Buddhism has much to say about happiness. However, it makes many metaphysical assumptions which may not sit well with those seeking a secular path. Fortunately, Buddhism is easily secularized — many concepts can be given a psychological interpretation or dropped with no harm to the system. For instance, Nirvana is easily secularized, while Karma is usually dropped. Yet recently, a useful secular interpretation of Karma came to my attention.
First, let’s see how Karma is usually handled. Karma is said to be the cause of our suffering; past acts generate the Karma that causes our present suffering, while present acts generate the Karma that will cause our future suffering. Unfortunately, this sounds like reward/punishment from an outside agency, especially with the claim that acts somehow make us happier. The result is the temptation to turn our practice into a series of acts designed to appeal to this agency. Even defining Karma as a universal law or the agency as our selves doesn’t help.
My views changed when I met a person with a different definition of Karma, courtesy of Shinzen Young (sadly, I could find no references). She defined Karma as our tendency to respond to events in terms of past conditioning.
It’s important to be clear about this. Not all past influence is bad. For instance, if I had an auto accident, I am likely to be more cautious as a result, and this is good. It becomes bad when I dread driving or obsess over the accident. It is this conditioning I speak of, and I will use the word “attachment” to refer to it.
If I substitute this new definition of Karma into the previous statement, I get: our suffering is caused by our tendency to respond to events in terms of past conditioning (attachment), and continuing this tendency causes future suffering.
Let’s explore this in more detail by examining the cycle of suffering:
- An event occurs.
- I react to it, and it’s in this reaction (rather than the event itself) that I suffer.
- I remember this suffering as a property of the event (rather than my reaction).
- I experience or think I may experience a similar event.
- I remember the suffering I blamed on the event.
- I suffer from the event or dread.
- The cycle repeats, starting from step 3.
The way out is non-attachment — seeing things as they are (thoughts as thoughts, sights as sights, etc…), without identifying with them, fleeing them or clinging to them. In fact, there are some path elements in Buddhism that can be profitably viewed through this lens: Right Thoughts, Right Action, Right Speech, Right Livelihood.
Usually, these elements are presented as specific acts to do or avoid. However, viewed through the lens of non-attachment, it isn’t the act itself, but one’s mental state while doing them that matters. So it’s not about what we think, do or say, but that we are non-attached while thinking, doing or saying.
Right thought — more than anything else — breaks the cycle. If we adopt non-attachment to our thoughts, then we see past conditioning as thoughts about the past. We don’t identify with them, give them energy or flee them. This in turn helps us achieve well-being now — regardless of past Karma — while building habits that will serve us well in the future.
Not only should our actions spring from non-attachment, but we also should not be attached to the results. This meshes very nicely with a Hindu path called — appropriately enough — Karma Yoga. In Karma yoga, we erase Karma by not being attached to the fruits of our actions. This is good advice to take into the Buddhist path. Do our part, but don’t cling to the results. Talk, but don’t cling to someone being persuaded. Work, but don’t cling to accolades or recognition, and so on.
Clinging to the results of actions can be especially troublesome because if we cling to things outside our control, we set ourselves up for disappointment. We always have the power to respond appropriately, but we don’t have the power to guarantee outcomes. This recalls the Stoic admonition to value only one’s will to virtue, and the serenity prayer’s reminder that we should know what we can and cannot control, and restrict our actions to the former.
Unfortunately, attachment can use anything as its object. If we experience good results from non-attachment, we may turn that into positive conditioning/Karma. While this is better than what we usually do, it is still a problem for it builds expectations. We may then expect these results and be disappointed if we don’t achieve them, or we may worry about achieving them. Which brings us back to attachment. Yes, we’re now attached to the perceived fruits of non-attachment! To avoid this trap, we must remember that genuine non-attachment meets the present on its own terms, which is one reason to be fully present to this moment.
Whether this interpretation of Karma has anything to do with the original purpose of Karma is irrelevant; what matters is it offers us a useful tool for practice. Still, it’s interesting to speculate:
- Can we secularize rebirth and fit it into this Karmic system?
- Was Karma a metaphor for this psychological past conditioning that ended up getting taken literally? This is intriguing because — broadly viewed — these two conceptions of Karma are the same: our past actions sow the seeds of future suffering.