Berkeley Zen Center

Lecture by Sojun Roshi

Berkeley Zen Center, January 26, 1991

This lecture is reprinted from the December 2001 Berkeley Zen Center Newsletter.

This morning we had the Bodhisattva Ceremony, the ceremony of acknowledging our actions and renewing our intention. In the ceremony, we acknowledge our tangled karma and renew our intention, or our vow of practice. I say intention because vow is a pretty strong term. But we can all be included under the word, "intention." Of course, we have good intentions which someday may turn into vows. In any case, I would like to talk about the word karma, which I speak about often because it's bound up with our intention as a Buddhist, or someone who acts as a Buddhist or thinks like a Buddhist. How does someone who feels this way relate to something like the conditions of war? Karma is a very important factor in how we think and act. Strictly speaking, karma means volitional action. This means an action that comes from our intention. The actions which come from our intentions are classified as either good actions, bad actions, or neutral actions. At all times, we are giving rise to good actions, bad actions, or neutral actions. This is the Buddhist classification.

Actions, because of the laws of cause and effect, lead to results. The results of any action come back to the performer of the action, in some form or another. This is called "retribution," something that comes back to us from our actions. You can call it the results. When the result appears, it is called phala, or the "fruit." We may experience the results of our actions immediately or some time in the future. Or the result may appear in such a distant future that we puzzle over why something happens to us even though we think, "We didn't do anything." We don't always know why something is happening to us. But it is easier when the results are immediate and we know what the cause is. For someone who practices Buddhadharma, it is very important to be careful about what our intentional, volitional actions are, because they always produce results. So if we want good results for ourselves and others, then we have to be careful to know the difference between right and wrong and to make an effort to produce good actions, good karma. It's not always possible to do so, but it's important to make the effort.

So-called bad karma has three roots: the root of greed, the root of anger or ill will, and the root of delusion. Greed produces lust for things. Ill will produces bad feelings and harm to other beings. Delusion is like ignorance, not knowing what the effects of karma are, and how we contributre to our own suffering. These are the three roots. And the three wholesome roots are moderation, goodwill, and knowledge or understanding. As Buddhists we should always be cultivating the three good roots, and not cultivating the three poisonous roots. When we are faced with a problem such as our country going to war, we are faced with a powerful vortex which the country becomes involved in. Unless we are firmly rooted in right understanding and a desire to see and act in a wholesome way, it is very easy to get sucked into the vortex and give way to creating bad karma.

In the present conflict there are elements of greed, ill will, and delusion, which no one can deny. So how do we keep ourselves free from being sucked into the vortex of greed, ill will, and delusion? Greed is for power and material things. In this case, using self-defense for self gain. Ill will is a tool to arouse emotion. We see this done when so-and-so is simplistically and misleadingly called "Hitler" or "evil." Believing this or even taking this seriously is delusion, exacerbated by ill will and in the name of greed. We have to be very careful not be fooled by things and to maintain our perspective. There is also what is sometimes called group karma or national karma, although strictly speaking, this is not really karma, because karma is an act by an individual. The retribution of an act always returns to the individual actor. My karma produces a result that comes back to me. Still, loosely speaking, we can talk about national or group karma, where a whole group of people takes action with results that return to that nation or group. I think it is important how we respond to the feeling of the time, whether we contribute to it or resist.

Everyone will be affected by this conflict that we are in now. I can't say what everyone should do. Each one of us needs to make a decision for our self as to what our own attitudes are. Someone might ask, "What is the Buddhist attitude, what is the doctrine, what is the party line for a Buddhist?" I would say that each one of us should follow our own conscience, based on our Buddhist understanding. It's important for each one of us to be true to our own convictions, according to our understanding. I think we should all try to understand more deeply what the true causes of this conflict are. It is easy to get caught up in the artificial aspects. Rattling the sword and blowing the trumpet rouses great feelings of bravado and patriotism but makes it more difficult to look at the underlying issues. It is when the water is still that we can see to the bottom. To understand what is happening, we need to look impartially beneath the surface and see the deeper causes. One obvious effect of our nation's karma as cause, is the backlash of people whose natural resources we have been exploiting, whose societies we have been destroying, and who have felt humiliated by our arrogant and mindless pursuit of wealth and power. We are taking the role of the world's bully, using force instead of diplomacy. We give the appearance of exploiting the populations of the "third world" for our own economic benefit. The sweat shops used by our overseas manufacturers is just one example of this kind of behavior.

If we don't examine our past actions and learn from them, we are bound to be revisited by the destructive forces that we set in motion, all the while thinking that we can do no evil. I think this is the practice of the ostrich.

If one is going to create karma, one should create good karma and promote peace. In George Orwell's book 1984, the leaders perversely exclaim that "War is peace," and the people believe it. Sometimes war is unavoidable. Sometimes killing is unavoidable. But is should be the last resort. Some people, even as a last resort will not support it. There are many examples in the history of Zen and Buddhism of people who were attacked by bandits or soldiers whose response was, "If you want to kill me, here is my head." I'm not saying that everyone can or should do that. You may feel that it's time to fight. But for someone who is promoting peace, war should be the last resort. One must try all other means first. Albert Einstein said, "One cannot prepare for war and peace at the same time." When we resort to the military to solve problems, we ignore other means. When we don't resort to arms we have to use other means and we have to figure out how to do it. When we have nothing, no weapons, we have to create peace. If we only use weapons to resolve conflicts, who needs to figure out peace? Why go to all the trouble? It's hard to go around unarmed, but if we are going to promote peace, then we have to keep our arms in obeyance. Otherwise it is too easy to reach for the sword, to reach for the weapon to solve the problem. All the great reformers accomplished their work without resorting to arms. It is incumbent on us to continue that tradition and bring it forth in our time.

Last revised January 7, 2002. Copyright 2000 Berkeley Zen Center.
Comments about this site to