Dharma Talk – May 22, 2016

This is a transcript of the Dharma talk given by Ven. Charama at the Only Love Zen Sangha, May 22, 2016.

“How’s Your Karma Practice?”

I want you to remember a verse from the Dhammapda reading (Chapter 23) today:

To have friends in need is sweet

And to share happiness.

And to have done something good
Before leaving this life is sweet,

And to let go of sorrow.

Keep that in mind. I’ll get back to it.

Friday, Chasayk and I volunteered at a nearby charity organization. The work was varied, from weeding to watering flowers to picking up sticks to picking up trash to wiping down chairs and organizing children’s books.

Over the course of the day, we picked up three bags of trash from the grounds, several wheelbarrows full of sticks from the yard, and watered six large raised flowerbeds along the driveway leading into the facility.

The watering part was one of my jobs. As I stood there with water hose in hand, the phrase “Karma practice” popped into my head.

I was doing Karma practice.

We talk a lot about our Zen practice, or our Dharma practice. But how often do we consider our Karma practice?

I kept watering. And I kept thinking. (By the way, for those playing along at home, at that particular moment, I was NOT practicing Zen. Zen is single-minded focus. When hungry, eat. When tired, sleep. When listening, listen. When watering flowers, water flowers. I was watering flowers and thinking. Shame on me.)

Anyway, as I was not being a very good example of a Zen practitioner at that moment, I realized that there’s an aspect of our job of “How may I help you?” that we don’t mention a lot, if at all.

It has to do with Karma. And it’s as much a part of the natural order of things as the flowers I was watering.

What is it?

Before I mention what it is, let’s talk for a moment about Karma.

What is Karma?

The word Karma means action. It means to be aware – acutely aware – of our actions. What we do. How we treat people. How we treat ourselves. We can either be skillful, or unskillful. We can either be compassionate and loving, or we can be harsh and hateful. We can do good or evil.

The word Karma is often associated with the phrase “Karma’s a bitch,” which means payback. You’ll get yours.

Or, in simple terms, what goes around comes around.

As a practitioner of Zen, we can’t know for sure that Karama doesn’t work in some spiritual, esoteric sense. We don’t know if it’s associated with rebirth or not. We can’t prove rebirth or Karma’s role in it. Therefore, it’s best not to either embrace or ignore those possibilities. If you want to believe in Karmic rebirth, more power to you.

But whether you do or not, the fact remains: understanding Karma is an important part of our Zen practice.

How do we know if we are being skillful or unskillful in our actions? How do we know we’re accruing good Karma or bad?

The first of the Noble Eightfold Path tells us: Right View.

Right View is foundational to all the rest of the Eightfold Path. With it, we can rightly assess our thinking – and therefore our actions – in each moment. Without it, we run the risk of thinking and behaving badly, unskillfully.

In short, without Right View, we can accrue bad Karma – which affects our lives and the lives of those around us.

In the Majjhima Nikaya (MN 61) – the Middle Length Discourses of the Buddha – there is a story called “Instructions to Rahula at Mango Stone.”

Rahula is the Buddha’s son. The Buddha is teaching him the importance of Right View, especially as it relates to one’s actions, or Karma.

Here are the pertinent questions and answers from that teaching:

“What do you think, Rahula: What is a mirror for?”

“For reflection, sir.”

“In the same way, Rahula, bodily actions, verbal actions, & mental actions are to be done with repeated reflection.

“Whenever you want to do a bodily action, you should reflect on it…

“While you are doing a bodily action, you should reflect on it…

“Having done a bodily action, you should reflect on it…

“Whenever you want to do a verbal action, you should reflect on it…

“While you are doing a verbal action, you should reflect on it…

“Having done a verbal action, you should reflect on it…

“Whenever you want to do a mental action, you should reflect on it…

“While you are doing a mental action, you should reflect on it…

“Having done a mental action, you should reflect on it…

“Rahula, all those brahmans & contemplatives in the course of the past who purified their bodily actions, verbal actions, & mental actions, did it through repeated reflection on their bodily actions, verbal actions, & mental actions in just this way.

“Thus, Rahula, you should train yourself: ‘I will purify my bodily actions through repeated reflection. I will purify my verbal actions through repeated reflection. I will purify my mental actions through repeated reflection.’ That’s how you should train yourself.”

This reflection, this contemplation, helps ensure our Karma will be skillful, positive, beneficial to others.

However, it’s important to point out that one does not seek to do these Karmic good works with an eye toward gaining the praise of others. That’s not Right View.

There’s a famous story of Bodhidharma and Emperor Wu. One day, the Emperor calls Bodhidharma to ask him about all the merit he will receive for his work as a Buddhist.

Emperor Wu: “I have built many temples, copied innumerable Sutras and ordained many monks since becoming Emperor. Therefore, I ask you, what is my merit?”

Bodhidharma: “None whatsoever!” answered Bodhidharma.

Emperor Wu: “Why no merit?”

Bodhidharma:: “Doing things for merit has an impure motive and will only bare the puny fruit of rebirth.”

We don’t do acts of kindness in expectation of return, or merit. Emperor Wu didn’t understand. He didn’t have Right View.

We could spend a long, long time on the subject of Karma.

But there’s one aspect of Karma and of being a Bodhisattva that I don’t believe is talked about enough, if at all.

Everything in life is a blending of perceived opposites. Think of the Heart Sutra. “Here Shariputra. Form is emptiness. Emptiness is form.” It’s not one. It’s not the other. It’s both.

The Book of Ecclesiastes (Ecclesiastes 3:1-8 ESV) also lists pairs like that:

For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven:

a time to be born, and a time to die;
a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted;
a time to kill, and a time to heal;
a time to break down, and a time to build up;
a time to weep, and a time to laugh;
a time to mourn, and a time to dance;
a time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together;
a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;
a time to seek, and a time to lose;
a time to keep, and a time to cast away;
a time to tear, and a time to sew;
a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;
a time to love, and a time to hate;
a time for war, and a time for peace.

So, for every dusk, there is a…?

For every Yin, there is a…?

For every birth, there is a…?

Likewise, for every help-ER, there is a help-…?

Right. A help-ee. Someone to be helped.

On a long bike ride yesterday with Chasayk, I got to thinking out loud about this. I pondering this – and, again, I was not being a skillful Zen practitioner because, let’s face it, when riding a bike, ride a bike – I remembered something from my retreat three weeks ago at the Abbey of Our Lady of Gethsemani:

Shortly after the retreat began, there was a kind of orientation for retreatants. Fr. Carlos spoke to us about the purpose of any retreat. He said “A retreat is about hope. It’s not a place to beat yourself up mentally or physically. No condemnation!”

He also said that a retreat enables us to see clearly who we are inside. And to ask for help if we need it.

Then he told us the story of the Good Samaritan, and he told it in a way I had never heard before.

You remember the Good Samaritan story? It’s found in Luke 10:25-37. Jesus tells his disciples that they are to love their neighbor as themselves. One asks who their neighbor is. Jesus tells him, essentially, anyone in need. In this case, it was a man who “fell among robbers” and was beaten nearly to death and left on the side of the road. Others passed by the dying man. But a Samaritan showed compassion and stopped to help.

After he quoted that passage, Fr. Carlos said this: “People say you should be like the Good Samaritan. But I don’t say that. I say you should be like the man about to die. Allow yourself to be helped.”

That rocked me back.

“Allow yourself to be helped.”

All of this came together for me yesterday as I considered Fr. Carlos’ statement in terms of our Karma practice.

People are often, if not usually, quick to help others. But how many say, “I don’t like asking for help”? Or “I’m not good at letting others help me”?

I’m here to say that our Karma practice depends on doing both – helping and being helped. One is just as important as the other.

That dual aspect of life – this and that, form and emptiness, birth and death – is akin to what’s known is music composition as “call and response.” I used to listen to a lot of Mozart and Beethoven. (In Classical music, “call and response” is called antiphony.) Some of my favorite pieces of music are constructed this way.

Since I love music, and always look for ways to work it into a Dharma talk, I will give you three very different musical examples of call and response.

1. The first is an excerpt from a REO Speedwagon live album released in the mid 1970s. The song is “157 Riverside Avenue.” In it, lead singer Kevin Cronin jokes about the difference between his way of communicating and guitarist Gary Richrath’s way of communicating. He

2. Then there’s one of the most famous call-and-response symphonies ever composed. Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony.

3. Finally, a song most everyone has heard of: “Dueling Banjos” – one of the finest examples of call and response ever composed.

Birds do this. Frogs do, too. Not compose music, per se. But engage in call-and-response.

Life is based on this natural order.

One thing calls another.

Helping others is the same way.

We are to help others. “How may I help you?” is our job. Asking that will increase our good Karma.

But we are also to allow others to help us.

That, too, will increase our good Karma – and theirs.

When we refuse the help of others, when we tell ourselves we’re strong enough to go it alone, that we don’t need anyone’s help, we unwittingly short circuit another from working out his or her Karma.

In the example of the Good Samaritan, if we do not allow ourselves to be helped – to be person on the ground in need – we prevent someone else from demonstrating the love of God through him or her. We prevent a Christian brother or sister from abiding by God’s command to love our neighbors as ourselves. That blessing, which could have happened because of us instead, because of us, doesn’t.

Karma is that way, too. Whatever Karma is. However it accrues. We know its fruit depends on what seeds we sow. Good Karma requires us to do something positive, to act with skill, to sow good seeds. Bad Karma, just the opposite.

Also, I believe it requires us to let others do something positive, to act with skill, for us, to us, or on our behalf.

When I put all of this together – especially the musical call-and-response as a natural order of things – I knew that’s what part of our Karma practice can be.

So, that passage from the Dhammapada we read earlier:

To have friends in need is sweet

And to share happiness.

And to have done something good
Before leaving this life is sweet,

And to let go of sorrow.

Becomes clear. But also it becomes the call to another’s response.

To have friends in need is sweet.

We can accrue good, skillful Karma by coming to the aid of a friend.

However, we can also be someone’s friend in need. To her, that can be sweet – when we allow her to come to our aid.

There’s no shame in being helped, of being vulnerable in that way.

I need to repeat that. There is no shame in being helped.

In fact, it is as natural as dawn and dusk, birth and death. It is one side’s response to the other’s call.

Both are necessary.

We help. We need help. That’s the natural order of life. Each in its turn.

So, always look for ways to help. Be a Bodhisattva. A Boy Scout or Girl Scout Bodhisattva. A Good Samaritan. Whatever you wan to call it. Be on the lookout for people in need. Help them to the best of your ability.

But allow others to be that same kind of Bodhisattva, to see you (hopefully, metaphorically speaking) lying beside the road, in need of a Good Samaritan to come to your side. Ask for help. Allow help to be given.

Maybe you’re going through a rough time in your life and you’re emotionally drained and hurting. Ask for help.

Maybe you’re in need of financial assistance. Ask for help.

Maybe you’re struggling with depression, addictions. Ask for help.

Or, don’t ask. But when someone offers to help – let him/her.

Helping and being helped.

Both comprise the law of Karma. The former blesses you, and creates positive Karma. The latter blesses others, and creates positive Karma for them.

Knowing when to help others, and when to allow others to help us…

That is our Karma practice.


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