In Karma 1, I introduced the common idea of karma as a moral profit and loss account in which good is rewarded and bad reaps its corresponding negative effects. However, there are deeper ideas of karma that we can explore that can be useful to contemplate. Real spirituality goes beyond moralism.
There is a close connection between the concepts of karma and drama. When we say that somebody is making a drama out of something we mean that they are exaggerating and making more of something than it merits. This is generally done in the service of attracting attention. It is an ego tactic. For instance, if I were to make more of my ill health than it warrants, it would probably be in order to attract sympathy or to project a particular image of myself as the suffering hero. We are all tempted to do this kind of thing from time to time and some people become real drama queens - or we might say, karma kings!
A drama is a sequence of coordinated acts that produce a calculated effect and have a momentum. If one starts a drama, doing so creates an expectation of the drama continuing to unfold. This is how newspapers get sold and comedians get laughs. Stories are generated and people then want to read or hear the next episode or the denouement. Characters in the story get labelled as “good people” or “bad people” and everyone is anticipating corresponding outcomes. Much of public life is concerned with labelling people so that they can be fitted into anticipated scripts in this way. All this is really a superstructure over and above the actuality. It is an excrescence.
If we take karma as referring to such excess, we get a new sense of what it is really about. Karma is ego excrescence. Rather than a moral balance sheet, we are now talking about self-advertisement, prejudice and bias. We can now see that there is a close connection between karma and the Buddhist ideas of ego and non-self. Karma is to do with self-inflation. Karma is generated by conceit.
In the Buddhist philosophy, self is illusion. It is the excess that generates karma. Where there is self there is karma production and where there is no self there is no karma production. Thus, in this sense of karma, it is not so much the nature of the action that matters, but rather what the person performing the action is trying to achieve in self-reference. The person who acts clean of any intended implication of self-reference generates no karma irrespective of the nature of the act.
Or, alternatively, we might think - and some do - that the person with no ego actually generates infinite good karma. This is because, if we take the simple idea of merit, then the amount of merit can be considered to be the product of a fraction in which the multiplier is the size of the gift or the amount of good done and the divisor is the amount of ego involved. Thus even a small gift by an egoless person is worth more that a big gift given in an egotistical manner. Logically if the ego element shrinks to zero the product is infinite.
There are thus two different ideas of the calculus of karma. The common sense is to do with good and bad and this is more characteristic of the forms of Buddhism grounded in Indian culture. In Sino-Japanese culture, however, there is another sense of karma as only negative and we shall continue to look at this in the subsequent sections.
In this section I have emphasised how karma relates to the Buddhist theory of ego and non-self (anatma). The person who is genuinely modest and sincere is unlikely to go around killing, stealing, raping and lying. Such a person responds to the situation that presents itself and seeks a way of working with it that brings out a general benefit. They do the best they can. They are not acting in order to make the right impression on others, but simply to bring about the best outcome irrespective of their own reputation. Such a person is generally not “keeping score”. They are likely to be oblivious to the merit they are creating. In terms of the universe of karma, they become invisible.
[We could add a rider to these observations. It is quite common to see situations where one person advances an argument or undertakes an activity and others criticise, not by advancing any rationality about the idea or action in question, but by attacking the character of the person or his/her group. This is irresponsible. It is bad logic and it shows that the person doing the attacking is karma-ridden, whether the idea in question is good or bad in reality. A "bad person" can sometimes do good things or have useful and sensible ideas and a "good person" can make mistakes. On the one hand, one should not interpret the notion of right speech as meaning that all contention is improper, because this would rule out sensible debate. On the other hand, it does mean avoiding ad hominem argument that manifests and generates ill-will without advancing anything useful.]