The other day I wrote about how karma isn’t the mystical and external “cosmic force” that many people think it to be — a force that impersonally metes out rewards and punishments. In a crude form this amounts to thinking things like this: if you do good things the sun will shine on your picnic, and if you do bad things it’ll rain.
Instead, karma (according to the Buddha) is to do with the ethical status of our intentions and how those naturally lead to our becoming more mired in suffering or freed from it.
Karma is psychology: do this, and you’ll feel that. Karma is about how your mind changes and becomes happier when you’re less selfish and more generous, less angry and more loving.
The word karma is basically another term for Buddhist ethics.
- Karma: It’s not just intention
- Karma confusion in Malaysia
- Non-self and ethics: just who do you think you are?
- Embrace your full potential by living skillfully
But the idea that karma is intention can be misused. I’ve seen lots of people, bull-in-a-china-shop-style, hurt others and then say that they didn’t do anything unskillful because they didn’t have any intention to cause harm. Heck, I’ve done it myself. But that attitude represents a narrow take on karma (and ethics), and it doesn’t take into account the subtlety of the Buddha’s teaching. Bulls should either not visit china shops, or be very careful if they do.
Let’s look at a an example of how we might play the “I can’t have done anything unskillful because I didn’t have bad intentions” game. This one probably doesn’t apply to you directly, but it’s an illustration of the principle at work.
In this video Shoshana Roberts was filmed walking silently down the street by a friend with a hidden camera. Roberts was catcalled over 100 times in ten hours. That’s just the verbal interactions, not the whistles or stares. She was followed by one man who stalked her for five minutes, often staring intensely at her from the side and demanding to know what she thought of him. Some turned critical or aggressive when they didn’t get a flirtatious response in return: “Someone’s acknowledging you for being beautiful — you should say thank you more.”
Now, I’m pretty sure most, if not all, of the men who catcalled Roberts thought they had good intentions. They probably felt they were complimenting her. But the experience of having your appearance — to be crude, your ass — commented on (“I just saw a thousand dollars!”) over and over again can be distressing. Needless to say, being followed by a stranger can be very threatening.
I’d imagine (or hope) that there aren’t many people reading this blog who do anything as crude as cat-call strangers, but I’m sure in your own life you do things that cause distress to others. We become aware of these most often in regard to the people we live with. We might forget to tidy up after ourselves or not express appreciation. We don’t mean to do these things of course — but that’s the very point: if we’re interested in living ethically then we need to become more conscious of our deeper motivations. Becoming aware of how our actions affect others is how we discover unskillful motivations that we haven’t yet brought into consciousness
We need to be aware of not just what we think are our intentions, but to dig deeper. This is something the Buddha himself stressed:
Having done a verbal action, you should reflect on it: ‘This verbal action I have done — did it lead to self-affliction, to the affliction of others, or to both? Was it an unskillful verbal action, with painful consequences, painful results?’ If, on reflection, you know that it led to self-affliction, to the affliction of others, or to both; it was an unskillful verbal action with painful consequences, painful results, then you should confess it, reveal it, lay it open to the Teacher or to a knowledgeable companion in the holy life. Having confessed it… you should exercise restraint in the future.
Because the thing is, it’s not always easy to know our own intentions. It’s easy for us to fool ourselves. But if you know that many women don’t like being given random “compliments” on the street, then when you continue to do so it’s no longer about them, it’s about you. Your intention is revealed as not being about complimenting another person in order to do them a favor, but about expressing your (unwanted) attraction. It becomes about control: I want your smile, so I catcall; if you don’t give me what I want I’ll get nasty. It becomes about you imposing your will on another person — which is why the women involved in that video have received death and rape threats for having made it.
We can’t avoid causing harm or hurting people. The Buddha pointed out that sometimes we have say things that will cause distress. But he set a high bar for this: we have to consider, before we say such a thing: are our words true, are they expressed kindly, are they intended to help the other person, are they crafted in such a way that they’ll lead to harmony, and are they expressed at the right time (a requirement that implies a good knowledge of the other person’s state of receptivity)?
People were upset with the Buddha all the time! But it’s a noble effort to work on reducing the amount of pain we cause.
There’s a kind of brutal honesty required in looking for our real intentions. We really need to acknowledge the harm we’re doing, and if it doesn’t seem at first that we have any intention to harm, we need to look deeper. When we’re habitually causing distress or harm to others, then there’s some attitude there that needs to be brought to light.