Rita Gross: The present is an effect, and we can’t always ascertain exactly why the present is as it is. But how we deal with the present becomes the cause of future effect. So that to me is one of the most important clarifications about what karma is and isn’t. You know, if somebody has been mean to us, we don’t necessarily know why, but how we deal with that difficult situation will have a lot to do with how we feel in the future and how our relationships with other people will work in the future. That’s why Thich Nhat Hanh says we shouldn’t ever take out our frustrations by punching pillows, because all we’re doing is imprinting in our mind that it’s okay to react or hit when we are angry.
Andrew Olendzki: In classical Buddhist psychology, karma is explained in terms of the relationship between what we might call mental states and mental traits. The state of what is manifest in the mind, the emotion of anger or hatred or love, has an effect on your behavior, whether through body, speech, or mind—and that lays down a disposition, a character trait. A behavior has been learned, has been reinforced, and so downstream when you are called upon to respond to a situation, if you have watered those seeds with a lot of anger, you’re going to be inclined to be an angry person who has angry responses, and the whole thing will just cascade. But if you’re able to cultivate states of mind that are kind, you’re laying down dispositions—habits, as it were—that are kind, and those will more likely be triggered.
Rita Gross: I think the word “habit” is really important here. When we do something over and over, it becomes habitual and therefore much easier to repeat. So the seeds we choose to water—Trungpa Rinpoche used to use this analogy, too— makes a lot of difference. Here’s where the role of practice is so important. Without the ability to see what’s going on and catch ourselves, which is an experience we develop through meditation practice, we tend to be very reactive to our environment. When that happens, we only reinforce the habits we’re already familiar with and aren’t able to turn our habits in a more positive direction.
Andrew Olendzki: I agree. What meditation is doing is training us to be aware of what’s going on. We can get through the day pretty well without being aware of what’s happening; all of our habits are automatic responses. We don’t have to pay attention, but when we do, we have the chance to alter our habits, which is what makes the practice transformational.
Rita Gross: And that’s what makes it possible to let some seeds wither and others flourish.
Rita Gross: I do think it’s important to separate karma from rebirth to a certain extent. The deeds that I do in this life will not die with me or my body. They will continue into the future, whether or not there is personal rebirth. Someone will reap the effects of the things I’ve done or haven’t done in this life, and that to me is motivation enough to do the best I can with the situation I have right now.
Larry Ward: My approach to the rebirth question is to come back to the present, to the states and traits that Andy presented earlier. The question for me, from a meditative practice point of view, is if a state of hatred or irritation or anger comes up, is that state going to be reborn—not next year, but in the next moment? One way to understand rebirth is as an existential present moment, in terms of the continuation of wholesome momentum or unwholesome momentum. So rebirth can be understood in the present tense as well as in the long term.
Andrew Olendzki: Well said, Larry. I think these days a lot of us are rethinking this very question, given the challenges of explaining rebirth in a literal sense. Many of us are thinking of it more moment to moment—every single mind-moment is a rebirth, a new beginning, and the question that comes up in the literature is, are you the same person now that you were ten years ago? Or ten minutes ago? And how is who you are now going to affect who you are going to become ten minutes or ten years from now? That’s very valuable to think about, and it’s very helpful to practice with so that you bring the best possible quality of mind to every moment. In this way you do your best to work with whatever you’ve inherited from the past and also maximize your benefit to the future.