Each of us individually and all of us collectively are responsible for the difficulties our species faces.
That we are in this together, that we vow to take this journey together, not blaming one another but, rather, embracing our collective karmic responsibility, with a long view to its positive outcome, may be one way to approach the path to our liberation.
Historically, Buddhism has been a religion of liberation, but liberation is an English word, a translation of mok?a, which in the traditionally Buddhist context has carried a distinct religious meaning, having to do with release from suffering, in particular the suffering of existence itself, defined as release from the continual cycle of rebirth. Liberation in the Western context has also signified release from suffering, but in the modern context this has often carried the connotation of liberation from social, political, and economic oppression.
These two senses of liberation are not mutually exclusive. There have been Asian Buddhists who have worked to liberate suffering beings from forms of worldly oppression within the framework of its traditional soteriology. In the modern context, Western forms of social and environmental activism have combined with Buddhist thought and practice, resulting in what is known as Engaged Buddhism. This has led to the development of Buddhist movements to address social inequality and the creation of specific programs in such areas as Buddhist chaplaincy, hospice, and the empowerment of Buddhist nuns.
Now may be an opportune moment to reexamine what liberation signifies as Buddhism continues to evolve. In particular, this is so because global society may be at a crossroads regarding some of the assumptions that have driven the development of human culture. It is not news to say we face many challenges, including climate change, peak oil, water shortages, nuclear radiation fallout, overcrowding, and the global financial crisis. Even compared with a few decades ago, many experts concur that the challenges we face today are formidable. Leading organizations, such as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), have delivered assessments that it is already too late to avoid impending drastic, negative consequences of our collective cultural actions.1 Even if we were able to implement the best available technology, it would not be enough. Add to this the cultural and political obstacles we face, and there remains limited hope of stemming the tide of destructive consequences that the human species has unleashed.
A Problem of Karma
The modern mind-set is a problem-solving one. In many ways, the human species in our technological, information, and Internet age has become the most successful problem-solving species in the history of evolution, but we may be reaching the limits of this approach to life.
Among the millions of species that have come and gone, we have come to dominate the earth's resources in unprecedented fashion. What took the ecosystem hundreds of millions of years to produce - crude oil - we have likely consumed half or more within just a century or two. We are the largest force bringing accelerated changes to the climate, and these changes are occurring so quickly that we may not be able to adapt to them. Is the human species so exceptional that we can consume planetary resources to such an extent and yet expect to continue on our current trajectory?
From a Buddhist perspective, we can view the current situation in terms of karma. Although we knew of many of the impending problems decades ago, as a species we have failed to address our karmic circumstances. Whether because of greed or ignorance, we have failed to act, in our own best interests or in the interests of the biosphere. Buddhist conceptions of karma suggest that there are possibilities for reframing our dilemma.
Time and Karmic Evolution: The Long View
When we consider the history of Buddhist thought, the current turn of events is not entirely unexpected. Both in the early teachings of the Nikaya literature2 and in the later Mahayana, the predominant theme is of karmic decline over time, not progress. This stands in contrast to the modern Western view of history, which has generally been progressive. The current crises appear to be overwhelming because they raise serious questions about our progressive expectations that we will always be able to create a better world for future generations. Thus, the Buddhist view of decline may be easier to reconcile with current trends in such areas as climate change and resource depletion. Yet, how can Buddhists remain optimistic if their dominant narrative has been one of continual karmic decline?
In order to answer this question, it is necessary to understand the assumptions behind the modern Western view of time, that time is (1) real, (2) linear, and (3) progressive. (1) Time, and in particular history, for the modern consciousness is imbued with a sense of ontological reality: historical events really happen in a permanent way, so that once something happens, it is a fact that cannot be undone. (2) Time is linear, so that once something happens, it becomes a permanent part of the past, upon which the future is built. (3) Although there are ups and downs, the predominant tone of Western history is that there is real progress, in technology, economic prosperity, and social equality.
Buddhist views of time, especially as found in East Asian Mahayana, tend to differ dramatically. (1) It is perceived that time is illusory, a human construct, and therefore not fixed but fluid. (2) In the long view, time is generally described in cyclical terms, so that events in time have a repetitive, rather than unique, character. (3) In the current phase of time, we are in a period of karmic decline. References to karmic decline begin with the early Nikaya literature and become formalized in the later Mahayana Buddhist notion of the Three Dharma Ages:3 the period of the True Dharma, followed by the Semblance Dharma, and then the Final Dharma (Ch., mofa; Jpn., mappo), in which there is not even the semblance of proper practice. In this Final Age, there is corruption in Buddhist institutions, social disorder, and even disruptions in climate, all caused by human folly and excess. Exceptional individuals may be quite enlightened; it is the collective karma of the species that dooms it to self-destruction.4
In Buddhism the long view of human karmic evolution is positive, since all beings eventually attain buddhahood, having exhausted the karmic inertia of rebirth, but this long view is potentially cosmic in scale. This combination of shorter-term karmic decline but longer-term awakening can have a salutary effect on present awareness: all karmic actions still matter; no matter what one does, actions still carry consequences. Good actions beget positive results; destructive actions beget suffering. However, one cannot predict when these consequences will result. They could occur within one lifetime, or they could take many lifetimes.
One might suppose that since all beings inevitably attain enlightenment, one can do anything one wants. Yet anyone with a conscience surely wants to do good and wants one's efforts to make a difference. For most people, consequences do matter. Ultimately, expanding the scope of the consequences of one's actions into future lifetimes, out to a cosmic scale, makes one realize that the worthiness of the action itself is what matters, not the expectation for an immediate result. Because one cannot control when the consequences will bear fruit, one can focus only on the quality of the action and the attention one gives it in the present moment. Results do matter, but they will take care of themselves.
The Buddha: The Great Hesitation and Karmic Revolution
The view of human karmic limitations in the present that complements the long view of karmic consequences became formalized in the theory of the Three Dharma Ages, but precursors can be seen in the earliest history of Buddhism, beginning with the Buddha himself. One of the most intriguing moments occurred immediately after his enlightenment, as the Awakened One contemplated his future direction. When, after six long years in search of enlightenment, Siddhartha Gautama awoke from his meditation under the Bodhi tree and became Sakyamuni Buddha, his first impulse was not to go out and share his realization of liberation. Rather, his initial response was to remain silent, living out his days as a wandering mendicant, having broken the bonds of attachment to a self he discovered never existed in the first place. According to the account found in the Nikaya literature,
when the Blessed One was newly Self-awakened . . . this line of thinking arose in his awareness: "This Dhamma that I have attained is deep, hard to see, hard to realize, peaceful, refined, beyond the scope of conjecture, subtle, to-be-experienced by the wise. . . . For a generation delighting in attachment, . . . this/that conditionality and dependent co-arising are hard to see. This state, too, is hard to see: the resolution of all fabrications, . . . the ending of craving; dispassion; cessation; Unbinding. And if I were to teach the Dhamma and if others would not understand me, that would be tiresome for me, troublesome for me."5
This was the moment of the Buddha's Great Hesitation immediately following his Great Awakening, which, if he had remained there, would have resulted in a world without Buddhism. This hesitation can be seen in terms of his karmic awareness. On the one hand, he may have understood the karmic limitations of his circumstances, the inability of those he would teach as well as his own inability to lead them: "For a generation delighting in attachment, . . . this/that conditionality and dependent co-arising are hard to see. . . . if others would not understand me, that would be . . . troublesome for me." On the other, the Buddha's awareness of karmic limitations may have been inseparable from his sense of karmic responsibility. The deeper he became aware of others' and his own attachments and ignorance, the more he became aware of his responsibility for liberating all beings. Finally, he made the determination to go forth and teach, taking cosmic responsibility for the unending chain of karmic consequences.
The concerns he expressed in his moment of great hesitation turned out to be prescient. As the sangha grew and the Buddha continued to teach, he faced many difficulties. He witnessed the invasion of his father's kingdom by the larger, neighboring Kosala kingdom. At first the Buddha was successful in peaceably turning back the Kosala army, but the army returned repeatedly, and eventually it would not be denied.6 Within the sangha, his own cousin Devadatta plotted to usurp the Buddha's authority and to steal away his monks.
Of course, the Kosala army's aggression was not his fault; neither were his cousin's jealousy and ambition. Yet, one could say, the Buddha saw them as belonging within the larger circle of his karmic responsibility. If he had been the perfect teacher, might he have been able to show the Kosala army the meaninglessness of their aggression? If he had been a truly great teacher, might he have been able to diffuse Devadatta's jealousy and lead him to enlightenment? If indeed the Buddha had his karmic limitations as a teacher, then how much more so the sangha as a whole as it grew larger, more complex, composed of individuals with varying degrees of spiritual maturity.
Perhaps the Buddha, in the moment of his awakening, had already anticipated the potential troubles that would follow and the eventual decline of the sangha and society. Nevertheless, what began as a moment of Great Hesitation became the moment of Karmic Revolution, the Turning of the Wheel of the Dharma, in which the Buddha took the long view, the cosmic view, of his karmic responsibility and of the fact that each karmic action, however great or small, would bear the stamp of his commitment to help liberate all sentient beings.
The figure of Devadatta, the Buddha's evil cousin, became emblematic in Mahayana Buddhism of the sense that the karmic chain of cause and effect ultimately includes everyone, that one's own liberation is inseparable from that of all others. For example, in the Lotus Sutra, Devadatta appears as a holy seer who becomes a bodhisattva. The Buddha expounds:
Throughout those many eons I was a king who vowed to seek unexcelled awakening. . . .
Then a seer came to the king and said: "I have a [Mahayana] sutra named the Lotus Flower of the Wonderful Dharma. If you will obey me, I will explain it for you." Hearing what the seer said, the king became ecstatic with joy. . . .
The king at that time was me and the seer was the present Devadatta. Because Devadatta was a good friend to me I was able to become fully developed in the six transcendental practices, in kindness, compassion, joy, and impartiality. . . . That I have attained impartial, proper awakening and saved many of the living is due to my good friend Devadatta.7
If we read this account of Devadatta as the Buddha's teacher or bodhisattva and reflect on the earlier Nikaya account, we might say that in the moment of the Buddha's karmic revolution, in his commitment to the Turning of the Wheel of the Dharma, deep down he vowed to follow his cousin until he could see his cousin's karma as his own, such that the Buddha's true liberation could not occur without Devadatta's. At a practical level, it would not do to condone Devadatta's insurrection, for the sake of either the sangha or Devadatta. At the level of religious awareness, however, to simply treat Devadatta as evil (and the Buddha as good) would be to fail to see the deep karmic intertwinings between the Buddha's own life and his cousin's.
Similarly, Shinran, the Japanese Pure Land teacher, interpreting the story of Devadatta, states in the preface to his major work, the Kyogyoshinsho:
I reflect within myself: The universal Vow difficult to fathom is indeed a great vessel bearing us across the ocean difficult to cross. . . . Thus . . . when conditions for the teaching of birth in the Pure Land had matured, Devadatta provoked Ajatasatru to commit grave crimes. And when the opportunity arose for explaining the pure act by which birth is settled, Sakyamuni led Vaidehi to select the land of peace. In their selfless love, these incarnated ones - Devadatta, Ajatasatru, Vaidehi - all aspired to save the multitudes of beings from pain and af?iction, and in his compassion, Sakyamuni . . . sought indeed to bless those committing the five grave offenses, . . . and those lacking the seed of Buddhahood.8
Like the rendering of Devadatta in the Lotus Sutra, the Buddha's cousin appears to Shinran against the cosmic background of the Buddha's karmic responsibility to "transform our evil into virtue" of those "lacking the seed of Buddhahood." As a teacher who brings this lesson to sentient beings, Devadatta is said to act out of "selfless love."
The moment of karmic revolution is the moment in which the separation between the Awakened One and the evil cousin is dissolved in the mutual embrace of karmic responsibility, in which one is able to take the long view of karmic evolution that renders meaningful each act of karmic responsibility and its lasting consequences. Good deeds will not go wasted, destructive action will inevitably bear consequences.
In terms of the great challenges of our day, each of us individually and all of us collectively are responsible for the difficulties our species faces. That we are in this together, that we vow to take this journey together, not blaming one another but, rather, embracing our collective karmic responsibility, with a long view to its positive outcome, may be one way to approach the path to our liberation.
According to the Buddhist view presented here, which is only one of many possibilities, we cannot "fix" the world or "save" the planet any more than we can save ourselves from our collective folly. Rather, by seeing through the illusion of a separate world in need of fixing to a world beyond the categories that separate ourselves from others, we may be able, each in our own small way, to attend to each being and situation within the great circle of our karmic responsibility. That does not mean abandoning our efforts to contribute to a world in need or going back to a traditional view of Buddhism that refuses to recognize the suffering in this world. Whether one takes a more traditional approach or one like that of Engaged Buddhism, this essay simply aims to stimulate re?ection on what liberation might mean in light of the Buddha's Great Hesitation and of the long and the short of karmic r/evolution.
Today, many of us take for granted the use of smartphones, the wireless Internet, and all of our other convenience appliances as if we had always had them. But really, they are recent inventions, as is the human species itself, and our time on this planet may be briefer than we think. Our existence within the great life of this planet and the vast arc of the universe is but a blink of an eye. What will we do with our moment as homo sapiens, within the larger scope of our karmic trajectory?
1. IPCC, http://www.ipcc.ch/publications_and_data/ar4/syr/en/spm.html, accessed January 8, 2012.
2. Samyutta Nikaya: An Anthology by M. O'C. Walshe, SN 16.13, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/walshe?/wheel318.html#passage-23, accessed January 7, 2012.
. See, for example, D. M. Brown and I. Ishida, trans., The Future and the Past: A Translation and Study of the Gukansho, an Interpretative History of Japan Written in 1219
(Berkeley: University of California Press, 1979).
. It is not only Buddhism that takes a declining view of time. Many other Asian religions, including Hinduism, Confucianism, and Daoism, take a similar view, harkening back to a Golden Age in the past and describing a trajectory of spiritual and social decline thereafter.
. Thanissaro Bhikkhu, trans., "Ayacana Sutta," Samyutta Nikaya
6.1, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka?/sn/sn06/sn06.001.than.html, accessed January 7, 2012.
. D. D. Kosambi, The Culture and Civilisation of Ancient India in Historical Outline
(New Delhi: Vikas Publishing House, 1988), 128-29.
. Gene Reeves, trans., The Lotus Sutra: A Contemporary Translation of a Buddhist Classic
(Boston: Wisdom Publications, 2008), 247-49.
. Dennis Hirota et al., trans., preface to The True Teaching, Practice, and Realization of the Pure Land Way,
in vol. 1 of The Collected Works of Shinran
(Kyoto: Hongwanji International Center, 1997), 3.
Mark Unno received his PhD from Stanford University and is Associate Professor of Japanese Buddhism in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Oregon. His research is in classical Japanese Buddhism, in particular key practices in Shin Buddhism, Shingon, and Zen. He also works in the areas of comparative religious thought, Buddhism and psychotherapy, and interreligious dialogue. He is the author of Shingon Refractions: Myoe and the Mantra of Light (2004), the editor of Buddhism and Psychotherapy Across Cultures (2006), as well as a writer and translator of articles in the foregoing fields.
This article was originally published in the April-June 2012 issue of Dharma World.