Monday, September 11, 2006

Karma Police

I recently had a bit of a run-in with the administration of a large Buddhist internet forum. The administration had recently changed and the new powers were taking a dim view of the free-form expression and allegedly almost 'anything goes' attitude of many of the posters on the Zen forum and were taking steps to purge this element. References to burning Buddha statues, killing the Buddha or questioning the authority of the mainstream interpretation of Buddha's teachings were to be forbidden.

Now, I've never been much into posting pictures of flowers or *gasp* pop lyrics on that forum. Most of my involvement was relatively serious discussion. Nor have I seriously challenged the accepted view of the content of what Buddha taught. However, I freely express my own agnosticism or doubt about unknown metaphysical truths such as the traditional descriptions of karma and rebirth.

Because of not accepting this, I thought I would have to always remain on the periphery of Buddhism. Yet it is clear that the Soto Zen sect I belong to does not insist on such beliefs. It appears that Brad's branch of Zen does not insist on such acceptance or belief either since when I asked Gudo Nishijima directly about the afterlife he replied essentially that when we die 'that's it'. This as far as I understand could actually be classed as the view of Annihilationism - definitely regarded by Buddha as a 'wrong view' but this is another story and perhaps I misunderstood him.

Even though these administrators were not Zen practitioners they took the view that 'Zen Buddhists are Buddhists first' - in the sense that Zen Buddhists too had to accept 'Right Understanding' and that Right Understanding included acceptance of karma and rebirth.

My take was that a Zen practitioner does not cling to beliefs one way or the other. That moment-to-moment rebirth renders life-after-death meaningless and that belief that 'we' will be reborn ('sans self' or not) may be a form of covert Eternalism. But it was made clear to me that my views were not welcome anywhere on the board, so I have voluntarily avoided the place since.

I'm be interested in other people's experience with these issues in the context of their Zen practice. Have you had experiences which suggest that such beliefs are required for Zen practice or that they are not required?


At September 11, 2006, Blogger Jordan & The Tortoise said...

Good post,
From the Shobogenzo "Remember, the true real function is beyond the momentary manifestation of sounds and sights, and the real preaching of the Dharma has no set form...If you want to realize the Buddha-nature, you must first get rid of selfish pride"

Maybe I am misunderstanding this but to me this pretty much summs it up.

At September 11, 2006, Blogger earDRUM said...

Interesting post.
I wonder if we need to be clear about the definitions of "karma" and "rebirth" before we can say we agree about the concepts. For example, I know that Brad's view of karma is different from how most people understand it.

If I am required to believe in an afterlife in order to belong to a group, then I can't allow myself to belong to that group. How can I say I believe in something that I cannot know?
I wrestled with these issues before, and decided that I could not be a Buddhist because of it. But then I discovered the Soto sect, and changed my mind.

An aside, related to the title of this post...
Yesterday I picked up a copy of The Easy Star All Stars' new CD, "Radiodread", in which they do a dub/reggae version of the whole "OK Computer" album.
They did "Dub Side of the Moon" previously, and I love it.

At September 11, 2006, Blogger nai wakara said...

how do you burn a statue?

if you can't debate different belief then there's not much point to a buddhist forum.

not that there's much point to that anyway.

what happens after death is an abstract concept and therefore irrelevant to everyday buddism. at most, it is the least important part of it, since it deals with the past or the future, not the present.

At September 11, 2006, Blogger Jordan & The Tortoise said...

"From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Karma (Sanskrit: कर्म from the root kṛ, "to do", [meaning deed] meaning action, effect, destiny) means "(the result of) action", generally taken as a term that comprises the entire cycle of cause and effect. Karma is a sum of all that an individual has done, is currently doing and will do. Individuals go through certain processes and accompanying experiences throughout their lives which they have chosen, and those would be based on the results of their own creations: "karma". Karma is not about retribution, vengeance, punishment or reward. Karma simply deals with what is. The effects of all deeds actively create past, present and future experiences, thus making one responsible for one's own life, and the pain and joy brought to others. In religions that incorporate reincarnation, karma extends through one's present life and all past and future lives as well."

There is more on wikipidia but this is pretty much what I thought Karma was all about.

At September 11, 2006, Blogger Justin said...

how do you burn a statue?

It only works for wooden statues

On a cold winter night, a big snow storm hit the city and the temple where Dan Xia served as a Monk got snowed in. Cut off from outside traffic, the coal delivery man could not get to the Zen Monastery. Soon it ran out of heating fuel after a few days and everybody was shivering in the cold. The monks could not even cook their meals.
Dan Xia began to remove the wooden Buddha Statues from the display and put them into the fireplace.
"What are you doing?" the monks were shocked to see that the holy Buddha Statues were being burnt inside the fire place. "You are burning our holy religious artifacts! You are insulting the Buddha!"
"Are these statues alive and do they have any Buddha nature?" asked Master Dan Xia.
"Of course not," replied the monks. "They are made of wood. They cannot have Buddha Nature."
"OK. Then they are just pieces of firewood and therefore can be used as heating fuel," said Master Dan Xia. "Can you pass me another piece of firewood please? I need some warmth."
The next day, the snow storm had gone and Dan Xia went into town and brought back some replacement Buddha Statues. After putting them on the displays, he began to kneel down and burn incense sticks to them.
"Are you worshiping firewood?" ask the monks who are confused for what he was doing.
"No. I am treating these statues as holy artifacts and am honouring the Buddha." replied Dan Xia.

At September 11, 2006, Blogger Anatman said...

Justin, I know what you mean. I quit attending a Tibetan Buddhist meditation temple after my second visit when I learned that they really believed in the gods, etc., that they were chanting to.

Zen Buddhism is something that is relatively new to me. I am much more familiar with the Theravada school of Buddhism, and in particular, with the teachings of Buddhadasa Bhikkhu.

Buddhadasa writes off beliefs in the afterlife, karma, and reincarnation as superstitions based on misunderstanding the Dharma, and rooted in fear. In my experience, belief in literal reincarnation makes absolutely no sense from a Buddhist perspective.

At September 11, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Justin wrote: "Have you had experiences which suggest that such beliefs are required for Zen practice or that they are not required?"

I've not had any such experiences with the Soto group I sit with. We did have a discussion last Sunday about the necessity of strictly adhering to the rituals (chanting, bowing, silence in the zendo) and the value of at least striving to sit correctly with the right posture.

I got the feeling -- well, more than a feeling, it was stated flat out that if you come to sit, but refuse to participate in the bowing, chanting and make no effort at correct posture then you're pretty much missing the point of the practice altogether. I don't think that's too far off Brad's views either for what that's worth.

Beliefs, if any, were not mentioned, have never been mentioned, only elements of practice, plus nuts and bolts stuff like how to sit and such.

At September 11, 2006, Blogger Justin said...


The traditional Buddhist concept of karma is more than just accepting the reality that actions have consequences. It is accepting the belief that the relationship between action and consequence is of a certain sort - that to put it simply - bad things will happen to people who do bad things and good things will happen to those who do good things. This is not generally what I see in the world. Also, dependent origination details the various stages by which actions result in rebirth.

At September 12, 2006, Blogger Reckless said...

STay the fuck away from esangha. That is a craphole to start with.

At September 12, 2006, Blogger MikeDoe said...

Beliefs are something that are useful initially and will fall away with practice.

I know some people hold onto particular beliefs very strongly but this is nothing more than a manifestation of Ego. It is only ever 'I' who holds onto beliefs and things.

I went to the NKT summer festival for a few days to see what the tradition was like full-on. I found it genuinely surprising that these people really did believe that variouu past Buhhdas such as Tsongkhapa would protect them in the present.

That being said, if that's what they wish to believe then why should I not let them do that?

I think the whole point of "If you meet the Buddha, kill him" is that Buddhism requires belief in some things innitially but once you have experience of those things belief is no longer necessary.

At November 08, 2006, Blogger Chris vLS said...

You said Gudo Nishijima say when you die "That's it." From this you seem to conclude he said something about the afterlife.

Did he?

I would guess that if you asked him what happens when you eat breakfast, he might say, "You eat breakfast. That's it." It tells you to pay attention to what is in front of you.

But does that mean there's no lunch?

Reminds me of a story:

[One] day the emperor asked Gudo: "Where does the enlightened man go when he dies?"

Gudo answered: "I know not."

"Why don't you know?" asked the emperor.

"Because I have not died yet," replied Gudo.

Like what I've seen of the blog.

Gassho --


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