Zen and karman

By Louis Nordstrom
Philosophy East and West
Volume 30,no.1
1980 January
P.77-86
(C) by University Press of Hawaii


P.77 In the Zen school great significance is attributed to the realization of emptiness (`suunyataa) through meditation (zazen). In this article I will discuss the relationship between such realization and the concept of karman. In the first section, this relationship will be dealt with on a more or less theoretical level; in the second, the characteristically Zen move will be made away from the theoretical toward the level of practice and spiritual attainment. I It would seem plausible to suppose that if the scope of the realization of emptiness is completely unrestricted, then it must extend to the fact of karman, in which case karman must be seen as empty, like all other dharmas. Although this thesis appears unexceptionable, it turns out to be the source of a good deal of controversy within the Zen school. A Zen figure of no less stature than Dogen, for example, emphatically denies that karmic hindrances are empty.(1) He even claims that the belief in the emptiness of karman should be characterized as "non-Buddhist."(2) On the other hand, many Zen masters subscribe to the view expressed by Yoka Daishi in his "Song of Enlightenment": "When awakened we find karmic hindrances fundamentally Mu./But when not awakened, we must repay all our debts."(3) Dogen has two kinds of objections to the emptiness of karman. His first objection is ontological: karmic hindrances cannot be considered empty because "something we have produced" cannot "have emptiness as its essential nature."(4) This would seem to exclude from the scope of emptiness everything associated with agency, will and action--a quite significant restriction indeed. Since the root meaning of "karman" is action, this objection amounts to the insistence that karman cannot be empty because action is something we have produced, and something we have produced cannot be empty. The second objection is moral: if karman (construed now as the law of causation) were empty, then the necessary practical consequence is moral laxity, complacency, and antinomianism.(5) I shall deal with these objection in reverse order. Dogen seems to feel that the emptiness of karman must be denied if karman is to serve as a foundation for morality. Or: karman as moral law cannot be empty. Now the trouble with speaking of karman as moral law is that thereby one commits oneself to seeing its operation as part of the very fabric of reality, which in turn commits one to the kind of reification and hypostatization that is proscribed by the realization of emptiness.(6) The spirit of emptiness consists, I think, in the elimination of all reification and hypostatization. To say that karman is empty, or devoid of own-being, means in effect that there is no "nature" or "essence" the term refers to or names. But the metaphor of karman P.78 as moral law seems to reintroduce essentialism on the ground that this is necessary if one is to secure the objective status and independent reality of karman. Since the whole point of emptiness, however, is to cut off our attachment to the belief in the objective status and independent reality of dharmas, the force of the metaphor of karman as moral law and the spirit of emptiness seem incompatible. If karman is not metaphorically conceived of as the ground of morality, then there is no reason for insisting that it be nonempty. The problem, in my opinion, lies in the whole enterprise of grounding morality and in the assumption that morality requires such a ground; it does not lie in karman itself. If we take the spirit of emptiness seriously, then the attempt to ground morality in karman, to the extent that it inevitably involves reification and hypostatization, must, I think, be seen as deluded. If the spirit of emptiness is to extend to morality, it must be to a "groundless" morality in which there would no longer be any need to reify karman. At the very least it must remain an open question whether morality requires such grounding. Another way of putting the problem would be to say that the metaphor of karman as moral law commits one to attributing to karman a concreteness of existence which is incompatible with the spirit of emptiness. In one place Dogen seems almost to concede that karman is, in some sense, empty when he says that "basically the law of karman has no concrete existence."(7) It is precisely the concrete existence of karman that is incompatible with its being empty; and it is precisely such "concreteness" which reification and hypostatization seek to effect. Here I think one can say that the entire metaphor of karman as moral law involves the fallacy of misplaced concreteness, and that the whole point of the realization of emptiness is to see through this pervasive and insidious fallacy. (I hasten to add: "the whole point" from a theoretical point of view.) Dogen's second objection, then, turns on a certain use to which karman is to be put (namely, being the ground of morality). His claim is that if karman were empty, it could not be put to that use; to which the response is that the question of the emptiness or nonemptiness of karman must be decided independently of any consideration of possible uses. If karman cannot both be empty and the concrete ground of morality, it is by no means self-evident that the former alternative is the one to be rejected. The attempt to deny the emptiness of karman because it conflicts with the use of karman as the ground of morality involves an inappropriate mixing of theoretical and practical considerations. I turn now to Dogen's first objection. To say that something we have produced cannot have emptiness as its essential nature amounts to claiming that agency, will, and action have a kind of reality which is exempt from the scope of emptiness. Dogen seems to be distinguishing between dharmas which we have not produced-these are empty--and those which we have produced. P.79 Is there any validity to this distinction? I think the only way we can make sense of this distinction is if karman is no longer seen as a dharma in the world, but rather as something in some sense prior to the world. That karman should, in fact, be seen as prior to the world in the sense of being the transcendental condition of the possibility of the human world has been persuasively argued in a recent unpublished paper by Bibhuti Yadav.(8) If it is plausible to restrict the scope of emptiness to dharmas within the world, and if it is indeed the case that karman ought to be viewed as prior to the world, then perhaps it becomes possible to claim that karman is not empty because it is prior to the world. I think there is, in fact, some plausibility to this view. According to Yadav, the world comes into being because of the fact of karman, which "signifies the ego's commitment to bear the world in the first person." (9) He goes on to claim that karman, as the fundamental expression of ego, is, like the ego, "existentially a priori in the sense that it is presupposed in all experience and therefore the world itself"(10) We would do well here to distinguish two senses of karman: the first referring to action prior to the world, or action which creates the world (Action), and the second referring to action occurring within that created world (action) . I believe Yadav is right in insisting that the real thrust of the concept of karman has to do with the first sense of karman rather than the second. Moreover, even though he does not deal with Zen, I think Yadav's point captures the spirit of the Zen approach to karman which seeks precisely to uproot the karman prior to the world by undermining "the ego's commitment to bear the world in the first person"; undermining such a commitment is tantamount to what Castaneda calls "stopping the world;" the whole point of meditation practice in Zen being nothing less than that of trying to stop the world. Zen's fundamental interest in karman is on this a priori or transcendental level. We can now reconstruct Dogen's claim as follows: instead of saying that karma cannot be empty because actions produced by us cannot be so considered, we would now say rather that the production of the world itself through Action cannot be considered empty because emptiness applies only to the posterior not the a priori level. I do not wish to argue for the reasonableness or truth of this reconstructed claim. What I would like to argue for is that, as far as Zen is concerned, whether Action is in some static sense empty, what is of crucial importance is the fact that in a dynamic sense it must and can be made so through meditation practice. Indeed, the whole thrust of Zen practice is directed toward the realization of the emptiness of Action. The Zen student traces action to its source in Action and then uproots its source. (I shall have more to say of this in the second section.) When Action has been rendered empty, then the world has been stopped and, to use the expression found again and again in Zen literature, one realizes that "There is nothing at all."(11) Because karman creates the world in the sense of creating the permanent ego-based illusion that there is something rather P.80 than nothing, karman is more the enemy of the realization of actual nothingness than it is the enemy of the attainment of virtue--at least as far as Zen is concerned. The reason one's karman--good or bad--stands in the way of enlightenment is that it represents the permanent illusion that there is ultimately something rather than nothing. What is the characteristic concern of Zen is the deconceptualization and deobjectification of karman. Freedom from karman means freedom from the objectification of karman. Such objectification is incompatible with the spirit of emptiness. Through meditation practice the student learns how not to objectify his karman and his actions; the reason meditation practice can teach this all-important lesson is that it is action which is itself free from objectification and conceptualization. Because meditation, strictly speaking, cannot be objectified, it can free us from the pernicious habit of objectifying our actions. It is in this sense that meditation practice can be spoken of as being both karman-free and karman-freeing nonaction. It is ''doing nothing" (rather than "doing nothing") in the words of the contemporary Zen master Soen Nakagawa, who thus expresses the essence of Rinzai's notion of buji.(12) Meditation stops the objectification of action by tracing it to that Action which is behind such objectification; that Action is equivalent to ego itself as creator of the dualistic human world. Such a world is based on a mistake built into the very nature of ego: instead of participating in and uniting with the actual nothingness, we create something by willfully setting ourselves in opposition to it; such willful opposition is what is meant by karman(or Action) in its true ontological significance. Doing nothing, in this context, means precisely this active participation in the truth of nothingness or emptiness. It is Non-Action which undoes what Action has done. It does not create a world; it undoes the world that Action has created. II What is ultimately important in Zen is not whether, in some theoretical sense, karman is empty, but whether, in a radical practical way, it can be realized or actualized as empty through meditation practice. Another way of putting this would be to say that one shows, on the practical level, that karman is empty precisely by uniting with it; a union which would be impossible were karman not empty. What precludes the possibility of such union is simply the habit of objectification, which separates the agent from his action and his action from the formless reality of the universe. It is this habit that is broken by meditation practice. Once one no longer objectifies his karman, then one is no longer separate either from his action or his environment. Such union, I suggest, characterizes the relevant sense in which, from a Zen point of view, there is liberation from karman. Far what enslaves us about karman is our dualistic separation from it. By uniting with the fact of karman we reveal the truth of emptiness, which is nothing but the truth of radical nonduality. P.81 To make this point clearer I should like to turn to a brief consideration of the koan from The Gateless Gate known as "Hyakujo's Fox."(13) This koan concerns the relationship between karman and enlightenment. In his commentary on this koan, Joshu Sasaki Roshi says that what is at the heart of it is the realization that the world is a mistake.(14) It is a mistake in the sense that it is mis-taken as an object, set over against a subject; without this mistake of objectification there would be no world at all. If the world is in essence a mistake, then the task of the enlightened person is to unite with the mistake. This need for a practical union with what is mis-taken means that any attempt at a theoretical discussion of the relationship between karman and enlightenment is pointless, since the context of the discussion--the world--is such that any statement within this context must itself be mistaken. (Compare Nietzsche's "Everything is false.") The point is that the only way to undo the mistake is to become it; in so doing one expresses one's understanding that "there is no need to realize truth" in a world which is mistaken.(15) The enlightened person can free himself from this mistake by uprooting all trace of objectification, but it is nonetheless the case that he must live in that mistaken world and therefore his way of life must involve, not an escape from the world into the so-called truth of enlightenment, but a complete transcendence of truth itself. The old man is enlightened by Hyakujo's response to his question not because it is the "right" response, but rather because the response succeeds in making him realize that there is no truth to be realized. When Hyakujo says to Obaku, "I thought a foreigner's beard is red, but now I see that it is a foreigner with a red beard," he thereby vividly shows his own complete union with, and liberation from, both unmistaken and mistaken opinions about karman and enlightenment. As a result, he shows that he has become one with the spirit of nonduality that does not exclude anything at all. If the world is a mistake because of the fact of objectification; and if there is objectification because of the fact of action; and if karman primarily refers to this fact of action on an ontological level; then, one can say that karman is indeed the source of the world as mistake. The world is a mistake because the impulse to act is ontologically mistaken: it presupposes the mis-taking of reality as something separate from and external to the ego-agent. The fact of action causes the appearance of dualism because the agent requires that there be a world separate from himself in terms of which his actions can be objectified. Because of this intimate connection between action and objectification, it can be said that the deluded tendency to reify and hypostatize the world--to give it "concrete existence"--is largely the result of the significance-conditions of action. To unite completely with the world as mistake, the enlightened person must completely unite with karman as the source of the world as mistake. Not merely with "his" karman in some personal or individualistic sense, but more P.82 importantly with the ontological fact of karman as described. When one has completely united with or become the mistake, then and only then is it possible to transform action as mistaking into action as partaking of reality. Since the mistake at the heart of action lies in the separation of the agent both from his action and the world (or: in the requirement that there be such separation as the condition of the possibility of action), Zen's response is that through meditation practice one must learn a way of action which entails not separation but union. To act without separating: this is easy enough to say but very difficult in practice; for what is involved is learning to act in such a way as to undo one's doing, in effect, to enact the undoing of doing. The point is that when one has united with one's karman at its source, even though the mistaken character of it continues to exist, one is no longer taken in by the mistake and, in this sense, one can be said to be free from it. On the practical level, then, there can be liberation from the mistake even though, on a theoretical level, the mistake is ineliminable.(16) What has been called here "union with the mistake" corresponds, I think, to what Dogen means by his idea of "Great Karman."(17) As I understand it, this expression refers to the fact that the enlightened person becomes united not merely with his personal karman but also with the fact of karman as the action-objectification mistake. This transpersonal sense of karman is "great" in the sense of being absolute, which is to say, no longer merely relative to details of personal or individual karman. I am not merely "my" karman, I am karman itself: I am the fact that the ego-based impulse to act simultaneously creates both the agent and the world in which he acts. What is of crucial importance in Zen is not making karman into something which exists outside of oneself, which is what one does, for example, when one speaks of it as moral law or even as the law of causation. As Sasaki Roshi says, karman "never exists outside of yourself. This is very difficult. The world is one."(18) Part of what this means is that there is not "you" and "the world," or "you" and "karman''; what there is is the one mistake of objectification. When karman is no longer located outside of oneself, then, strictly speaking, there is neither you nor the world; and hence no context really in which to speak of karman or for it to function. Because karman ceases to function once the dualistic framework it requires has been undermined, the existential union with karman can bring about both liberation and purification. Going back to the distinction introduced in the first section, we can say that karman and world are one because karman creates world. The posterior karman appearing in the world (action) is created by the karman prior to the world (Action), and is therefore dependent on it. We tend not to notice this crucial dependence because of our wrongheaded belief in the independent, objective reality of posterior karman. What this belief does, on the practical level, is separate us from our karman (objectification entails estrangement), P.83 and this, in turn, endangers the possibility of union. To perceive the dependence in question we must deobjectify karman, which is done, once again, through meditation practice. By deobjectifying karman one renders it empty--one realizes or actualizes its emptiness. As a result, one is freed from the error of reification and hypostatization. Hakuin speaks in his "Song of Zazen" of extinguishing karman in just one meditation period.(19) Although it is somewhat presumptuous of me even to venture an interpretation of what this means, I think that what is extinguished here is not so much one's personal or individual karman as the transpersonal source of such karman. As a result of the enlightenment experience, one sees into the deep dependence of posterior karman on the karman prior to the world; one sees into the emptiness of will and agency. This enables one to be at one with one's personal karman, because what produces separation from it is the tacit belief that will and agency are not empty. The relevant sense in which to speak of "purification" of karman, as far as Zen is concerned, is ontological rather than moral. One purifies one's karman by no longer locating it outside of oneself. Strictly speaking, the enlightened person stands in no relationship whatsoever to his posterior karman because there is no distance between him and "it" at all; and because there is no distance, no relationship is possible. This is one of the all-important teachings of the koan in question.(20) Accordingly any question about the nature of the relationship between karman and enlightenment should be answered-no-relationship. The enlightened person is neither free from nor subject to his posterior karman, because both freedom and subjection are relationships presupposing separation between "me" and "my" karman. The whole point of enlightenment in this context is that all relationship to posterior karman is abandoned in favor of complete existential union. The characteristic Zen insistence is that karman must be seen transpersonally. But, paradoxically enough, this does not involve transcendence of personal karman; rather, it comes about precisely through union with personal or posterior karman. When the enlightened person fully unites with his karman, his karman and the universe become one. For what is meant by "the universe" here is nothing but the realization of nonduality, which is exactly what is effected through such union. Once this total identification has been made, according to Shibayama Roshi, the man of real freedom... lives in peace whatever circumstances cause and effect bring about. Whether the situation be favorable or adverse, he lives it as the absolute situation with his whole being.(21) When one has seen into the dependence of action on Action, one realizes that one does indeed live in a world that one has created oneself. This realization makes it imperative that one live in what one has created wholeheartedly. P.84 Situations are no longer relative to this or that consideration; they are all the same in the sense that they are all but manifestations of the mistake which is Action itself. This is the way in which they are seen as being absolute. Shibayama Roshi goes on to say (construing "karman" as causation): Anything is just 'it.' Anything is just causation. What else could we say? This very place is the absolute place. When the whole universe is causation itself, how can there be 'falling' or 'not falling'? You may therefore correctly call it 'not falling,' or just as correctly 'not ignoring.' If even a thought of knowledge moves there, both 'not falling' and 'not ignoring' are in error. You may say, 'not ignoring causation, ' yet if discriminating consciousness moves there and if you become attached to 'not ignoring,' you are turned into a fox. You may say, 'not falling into causation,' and if you do not become attached to it, you are released from the fox body. The essence of this koan can really be appreciated when one experiences the fact of no-mind.(22) When I no longer stand in any relationship to what is happening (and no longer, therefore, "know" what is happening), there is no longer anything relative about what is happening. When everything has become absolute in this sense, then it is possible to unite with or become one's karman, because one has abandoned the very habit which precluded such union--namely, the interest in knowing one's karman. When one unites with one's karman, it thereby becomes absolute; but once it has become absolute, it is no longer "mine," for there is no relationship at all that obtains at that point. This is the crucial paradox behind the movement to an understanding of the transpersonal dimension of karman: when I become my karman, my karman is no longer mine. This paradox shows the sense in which transcendence is not at all what is involved here. Access to the transpersonal comes through the abandonment of all relationship to one's karman, including the relationship of transcendence. When one has become one's karman, one has gone beyond discriminating consciousness. One exists one's karman in the simplicity of suchness. In terms of the koan, this point can be made by saying that instead of seeing the fact that the old man was given a fox body as punishment for a wrong answer to the question concerning the relationship between karman and enlightenment, one should simply say, according to Shibayama Roshi, when a fox, be a fox completely; when an old man, be an old man completely. It is most emphatically not a matter of reward or punishment, right and wrong, truth and falsity. As always in Zen, the ultimate consideration is practical and existential: how is one to live one's karman? The answer is: unite with it completely, so that there is no trace of separation from it. This is freedom. Shibayama Roshi puts this beautifully as follows: When a fox is really a fox, and not a thought of discriminating consciousness moves there, he is truly 'a former head of a monastery.' When an old man cannot be an old man and goes astray with his dualistic thinking, he is a fox. Master Dogen said, "Once you have attained satori, if you were to transmigrate through the six realms and the four modes of life, your transmigration would be nothing but the work of your compassionate life of satori.(23) P.85 By implication, I think, the traditional association of karman with transmigration and rebirth is yet another example of that discriminating, objectifying consciousness which seeks to give to karman an external reality it does not have. If the mind does not wander, there is in effect neither transmigration nor rebirth.(24) Believing in these notions betrays the fact that one is still locating karman outside oneself. Shibayama Roshi puts this by speaking of the "ghost-story" aspect of karman: if you are united with your karman, you are not a ghost; if you are not a ghost, you do not transmigrate.(25) When the mind wanders outside of itself, it naturally locates karman outside of itself, and so generates the notion of transmigration, which is essentially a metaphor of the wandering mind (which should not be literalized). Not to wander means to exist each condition and situation as absolute. When this is the way one lives, it is literally not possible to wander or transmigrate in this sense, since there is nowhere to go when one lives in the absolute. If "here" is always absolutely here, then there is no "there" at all. True nomindedness, then, precludes the possibility of wandering and transmigration by undermining the very significance-conditions that would make such a possibility intelligible to begin with. (As they say in Maine: "You can't get there from here.") In conclusion, I think we can agree with R. H. Blyth's remark that the problem of karman is solved not by transcending it, but by reaching the ground of being--thusness.(26) Karman is a great apparent obstacle to the realization of thusness or suchness because it perpetually tempts us to engage in the misguided ways of the relative, objectifying, and discriminating mind. Our impulse is to try to figure out how we are related to karman, but once we embark on this enterprise, we are already hopelessly on te wrong track, since the whole point of suchness is that it presupposes a mind free from the habit of relating itself to anything, including karman. The moment one tries to figure out one's relationship to one's karman, one has become separate from it; one has become a ghost. The Zen move here is to counsel us to reunite with our karman and stop being ghosts. In practice, the way of returning to the ground of being in suchness is simply to forget about how one is or is not related to one's karman and just become it. Again: when a fox, be a fox; when an old man, be an old man. Stop being, once and for all, what Heidegger once called "a creature of distances." NOTES 1. Dogen Kigen, Shobogenzo: The Eye and Treasury of the True Law, trans. Kosen Nishiyama and John Stevens, Vol. 1 (Sendai, Japan: Daihokkaikaku Publishing Co., 1975), p. 149. 2. Ibid. 3. Daily Sutras (New York: Zen Studies Society, 1967), p. 43. "Mu" here refers to the realization of emptiness. 4. Nishiyama and Stevens, p. 149. P.86 5. For a full account of Dogen's views on karman and morality, see Hee-Jin Kim, Dogen Kigen: Mystical Realist (Tucson, Arizona: University of Arizona Press. 1975), especially pp. 281-282. 6. Reification and hypostatization are the conceptual maneuvers which result in our mistaken belief in the ownbeing or self-nature of dharmas. 7. Nishiyama and Stevens, p. 142. 8. "Problems in the Concept of Karma," presented in October, 1977 at a conference at SUNY Buffalo, one of whose panels was devoted to the concept of karman. 9. Yadav, p. 11. 10. Ibid., p. 15. 11. Emphasis on this theme is particularly characteristic of Yoka Daishi's "Song of Enlightenment." 12. See Namu Dai Bosa: A Transmission of Zen Buddhism to America, ed. Louis Nordstrom (New York: Theatre Arts Books, 1976), section 2. 13. In order that the reader can refer to it in the course of reading this essay I will state the koan in full. See Zenkei Shibayama Roshi, Zen Comments on the Mumonkan (New York: New American Library, 1974), pp. 33-34. Whenever Master Hyakujo gave teisho on Zen, an old man sat with the monks to listen and always withdrew when they did. One day, however, he remained behind, and the master asked, "Who are you standing here before me?" The old man replied, "I am not a human being. In the past, in the time of the Kasho Buddha, I was the head of a monastery. Once a monk asked me, 'Does an enlightened man also fall into causation or not?' I replied, 'He does not.' Because of this answer, I was made to live as a fox for five hundred lives. Now I beg you, please say the turning words on my behalf and release me from the fox body." The old man then asked Hyakujo, "Does an enlightened man also fall into causation or not?" The Master said, "He does not ignore causation." Hearing this the old man was at once enlightened. Making a bow to Hyakujo he said, "I have now been released from the fox body, which will be found behind the mountain. I dare to make a request of the Master. Please bury it as you would a deceased monk." The Master had the ino strike the gavel and announce to the monks that there would be a funeral for a deceased monk after the midday meal. The monks wondered, saying, "We are all in good health. There is no sick monk in the Nirvana Hall. What is it all about?" After the meal the Master led the monks to a rock behind the mountain, poked out a dead fox with his staff, and cremated it. In the evening the Master ascended the rostrum in the hall and told the monks the whole story. Obaku thereupon asked, "The old man failed to give the correct turning words and was made to live as a fox for five hundred lives, you say; if, however, his answer had not been incorrect each time, what would he have become?" The Master said, "Come closer to me, I'll tell you." Obaku then stepped forward to Hyakujo and slapped him. The Master laughed aloud, clapping his hands, and said, "I thought a foreigner's beard is red, but I see that it is a foreigner with a red beard." 14. Joshu Sasaki Roshi, Buddha is the Center of Gravity (San Cristobal, New Mexico: Lama Foundation, 1974), pp. 70-71. 15. Ibid., p. 47. 16. The mistake would be eliminable if the relative truth of the world were not given the kind of significance it is by the "double truth" or "two truths" doctrine in Mahaayaana Buddhism. That is, one cannot eliminate the mistaken character of relative truth without violating the doctrine in question. 17. Nishiyama and Stevens, p. 149. 18. Sasaki Roshi, p. 47. 19. "Even those who have practiced zazen for just one sitting can find all their evil karman erased." Daily, Sutras, p. 33. 20. Because there is no distance between oneself and one's karman, there is also no possibility of having opinions or views about one's karman. 21. Shibayama Roshi, p. 35. 22. Ibid. 23. Ibid., p. 39. 24. Dogen says: "If there is no transmigration there is no need for liberation. Neither transmigration nor liberation occur." Nishiyama and Stevens, p. 143. 25. Shibayama Roshi, p. 40. 26. R. H. Blyth, Zen and Zen Classics: Volume Four (Mumonkan) (Tokyo: The Hokuseido Press, 1966), p. 54.