Zen doesn’t spend a lot of time on karma compared with other subjects, but any number of Zen Sages have taught and commented on it, starting with Bodhidharma, and continuing through to the present day. And karma is, along with rebirth, a major point of contention between various practitioners--Secular versus non-Secular being one dividing line. Are karma and rebirth just vestiges of the Gangetic Plain of 2,500 years ago, and as such not really Buddhist? There are statements the Buddha made about karma in the Sutras, but the Secularists might argue that these were added in by others as the Sutras evolved from oral to written forms. That may be the case. But I don’t really spend a lot of time arguing for or against them, as I just take them as a given.
I also don’t spend a lot of time on thinking about gravity. Right here&now, I’m subject to it. If I drop a glass on a hard floor, more than likely it will break. That’s just how gravity works, as well as floors and glasses, and clumsiness. Likewise, my volitional actions produce karma, and karma is produced in turn. The word Karma just being Sanskrit for “action,” and specifically intentional action, speech, and thought. In addition to the no-brainer that one action producing another seems to me, it’s also a no-brainer that karma isn’t just a simple A►B, cause-and-effect chronology. There may be times when it seems a simple as “drop glass, glass breaks,” but even there that resulting action of glass breaking, is still just the latest action in a line an infinite number of previous causes and conditions and their resulting actions.
Simple “cause and effect” and the Newtonian physics of “each action has an equal and opposite reaction,” also strike me as inaccurate. Given that the effects may be well-removed from their causes, and thereby subject to subsequent additional causes, A►B doesn’t work; it’s an oversimplification. “Equal and opposite reaction” may work for a while with those little balls on strings that clack back and forth against each other, but they don’t clack ad infinitum due to having expended energy with each swing, inevitably just running out of steam. The A►B of committing a robbery and subsequently being robbed is likewise an oversimplification, as is the popular notion of “paying it forward.” I can’t say for sure, but I don’t think there’s a big cosmic piggy bank in which we make a deposit every time we hold a door open for someone. If there were, I’d better be able to cure disease A, just so someone else can discover a cure for disease B, and this cure discovery will be purely rooted in my having cured disease A, just in case I come down with disease B. Again, many more causes and conditions figure into the equation.
If someone sits in a bar and thinks it will be a good idea to drink for ten hours, then decides it would also be a good idea to hop in the car, it’s really not such a surprise when we find out that his car got wrapped around a tree with him behind the wheel. That would even seem to be pretty close to an A►B karmic flow as it gets, but many other factor have contributed--what happened earlier that day that got him to thinking that a 10-hour bender would be a good idea, and what led up to the events of that day, how did home or job or study contribute, how did childhood contribute, how did the bartender’s day contribute to his thinking it would be a good idea to continue to serve someone who’s been there through a couple of shift changes, was there a defective steering mechanism that came with the car from Detroit, did the most recent tire change at the garage contribute negatively to the car’s steering, and so on, going back well beyond Henry Ford and the assembly line and whoever it was that invented the wheel and intoxicating substances. Pinning it all on the Egyptians in this case may seem reasonable, but what came before the Egyptians to cause them and create the conditions where all these other thoughts, words and actions came to be?
Negative karma and negative outcomes, positive karma producing favorable outcomes is likely true, although when the positive seed bears positive fruit may not take place chronologically close enough for the correlation to be obvious. “Good” and “bad” karma are often seen as reward and punishment, as the fate of heaven and hell, and that’s really not a particularly Zen take on karma. Making one action “good” and another “bad” is the first problem. Who is it that’s making good and bad out of them? Rain on a wedding day may be a disaster for a bride and groom, and a godsend for a farmer. Rain may be followed by sun, maybe hurricane; sun may be followed by rain, maybe by drought. Thinking of these as karmic consequence isn’t correct, or incorrect. Taking them personally would be.
Sun followed by rain is one thing, one might say a natural example of impermanence, of everything changing. Sun followed by drought may likewise be a natural sequence; both rain and drought are subject to causes and conditions, not only directly by the atmosphere, but also by the contributions of all who create karma on the planet that may affect weather and climate. Taking a rained out wedding personally, as in that’s the payback for stepping a a bug yesterday is probably not correct thinking. In the same vein, the farmer who takes credit for a well-needed rainstorm because he swung a chicken over his head three times last Thursday may also be flawed. I can’t honestly say for sure.
My thought on karma, and rebirth for that matter, is that they’ll take care of themselves, that is if there’s a “they” to be taken care of in the first place. If the result of one’s belief in “good” and “bad” karma, of “heaven” and “hell,” of “reward” and “punishment” really doesn't matter. As a concept, karma is as empty as any and every other concept. Taking that to be an excuse for nihilistic behavior would be incorrect, as general denial of “this” being involved in the rising of “that.” I can’t say you’ll be return as a fox for 500 rebirths, but I also can’t say you won’t. Even if it’s a Pascal’s Wager situation where performing correct action is a good idea, just in case there is some sort of cosmic retribution to come from it, that’s OK. Maybe not 100% correct, but maybe not incorrect either. What matters is that we ask ourselves “who is it that’s acting like there’s no downside to correct action,” “who is it that considers ‘this’ bad, and ‘that’ to be good,” “who is it that has created this karma,” “who is it that has had this fortunate rebirth, to hear the Dharma?” What really matters is that for whatever underlying reason there may be, we perform bodhisattva action, saving all beings. It may start out as a means of accruing good karma or merit, maybe as a means to avoid rebirth in one of the lower realms, and then eventually, for “no merit whatsoever,” as the Red-Bearded Barbarian once said.
Bodhidharma has another quote attributed to him that sums up karma as well as any other: “When something unpleasant happens, don’t be angry, it only makes sense.”
That’s the gravity of karma: It’s relentless.
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