All karma is collective

Question: I have problems! My Buddhist friends tell me that my problems are manifestations of my karma. If I want to solve my problems, I need to change my karma. They say I should chant Nam-myoho-renge-kyo for my own happiness, and this will automatically change my karma. Please explain how chanting will change my karma. Huh?

NoNoNanjo: “Huh?” is a great question. There’s not really “your” karma or “my” karma. There’s just karma. The word karma means “action.” Think of “action” in the largest sense. It’s the underlying motive force of all phenomena. Karma is the motion of the planets and stars as well as the heartbeat of every living being. Our entire universe in motion. It’s always changing. This change is karma.

Wade: I think also we should say that karma is like the plot of a really long novel. I’m going to use Kristin Lavransdatter by Sigdrid Undset as an example because a couple of us read it for our book group. The novel follows Kristin from her childhood to her death. Throughout, she makes choices and takes action based on who she is and her circumstances. We see how she is affected by her own choices as well as the choices of others. She lives in medieval Norway, and there are many facts of her existence over which she has no control, such as social, economic, and family pressures. All of this is karma. You can’t say that it’s just Kristin’s karma, because it involves many other people and situations that are interwoven. You can’t pull out just one thread of the plot because all the threads are needed to make up the cloth of the story.

NoNoNanjo: Right, so that’s what I mean about karma being collective. Buddhism teaches that all phenomena are interdependent. The name of this concept in Nichiren Buddhism is “dependent origination.” This idea is illustrated by three bundles of reeds leaning against one another to stand on end. If you take away one bundle, the others fall. You can’t pull out one thread of a plot, or one bundle of reeds, without changing everything.

Hillcrest: These discussions about Buddhist concepts veer off into abstraction. You have a person saying, “Hey, I have problems in the real world,” and here we are talking about bundles of reeds. How does this help?

And how can you say there’s no individual karma? My problems are obviously my problems rather than yours. It’s my karma. It’s up to me to make better karma for myself for my next lifetime. If there’s no individual karma, how are we punished for bad deeds and rewarded for meritorious deeds? Most people understand karma as “what goes around comes around.”

NoNoNanjo: The point I’m trying to make is that no one lives in a vacuum. No one is totally independent of other people. People today, especially in the USA, are under the impression that they stand alone and are completely separate and alienated from other people. The point I’m trying to make is that we are interconnected, whether we see it or not. The first step in solving existential problems is recognizing our fundamental interconnection with others.

Jutta: Unfortunately we have to be legalistic when talking about Buddhist concepts. Different schools of Buddhism have different understandings of the same terms. Almost always, these differences seem like tiny nuances and hairsplitting. But if you don’t split the hairs, Buddhist knowitalls get bent out of shape.

For instance, Nanjo is proposing a very broad idea of karma. How is this all-encompassing idea of karma different from the idea of “life force,” or what we talk about as the ninth consciousness? In Nichiren Buddhism, karma is understood to be the eighth consciousness, while the ninth consciousness is understood to be the universal life force.

They are interrelated concepts, but they are distinct. Karma is action or change. Life force is stasis or unchanging, timeless existence without beginning or end. Karma/change unfolds within the context of unchanging existence.

NoNoNanjo: Fine, I’m going to say that karma is everything that happened, happens, or will happen in time and space. And I’m going to say that the ninth consciousness, what Nichiren Buddhists call Buddha consciousness, Buddhahood or enlightenment, is that which is unchanging.

Yes, and they are interrelated. So it’s not like you have karma here, and Buddhahood over there. I’m saying they are distinct. I’m NOT saying they are two separate things.

Wade: Legalistic arguments are tiresome but seemingly necessary. So many of us come from a Western, monotheistic understanding of religion. Meaning, there’s a G-d or supreme being who supposedly “rules” heaven and earth. We have to obey and play nicely or else this Boss in the Sky will be displeased with us. Living in compliance with laws and commandments issued, allegedly, by this Supreme Ruler necessarily involves a legalistic understanding of religion.

Many of us suppose that Buddhism is like this, too, as if “Buddha” or “The Universe” is a supreme being that hands out rewards and punishments based on how well we abide by the rules. Many people assume that “karma” is another name for this spiritual payback system; karma is the enforcer of mystic laws.

You can make an argument to support almost any interpretation of Buddhism, whether right, wrong, or downright ridiculous.

The main thing to remember is that our world is relational and interdependent. This is the most basic teaching in Buddhism. There is no objective, omnipotent being or power floating above us, managing things and keeping score.

Therefore, fretting about “my karma” is meaningless, because all karma is relational and interdependent. The hardest thing to remember is that it’s not about you in any specific, personalized way.

Suppose someone punches your arm. It may feel very personal and specific. You may ask, “What did I do to deserve it? Why am I being punished?” Or you may think, “Wow, I could have been punched in the face, but I was punched in the arm. This must be my lucky day. What did I do to deserve this benefit?” And while we’re at it, we might wonder about the karma of the puncher. What misery or imbalance in the puncher prompted the punch? Is it good karma or bad karma for the puncher to go around punching people?

A better thing would be to recognize that waves of impersonal karma crash around us all the time. The important question is: What is the best way to respond to what’s happening in my life? Trying to analyze karma is like asking, “Why did this happen to me?” The answer to this question cannot be fully known. It did happen to you. What are you going to do with it? Something constructive, or something destructive? What’s the next step for you?

Winge: If we take everything impersonally, it makes it sound like we, as individuals, don’t matter. But of course we matter. Every little thing in every life matters!

Buddhism teaches that our reality is relational and interdependent. I put the emphasis on interdependent. As individuals, we each are a bundle of reeds. We each are, at the very least, the thread of a plot. Because all karma is interdependent, someone or something depends on us. We are crucial. We are needed. When we think, speak, act, or simply breathe and feel emotions, we are creating karmic waves.

“Changing one’s karma” does not mean just looking backward and judging what might’ve happened in the past. Changing karma means understanding that you’re making karmic waves all the time. Even a slight change in attitude or behavior can have a Butterfly Effect that ripples across time and space.

Thank you for mentioning Kristin Lavransdatter. I was hoping everyone would like it.

Jutta: I thought it was good but too long. I agree that reality is relational. Interdependent. Karma/change is experienced by us individually. Karma is also driven by our human responses to what we’re experiencing individually.

NoNoNanjo: Nichiren Buddhism proposes chanting as a response to karma. When you chant, you are calling out to unchanging Buddha consciousness, which is within you and all around you, within everyone and everything.

In your example of being punched, what if your immediate response was to think: “Nam-myoho-renge-kyo”? What if your heart and mind immediately went to a place of calling out to unchanging timelessness rather than feeling anger, hurt, or self-blame? Maybe just for a split-second you think of Buddha consciousness rather than about retaliating by throwing a punch of your own. Maybe you’ll throw a punch anyway. I’m not judging it. But that moment of touching base with Buddha consciousness might alter world history.

Montepulciano: When we talk theory, it sounds like people have to be smart to benefit from Buddhism. I want to remind everyone that you don’t have to understand a word of this. Daimoku works, regardless.