Rev. Trevor Maloney is a thirty-year old Zen priest in the lineage of Suzuki Roshi. He spent five and a half years in residential Zen training at Tassajara Zen Mountain Center and San Francisco Zen Center, and was ordained in April of 2009 by his teacherKosho McCall. In December of 2009, he moved to Austin, Texas to serve on the staff at Austin Zen Center. Besides unsurpassed complete perfect enlightenment, Trevor is interested in punk rock, running, and his girlfriend. Check out his utterly fascinating and edifying blog, The Big Old Oak Tree.
Karma is a teaching that allows us to take full responsibility for our lives, both for our present condition and the possibility of transformation. Basically, karma is the teaching that our present conditions are the result of our past actions and intentions, and that our future conditions are dependent upon our present actions and intentions. When we do something with an intention, it makes a mark in our minds and in the world, and there will be an effect. (Intention is key here; accidentally stepping on a bug in the dark doesn’t create karma, but going out and intentionally stepping on bugs does indeed create karma.) Karma is not an excuse, or something to be blamed. Right now, your karma is in your own hands.
This, I think, is a big difference between traditions that teach a doctrine of original sin (Christianity, and others I am sure) and traditions that offer us practices to study our hearts, minds, and bodies. John’s recent post about a Christian group’s press release on the Dalai Lama’s visit to Wisconsin has an interesting conversation about this matter. And that’s why John asked me to write this little thing here.
Real quickly, original sin means that humans are inherently predisposed towards sin. (Now, before you start posting comments about what an over generalization this is, and how the doctrine of original sin can and has been interpreted in a variety of ways that have been and are considered within the confines of Christian orthodoxy, know that I know this already. I’ve got degrees in this stuff. I just don’t want to get into it here, ok? [you guys can discuss it here, in the comments ~ The Management] ) Now, if it is true that we are inherently predisposed towards sin, then there would seem there isn’t much we can do about it. After all, it’s inherent, right? So, it makes sense that one might turn to a proxy transformation via the free gift of grace from a holy God, because it would take exactly that kind of supernatural intervention to change inherent human nature. You can see why someone who believes this would be really happy about this.
Buddhism, however, teaches something a little different. Well, maybe not a little different. More like radically different. Rather then being originally sinful or dead in sin or a slave to sin, humans are seen as inherently enlightened, or inherently predisposed to enlightenment. Different schools and different teachers talk about it in different ways, depending on the context and the emphasis (or lack of emphasis) that they are placing on non-dual expressions of the teachings. Their message, however, is the same; humans are inherently good. How do we know this? Well, you want to be happy, right? And everyone else you’ve ever met wants to be happy, too. We all want to be happy and free, and we all want to live in peace with our neighbors, and everyone much prefers loving and being loved, rather than hating and being hated.
This is true for all living beings, from the weirdest deep-sea fish to the most well-dressed Cambridge University professor. Sure, the deep-sea fish needs a lot less. Basically, it just needs to be left alone in an unsullied environment so it can find food and mate and produce offspring, following the dictates of its instincts. The professor is a little more complicated, needing not just basic physical necessities, but also a level of creative freedom and community and meaningful work and love, among other things. At bottom, though, both of these very different beings are quite similar. Constrict either one too much, making them unable to follow the dictates of their instinct/conscience, and you’ll have an unhappy living being. Let them be in a supportive environment, and you’ll have created the conditions for a happy living being.
So, if we’re inherently predisposed towards liberation, why are we often so miserable? Good question! Mahayana mythology holds that when Shakyamuni woke up under the bodhi tree, he said, “Wonder of wonders! All living beings are inherently complete and perfect! But they do not realize it because of their delusions and cravings.” This says a lot about our tradition.
First of all, it’s celebratory! Wonder of wonders! How wonderful! Woo hoo! Bodhi svaha! The dharma is not a punishment. It’s not like you’re bad and so you better do this. Practice is not a stick to beat yourself with. In my tradition, especially, practice is a ritual expression and celebration of our inherent enlightenment. Secondly, in some sense, you’re fine as you are. No, seriously; You’re fine as you are. I’m not sure you’re getting that, so I am going to say it once more: You are fine as you are. Complete and perfect. [You know, if even one person reads this and has even a slight insight into this truth and lets that insight permeate their heart, and everyone else just kind of skims over this little essay and clicks on over to cuteoverload.com, I would consider all my work on this (and the six years of Zen training that came before) well worth it.] Thirdly, there is a reason we don’t live in and constantly manifest this completion and perfection, this inherent wisdom and compassion, this inescapable liberation, this complete and total enlightenment! The reason is that we’re confused. We see things slightly off kilter. Oh no! A problem! I thought you said I am complete and perfect, Rev! Yes, I did. If you think there’s no hope now that we bring up this little problem, however, then you’re forgetting who said this and why he said it. Shakyamuni Buddha, a person just like you and I, said this, and he said it because he saw through his confusion and woke up. We can do this, too. So, there’s your hope.
But how? How can we wake up if we are bound by the inescapable law of karma, of cause and efect? By owning it completely. There is no other realm we need to enter, no new mind we need to gain, no supernatural intervention that we must accept or hope for, no imminent apocalypse to usher in a new world order. There is no escape. Confession and repentance is a big part of Zen practice. The verse of confession recited at ordinations and other ceremonies goes like this: “All my ancient twisted karma, from beginningless greed, hate, and delusion; born from body, speech, and mind; I now fully avow.” When we sincerely take responsibility for the harmful karma that we have created through our confused actions, words, and thoughts, this harmful karma no longer has the same binding power over us. On the contrary, this karma is transmuted into the fuel of liberation. My friend, I am so sorry that I spoke harshly to you yesterday. I see how harmful my words were, and from now on I will do my best to only speak words of truth and kindness to you and everyone else I meet. Please forgive me.
But it’s not just the karma of specific harmful actions, words, and thoughts that we have to own. The big dharma project is getting down to that root delusion that creates all karma, harmful and helpful. The big confusion that the Buddhist tradition has been poking at for the past two thousand five hundred plus years is our confusion regarding who we are, the confusion that is so close to us that most of us would hardly even imagine to look into it. When we are confused about our basic nature – when we hold the unexamined assumption that there is a separate self – then everything we do, no matter how subtly, is colored by this fundamental confusion. In meditation, we set this confusion aside and find ourselves in the midst of our ancient karma, accepting everything just as it is. Sitting upright in the midst of the dependently co-arising nature of reality, understanding this dependently co-arising nature of reality, karma melts away. This kind of confession is also known as forgetting the self, or letting go. You – that is, the limited, constricted mass of confusion, opinions, prejudices, views that we usually identify as self – cannot do it. Let go, let go, let go, let go…