This is part of a series reflecting on God-talk and Buddhist terminology. It is an opening to dialogue, not a final word on the subject.
Karma is such a heavy word in so many ways. And it gets tossed around quite a bit. When you toss around heavy things, there is likely to be some damage as a result. I will try to handle it with care.
Karma in the Buddhist sense of the word is at its simplest the notion of cause and effect. Only in Buddhism, these are different sides of the same coin. Both come into existence simultaneously, one is simply delayed in manifesting in a visible way.
In the case of karma from harmful behavior how often you engage in such a particular behavior, how you feel about what you've done, whether you have regretted your actions and made amends, and whether you have worked to oppose such harmful consequences and promote beneficial ones can lessen the impact of the karmic effect of your actions. The opposite can intensify the karmic effect.
A similar pattern holds true for the effects of beneficial behavior, and sometimes this is referred to as merit rather than karma. Yet both forms of karma can be the basis of unhealthy and destructive attachments. This is easier to appreciate for negative karma, but it is true for merit as well when we get want to get credit and recognition for our good deeds.
This is seen in the story of a king who asks how much merit he will get for building grand Buddhist shrines and temples. He is told he will receive none. The Bible has similar stories of people who want to increase their social status and see their piety and alms as a cause for boasting. Truly those people have already received their reward, Jesus tell his disciples. In other words, it was a worthless offering in the sight of God.
Which brings us to the question of how karma and God might be related.
The key here and throughout the series is the propensity of Biblical authors to personify the things they write about as aspects of God. So, then, it's similar to karma except that karma exists because of God as a part of God, and it is referred to not as karma but as righteousness.
This also brings up the issue of when people are called righteous in the Bible, which, if we follow this line of reasoning, means that that they are accruing merit rather than destructive karma. Killing, stealing, lying, jealousy--generally the same things that bring about painful karmic consequences in Buddhism being about painful divine justice in Christianity. And being self-righteous is akin to what I like to call being Bodhier-than-thou, wherein one is righteous only in one's deluded thoughts.
Buddhism teaches that the poisons of greed, anger and ignorance keep us mired in karmic effects. Our avarice and aversion towards what we experience, based on an egocentric perspective in which we are the center of our own self-made worlds, keep us trapped in these prisons. Prisons with no locks or bars except those which we fashion for ourselves. There is a hole in the center of our sense of self that we cannot fill, so we continue developing unhealthy attitudes, often translated as attachments, to things that we try to possess in order to give us at least a temporary sense of fulfillment.
Yet the things at which we grasp are impermanent, conditioned forms which are ephemeral, and so we are disappointed and frustrated in our ambitions. Buddhism teaches people to seek that which gives rise to the conditioned, to that which isn't governed by cause and effect, that which is unconditioned. The Platform Sutra gives a wonderful description of seeking the thought or mind that is nowhere supported.
The Biblical account is, without a doubt, a bit bloodier. But the underlying premise is familiar. Those who seek to build their little worlds as monuments to themselves and to seek satisfaction in fleeting things will incur the wrath of God--the reality of impermanence and the effect of karma. Their worlds will crumble and as they sowed, so will they reap. This wrath is naturally reserved for the unrighteous, whereas the righteous are to be spared. Isn't is interesting how different this can sound as a simple mechanical fact of the universe rather than as a personified attribute of God? Even when the basic process and outcome is the same?
This is especially true when we face the specter of imprecatory prayer, also known as cursing prayer. Examples of this are found in the Psalms and constitute some of the most disturbing words and images of the Bible. I have spent time looking into this to learn what I could about the different interpretations given to these Psalms. For those who simply see God as a cosmic judge who must execute a human-like law, they read it literally. Yet the Christian tradition has tended to reject this view, despite some popular proponents. And many who hold this view then concede that Jesus bore that judgment, thus becoming the object of these curses and taking away any legitimate claim to revenge anyone might hold against another.
Others have suggested that the Psalms do not deny or shy away from deep pain and its resulting emotions, teaching people how to bear their burdened hearts to God by giving them the words to legitimize and express their feelings without giving themselves over to rage or despair, as these Psalms generally end by praising and trusting God.
To go into the nuances the of the theological implications of these kinds of explanations is beyond the scope of this series, but there are similar practices in Buddhism, such as the popular meditation many people know as tonglen. By meditating on and identifying with the hurt and confusion of these cursing Psalms, especially by honestly recognizing instances when one has felt irrationally outraged or bitter in ones own heart, sympathy and compassion can emerge. By absorbing that pain like dark some into the heart, sitting with it, and then taking the transmuted energy and releasing it as loving light, one can grow in paramitas, the perfections of the Buddhist heart and mind.
Of course, it is not easy and at times undesirable to identify with some the dirtier, uglier and unpleasant aspects of our existence, let alone those discomforting reflections in other people and places. Yet to truly seek the Dharma, to seek the will and the law of God, and to pursue righteousness, these uncomfortable places must be explored.
And then, there is perhaps one of the most disconcerting realizations of all: the law of karma, the righteousness of God, sometimes seems broken. This is what gives rise to feeling indignant, to feeling cheated, to feeling betrayed, the very feelings which are typically at the root of the imprecatory prayers of the Psalms.
In Buddhism, this is answered by the notion that the karmic seeds planted in one life can follow us into the next. In the Judeo-Christian tradition, this kind of logic can to apply to inter-generational blessings and curses. But what about other causes?
In both Buddhism and Christianity, there is the notion that enlightened beings or agents of God may disguise themselves to give us trials for a chance to make up for past karma or sin and to grow through challenge. Job, for example, is righteous, yet he receives many painful blows in life. He remains faithful to God, and to make that less opaque, he remains faithful to what he knows to be true in his heart, in the core of his being. God does not give him the kind of straight-forward answers we all wish for sometimes, but rather a direct insight into who and what God is.
In the Buddhist tradition, Shakyamuni also does not give easy answers to the WHY ME? questions that plagued his followers. In the story of Kisa Gotami, a young woman by that names grieves endlessly over her lost son and begs the the Buddha to give her a cure to revive him. He says he will so if she brings him a handful of mustard seed from a home that has never know the grief of death. House after house, she finds no such family and after a period of dejection, returns to the Buddha to learn his teaching on going beyond birth and death.
In the end, karma and righteousness provide lessons which can, when understood properly, prepare one for more profound insights into the nature of human existence. They point beyond themselves to a more mature and generous perspective. But only to those who face such lessons directly and openly. (Or so I gather.) When one is willing to repent, to sincerely grieve their errors, make amends, and change the direction of their life, one is on the path that leads to salvation.