Why people misunderstand the Buddhist concept of karma?

You often hear people say in English things like, “He will get what he deserves”, or “What goes around comes around”. And often you hear these same people say, “He has bad karma”. But that is not what is meant by karma, at least not in the Buddhist sense.

Firstly, karma (or kamma in Pali) which means ‘work’ or ‘deed’ in sanskrit should not to be confused with kama (as in The Kama Sutra) which means ‘desire’. They are not variant spellings of the same word but two separate words with separate meanings. Furthermore, the concept of kama is related to Hinduism and not Buddhism.

Secondly, it should also be understood that karma is a term used in Hinduism, Jainism and Buddhism, with all three religions having different meanings for the term. In Hinduism accumulation of karma is important in order to reach liberation. In Jainism the soul is surrounded by karmic “dirt” which “clings on to souls” which attract it. In Buddhism all production of karma – whether good or bad – through one’s actions is to be avoided. Thus the interpretation varies according to religious tradition which is reflected in the ways to attain their goals. In Buddhism it is awakening or bodhi. In Hinduism and Jainism it is liberation or moksha, though again the meaning of these terms are different for each religion. One should be aware that the word is only a “container” and not its “content” or meaning.

So in Buddhism if by avoiding karma we are to be awakened then how can one talk about anything that has to do with deservingness or merit. In Buddhism we do not in this way for this very reason. Merit of deed is wholly an English language convention and concept attached to the word karma by mistake.

 

The brain and its thoughts

Look at this picture.

checkershadow_illusion4med

Clearly, you see that the checker squares labelled A and B are of different shades, right? But check by isolating the squares from the surrounding and you will see that they are in fact the same shade of grey.

What is going on here? From experience you have learned that shadows change the shade of colours they fall upon, and that your mind will compensate for this. Note that it is not your eyes that is “doing” the compensating here, but your mind. Your eyes received the colours and shades as they are, and it is your mind that is doing the adjusting. Remove the surrounding information and you mind will no longer compensate allowing to see the shades as they are.

In Western understanding the mind is not considered a sense faculty. Traditionally there were only thought to be five senses – sight, sound, smell, taste and touch. And the sense corresponding organs were the eyes, ears, nose, tongue and skin. The mind was seen as something different, therefore the brain was not seen as a sense organ.

In Buddhism, the mental objects are sensed by the mind, thus the brain is counted as the sixth sense organ. This has two important implications. Firstly, mental objects (thoughts) are placed on par with the objects of colour and form, sound, scent, flavour and texture, and makes the contents of thought as something ordinary. Secondly, it removes the mind as the seat of some kind of self by default of the ordinariness of what happens in the mind.

In this way we are able to deal with our thoughts and not be ruled by them. Essentially this is what the Buddha’s teaching is all about – taking control of yourself as a physical being – by showing us that the thoughts are really just the real world things that we can control.

Perhaps the self is an illusion as well, much like this image.

Philosophy from looking at a piece of paper

The Zen buddhist Thich Nhat Hanh once spoke of the impossibility of looking at a piece of paper seeing its front face and not presume that it has no back face. Most people will not argue that. Intuitively we will presume this, if we are of sound (without mental disabilities) and mature (old enough to have enough experience) mind.

Maurice Denis began a revolution in Western art with this insightful statement,

« Se rappeler qu’un tableau, avant d’être un cheval de bataille, une femme nue ou une quelconque anecdote, est essentiellement une surface plane recouverte de couleurs en un certain ordre assemblées. »

“Remember that a picture, before being a battle horse, a nude, an anecdote or whatnot, is essentially a flat surface covered with colors assembled in a certain order.”

which led to (or summed up) pretty much all modern art. The Cubist paintings of Picasso are an expression of this idea. And Cezanne tried the same in his still-life works before Picasso.

In literature, Eliot, Woolf and Joyce are good examples of this approach and understanding. In linguistics, Saussure said as much about meaning in language. And in philosophy, Wittgenstein, after Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, and Derrida had pursued an understanding to the same end.

In Zen, all things are linked, and all things are empty. The back of the piece of paper can be safely presumed to be there even if we do not directly see it by virtue of the existence of the front of it. The back relies of the front for its meaning and existence, as does all language relies on all words for each other’s definitions. Nothingness only means what it does because of somethingness. The reverse is true as well.

Why bother with marriage?

Do not be fooled the title.

This video is not putting down marriage but praising it. Marriage is an important “institution” in that it commits the people in question to achieving specific goals. Goals include family and work can be achieved with greater “efficiency” than perhaps being done alone. Everybody gains.

While we might go into it with romantic ideals we might ask then what exactly is love. I do not personally believe in a idealised version of love, and neither does my adopted culture – Japan. Japan still has remnants of its past custom of arranged marriages. Actually they are not as “arranged” as people seem to think from the English transliteration of the term miai. The potential partners always has the last say on the matter. They can say no at any time. There is something practical about marriage (as it should be from a survival point of view) and it is not in the term, marriage, as such. It is about commitment. And we achieve a lot more by simply committing to something, for better or for worse.

What has Periscope taught me?

I love Periscope. In my opinion it is the next thing in social media (SM). It is different to other SM because there is real-time interaction on a large scale. No other SM is like this. It is possible to interact with a couple of hundred people simultaneously in Periscope. Unlike other mediums the interaction is delayed, after the fact.

Anyway, one important thing Periscope has taught me is how to deal with trolls. Not only are trolls annoying to me but also to my viewers. I had not realised until using Periscope that others (my viewers) are equally annoyed with them. Up until then I had always thought of the viewers as a collective. But by understanding that each viewer is an individual with separate thoughts and feelings to what they are seeing (my scope) I realised that the troll is no longer what my viewers thought but that they are the extreme minority, perhaps an individual without a clue as to what proper social means.

At some level it has much to with, or the lack of, empathy. By being able to “put yourself into someone else’s shoes” we can empathise – know what another person feels or is feeling. The anonymity of the sign – the username – gives trolls the power to do what they feel without consequence.

Sigmund Freud broke this down to what, I think, are nice (and still relevant) categories. He called these the superego, id and ego. The superego is what society wants you to do. The id is what you really want to do. The ego is what you do in the face of conflict between your superego and id. So in Peri-land (or Scope-land) we are told to be civil to each other (don’t do or say unto others what you do not want done to you). But your id tells you to be selfish and that if people and their feelings do not exist this is what I would do. But after thinking about it your ego tells you that being nasty will have consequences because people have feelings, even though you do not want to acknowledge it.

In the end, it is all about whether you want to see others as lifeless but moving objects, or as having the same kinds of feelings as yourself. This acknowledgement is not easy because ultimately we have no direct access to other people’s thoughts and feelings. We can only guess at them through experience and inference. This is also what perhaps what The Buddha had meant by suffering.

The philosophy of Jacque Derrida

It has been a while since I have looked at philosophy, Derrida or deconstruction. So having found that by The School of Life is a refreshing reminder of just how important and still relevant Derrida is.

Most early biographies of Derrida almost alway focus on his philosophy and never talk about his life. I did not know about his marginalisation in Algeria (though I could have guessed). And I did not know he was a football fan as well as an exemplary snooker player.

Three terms were focused upon in this video – deconstruction, aporia, and logocentrism. Deconstruction is the rigorous dismantling of our common sense ideas. Things not privileged (the opposite of the privileged binary) need to be looked at and shown for its equal importance and value. The Greek word Aporia means impasse or puzzlement, a term Derrida revived to describe our need to not be afraid of not knowing or be confused but that this is the true state of things. Postmodern philosophy has embraced this idea and run with it in various guises including fuzzy logic and language games. And logocentrism again is about the privileging of language and clear terms and ideas over inexpressible feelings and emotions which are part of the human experience.

More sustainability humour

I love humour. Humour provokes a reaction, a reaction only something organic, mortal and sentient can do. It therefore reaffirms one being alive by simply provoking this reaction. Sometimes humour makes you think. Sometimes humour is true.

America has the highest standard of living in the world. It’s just a pity we can’t afford it.

What is wealth? Wealth isn’t what we can afford, but what we are content with.

I’m determined to stay out of debt – even if I have to borrow to money to do so.

“Property is theft,” said French anarchist, Pierre-Joseph Proudon. And money makes all things property and therefore theft.

The country’s national debt totals billions of dollars. Which raises the interesting question, how do you repossess a country?

Remember, we must not let our leaders drive us to poverty.

Advice to thin men – don’t eat fast. Advice to fat men – don’t eat … fast.

How a pause can change the whole meaning of a statement.

A diplomat is someone who is appointed to avert situations which would never occur if there were no diplomats.

The vicious circle.

A diplomat is someone who acts disarming when his country is not.

Puns are a lot of phun.

If a diplomat says yes, he means perhaps; if he says perhaps he means no; if he says no, it means he is not a diplomat.

No straight chaser.

The art of diplomacy is to say nothing – especially when you’re speaking.

Haha.

There are few ironclad rules of diplomacy, but to one there is no exception. When an official reports that talks were useful, it can safely be concluded that nothing was accomplished.

It all depends on what “useful” means to you.