karma and the middle passage

I was out of town for most of this past weekend for some personal, family related issues. (That’s all you get, Internet! I don’t hang out all my laundry, dirty or clean!) So I’ve been out of touch with my usual online sources — blogs, Twitters, etc., etc. But one thing did catch my eye, and it’s been rattling around my head for a couple of days now. Claudia, of the wonderful blog The Bottom of Heaven, twittered (tweeted?) the following:

Can’t quite wrap my head around the idea of Karma on a meta-level; was the Middle Passage “bad Karma”? Is this a question Buddhists ask?

For those of you who’ve forgotten your high school American history class (or, more likely, never got the Full Story) the Middle Passage refers to that part of the triangular, trans-Atlantic slave trade between Africa and the New World, a long stretch of empty ocean that took months to cross where captive African women and men and children were lined up like so much cattle below deck, chained together to go mad, and very likely die of disease only to have their bodies thrown overboard. If they were lucky (and I use the word reluctantly) to survive the Passage, they would be sold into bondage to wealthy American landowners like Thomas Jefferson’s family where they would suffer a lifetime of cruelty and labor, separated from their homeland, from their culture, from their families and later children.

Yeah. That Middle Passage.

Claudia’s question is a good one. A relevant one. For a lot of reasons. But before I comment on the relationship between personal or individual karma, collective or social karma, and social injustice, I’d like to remind folks of something Harry and I talked about in the DharmaRealm, over a year ago now. That is, traditional understandings of karma, first, assumed the reality of reincarnation, so fully grasping cause and effect necessitates a much longer scale of time than just one lifetime. Secondly, and way more importantly, understanding karma is, itself, part of the path to awakening. On the last night of his long sit under the bodhi-tree, right before he went from being merely Siddhartha to The Buddha, one of the very last things the Buddha awakened to was his entire karmic history, spread out across a vast sea of time, innumerable lifetimes. He was suddenly, intimately, aware of how this incompressible complex of events had lead him inextricably to that very moment. What’s more, he was also suddenly, intimately, aware of the karmic histories of every single sentient being in the cosmos — because we are all interrelated after all. In short, it was only at that moment, right before becoming fully awakened, that Siddhartha was able to fully comprehend karma.

That should give us pause. That should tell us something. That should be a very important reminder that karma, even though it’s part of Buddhism 101, is something incredibly deep, incredibly profound, and not easily grasped by reading a book or two or sitting in mediation for an hour. Karma is something way more profound than that, so anyone who presumes to tell you something about karma — unless they’re sitting under a bodhi-tree, about to burst into enlightenment — is probably talking out of their ass. At the very least, they’re making an educated guess.

So, with that disclaimer, and with all due humility, here’s my own educated guess.

It is no surprise to some that Buddhists have throughout history used the doctrine of karma for less than enlightened purposes, suggesting that those who are suffering now are suffering as a result of bad actions in some previous life. I think this is a particularly narrow view of karma, and that it obviously suffers from having the burden to prove a literal view of reincarnation. I’m going to skirt that rebirth issue and suggest that regardless of whether or not reincarnation is literally true, we can learn a thing or two about karma and how it applies to our lives in the present.

It seems fairly clear to me that karma is more than just a simple “cause and effect” theory. Or, to put it another way, it is not just a theory of personal or individual cause and effect. It is somewhat too simplistic, in my view, to suggest that if “I” do some horrible thing today, next week some horrible thing will happen to me. It seems a little too simplistic to reduce karma to that level. Moreover, this understanding of karma seems to contradict some other, very important Buddhist doctrines like interdependence and no-self. That is, if we take the idea that there is no “I” — no I in the independent, permanent sense — then how can we posit that if “I” do something horrible today, next week some horrible thing will happen to “me”?

In other words, it seems to me that karma is all about the meta-level. I often think that the effects of karma have very little to do with just my past actions but are the direct result of the sum total of a collection of individual’s past actions, many of whom I’ll never know.

For example, here I am, living in Oakland, married to a smart, beautiful woman, working, teaching, doing my thing. Some of these “effects” are of my own doing. But most are the result of actions and decisions that I had no hand in. My wife is a smart and talented woman not because of anything I did but because her parents raised her that way. She’s left her mark on me. She’s had an indelible effect on my life that I cannot separate from my own karmic history. So not only are my past actions bound up in my current lot, but so are hers. And her parents. And their parents.

So multiply just my small little corner of the world and our little collection of karmic histories by six billion. Then multiply that six billion by all the trillions who have ever lived since we came down out of the trees. Then you begin to understand how our collective karmic histories have created the world we live in right here, right now.

But here’s the kicker. Even though the effects of past actions in which I am living may have been largely beyond my control, that doesn’t necessarily suggest a fatalistic worldview. Nor does it suggest that I have no free will. And I think this is the most important and least talked about aspect of karma. That is, each of us, no matter what conditions we find ourselves in right now, are not bound to repeat our past actions. We have the free will to transcend those actions, to transcend our current conditions, rise above, and change the world.

When I think about karma on this grand, vast, and worldwide scale of interconnectivity, and then throw into the mix unspeakable moral outrages such as the trans-Atlantic slave trade, it helps to remember that a one-to-one view of karma is limited, narrowing. The conditions in which slavery was to flourish were the result of an untold number of events, stretching back in time and history, centuries before any one slave or any one slave-owner were even born. Which of course leaves me back where I started, with a sad mixture of despair and outrage in my gut.

But then I do my best to remember that beneath that atrocity there were individuals who strove to rise above. There were what we colloquially call “slave rebellions” where Africans would do what they could to free themselves from bondage. There are cases of mutiny on the high seas. There were white allies and abolitionists who did what they could to help runaway slaves flee north to Canada. There were English and French lawyers who recognized the injustices of slavery and through their efforts helped bring an end to the Middle Passage. And by the early nineteenth century, there were bands of free-thinking white women, our country’s earliest feminists, who themselves could not vote, who laid they groundwork for the 13th, 14th, 15h and 19th Amendments.

Their collective karmic histories are thrown into the mix. The world we’ve inherited, the effects of their causes, is far from perfect. But it’s what we’ve got to work with in the here and now. And the best we can to do is trust to hope and work to create a better future for those that will follow us.


12 thoughts on “karma and the middle passage

  1. I recall Thich Nhat Hanh saying that in the Ekotara Agama, one of the suttas states that 4 things are inconceivable, one being the state of a tranquil mind, another being the workings of karma, among two others I forget. :-/

    Still, the book I’ve been reading on Yogacara Buddhism has been helpful in addressing some of these questions from a Mahayana standpoint, so I’d recommend checking it out. It won’t address the “Middle Passage” question, but covers other stuff.

    Frankly though, now you got me thinking about it.

  2. What do you make of these parts of Tannisho chapter 13: “Good thoughts arise in us through the prompting of good karma from the past, and evil comes to be thought and performed through the working of evil karma. The late Master said, “Knowing that every evil act done- even as slight as a particle on the tip of a strand of rabbit’s fur or sheep’s wool- has its cause in past karma.” Further, the Master once asked, “Yuien-bo, do you accept all that I say?”
    “Yes I do,” I answered.
    “Then will you not deviate from whatever I tell you?” he repeated.
    I humbly affirmed this. Thereupon he said, “Now, I want you to kill a thousand people. If you do, you will definitely attain birth.”
    I responded, “Though you instruct me thus, I’m afraid it is not in my power to kill even one person.”
    “Then why did you say that you would follow whatever I told you?”
    He continued, “By this you should realize that if we could always act as we wished, then when I told you to kill a thousand people in order to attain birth, you should have immediately done so. But since you lack the karmic cause inducing you to kill even a single person, you do not kill. It is not that you do not kill because your heart is good. In the same way, a person may not wish to harm anyone and yet end up killing a hundred or a thousand people.”

    … The Master further stated:

    For those who make their living drawing nets or fishing in the seas and rivers, and those who sustain their lives hunting beasts or taking fowl in the fields and mountains, and those who pass their lives conducting trade or cultivating fields and paddies, it is all the same. If the karmic cause so prompts us, we will commit any kind of act.”

    This part of Tannisho had a huge impact on me and really has me question whether there actually is free will at all. It goes right to the heart of what Shin Buddhism teaches about our limitations as karmically bound beings and our total inability to effect our own liberation. It suggests that we only seem to make choices to do good or evil, when actually our very ability to make such choices is dependent on our past karma. Yuienbo cannot choose to kill because he lacks that karmic affinity for killing, and meanwhile another person who wishes to avoid killing is led to kill “a hundred or a thousand people.” Choice would seem to be an illusion: everything we are and do has its origin in karma from the past, which simply carries us along until we somehow manage to hear the call of the nembutsu and be saved by Amida. Its kind of chilling to me actually, and I wonder if you or others have really looked at this part of Tannisho.

  3. @ David: I think a lot of people have really looked at this part of the Tannisho. Nothing leaps to mind, but perhaps one of my more educated Shin Buddhist scholar-readers could chime in.

    As for my own two cents to this: yes, I think that it’s passages like this that have caused folks within the Shin tradition specifically to justify mistreating people based on the assumption that they’re just suffering from some past karma. For example, for centuries, the Japanese mistreated folks suffering from Hansen’s disease, (leprosy) and the Hongwanji was complicit in this. But, at the same time, a new generation of scholars and priests have called into question this reading of our tradition. (I’m afraid most of this work has been done in Japanese but I would be happy to point folks in the right direction.)

    Regardless, and quite frankly, I disagree with Shinran (or Yuien). That might make me a heretic, but I think I’m off the hook since I’m not a minister or anything! Anyway, I would suggest that while it’s not within Yuien’s power to choose to be mass murderer because of his past karma, how did his past karma get formed in the first place? It got formed through past actions and choices. In other words, I question the idea that there’s some absolutist version of “free will” or “not-free will.” It seems to me that our past actions and choices have created our current conditions in which we have necessarily limited choices. But we still have choices. I would suggest that it’s entirely possible for Yuien to be a mass murdered — it’s just a really really really hard choice. But not impossible.

    I think that this passage has more to do with Shin doctrines regarding the nature of humanity and that we’re all bonbu (foolish or evil persons) than it does karma.

    On the other hand, maybe I’m wrong. Maybe there is no free will. But even if my belief that I have free will is nothing but an illusion, I’m going to continue acting under the assumption that it isn’t because I don’t see how I have any choice (ironically). If I act as though I have no free will, then why bother doing anything at all? Why bother trying to change the world, why both trying to make a living to support my family, why bother teaching or spreading the Dharma? To the extent that I value all of those these, I’m going to continue acting as though I do have free will, even if it’s a myth.

    I’m suddenly reminded of a story I heard from Taitetsu Unno regarding the “other power” of Amida. (I think I heard this in a talk he gave but it may also be in one of his books.) He suggested that tariki is not unlike learning how to sail. Ultimately, at the end of the day, it is the wind — something outside of one’s control — which propels the boat. But there’s a lot of stuff you need to do in order to catch wind. You need to learn how to sail, you need to read weather charts, you need to get the boat out onto the water. All of that work is necessary prep-work for that moment when the wind takes over. So there’s still stuff to do, even if the ultimate goal is to do nothing.

  4. Oh my goodness! Scott! I don’t know what to say. I’m incredibly honored that you stumbled across my “tweet” and wrote this amazing post. My question came directly out of a class that I am taking at a sangha in which karma was discussed in ways that left me puzzled. I hoped that the teacher would touch on the idea of ethnic suffering, in particular, since he seemed pretty clear about every action having a direct cause – but he didn’t, and I didn’t bring it up because I thought, “hey, don’t just make this about you”… so I tweeted instead, and now look at this!

    I have long been comfortable with the idea that bad things do, indeed, happen to good people and sometimes there’s no reason – not one that we can discern. What matters is how we handle suffering, what we do now going forward. But the impression that I was starting to get from my teacher’s lesson (no disrespect to him, he may have just been simplifying it for beginners like me) was the very thing that you describe in your post as a limited one-to-one view. It reminded me of the people – black and white – who call black folks the Son of Ham (and not metaphorically either) as a way to explain racial oppression. So in other words, I’m not inclined to believe that these kinds of cause-and-effect judgments go anywhere productive.

    I find the idea of what you call “collective karmic histories” to also be challenging (because after all, I’m not sitting under the bodhi-tree yet either) but a little more comprehensible. I can really see what you’re saying about karma being “all about the meta-level” but in a way that motivates and inspires, not just assigns blame. I’m so glad you mentioned those who, during slavery, spoke out, acted differently, and rose above the status quo to end the institution. I only hope that I can be so brave in my own life!

    Thanks again for posting this. I really, really appreciate hearing your thoughts.

  5. @ Claudia_m: my pleasure! And thank you for raising an important question that touches on so many issues near-and-dear to my heart (Buddhism, American history, slavery, morality). It’s easy for folks to just say “karma is cause and effect” without reflecting on the ramifications of “effects” like slavery. So thanks for sparking a conversation, an opportunity to wrestle with some difficult parts of the path.

  6. @ Scott: Though I am nowhere near a Shinshu “scholar reader,”I too have been struck by this passage in the Tannisho and thought I would throw in a few thoughts. When you say It seems to me that our past actions and choices have created our current conditions in which we have necessarily limited choices. But we still have choices, I think that matches the intent of the passage exactly.

    What I believe is going on in this discussion is Shinran wants to let Yuien see that 1) being able to differentiate between good or evil courses of action is karmically determined and 2)the choice of any particular action (beyond our own judgments of them as good or evil) is equally karmically determined.

    So I think it’s not so much that Yuien could not possibly choose to be a mass murderer as that his karmic past does not afford him that choice at all. If free will means having unrestrained choice or freedom of action, and therefore can “rationally” choose the best course of action, then Shinran seems to be saying there’s no such thing… I think Shinran would say that free will (as I’ve characterized) is all well and good but in the age of mappo isn’t worth as much as it used to in Shakyamuni’s time. Thus all the more reason to rely on Amida and the nembutsu.

    One last point that has not yet come up in the excellent discussion so far is that our ignorance of karma applies as equally to our “karmic futures as our”karmic histories” – so trying to judge the best course of action by its probable result is as futile as trying to grasp our entire karmic heritage.

    I’m not sure how to bring this back to the slavery question, but I think one way to do so is to think about the conditions that made slavery possible at that point in time, and what choices were available or not available to those involved in the slave trade, and of course to the lingering effects of the Middle Passage on those of us living today.

    Thanks to Scott for the post, Claudia for the question and David for bringing up that Tannisho passage. Incidentally Scott I would love to see the work in Japanese on the question of past karma and discrimination so please point the way!

  7. Most Buddhist treatments of the question of free will seem to take a kind of middle road approach to the question, that our paths are neither determined nor do we have completely free choice. The boat metaphor is a good one: you can set an overall course, but it’s pretty hard to stop on a dime or make radical changes in direction due to all the forces in play. I guess we can take the historic conditions of Shinran’s time into account as well: Kamakura Japan was a time of frequent natural disasters and wars and most people had very little control over their lives. Such a time is bound to bring out the more fatalistic dimension of the doctrine of karma.

    Sometimes I think that the whole doctrine of karma is simply a way of personalizing interdependence. Since self clinging is the root of ego, we might not take the good or evil effects of our actions on others as seriously as we would if we thought they would be visited upon us personally in the future or in our next life. Since there is no self, there really is no one to be the recipient of past good or evil deeds: it is just the living out of mutual interdependence.

    There is something that has always struck me as being unsatisfying about the doctrine of karma as it is frequently taught, particularly how it pertains to rebirth. Because we do not remember our past lives, we really have no way of knowing what (if anything) it was that we did to deserve to have a chronic, painful illness, or to be an African captured and enslaved during the time of the middle passage. Likewise, in our future lives, we will not remember our current life, and thus we cannot really say that we will experience reward or punishment for our actions we perform at present, outside of what we experience in this life. Is that really a just system? Inevitably, such a view ends up blaming victims for their misfortune, and justifying the wealthy and successful.

    I think a broader view of karma, much like you offered in your post, is much more satisfying than this reward/punishment model.

  8. @ Wamae: “so trying to judge the best course of action by its probable result is as futile as trying to grasp our entire karmic heritage.” Excellent point!

    A friend of mine did his MA thesis on Shinran’s view of karma, and I know one of the things he was interested in was Hansen’s disease. I thought we had a copy here at the IBS, but we couldn’t find it. They have one up the hill at the GTU (http://tinyurl.com/ln83f3) or you might find it through UMI. I’m sure most of his citations were in Japanese, the ones I alluded to before. If I can get my hands on it in the short run, I’ll look through and see what I can dig up. (Or perhaps my friend will read this blog and comment…? But he’s no doubt too busy with wife, child, running a temple in Japan, and changing the world!)

    @ David: whenever I try and wrap my head around karma, I find it a deeply humbling experience given its complexity, its ability to throw into question things we often taken for granted or act like they’re a given (i.e., free will). Thanks much for your comments!

  9. On this one book I was reading, it stated the notion of interdependence and karma like so:

    To restate the truth taught by Śākyamuni [Buddha], all things are brought into existence based on a wide range of causes and conditions. All things (all dharmas), whether they be psychic or material phenomena, occur because various elements harmonize temporarily in specific conditions. Not being established for more than an instant, they absolutely do not exist as fixed, unchanging substances. Therefore, once the provisional combination disintegrates, all phenomena disappear at once. In this way, all dharmas are in a continual state of flux.

    So things like slavery and such are not the cause of linear, one-to-one relationships and such. It’s not that Africans were somehow “bad” in a past life, and this is their reward. There’s so many disparate causes and conditions, so many actors and such involved that harmonized in such a way that led to the institution we call slavery. Later, these causes led to additional causes that harmonized in such a way to produce the abolition of slavery (and none too soon).

    Like you said, DJ, totally mind-blowing and humbling.

  10. Pingback: Karma explained « Breathe

  11. I’m finding this conversation endlessly fascinating! I am especially intrigued by David’s recent point: Sometimes I think that the whole doctrine of karma is simply a way of personalizing interdependence.

    Please forgive me for posing what is probably a very basic question: but I’m wondering how the idea of samsara is understood alongside these interdependent karmic relationships. Would it make sense, for instance, to see atrocities like the Middle Passage or the Holocaust as a massive manifestation of the “unexpected” expected sufferings of ordinary human life (1st Noble Truth)?

  12. @ Claudia_m: Whew! That’s really not a basic question! At least not for me!

    I think samsara is understood in two separate but related ways: either the round of rebirth, the six realms of rebirth, various hell realms, etc., etc.; or merely the antithesis of nirvana which is beyond the cycle of birth and death. The trouble is that in the former, you have to deal with a decidedly un-modern cosmology; and in the latter you have to deal with the nature of awakening. Big questions!

    But I like your “unexpected” take. It seems to me that that’s part of the issue, in a general sense. That, due to the complexity of karmic connections, we can’t really “expect” to know what will happen. Plus, human beings being the limited, short-sighted, foolish beings we are, we tend to not always make the best decisions. Multiply that by all the billions of people on the planet, and I definitely think you have the formula for massive manifestations of atrocities that are seemingly beyond our control.

    This is an endlessly fascinating topic. That’s for bringing it up!

    Any other thoughts out there?

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