Monday, March 13, 2006

Joss in Translation

When somebody in these parts says that an act is good or bad karma, they aren’t usually implying much more than the belief that “that sort of thing usually ends well or badly.” What’s invoked is not an iron law of causality as ineluctable as arithmetic but a statistical tendency, a rule of thumb rather than the Dharma. Users of this language certainly aren’t signing on to the dubious hypothesis of rebirth. There is, however, a Sanskrit word that answers to the California usage of karma pretty closely. The term is mangala, which is generally translated rather grandly as auspicious—a reasonable equivalent if you think of such sentences as “If you find yourself constantly lying to your girlfriend, it’s a bad sign.” The terminological niceties are meaningful. Eliding the difference between karma and mangala makes it easy to think that Buddhism is a straightforward elaboration of commonsense that radically differs from other religions by avoiding the assertion of astonishing counterfactual claims. After all, we all eventually learn that actions have consequences. But Buddhism is a religion—a family of religions—after all, which is to say it is a system of false propositions. Taken seriously, dependent origination, the spiritual physics that underlies Karmic law, is as fantastic as transubstantiation.

Many practicing Buddhists, like many practicing Christians, regard doctrinal formulations with a sense of humor. Just as liberal Protestants aren’t scouring Mt. Ararat for the anchor of the ark, undogmatic Buddhists don’t really think that Buddha had a headache because as a child in a former life he hit a fish over the head. Promoting the notion that a comprehensive and implacable system of moral bookkeeping governs the actions of all conscious beings is an edifying claim useful in dealing with the lay people, but such skillful methods (upaya) should be taken with a grain of salt. The question for both contemporary Christians and Buddhists is how much of the fantastic element of their religious traditions they can jettison without jettisoning the tradition itself. In the Buddhist instance, for example, it’s one thing to admit that universe isn’t a despotic retribution and reward machine, but if there is no dharma at all, if some kind of moral law isn’t built into the machine language of the cosmos, karma really is just mangala. But maybe that’s not such a terrible thing to realize. The fact that quite a few Buddhists do seem to realize it is part of the reason the Buddhist tradition continues to appeal to me even though I’m well aware that it comes festooned with the same assortment of warts and boils as the other religions. It isn’t true, but maybe it’s mangala.

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