I recently posted an article about “karma” that I found on the Examiner that I thought was very well written. As with any concept in Buddhism, describing what “karma” is the length of an article can be very tricky and difficult to do in a comprehensive yet easy-to-understand manner. I thought the author of this article, Emily, achieved both and therefore posted it on my Facebook account.
My friend pointed out that the way Emily described karma diverged from the way another author, Ven. Mahasi Sayadaw, described karma from another article I had posted on Facebook a while back. I reread both articles and she was right, they did conflict in the way they described “karma”. But both descriptions seemed valid. Both authors seemd to know what they were talking about and I never thought twice to think they conflicted until my friend brought it up. So who’s right and who’s wrong? Who has the more accurate description of karma?
I think the major difference between the two articles is in the perspective of the author. The link from the Examiner is from a writer named Emily Brede, who has “studied the Buddhist suttas for more than 10 years”. She also “regularly attends local Buddhist events run by groups such as the Buddhist Bodhi Association of Columbus”. Therefore, I think she takes Buddhism from a lay person’s point of view. It shows in how she starts her article – she claims karma “is not a theory or something to believe in” and doesn’t require one “to believe in reincarnation or higher mental states to see this demonstrated.” This more philosophical take on Buddhism is much more appealing and makes more sense to nonbelievers and Westerners foreign to Buddhism.
The author of the link I posted before is a Burmese monk by the name of Venerable Mahasi Sayadaw. As you mentioned the way he describes “karma” in his article is very different than Emily’s. In his beginning sentences he describes karma as a “law of moral causation”, a “theory”, a “ doctrine”, and a “belief”. This blatantly contrasts Emily’s POV.
So why does the same concept of “karma” described by two different people that have studied Buddhism come out so differently? Both explanations make sense to me. If my friend hadn’t pointed out the differences, I would never have thought twice about it. And if someone asked me what karma was, I’d mostly likely come up with a description different from both of theirs. I’d choose different words and different phrases and that’s because I’m coming from a different background. I see karma in my life probably in a different way both of those authors see karma in their lives.
It would be similar to a situation where I tell two different people to describe a lamp in a full article. They might start with similar descriptions (the light bulb, the shade, the material, etc) but they’d eventually diverge, using their personal experiences and knowledge to describe it the way they know it. They’d make comparisons and analogies, bring up stories and related situations, whatever means possible to best communicate their thoughts. And though both people might directly contrast in their descriptions (maybe one describes the lamp as furniture and one says it’s not furniture), we can understand them in both perspectives, whether we agree or disagree, and obtain a deeper understanding of whatever it may be, karma or lamp, that words maybe can’t fully articulate.