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Can Karma Be Shared?

Question:

I have come to understand that within the practice the subject of Reincarnation is one with many faces. In listening and reading I find that there are varying opinions regarding Reincarnation, most holding it as a an important under pining of basic Buddhist teaching while some apparently struggle with the concept of a ‚Äòself’ continuing as a separate unit cycling thru incarnations more or less intact and Karmically imprinted from self knowing state,(sentient being) to self knowing state(sentient being).

I am new to the Buddha’s’ teachings, (less than a month now), so I thank you for your patience and forbearance. Before discovering Buddhism I had a deep leaning to the spiritual and in time came to understood and firmly believed in the connectedness of all things and the fact that nothing is really what it appears. Nature has shown us that on sub atomic level and now string theory promises even stranger realities. (realms).

As to the question of Karma. Just a week or so ago I read an explanation given to describe the ‚Äòself’ as being similar to a wave on the ocean. A momentary and fleeting thing separate but connected, not apart from but rather somehow fleeting and distinct, but not separate of the whole. Is there room in the Karma Conference for a thought that just maybe after our fleeting existences of self knowing as sentient beings in whatever realm in whatever eon our karmic experiences and energies are returned to the great well of Karma to the benefit or detriment of future sentient beings and that I need not cling to a vision of ‚Äòself’ to understand that Karma is as much a sharing in all things and a possible benefit to all things independent of requiring to retain some, to whatever degree, for myself? Wouldn’t this fit with the non-self and still maintain the importance of practicing the dharma in relation to Karma?

I find this thought deeply warming as it allows me then to work toward acquiring the good Karma in the NOW to return it and diffuse and release it where it is then made a part of all other Karmic energies. As I, like all things, then return does this not give great hope that with each incarnation of any sentient being in any realm we have the ability to contribute to the Buddha hood of each other by sharing from this common and universal well of Karma? Why must I see the accruing of good Karma as not something to be shared freely toward future enlightenment of some other sentient beings enlightenment, we are all together working toward this goal and have been for eons. With this then even those who appear trapped in their bad Karma have hope and a compassionate hand up.

We are not separate, the task is not one of self so why would I view Karma that way? Could it perhaps be that progress of all sentient beings toward enlightenment is thwarted simply by clinging to retain even a little of our good karma for our ‚Äòpersonal wealth and future happiness’? I do know that this idea is one that may appear on the surface to relieve an individual from Karmic responsibility, but I do not see it that way. To me, even as a beginner, most precious to each of us should first be the other and not putting forth right effort and right mindfulness in working for the common best interest of all sentient beings everywhere is really not an option.

Answer:

So you’ve been looking into Buddhism for less than a month now? Looks to me like you’ve got a really good start.

I suspect your wave analogy came from here: http://www.dailybuddhism.com/archives/1182., and it’s one of my favorite metaphors for rebirth too. We are, in fact, all interconnected, and there is no “self” as we usually understand the word. We are all one down deep.

I think your question really boils down to “Can karma be shared, or is it purely an individual thing?” And I’ll answer you: I don’t know. There are groups of Buddhists (and others) who believe that merit can be shared (or even transferred to the dead). There are subtle differences between karma in general and merit specifically, but that’s a discussion for another time. Personally, I’m not a believer in the sharing of merit, but others are.

If you really get into the idea of karma and rebirth and anatman (no-self), then your unique combination of past karma IS you, the only real “you” that exists. Your ancient accumulation of good and bad and history is what makes you be you. Of course, if we really are all interconnected, then wouldn’t some mixing and sharing take palce?

Generally, I prefer the idea of Bodhisattvas, or those who are devoted to bringing about the enlightenment of everyone, without exception, no matter how many lifetimes it takes. They aren’t giving up their own karma, they are teaching and sharing their enlightenment by bringing others up to their level, leading by example.

Again, I’m not sure what I think on this. It’s a hugely deep concept, and I have to say, this is an area I haven’t thought about or researched very much. With luck, one of our readers will be able to enlighten us.

10 comments to Can Karma Be Shared?

  • Interesting question, and likewise for the answer.

  • urgen

    why do you think that you have to answer this question?

    That is shared karma right there.

  • Jerry

    I’ve read a number of explanations of rebirth, such as the molecules that stay put in the water while the wave moves along, as the flame from a candle used to light another candle, and as the tea that remains after the tea cup is broken. These are lovely and compelling metaphors, but metaphors are not proof – they just provide a nice way of viewing an idea not an explanation for how the universe works. Similarly, the idea of karma appeals to our sense of logic and justice – that good deeds are rewarded and bad deeds are punished, and that it all makes some sort of sense.

    Rebirth and karma may or may not actually occur and there is no way to know whether they are valid descriptions. For me, they are interesting and appealing ideas but nothing I’d ever want to claim as factual.

  • Mushim

    If we look at karma as cause and effect, I think it makes sense to see that we have personal karma and that we also share in forms of collective karma. For instance, if I get angry and beat my child, then I’ll end up with a damaged child. It’s my responsibility to not create this negative karma. There are also forms of collective karma, such as the Holocaust during World War II, in which so many Jews and many others as well were murdered. This karma was created by collective fear and hatred, resulting in a terrible tragedy and multi-generational trauma. As individuals, it might also be our responsibility to examine the ways in which our actions support, even very indirectly, ongoing forms of collective oppression and destruction, and this is one of the basic principles of socially engaged Buddhism, as exemplified in the teachings of the teacher Thich Nhat Hanh.

  • Jinglett

    These are the kinds of questions the Buddha would not answer. Is there a God? and How does the next life appear? So, the simple answer is that we have a lot of work on this earth to accomplish for ourselves and others. And, the more complex answer is: OM. 🙂

    –Jinglett

  • Lee

    I certainly cling to the thought of going on … of continuing being … yet I can find no evidence this is true … to paraphrase the buddah … “when breath has ceased..bone is gone … ears are gone.. nose is gone … eyes are gone… with what will you perceive this world … ” and if I can’t perceive with my senses how will I be …??? but on the other hand I can see that my actions will create ripples … and good karma and bad karma seen from different perspectives may be good to one and bad to another … I continue to ask this question too..

  • Abe Simpson

    Isn’t living a life of loving kindness a way of giving away karma?

  • Good question and answers, I think about this topic a lot (I’m trying to do Steven Levine’s one year to live) and have a slightly different take on what is happening. Its actually kind of embarrassing to put this forward, but here goes.

    I believe that we are all organized collections of energy seeds sucked up from the universal energy pool for as long as we exist in a conventional form. When we die, the essence of our karmic history encoded on those seeds is returned to the pool. That pool is made up of energy seeds that can have spin or twists or something that mark whether it was from positive actions or negative actions. Nirvana is returning to that pure energy pool and staying there with all the other good energy from all the enlightened sentient beings in the universe. United. As we used to say, “One with the Universe”.

    When an egg from a sentient being is fertilized, the necessary energy for that being is scooped up out of the universal pool. There has to be some weighting function that favors the grouping of positive energy so that sentient beings can eventually reach nirvana. It might even be possible to get most of your energy from one source, which may happen with tulku’s, but it might just as easily represent the energy from many sentient beings.

    I started formulating this concept back the 60s after reading the beat writers and listening to Alan Watts on UHF television and thinking a lot about Buddhism. I have, of course, read other sources of dharma besides beat novels, although I am reading Kerouac’s Wake Up! right now and its is refreshing to see that he actually knew a fair amount about Buddhism, more than you would guess from On the Road and Dharma Bums.

    But there it is. I have no idea whether these ideas are off the wall or what, but to me the answer is yes, we share karma. We are all part of universal energy pool.

  • Lee

    Stephen Soto Zen is very much in your ‘model’… we don’t go on but the new being may pick up karmic stuff to work out in life… which is why some people ‘remember’ previous ‘lives’…but it’s not really their life and they may have bits and pieces of many ‘previous’ lives … Is what you get as you manifest into this life random or conditioned????? Interesting shared karma..

  • luke

    A visiting guru in Soho Square London once said to me (some 25 years ago?) that kama is shared as he fanned himself on a warm day. He gave an example. Apparently he had been comfortable until he was sitting in the room in which we were now making too warm by our presence.

    Also according to Ram Dass, all our past, future and present re-incarnations are happening now.

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