Karma – The Return of the Ego in Buddhism

Buddhism as traced through the Ch’an -> Zen traditions attempts to develop a therapy which remedies suffering through dissolving the problem.

Nirvana is Samsara — Samsara is Nirvana.

The great 11th century poet Saigyo explored this in his poetry when he articulated a love of things simply for being themselves. To desire anything beyond this world is to remain trapped in the cycle of suffering, rather than to find joy in both the blooming and withering of the cherry blossoms.

This Buddhist mode of therapeutics can employ rational thought to reduce the notion of the self to absurdity, but Zen has historically focused more on physical practices which act upon the body to reduce one’s sense of individuation. Through chanting and meditation, the practitioner melts into a continuous flux, actualizing an unbroken continuum which includes themselves and all things. Dogen claimed that the essence and only requirement for Zen was to sit cross-legged. That’s it.

But what of the seemingly intractable experience of being a self? Psychoanalysis made a great leap forward by identifying the origin of the self in language, for only language provides the tool with which one could objectify one self or objectify others as selves. Language is the tool which introduces the division which makes the self possible.

Buddhism critiques the notion of the self by unmasking it as a fictitious reification of a fundamentally undivided flux. While Psychoanalytic theory is no less clear that the self is indeed a reification, I think that the Psychoanalytic more honestly poses the dilemma we face — discard the self and you lose language; keep language and you keep the self. They are a package deal.

But there is a third element we would lose if we sacrificed both the self and language — the notion of responsibility.

The suffering we experience in the realm of samsara (the cycle of death and re-birth) operates on the principle of karma, that one is either rewarded or punished in their re-birth based on their actions in their previous life. The notion of responsibility inherent to the doctrine of karma presumes (1) the existence of a self to hold responsible, (2) language for the construction of the self, and (3) language for holding the self responsible (the making-addressable of the self). Karma then seems to reproduce the self and the structures of holding-responsible.

It remains to be seen whether the presence of karma within Buddhist thought represents simply the great difficulty of achieving true fidelity to the teachings of the Buddha, or if this represents a crippling flaw and fundamental impasse in the Buddhist theory for life and practice.

Perhaps this question merely comes down to one of valuation — do we prefer language, self, and responsibility, or do we wish to sacrifice them? And if we do sacrifice, what do we build in their wake? What would building even look like then?

I’m personally still quite enamored with language, and even delight in my selfhood, so I’m not quite ready to make these sacrifices yet.

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