christian backgrounds but I can think of more productive things to focus on.

  3. @John, among the Five Remembrances is the part about kamma in which we say "I am ... related to my kamma ..." which literally means that we have the blood relations we do because of kamma, so our kamma is often tied to our parents' kamma. If I inherent a genetic defect, it is because of my kammic connections to my parents. I had a brother with Down Syndrome, born when my mother was 40. That is a risk for older women, so the fact he had DS is connected with his kamma and my mother. Kamma is not punishment, my brother didn't have DS necessarily as a punishment, but all effects have a cause, and that is what kamma is all about: cause and effect. Yes, I am gay because of my kamma, but I don't view being gay as any type of punishment.

    @David, Kamma is very misunderstood, largely I think because many people believe it to be linear, but kamma is so complex as to be influenced by loops of not only your own kamma, but the kamma of others. Which is why the best advice is to not worry on what your past kamma is or how it will manifest; instead focus on skillful action now to reduce the negative impacts of past kamma. The Buddha explained this is the simile of the salt crystal. I will look it up and post about it soon.

  4. The original sin was anal intercourse. For the exegesis, google the first scandal Adam and Eve. Then click, read, and comment. Please. Thank you.

  5. @Robert Hagedorn: The mind is a terrible thing to taste.