Buddhist Meditations
Zen and karman
By Louis Nordstrom
13/07/2010 14:07 (GMT+7)
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Zen and karman

By Louis Nordstrom
Philosophy East and West
Volume 30,no.1
1980 January
(C) by University Press of Hawaii



        In the Zen school  great significance  is attributed
        to the realization of emptiness (`suunyataa) through
        meditation  (zazen).  In this article I will discuss
        the relationship  between  such realization  and the
        concept  of  karman.  In  the  first  section,  this
        relationship  will be dealt  with  on a more or less
        theoretical    level;    in    the    second,    the
        characteristically  Zen move will be made away  from
        the theoretical  toward  the level  of practice  and
        spiritual attainment.


        It would seem plausible to suppose that if the scope
        of  the  realization   of  emptiness  is  completely
        unrestricted, then  it must  extend  to the fact  of
        karman, in which case karman  must be seen as empty,
        like all other dharmas. Although this thesis appears
        unexceptionable, it turns out to be the source  of a
        good deal of controversy  within  the Zen school.  A
        Zen  figure  of  no  less  stature  than  Dogen, for
        example, emphatically  denies that karmic hindrances
        are empty.(1) He even claims that the belief  in the
        emptiness  of  karman  should  be  characterized  as
        "non-Buddhist."(2)  On  the  other  hand,  many  Zen
        masters  subscribe  to the  view  expressed  by Yoka
        Daishi   in  his  "Song   of  Enlightenment":  "When
        awakened  we find  karmic  hindrances  fundamentally
        Mu./But  when  not awakened, we must  repay  all our

            Dogen  has  two  kinds  of  objections   to  the
        emptiness   of  karman.   His  first  objection   is
        ontological: karmic hindrances  cannot be considered
        empty because  "something  we have produced"  cannot
        "have  emptiness  as its essential  nature."(4) This
        would  seem to exclude  from the scope  of emptiness
        everything   associated   with   agency,  will   and
        action--a  quite  significant  restriction   indeed.
        Since the root meaning  of "karman"  is action, this
        objection  amounts  to the  insistence  that  karman
        cannot be empty because action is something  we have
        produced, and something  we have produced  cannot be
        empty.  The  second  objection  is  moral: if karman
        (construed  now as the law of causation) were empty,
        then the necessary  practical  consequence  is moral
        laxity, complacency, and  antinomianism.(5) I  shall
        deal with these objection in reverse order.

            Dogen seems to feel that the emptiness of karman
        must be denied if karman is to serve as a foundation
        for  morality.  Or: karman  as moral  law cannot  be
        empty.  Now the trouble  with speaking  of karman as
        moral  law is that thereby  one commits  oneself  to
        seeing  its operation  as part of the very fabric of
        reality, which  in turn  commits  one to the kind of
        reification  and hypostatization  that is proscribed
        by the  realization  of emptiness.(6) The spirit  of
        emptiness  consists, I think, in the elimination  of
        all  reification  and hypostatization.  To say  that
        karman  is empty, or devoid  of own-being, means  in
        effect  that there is no "nature"  or "essence"  the
        term refers to or names. But the metaphor of karman


        as moral law seems  to reintroduce  essentialism  on
        the  ground  that  this  is necessary  if one  is to
        secure the objective status and independent  reality
        of karman.  Since  the  whole  point  of  emptiness,
        however, is to cut off our attachment  to the belief
        in the objective  status and independent  reality of
        dharmas, the  force  of the  metaphor  of karman  as
        moral   law  and  the  spirit   of  emptiness   seem

            If karman is not metaphorically  conceived of as
        the ground  of morality, then there is no reason for
        insisting  that  it be nonempty.  The problem, in my
        opinion, lies in the whole  enterprise  of grounding
        morality   and  in  the  assumption   that  morality
        requires  such  a ground;  it does not lie in karman
        itself.   If  we  take   the  spirit   of  emptiness
        seriously, then the attempt  to ground  morality  in
        karman, to the extent  that  it inevitably  involves
        reification  and  hypostatization, must, I think, be
        seen as deluded.  If the spirit  of emptiness  is to
        extend  to  morality, it must  be to  a "groundless"
        morality  in which there would no longer be any need
        to reify karman. At the very least it must remain an
        open  question   whether  morality   requires   such

            Another  way of putting  the problem would be to
        say that the metaphor of karman as moral law commits
        one  to  attributing  to  karman  a concreteness  of
        existence  which is incompatible  with the spirit of
        emptiness.  In  one  place  Dogen  seems  almost  to
        concede that karman is, in some sense, empty when he
        says  that  "basically  the  law  of karman  has  no
        concrete existence."(7) It is precisely the concrete
        existence  of karman  that is incompatible  with its
        being empty; and it is precisely such "concreteness"
        which  reification   and  hypostatization   seek  to
        effect.  Here  I think  one can say that  the entire
        metaphor of karman as moral law involves the fallacy
        of misplaced  concreteness, and that the whole point
        of the realization  of emptiness  is to see  through
        this pervasive  and insidious fallacy.  (I hasten to
        add: "the whole point"  from a theoretical  point of

            Dogen's  second  objection,  then,  turns  on  a
        certain  use to which  karman  is to be put (namely,
        being the ground of morality).  His claim is that if
        karman  were empty, it could not be put to that use;
        to which  the response  is that the question  of the
        emptiness or nonemptiness  of karman must be decided
        independently of any consideration of possible uses.
        If karman  cannot  both  be empty  and  the concrete
        ground  of morality, it is by no means  self-evident
        that  the  former  alternative  is  the  one  to  be
        rejected.  The  attempt  to deny  the  emptiness  of
        karman because  it conflicts  with the use of karman
        as the ground of morality involves  an inappropriate
        mixing of theoretical and practical considerations.

            I turn now to Dogen's  first  objection.  To say
        that  something   we  have  produced   cannot   have
        emptiness   as  its  essential   nature  amounts  to
        claiming  that agency, will, and action  have a kind
        of  reality  which  is  exempt  from  the  scope  of
        emptiness.  Dogen seems to be distinguishing between
        dharmas   which  we  have  not  produced-these   are
        empty--and those which we have produced.


        Is there  any validity  to this distinction? I think
        the only way we can make sense  of this  distinction
        is if karman  is no longer  seen as a dharma  in the
        world, but rather  as something  in some sense prior
        to the world.  That karman  should, in fact, be seen
        as prior  to the  world  in the sense  of being  the
        transcendental  condition of the possibility  of the
        human world has been persuasively argued in a recent
        unpublished  paper  by Bibhuti  Yadav.(8) If  it  is
        plausible  to restrict  the  scope  of emptiness  to
        dharmas  within  the world, and if it is indeed  the
        case that karman ought to be viewed  as prior to the
        world, then  perhaps  it becomes  possible  to claim
        that karman is not empty because  it is prior to the
        world.  I think there is, in fact, some plausibility
        to this view.

            According  to Yadav, the world comes  into being
        because of the fact of karman, which "signifies  the
        ego's  commitment  to bear  the  world  in the first
        person." (9) He goes on to claim that karman, as the
        fundamental  expression  of ego, is, like  the  ego,
        "existentially  a priori  in the  sense  that  it is
        presupposed  in all experience  and  therefore   the
        world   itself"(10)  We  would   do  well  here   to
        distinguish   two   senses   of  karman:  the  first
        referring  to action  prior  to the world, or action
        which  creates  the world  (Action), and  the second
        referring  to action  occurring  within that created
        world  (action) .   I  believe  Yadav  is  right  in
        insisting  that  the real thrust  of the concept  of
        karman  has to do with  the  first  sense  of karman
        rather  than  the second.  Moreover, even though  he
        does  not  deal  with  Zen, I  think  Yadav's  point
        captures  the spirit  of the Zen approach  to karman
        which seeks precisely  to uproot the karman prior to
        the world by undermining  "the ego's  commitment  to
        bear  the world  in the first  person";  undermining
        such  a commitment  is tantamount  to what Castaneda
        calls  "stopping  the  world;"  the whole  point  of
        meditation  practice  in Zen being nothing less than
        that of trying to stop the world.  Zen's fundamental
        interest   in  karman   is  on  this  a  priori   or
        transcendental level.

            We can now reconstruct Dogen's claim as follows:
        instead of saying that karma cannot be empty because
        actions  produced  by us cannot be so considered, we
        would  now say  rather  that  the production  of the
        world itself  through  Action  cannot  be considered
        empty  because   emptiness   applies   only  to  the
        posterior  not the a priori level.  I do not wish to
        argue  for  the  reasonableness  or  truth  of  this
        reconstructed claim.  What I would like to argue for
        is that, as far as Zen is concerned, whether  Action
        is in some static  sense  empty, what  is of crucial
        importance  is the fact that in a dynamic  sense  it
        must and can be made so through meditation practice.
        Indeed, the whole thrust of Zen practice is directed
        toward the realization  of the emptiness  of Action.
        The  Zen student  traces  action  to its  source  in
        Action  and then uproots  its source.  (I shall have
        more to say of this in the second section.)

            When  Action  has been rendered  empty, then the
        world  has been  stopped  and, to use the expression
        found   again  and  again  in  Zen  literature,  one
        realizes that "There is nothing at all."(11) Because
        karman  creates  the world  in the sense of creating
        the  permanent  ego-based  illusion  that  there  is
        something rather


        than  nothing, karman  is  more  the  enemy  of  the
        realization  of actual  nothingness  than  it is the
        enemy of the attainment  of virtue--at  least as far
        as Zen is concerned.  The reason  one's karman--good
        or bad--stands  in the way of enlightenment  is that
        it represents  the permanent  illusion that there is
        ultimately  something  rather than nothing.  What is
        the   characteristic   concern   of   Zen   is   the
        deconceptualization and deobjectification of karman.
        Freedom   from  karman   means   freedom   from  the
        objectification  of karman.  Such objectification is
        incompatible  with the spirit of emptiness.  Through
        meditation  practice  the student  learns how not to
        objectify  his karman  and his actions;  the  reason
        meditation  practice  can teach  this  all-important
        lesson  is that it is action  which  is itself  free
        from objectification and conceptualization.  Because
        meditation,    strictly    speaking,    cannot    be
        objectified, it  can  free  us from  the  pernicious
        habit  of objectifying  our  actions.  It is in this
        sense that meditation  practice  can be spoken of as
        being both karman-free and karman-freeing nonaction.
        It is ''doing nothing" (rather than "doing nothing")
        in the words  of the  contemporary  Zen master  Soen
        Nakagawa, who thus expresses the essence of Rinzai's
        notion    of   buji.(12)   Meditation    stops   the
        objectification  of action  by tracing  it  to  that
        Action  which is behind  such objectification;  that
        Action is equivalent to ego itself as creator of the
        dualistic  human world.  Such a world  is based on a
        mistake  built into the very nature  of ego: instead
        of participating  in and  uniting  with  the  actual
        nothingness,  we  create   something   by  willfully
        setting ourselves in opposition to it;  such willful
        opposition  is what is meant by karman(or Action) in
        its true ontological significance. Doing nothing, in
        this   context,   means   precisely    this   active
        participation   in  the  truth  of  nothingness   or
        emptiness. It is Non-Action which undoes what Action
        has done.  It does not create a world; it undoes the
        world that Action has created.


        What is ultimately  important in Zen is not whether,
        in  some  theoretical  sense, karman  is  empty, but
        whether, in  a  radical  practical  way, it  can  be
        realized  or actualized  as empty through meditation
        practice.  Another  way of putting  this would be to
        say  that  one shows, on the  practical  level, that
        karman  is empty  precisely  by uniting  with it;  a
        union  which  would  be impossible  were karman  not
        empty.  What precludes the possibility of such union
        is  simply   the  habit  of  objectification,  which
        separates  the agent from his action  and his action
        from  the formless  reality  of the universe.  It is
        this habit  that is broken  by meditation  practice.
        Once one no longer objectifies  his karman, then one
        is no longer separate  either from his action or his
        environment.  Such  union, I  suggest, characterizes
        the relevant  sense  in which, from  a Zen point  of
        view, there  is liberation  from  karman.  Far  what
        enslaves us about karman is our dualistic separation
        from  it.  By uniting  with  the fact  of karman  we
        reveal the truth of emptiness, which is nothing  but
        the truth of radical nonduality.


        To make this point clearer  I should like to turn to
        a brief consideration  of the koan from The Gateless
        Gate  known   as  "Hyakujo's   Fox."(13)

            This  koan  concerns  the  relationship  between
        karman and enlightenment.  In his commentary on this
        koan, Joshu  Sasaki  Roshi  says that what is at the
        heart  of it is the realization  that the world is a
        mistake.(14) It is a mistake in the sense that it is
        mis-taken  as an object, set over against a subject;
        without this mistake of objectification  there would
        be no world  at all.  If the world  is in essence  a
        mistake, then the task of the enlightened  person is
        to unite with the mistake. This need for a practical
        union with what is mis-taken  means that any attempt
        at  a theoretical  discussion  of  the  relationship
        between karman and enlightenment is pointless, since
        the  context  of the discussion--the world--is such
        that any statement  within this context  must itself
        be mistaken.  (Compare  Nietzsche's  "Everything  is
        false.") The point  is that the only way to undo the
        mistake  is to become it;  in so doing one expresses
        one's  understanding  that  "there  is  no  need  to
        realize truth" in a world which is mistaken.(15)

            The enlightened person can free himself from this
        mistake  by uprooting  all trace of objectification,
        but it is nonetheless  the case that he must live in
        that mistaken  world  and therefore  his way of life
        must involve, not an escape  from the world into the
        so-called  truth  of  enlightenment, but  a complete
        transcendence  of  truth  itself.  The  old  man  is
        enlightened  by Hyakujo's  response  to his question
        not because  it is the "right"  response, but rather
        because the response succeeds  in making him realize
        that there is no truth to be realized.  When Hyakujo
        says  to Obaku, "I thought  a foreigner's  beard  is
        red, but now I see that it is a foreigner with a red
        beard," he thereby  vividly  shows  his own complete
        union with, and liberation from, both unmistaken and
        mistaken opinions about karman and enlightenment. As
        a result, he shows  that he has become  one with the
        spirit of nonduality  that does not exclude anything
        at all.

            If the world is a mistake because of the fact of
        objectification;  and  if there  is  objectification
        because  of  the  fact  of  action;  and  if  karman
        primarily  refers  to this  fact  of  action  on  an
        ontological level;  then, one can say that karman is
        indeed the source of the world as mistake. The world
        is  a  mistake   because   the  impulse  to  act  is
        ontologically    mistaken:   it   presupposes    the
        mis-taking of reality as something separate from and
        external to the ego-agent. The fact of action causes
        the appearance of dualism because the agent requires
        that there be a world separate from himself in terms
        of which his actions can be objectified.  Because of
        this  intimate   connection   between   action   and
        objectification, it can  be said  that  the  deluded
        tendency to reify and hypostatize the world--to give
        it "concrete  existence"--is  largely  the result of
        the significance-conditions of action.

            To unite completely  with the world  as mistake,
        the enlightened  person  must completely  unite with
        karman  as the source  of the world as mistake.  Not
        merely  with  "his"  karman  in  some  personal   or
        individualistic sense, but more


        importantly  with the ontological  fact of karman as
        described.  When one has completely  united  with or
        become  the  mistake,  then  and  only  then  is  it
        possible  to  transform  action  as  mistaking  into
        action as partaking of reality. Since the mistake at
        the heart  of action  lies in the separation  of the
        agent both from his action and the world (or: in the
        requirement  that there  be such  separation  as the
        condition  of  the  possibility  of  action),  Zen's
        response  is that through  meditation  practice  one
        must  learn  a  way  of  action  which  entails  not
        separation  but union.  To act  without  separating:
        this  is easy enough  to say but very  difficult  in
        practice; for what is involved is learning to act in
        such  a way  as to undo  one's  doing, in effect, to
        enact the undoing  of doing.  The point is that when
        one has united with one's karman at its source, even
        though  the mistaken  character  of it continues  to
        exist, one is no longer taken in by the mistake and,
        in this sense, one can be said to be free  from  it.
        On  the  practical   level,  then,  there   can   be
        liberation  from  the  mistake  even  though,  on  a
        theoretical level, the mistake is ineliminable.(16)

            What  has  been  called  here  "union  with  the
        mistake"  corresponds, I think, to what Dogen  means
        by his idea  of "Great  Karman."(17) As I understand
        it, this  expression  refers  to the fact  that  the
        enlightened  person  becomes  united not merely with
        his personal karman but also with the fact of karman
        as   the   action-objectification   mistake.    This
        transpersonal  sense  of karman  is  "great"  in the
        sense of being absolute, which  is to say, no longer
        merely relative to details of personal or individual
        karman.  I am not  merely  "my"  karman, I am karman
        itself: I am the fact that the ego-based  impulse to
        act simultaneously  creates  both the agent  and the
        world  in  which   he  acts.   What  is  of  crucial
        importance   in  Zen  is  not  making   karman  into
        something  which exists outside of oneself, which is
        what one does, for example, when one speaks of it as
        moral law or even as the law of causation. As Sasaki
        Roshi  says,  karman  "never   exists   outside   of
        yourself.  This  is very  difficult.  The  world  is
        one."(18) Part of what this means  is that there  is
        not "you"  and "the world," or "you"  and "karman'';
        what there is is the one mistake of objectification.
        When karman is no longer located  outside of oneself,
        then, strictly speaking, there is neither you nor the
        world;  and hence no context really in which to speak
        of  karman  or for  it to  function.  Because  karman
        ceases to function  once the dualistic  framework  it
        requires  has been undermined, the existential  union
        with  karman  can bring  about  both  liberation  and

            Going back to the distinction  introduced in the
        first section, we can say that karman  and world are
        one because  karman  creates  world.  The  posterior
        karman appearing in the world (action) is created by
        the  karman  prior  to the  world  (Action), and  is
        therefore  dependent  on it.  We tend  not to notice
        this crucial dependence  because  of our wrongheaded
        belief  in  the  independent, objective  reality  of
        posterior  karman.  What  this  belief  does, on the
        practical  level, is  separate  us from  our  karman
        (objectification entails estrangement),


        and  this, in  turn, endangers  the  possibility  of
        union.  To perceive  the dependence  in question  we
        must deobjectify  karman, which is done, once again,
        through  meditation   practice.   By  deobjectifying
        karman  one  renders  it  empty--one   realizes   or
        actualizes its emptiness.  As a result, one is freed
        from the error of reification and hypostatization.

            Hakuin   speaks  in  his  "Song  of  Zazen"   of
        extinguishing   karman   in  just   one   meditation
        period.(19) Although it is somewhat presumptuous  of
        me even  to venture  an interpretation  of what this
        means, I think that what is extinguished here is not
        so much one's personal  or individual  karman as the
        transpersonal source of such karman.  As a result of
        the enlightenment experience, one sees into the deep
        dependence  of posterior  karman on the karman prior
        to the world;  one sees into  the emptiness  of will
        and agency. This enables one to be at one with one's
        personal  karman, because  what produces  separation
        from it is the tacit belief that will and agency are
        not empty.  The relevant  sense in which to speak of
        "purification"   of  karman,  as  far   as  Zen   is
        concerned, is ontological  rather  than  moral.  One
        purifies  one's  karman  by no  longer  locating  it
        outside of oneself.

            Strictly speaking, the enlightened person stands
        in  no  relationship  whatsoever  to  his  posterior
        karman because there is no distance  between him and
        "it"  at all; and because  there  is no distance, no
        relationship  is  possible.   This  is  one  of  the
        all-important teachings of the koan in question.(20)
        Accordingly  any question  about  the nature  of the
        relationship between karman and enlightenment should
        be answered-no-relationship.  The enlightened person
        is neither  free from  nor subject  to his posterior
        karman, because  both  freedom  and  subjection  are
        relationships  presupposing  separation between "me"
        and "my" karman. The whole point of enlightenment in
        this context  is that all relationship  to posterior
        karman is abandoned in favor of complete existential

            The characteristic Zen insistence is that karman
        must  be  seen  transpersonally.  But, paradoxically
        enough,  this  does  not  involve  transcendence  of
        personal  karman;  rather, it comes about  precisely
        through  union  with personal  or posterior  karman.
        When the enlightened  person  fully unites  with his
        karman, his karman and the universe become one.  For
        what is meant by "the universe"  here is nothing but
        the realization of nonduality, which is exactly what
        is effected  through  such union.  Once  this  total
        identification has been made, according to Shibayama

        the man of real freedom...  lives  in peace whatever
        circumstances cause and effect bring about.  Whether
        the situation  be favorable  or adverse, he lives it
        as the absolute situation with his whole being.(21)

        When one has seen into the dependence  of action  on
        Action, one realizes  that one does indeed live in a
        world that one has created oneself. This realization
        makes  it imperative  that one live in what  one has
        created wholeheartedly.


        Situations  are no longer  relative  to this or that
        consideration;  they  are all the same  in the sense
        that they are all but manifestations  of the mistake
        which  is Action  itself.  This  is the way in which
        they are seen as being absolute.

            Shibayama  Roshi  goes  on  to  say  (construing
            "karman" as causation):

        Anything  is just 'it.' Anything  is just causation.
        What  else  could  we say? This  very  place  is the
        absolute place. When the whole universe is causation
        itself, how can there be 'falling' or 'not falling'?
        You may therefore  correctly  call it 'not falling,'
        or just  as correctly  'not  ignoring.'  If  even  a
        thought of knowledge moves there, both 'not falling'
        and 'not ignoring'  are in error.  You may say, 'not
        ignoring   causation,  '   yet   if   discriminating
        consciousness moves there and if you become attached
        to 'not ignoring,' you are turned  into  a fox.  You
        may say, 'not falling into causation,' and if you do
        not become attached to it, you are released from the
        fox body.  The essence  of this koan  can really  be
        appreciated   when  one  experiences   the  fact  of

        When I no longer  stand in any relationship  to what
        is happening  (and no longer, therefore, "know" what
        is happening), there is no longer anything  relative
        about what is happening.  When everything has become
        absolute in this sense, then it is possible to unite
        with  or  become  one's  karman,  because   one  has
        abandoned   the  very  habit  which  precluded  such
        union--namely, the interest in knowing one's karman.
        When  one  unites  with  one's  karman,  it  thereby
        becomes  absolute;  but once it has become absolute,
        it is no longer "mine," for there is no relationship
        at all  that  obtains  at that  point.  This  is the
        crucial   paradox   behind   the   movement   to  an
        understanding  of  the  transpersonal  dimension  of
        karman: when  I become  my karman, my karman  is  no
        longer mine.  This paradox  shows the sense in which
        transcendence  is not at all what is involved  here.
        Access  to  the  transpersonal   comes  through  the
        abandonment  of all  relationship  to one's  karman,
        including the relationship of transcendence.

            When one has become  one's  karman, one has gone
        beyond  discriminating  consciousness.   One  exists
        one's karman in the simplicity of suchness. In terms
        of the koan, this point  can be made by saying  that
        instead  of seeing  the fact  that  the  old man was
        given a fox body as punishment for a wrong answer to
        the  question  concerning  the relationship  between
        karman  and enlightenment, one  should  simply  say,
        according  to Shibayama  Roshi, when a fox, be a fox
        completely;   when   an  old  man,  be  an  old  man
        completely.  It is most emphatically not a matter of
        reward  or punishment, right  and  wrong, truth  and
        falsity.    As   always   in   Zen,   the   ultimate
        consideration  is practical  and existential: how is
        one to live one's karman? The answer  is: unite with
        it  completely,  so  that  there  is  no  trace   of
        separation from it. This is freedom. Shibayama Roshi
        puts this beautifully as follows:

        When  a fox is really  a fox, and  not a thought  of
        discriminating  consciousness  moves  there,  he  is
        truly  'a former  head of a monastery.'  When an old
        man cannot  be an old man and goes  astray  with his
        dualistic thinking, he is a fox.  Master Dogen said,
        "Once  you  have  attained  satori, if you  were  to
        transmigrate  through  the six realms  and  the four
        modes of life, your transmigration  would be nothing
        but  the  work   of  your   compassionate   life  of


        By implication, I think, the traditional association
        of karman  with  transmigration  and rebirth  is yet
        another example of that discriminating, objectifying
        consciousness  which  seeks  to  give  to karman  an
        external reality it does not have.  If the mind does
        not   wander,   there    is   in   effect    neither
        transmigration  nor rebirth.(24) Believing  in these
        notions betrays  the fact that one is still locating
        karman outside oneself. Shibayama Roshi puts this by
        speaking  of the "ghost-story"  aspect of karman: if
        you are united  with  your  karman, you  are  not  a
        ghost;   if  you  are  not   a  ghost,  you  do  not
        transmigrate.(25) When the mind wanders  outside  of
        itself,  it  naturally  locates  karman  outside  of
        itself,   and   so   generates    the   notion    of
        transmigration, which is essentially  a metaphor  of
        the   wandering    mind   (which   should   not   be

            Not to wander means to exist each condition  and
        situation  as absolute.  When  this  is the way  one
        lives, it is literally  not  possible  to wander  or
        transmigrate  in this sense, since there  is nowhere
        to go when one lives in the absolute.  If "here"  is
        always absolutely  here, then there is no "there" at
        all.   True   nomindedness,   then,  precludes   the
        possibility  of  wandering  and  transmigration   by
        undermining  the very  significance-conditions  that
        would make such a possibility intelligible  to begin
        with.  (As they say in Maine: "You  can't  get there
        from here.")

            In conclusion, I think we can agree  with R.  H.
        Blyth's  remark that the problem of karman is solved
        not by transcending  it, but by reaching  the ground
        of being--thusness.(26) Karman  is a great  apparent
        obstacle to the realization  of thusness or suchness
        because  it perpetually  tempts  us to engage in the
        misguided  ways  of the  relative, objectifying, and
        discriminating mind. Our impulse is to try to figure
        out how we are related to karman, but once we embark
        on this enterprise, we are already hopelessly  on te
        wrong  track, since the whole  point of suchness  is
        that it presupposes  a mind free  from the habit  of
        relating itself to anything, including  karman.  The
        moment one tries to figure out one's relationship to
        one's karman, one has become separate  from it;  one
        has become a ghost.  The Zen move here is to counsel
        us to reunite with our karman and stop being ghosts.
        In practice, the way of returning  to the ground  of
        being in suchness  is simply to forget about how one
        is or is not related to one's karman and just become
        it. Again: when a fox, be a fox; when an old man, be
        an old  man.  Stop  being, once  and  for  all, what
        Heidegger once called "a creature of distances."


            1. Dogen Kigen, Shobogenzo: The Eye and Treasury
        of the True  Law, trans.  Kosen  Nishiyama  and John
        Stevens,  Vol.   1   (Sendai,  Japan:  Daihokkaikaku
        Publishing Co., 1975), p. 149.

            2. Ibid.

            3.  Daily Sutras (New York: Zen Studies Society,
        1967), p. 43. "Mu" here refers to the realization of

            4. Nishiyama and Stevens, p. 149.


            5. For a full account of Dogen's views on karman
        and morality, see Hee-Jin Kim, Dogen Kigen: Mystical
        Realist  (Tucson,  Arizona:  University  of  Arizona
        Press. 1975), especially pp. 281-282.

            6.   Reification  and  hypostatization  are  the
        conceptual  maneuvers  which result  in our mistaken
        belief in the ownbeing or self-nature of dharmas.

            7. Nishiyama and Stevens, p. 142.

            8. "Problems in the Concept of Karma," presented
        in October, 1977  at a conference  at SUNY  Buffalo,
        one of whose panels  was devoted  to the concept  of

            9. Yadav, p. 11.

            10. Ibid., p. 15.

            11.  Emphasis  on  this  theme  is  particularly
        characteristic    of   Yoka   Daishi's    "Song   of

            12.  See  Namu  Dai Bosa: A Transmission  of Zen
        Buddhism to America, ed.  Louis Nordstrom (New York:
        Theatre Arts Books, 1976), section 2.

            13.  In order that the reader can refer to it in
        the course  of reading  this essay  I will state the
        koan  in  full.  See  Zenkei  Shibayama  Roshi,  Zen
        Comments  on the  Mumonkan  (New  York: New American
        Library, 1974), pp. 33-34.

        Whenever  Master Hyakujo  gave teisho on Zen, an old
        man sat with the monks to listen and always withdrew
        when they did. One day, however, he remained behind,
        and the master  asked, "Who  are  you standing  here
        before  me?" The old  man replied, "I am not a human
        being. In the past, in the time of the Kasho Buddha,
        I was the head of a monastery. Once a monk asked me,
        'Does an enlightened man also fall into causation or
        not?' I replied, 'He  does  not.'  Because  of  this
        answer, I was made to live as a fox for five hundred
        lives.  Now I beg you, please say the turning  words
        on my behalf and release  me from the fox body." The
        old man then asked Hyakujo, "Does an enlightened man
        also fall into causation or not?"

        The  Master  said, "He does  not ignore  causation."
        Hearing  this  the old man was at once  enlightened.
        Making  a bow to Hyakujo  he said, "I have  now been
        released  from  the fox  body, which  will  be found
        behind the mountain. I dare to make a request of the
        Master.  Please  bury  it  as you  would  a deceased
        monk." The Master  had the ino strike  the gavel and
        announce  to the monks that there would be a funeral
        for a deceased monk after the midday meal. The monks
        wondered, saying, "We are all in good health.  There
        is no sick monk in the Nirvana Hall.  What is it all

        After  the meal the Master  led the monks  to a rock
        behind  the mountain, poked  out a dead fox with his
        staff, and cremated it.

        In the evening  the Master ascended  the rostrum  in
        the hall and told the monks  the whole story.  Obaku
        thereupon  asked, "The  old man failed  to give  the
        correct turning  words and was made to live as a fox
        for five  hundred  lives, you say;  if, however, his
        answer had not been incorrect  each time, what would
        he have become?" The Master  said, "Come  closer  to
        me, I'll tell you."  Obaku then stepped  forward  to
        Hyakujo  and slapped him.  The Master laughed aloud,
        clapping   his  hands,  and   said,  "I  thought   a
        foreigner's  beard  is red, but  I see that  it is a
        foreigner with a red beard."

            14.  Joshu Sasaki Roshi, Buddha is the Center of
        Gravity (San Cristobal, New Mexico: Lama Foundation,
        1974), pp. 70-71.

            15. Ibid., p. 47.

            16.  The  mistake  would  be eliminable  if  the
        relative  truth of the world were not given the kind
        of significance  it is by the "double truth" or "two
        truths" doctrine  in Mahaayaana  Buddhism.  That is,
        one  cannot  eliminate  the  mistaken  character  of
        relative  truth without  violating  the doctrine  in

            17. Nishiyama and Stevens, p. 149.

            18. Sasaki Roshi, p. 47.

            19.  "Even  those who have practiced  zazen  for
        just  one sitting  can find  all their  evil  karman
        erased." Daily, Sutras, p. 33.

            20. Because there is no distance between oneself
        and one's  karman, there  is also no possibility  of
        having opinions or views about one's karman.

            21. Shibayama Roshi, p. 35.

            22. Ibid.

            23. Ibid., p. 39.

            24.  Dogen  says: "If there is no transmigration
        there   is   no   need   for   liberation.   Neither
        transmigration  nor liberation occur." Nishiyama and
        Stevens, p. 143.

            25. Shibayama Roshi, p. 40.

            26.  R.  H.  Blyth, Zen and Zen Classics: Volume
        Four (Mumonkan) (Tokyo: The Hokuseido  Press, 1966),
        p. 54

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