Karma - Knowledge and Belief

I have a confession to make. I’m really not all that much of a believer – not even when it comes to Buddhism. Oh, generally speaking, I probably still believe far more than I actually know. For instance, I believe that the sun is 93 million miles from the earth. Sure, I could do a little research and figure out how to check the veracity of such an allegation. For right now, though, I’m okay with just believing it – as long as it stays close enough to keep me warm without getting so close that it burns me up. Notwithstanding such instances of selective belief, I do try to live my life as unencumbered by it as possible; and that’s why over the course of my lifetime I’ve grown to embrace one of the major tenets of Dogen Zenji’s philosophy – namely, cultivation and verification. Zen practice for Dogen was less about belief than it was about cultivating practice and – through the actualization of practice – verifying truth.

There was a time when I really tried to be a believer. I was confirmed in my youth within the Christian faith and received communion numerous times. All the while, though, I struggled with its teachings. Ultimately, I just couldn’t accept the idea that we are born into this world for a single, fleeting existence by which we are judged as either deserving of acceptance into heaven or banishment to hell – for all of eternity, no less. Maybe such a scheme would be fair (even if not all that compassionate) if we were all born into the same set of circumstances, but we’re not. Some are born into privilege and some into poverty, some into nurturing circumstances and some into environments that communicate utter disregard for their wellbeing.  

One of the things that initially attracted me to Eastern religions – Hinduism first, and then Buddhism – was the concept of reincarnation. Reincarnation seemed to me at the time to be a much more equitable metaphysical reality – one that I would expect would be born of the mind of a just and loving God. Reincarnation allows us to learn from our mistakes, to grow towards greater wisdom, to earn a birth in a future life commensurate with our spiritual progress in this one. I was awestruck when I first read the Tibetan Book of the Dead and contemplated its description of how the soul’s navigation of the post-life bardo realm results in its choosing its own future birth – one in keeping with the nature of the accumulated fear and desire of its lived physical existence – one in keeping with its karma. This was a metaphysical reality born of a just and compassionate creator! This was the truth that I wanted to believe!

Alas, I don’t believe in reincarnation anymore. I left it behind somewhere on the empty prairie of western Nebraska, so to speak. Oh, if it turns out to be true, then I’ll try to make the best of it – just like I’ll try to make the best of any heaven or hell to which I might be relegated. Call me an agnostic Buddhist in that regard, one who recognizes that there is much that I can’t know. What I can know, however, is that any desire on my part for reincarnation to be true results from my lingering attachment to this construct called the self. Yes, part of me wants to live on after this physical life is over. Part of me wants to continue to enjoy the fruits of my labor. I want to be treated fairly within a world that is ordered and just. Yes, I want many things, but as Dogen says in his Genjokoan: “To learn the awakened (buddha) way is to learn the self. To learn the self is to forget the self. To forget the self is to be verified by all dharmas” (as translated in Yoshida, 1982).

And so that brings me to the title of this post: Karma – Knowledge and Belief. The belief aspect of karma relates to its being thought of as the determinant of the transmigration of the soul – the foundation on which some future lifetime will be built. Souls and transmigration and reincarnation, after all, are things of which I can have no direct experience. I can only choose to believe in them or not. So, what do I know about karma?

Karma is a Sanskrit word, the root of which means “to create” (Yoshida, 1994, p. 114), a “deed” (Schuhmacher & Woerner, 1994, p. 175), an “act” (McKechnie, 1979). On a basic level, karma refers to the work that one is meant to do by virtue of the circumstances that one is born into. In the Bhagavad-Gita, for instance, Arjuna, despite his wishes to the contrary, finds himself surveying the battlefield on which he and the men that he loves and respects will soon be fighting to the death. Essentially, Lord Krishna – Arjuna’s spirit guide in human form – advises him simply to live out his karma, saying: “The world is imprisoned in its own activity, except when actions are performed as worship of God. Therefore you must perform every action sacramentally, and be free from all attachments to results” (as translated in Prabhavananda, 1954, p. 45). In addition to this more basic conceptualization, karma has come to take on greater refinement as to its nature and the mechanism by which it works. For example, we can think of three kinds of karma – physical, verbal, and mental – falling into two general categories: old action (purana-kamma) and new action (nava-kamma) (Yoshida, 1994, p. 115). In his book, No Self, Yoshida (1994) states that “nava-kamma is constantly incorporated into purana-kamma, which in turn is incessantly directing nava-kamma. Nava-kamma and purana-kamma are interacting on the body for evolution and involution” (p. 115). [Kamma is the Pali language variation of the Sanskrit word karma – Pali being the presumed language of the historical Buddha in addition to being the language in which Buddhist teachings were originally transcribed (Schuhmacher & Woerner, 1994, p. 263)] In other words, the action that I am about to perform results from the sum total of all the actions that I have ever performed. This is the aspect of karma that is within the realm of direct experience and knowledge. We can witness its unfolding as our lives move forward from one moment to the next. Additionally, we can witness this unfolding even more clearly via the practice of seated meditation – zazen. (I’ll have more to say about that in another post.)

What I definitely want to point out in this post, however, is that the ideas related to karmic unfolding as described above (in which new karma blossoms out of old karma which, in turn, becomes the ground from which further new karma takes root) have been incorporated into the domain of modern science – the domain of verifiable knowledge. In his bestselling book, Flow, University of Chicago psychologist Csikszentmihalyi (1990) lays the groundwork for his primary thesis by describing in Western psychological terms the nature of human consciousness and its creation of this thing we call the self:
Where is the I, the entity that decides what to do with the psychic energy generated by the nervous system? Where does the captain of the ship, the master of the soul, reside? As soon as we consider these questions for even a short while, we realize that the I, or the self as we shall refer to it from now on, is also one of the contents of consciousness…. The self is no ordinary piece of information, however. In fact, it contains everything else that has passed through consciousness: all the memories, actions, desires, pleasures, and pains are included in it. And more than anything else, the self represents the hierarchy of goals that we have built up, bit by bit, over the years…. At one point we are saying that the self directs attention, at another, that attention determines the self. In fact, both these statements are true: consciousness is not a strictly linear system, but one in which circular causality obtains. Attention shapes the self and is in turn shaped by it. (pp. 33-34)
At the risk of stating the obvious, I will simply point out that “everything else that has passed through consciousness” as referred to by Csikszentmihalyi (1990) bears more than a passing resemblance to the purana-kamma as described by Yoshida (1994). Likewise, the circular causality referred to seems very much like the process by which nava-kamma is incorporated into purana-kamma, subsequently to give rise to further nava-kamma.

In Train Your Mind, Change Your Brain, Begley (2007) reviews the recent history of neuroscience and concludes that new discoveries in that field are moving it in the direction of truths that have long been known by Buddhist practitioners; namely, that there is no fixed and unchanging self, that the human brain – once thought to be static from a time shortly after birth – is actually quite malleable. These changes can be predicted and measured and, therefore, they are within the realm of knowledge. Thus, karma is within the realm of knowledge. We merely need to pay attention to how it plays out in our lives.

The Dalai Lama, spiritual leader of the Tibetan people, has hosted a series of Mind and Life Conferences in Dharamsala, India – his city of exile since being forced to leave Tibet. The goal of these conferences is to foster dialog between Buddhists and Western scientists. He writes in the foreword to Train Your Mind, Change Your Brain, Begley (2007):
I have found that [Buddhism and modern science] have a great deal in common. By some accounts, both traditions are motivated by an urge to relieve the hardships of life. Both are suspicious of notions of absolutes, whether these imply the existence of a transcendent creator or an unchanging entity such as a soul, preferring to account for the emergence of life in the world in terms of the natural laws of cause and effect.

In conclusion, there are aspects of karma that exist within the realm of knowledge and direct experience, and there are aspects of karma that are incorporated into systems of belief. Each of us has our own internal barometer, so to speak, that guides us with respect to how much to rely on the former and how much to rely on the latter. Oh, if only my own barometer had allowed me to believe just a little bit more! Perhaps then I’d have been able to stay up in the gorgeous mountains of Buddhism for the rest of my life without ever crossing Nebraska! Yes, belief is such a comfortable refuge. Alas, it is not my karma.

Begley, S. (2007). Train your mind, change your brain: How neuroscience reveals our extraordinary potential to transform ourselves. Ballantine Books.
Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1990). Flow: The psychology of optimal experience. Harper Perennial.
McKechnie, J. L. (Ed.). (1979). Webster’s new twentieth century dictionary (2nd ed.). New World Dictionaries/Simon and Schuster.
Prabhavananda, S., Isherwood, C. (1954) The song of God: Bhagavad-Gita. The New American Library. (Original publication date unknown)
Schuhmacher, S., Woerner, G. (1994). The encyclopedia of Eastern philosophy and religion. Shambhala Publications, Inc.
Yoshida, R. (1994). No self: A new systematic interpretation of Buddhism. The World Sacred Text Publishing Society – Tokyo.
Yoshida, R., Eilers, J., Ganio, K. (1982). Gaku-do-yojin-shu: Collection of cautions about learning the Way. Missouri Zen Center. (Genjokoan originally published 1233)

Copyright 2011 by Maku Mark Frank

Weight Scale digital illustration courtesy Renjith Krishnan via:


  1. Lots of food for thought - thanks for sharing! I have so many questions I'm not sure where to start. I guess my first question is, what exactly are your thoughts on karma as it relates to teaching and being a teacher?

    This post also reminded me of our conversation about equanimity. Funny how the same things keep coming up, isn't it?

  2. Hello K! I'm glad I could prompt some reflection. I hope it doesn't have you thinking while you're meditating, though!

    I'm not quite sure what you mean by "karma as it relates to teaching". I should point out, though, that while I do teach meditation I am not ordained as a teacher in the strict meaning of the word - as, for instance, Brad Warner discussed when you heard him speak and he said that he was one of Nishijima roshi's Dharma heirs.

    If what you are really wondering about is how what I've posted here fits into "traditional" Buddhist teaching I will respond as follows: Endless debate could ensue as to whether the Buddha actually taught reincarnation or not, or whether it crept into the written teachings by students who either misunderstood the Buddha's oral teachings or had an agenda of their own. Much of that debate would take the form of "in this sutra he says x" and "no, because in this sutra he says y". I am going to sidestep that entirely because I am not a Buddhist scholar and I don't see much merit, anyway, in treating texts written down hundreds of years after the Buddha's death as if it were Gospel, so to speak. I think we need to do our best to verify the teachings on our own without relying in any ultimate way on what is written down or what somebody has said.

    Teachers who are ordained differ on the issue of reincarnation. My own teacher, Yoshida roshi, generally notes that what we think of as rebirth can be thought of as moment-to-moment rebirth and not lifetime-to-lifetime rebirth. That is how I think about rebirth when I come across it in any readings.

    Have I addressed your question?

    Regarding equanimity: Perhaps it WOULD be a good thing if we could arrive at a place of equanimity about the existence or non-existence of reincarnation as transmigration of the soul.

    Thanks again, K!

  3. Ok, my question didn't make sense. Let me rephrase that. I know you aren't an ordained teacher, in the strictest sense, but you teach. How does karma help you relate to those you teach? Perhaps this will help you understand what I'm asking:



  4. Well, I don't want to sound like I'm down on Rudolf Steiner... I know he was a very interesting and influential person, and perhaps the article doesn't really do justice to his work. Having said that, I can think of better reasons (in the here and now) for trying to instill in children attentiveness and interest in music and in the world than merely to keep them from suffering from asthma or having poorly formed organs, thin hair, and weak physical stature in their NEXT life. ;D

    Picking up on your thread, however, I think that regardless of whether we are a teacher or not, it serves us all to keep in mind that each of us is a complex individual with our own rich karmic history that strongly influences our current and future behavior, but which does not necessarily RULE it.

    Thanks for the article, K!

  5. Speaking of ordained teachers differing on the topic of reincarnation: I just added a link to a fascinating conversation that took place between Robert Thurman and Stephen Batchelor. Enjoy!

    P.S. Thank you Tricycle Magazine!

  6. Thank you! That was a much better answer. :D For the record, I share your opinion of Rudolf Steiner. What you said last night also helps me understand more than I did.

    And I still think too much when I meditate - I'm just aware of every single thought. Hopefully my new zafu will help me with my posture!



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