-- Karma in American Buddhism --
The law of causality that transcends a life is one of the pillars of Buddhist teachings, and yet it is not easy to generalize the principle due to the inconceivable complexity of the universe. Therefore, as Buddhism elaborated from the original teachings of Shakyamuni, slightly—or sometimes immensely—different interpretations of the law of causality emerged. For instance, Jataka is a collection of classical Buddhist stories of the Shakyamuni Buddha’s previous lives including lives as animals. Jataka later influenced the world literatures of various times and countries. Eventually, the representations of the impact from causality varied in accordance with each domain’s indigenous religions. In North America of the 21st century, as we see the emergence of American Buddhist literature, the difference can be observed in representations of the law of causality. In this paper, I will compare the extent of how karmic conditions are depicted as irresistible forces like fate in Jataka and three American literatures. Besides, the authors of American Buddhist literatures that I introduce here are all Americans. Nevertheless, each author has a different cultural background in the early life, thus each one received Buddhist influence in different ways. Hence, their cultural differences will also be taken into considered in comparison.
What is karma?
Karma is originally a Vedic term of ancient India, which literally means “action.” Among Hindus there is a belief that any actions which you caused—what you have thought, said, and done—come back to you. It should be noted that regardless of moral values, karma works in the way “equivalent to Newton’s third law of motion, that every action has an equal and opposite reaction (Loy, 2003, p.7). Thus, the term “karma” usually refers to the chain of cause and effect. Buddhists incorporated the teachings of karma into Buddhism. In Buddhist literature, karmic force is often depicted as irresistible power as if the force haunted the person all through life. Moreover, a certain karma is believed to be re-experienced over and over again in many lifetimes. For example in Jataka, a former Hindu Brahman—now a scape goat for animal sacrifice—had to repeat a goat’s life 500 times and had his head cut off 500 times just because he killed a goat when he was a Brahman.
It is said that Aesop's Fables, which emerged in ancient Greece, also received influence from Jataka. In Jataka, each story contains moral lessons to teach how one’s previous life affects the next life based on the law of causality. Among the others, the story in Jataka “The Goat That Laughed and Wept” most strictly depicts how heavy the karmic consequence of killing is. The story is about a goat doomed to be killed a Brahman as an animal sacrifice. When the goat is almost killed, it starts laughing loudly, and then suddenly weeps. When the goat is asked the reason, it answers as follows:
In times past, Brahman," the goat began, "I was a Brahman who taught the Vedas like you. I, too, sacrificed a goat as an offering for a Feast for the Dead. Because of killing that single goat, I have had my head cut off 499 times. I laughed aloud when I realized that this is my last birth as an animal to be sacrificed. Today I will be freed from my misery. On the other hand, I cried when I realized that, because of killing me, you, too, may be doomed to lose your head five hundred times. It was out of pity for you that I cried (Kawasaki, 2012).
The Brahman seems to understand what the goat explains about the karma, thus the Brahman decides not to kill the goat. However, when he tells the goat that he is not going to kill it, the goat replies: "Whether or not you kill me, I cannot escape death today." The Brahman does not understand why the goat says so. Thus the Brahman reassures that he will never kill the goat. Nonetheless, the goat talks back to him: "Your protection is weak. The force of my evil deed is very strong." The Brahman releases the goat, and makes every effort to protect it. The goat begins to graze. However, when the goat stretches out its neck to pick up the leaves on a bush on a large rock, a lightening thunderbolt hits the rock. At the moment, a sharp piece of the broken stone neatly cuts off the goat's head.
The story of the goat in Jataka implicates not only how severe consequences of killing are but also how irresistible it is. According to the early Buddhist perspective of the law of cause and effect, people have to receive the results of what they caused previously. In addition, the chains of cause and effect transcend an individual’s lifetime. Sutta Nipata, one of the earliest authentic Buddhist sutras says as follows:
For one's deeds are not lost, they will surely come back to you, their master will meet with them, the fool who commits sin will feel the pain in himself in the other world (Sutta Nipata Verse 666).
As taught in this verse, One’s karma never extinguishes. For example in the Jataka story of the goat, even if the Brahman stops killing, the goat’s (a former Brahman’s) head must be cut off anyway at the doomed time.
In 1975 when the character, Mai is 13 years old, she becomes a Vietnamese refugee to the U.S.A. However, at this moment Mai’s mother, Thanh hesitates to go to America with Mai—the reason is revealed later in the story. In several months Thanh meets Mai again in the U.S.A. They start living there, but Thanh gets sick. Since her body is half-paralyzed, she stays in the hospital. While Mai’s mother is there, Mai keeps inviting Thanh’s father Baba Quan, who is also Mai’s grandfather. Nonetheless, Baba Quan is always reluctant to visit the U.S.A., which reason Mai figures out later in the end of the story. Mai attempts again to invite Barba Quan to the U.S. Mai also expects that he can take care of Thanh so she can go to college without any worry. Mai arranges a plan to realize it, but it does not happen because she changes her mind concerning that potentially “irresistable” power may influence her immigration status. Later Mai’s mother, Thanh becomes well and leaves the hospital. She seems to finally find her place in the Vietnamese community in America.
On the other hand, Mai’s interest in the life of her mysterious grandfather, Barba Quan gradually increases. One day when Mai sneaks into her mother’s room, she happens to discover a long letter which her mother is writing to her. Mai secretly reads it and finds shocking incidents about her family, which explains to her why Mai’s mother is so paranoiac about everything and why Mai’s grandfather is reluctant to come to see Mai and her mother. Mai’s grandfather was a poor peasant. Once drought occurred, he could not pay rent. Therefore, he decided to prostitute his wife to the rich landlord, Uncle Khan. Soon his wife became pregnant with Uncle Khan’s child. Mai finds out that this child is her mother, Thanh. Thus, Mai’s biological grandfather is not Barba Quan, but the rich landlord, Uncle Khan. Uncle Khan adopted the child, who later becomes Mai’s mother.
The letter continues to reveal more shocking secrets of Mai’s family. When the Vietnam War broke out, Mai’s grandfather, Barba Quan became a Viet-Con. During the war, Mai’s grandmother, who was prostituted to the landlord, died. Her daughter (Mai’s mother, Thanh) returns to her village to burry the mother’s body. There she happened to witness that Barba Quan as a Viet-Con killed Uncle Kahn. It was not an unusual case because one of the main targets of Viet-con as communist was rich landlords. Nonetheless, Mai’s mother sees “karmic force” in the incident, and is obssessed with anxiety that someday similar incident may be repeated in her daughter’s generation.
Monkey Bridge is Lan Cao’s representative novel which is regarded as a semi-autobiography about her own early lifetime. Before Lan Cao came to the U.S.A. from Vietnam at the age of 13, the Vietnam War broke out. Her experience of the war seems to have cast a shadow on her view on karma. During the war in Vietnam, enormous numbers of innocent people were killed. The character describes the atrocities of the war as traumatic memory: “I was already back there, in the military hospital in Saigon. This had been how the war entered the capital city. Pulsing flesh, exposed cartilage and bone fastened to mattresses shoved against hospital walls.” This incident might have made Lan Cao ponder “collective karma.” The Seeker’s Glossary of Buddhism (2003) exemplifies “collective karma’ by explaining a case as follows:
Suppose a country goes to war to gain certain economic advantages and in the process, numerous soldiers and civilians are killed or maimed...even if opposed to the war, (they) may benefit directly or indirectly. They are thus share in the collective karma of killing by their country.
In order to explain how difficult—or almost impossible—it is to escape from collective karma, Jones (2003) describes it in his book as: “the experience (of collective karma) is rather one of being overwhelmed, invaded, and carried away by powerful energies that flood in....that triggers a powerful invasion from the collective unconscious of whatever karmic proclivities are being magnetized (p. 34).”
Furthermore, Lan Cao incorporated into her work the notion of “trans-generational karma.” In this concept, karma is shared not only within a cohort but also between generations. For example, in her work Lan Cao lets the character mention trans-generating force that almost appears to preside their fate along with our genes:
Besides the workings of cells and the replications of our DNA structures, you will also have a different inheritance, an unburdened past, the seductive powers of an American future…When it is all done, it is all yours, the nerve tissue of your family’s past, the labor and loop of your mother’s life, and the blood that pumps its own imperishable future through the chambers of your heart.
Likewise, Mai’s mother repeatedly tells her like a mantra that karma is “something you'll inherit.” Mai says: “‘Karma,’ that word alone, whose sacred formula I could not possibly know, had become her very own singular mantra” (p.10). Besides, Mai describes her view of karma and the world as: “how I found myself seeing the world through such an eye...My mother was my karma, her eye my inheritance” (p. 20). In Jataka, it is suggested that an individual repeats a doomed life course according to karma. On the other hand, in Monkey Bridge, Mai’s mother believes that trans-generationally she has to re-experience her mother’s (Mai’s grandmother’s) stigmatized life, and she worries that her daughter, Mai will also have to “inherit” her karma. In the end of the story she confesses her anxiety in her letter to Mai:
On those long nights when I lie awake, I think about you as I contemplate our fate, my fate that I fear can become yours, and I wonder how I can save you from this terrible truth –the long, deep line of karma carved by a world which precedes you—the truth of sin, illegitimacy, and murder (p.228).
Likewise, the following passage tells how firmly Thanh believes in “trans-generaional karma” and how seriously she worries that stigma and sufferings of the previous generations will be passed on to the future generation through familial lineage.
This is how your mother loves you, Mai. This is how I want to shield you from the misfortunes of our family, to keep you from living and reliving your grandmother’s and mother’s multitudes of lost lives.
The Laughing Sutra is a dramatic story of a boy who lost his mother, and a monk who helps the boy in China during a politically unstable time between post WWII and the Cultural Revolution. When the boy was born, his mother named him “Sheng-hui, meaning ‘Flourishing Knowledge.’”Although the boy’s mother wishes that the boy will become a scholar, a fortune teller tells her that he will become a wanderer. Besides, when the mother tris to teach him Chinese characters by showing the characters written on leaves, the boy picks up and swallows a leaf which happens to have a character of “travel.” Soon his mother is killed in front of him by a bad man. The boy is helped by a stranger, and is left to a monk, whose name is Wei-ching. Thus the boy starts to live a wandering life for real as fortune-teller said.
On the other hand, the monk, Wei-ching dedicates his life copying sutras. He wants to travel to the U.S. seeking for The Laughing Sutra. It is said that whoever understands the message of the sutra “would instantly perceive his Buddha-nature, and—this was the remarkable part—achieve physical immortality as well.” The sutra had been buried in Tung-Huan Cave for a long time, but in 1948 a corrupt local official sold it to a rich American. The monk, Wei-ching wants to travel to San Francisco, where The Laughing Sutra exists. However, he adopts the boy, who has got new name, Hsun-ching. Consequently he has to give up his travel, but decides to make the boy realize his dream.
Regarding karmic conditions, the story includes superstitious beliefs of Chinese. For example, in The Laughing Sutra, the boy’s physical traits, such as long earlobes, are depicted as a sign of karma that the person carried from previous lives. Long earlobes not only indicate great wisdom, but also imply that the boy would trace a historical monk, Hsuan-Tsang’s adventurous life, whose earlobes are also said to be long. When the boy read the monk’s story, he uttered words: “Kind of like me now.”
The writer of The Laughing Sutra, Mark Saltzman is a Caucasian American, whose ethnicity appears to have no relation to Asians. Nonetheless he has had enormous interest in Chinese culture since he was a teenager. In fact, he stayed in China for several years to teach English as early as the 1980’s. Accordingly, the writer’s significant attachment to China may have got him to think about karmic conditions that shape people’s life course. In other words, his own unique career may be projected on the characters’ extraordinary life course. The setting of The Laughing Sutra represents Buddhist teachings of karmic conditions—that is, an individual’s life course is shaped by the environment conditioned by karma, and this karma was created by the person in the previous lives, and/or in the early lifetime.
Although Shakyamuni Buddha taught that an individual’s conditions can be changed by conscious effort, there seems to be a strong belief in Chinese Buddhism that a person’s destiny is pre-determined and almost irresistible. For example, in The Laughing Sutra, the monk, Wei-ching thinks that the boy he raised is inclined to make a religious travel just because of pre-determined karmic conditions. He convinces himself:
Karma had pointed to Hsun-ching as the one to make the pilgrimage: He had been miraculously saved from certain death and then raised by a Buddhist monk just like Hsuan-tsang more than a thousand before, and he had been moved to speak again by the novel about Hsuan-tsang’s journey to India.
Escape from Spiderhead
Jeff, the main character of the story, is a prisoner. He is made to become a subject of an inhumane human experiment for testing pharmaceutical drugs. Experimenters manipulates Jeff’s and the other subjects’ mind by administrating new psychiatric drugs. Jeff is imprisoned because of felony. In the middle of the story, “Samsara” as manifestation of karmic conditions is depicted almost like fate, and as something we repeat over and over again through countless numbers of lifetimes. Jeff narrates:
We had known each other forever, were soul mates, had met and loved in numerous preceding lifetimes, and would meet and love in many subsequent lifetimes, always with the same transcendentally stupefying results (p.49).
In order to test whether the drug can generate love in the subjects’ mind, the experimenters forces Jeff to choose which one of the two women the experimenters should administer a fatal drug. Nonetheless, he refuses to make a choice. Instead, he finally sacrifices himself to avoid killing—now he does not want to torture anyone out of compassion. Compassion in Buddhist context is defined as empathy to alleviate other people’s sufferings. Jeff says to himself:
As I watched Heather suffer, a great tenderness suffused my body, a tenderness hard to distinguish from a sort of vast existential nausea; to wit, why are such beautiful beloved vessels made slaves to so much pain? (p. 69)
Accordingly, the very end of the short story shows that even a formerly evil man who was once doomed to be imprisoned can choose not to kill by his own will. This scene implies George Saunders’ view on karma—that is, although karmic condition is so strong that most of the time we cannot resist it, there still is a chance for us to choose reactions. Logically speaking, karma works like Newton’s third law, thus by doing as many good things as possible, we can make our future better and happier. In fact, Saunders, the writer of this story got bachelor degree in geophysical engineering. His scientific background may add critical thinking perspective to his works, especially on the law of cause and effect. Accordingly, Jeff reflects his fellow prisoners’ and his own life in the end of his life on this world:
…I saw it differently. At birth, they’d been charged by God with the responsibility of growing into total fuckups. Had they chosen this? Was it their fault, as they tumbled out of the womb…to grow into harmers, dark forces, life enders? In that first holy instant of breath/awareness (tiny hands clutching and unclutching), had it been their fondest hope to render (via gun, knife, or brick) some innocent family bereft? No; and yet their crooked destinies had lain dormant within them, seeds awaiting water and light to bring forth the most violent, life-poisoning flowers, said water/light actually being the requisite combination or neurological tendency and environmental activation that would transform them (transform us!) into earth’s offal, murderers, and foul us with the ultimate, unwashable transgression.
Furthermore, in the transient state of Jeff’s death, he wonders if he wants to go back to this world. He answers to himself: “No thanks, I’ve had enough.” This attitude of abhorring the secular world is identical to the ideal of Pureland Buddhism, the goal of which is seeking rebirth in the Pureland and attain Nirvana there rather than clinging to this world of sins. Nevertheless, in countries where Mahayana Buddhism including the Pureland school is traditionally taught, most Buddhist devotees actually tend to cling to this world and pursue merits rather than seeking Nirvana through the Pureland. Thus it is very interesting that in America where Buddhism is regarded as a comparatively new teaching, the ideal of Buddhism—leaving this world and attaining Nirvana—is depicted in American literature.
In this paper I discussed karmic conditions represented in one story from classical Buddhist literature Jataka and three American Buddhist literatures. In all of these works the law of causality that transcends a lifetime is seen. However, how karmic influence manifests is depicted differently depending on the authors cultural background. Jataka indicates that one’s karma effects on one’s next life individually. In the meantime, in Monkey Bridge, the concept of collective karma and trans-generational karma is emphasized. In these concepts, karma works collectively or parents’ karma is inherited to the children. On the other hand, The Laughing Sutra seems to reflect Chinese popular—yet superstitious--beliefs about karma, which probably the author observed during his stay there. For the last, in Saunders’ Escape from Spiderhead, manifestation of karma is dipicted rather logically, which Saunders’ scientific background may have effected. Accordingly, when Buddism spreads in multicultural nation, America through literatures, representations of Buddhist teachings in the American Buddhist literaturs also present such diversity as its culture does.
Cao, Lan. Monkey Bridge. New York, N.Y: Viking, 1997. Print.
Saunders, George. "Escape from Spiderhead." New Yorker (new York, N.y. : 1925). 86.41 (2010). Print.
"Jataka Tales of the Buddha: Part I", retold by Ken & Visakha Kawasaki. Access to Insight, 23 April 2012, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/kawasaki/bl135.html . Retrieved on 16 May 2013.
Loy, David. The Great Awakening: A Buddhist Social Theory. Boston: Wisdom, 2003. Print.
Jones, Ken. The New Social Face of Buddhism: A Call to Action. Boston: Wisdom Publications, 2003. Print.
Salzman, Mark. The Laughing Sutra: A Novel. New York: Random House, 1991. Print.
The Seeker's Glossary of Buddhism. New York: Sutra Translation Committee of the U.S. & Canada, 2003. Print.