Karma isn’t Justice. ~ Hollie Hirst

Via elephant journal
on Mar 1, 2010
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I had a little epiphany on Karma lately.

I had been grappling with it for some time, because of some painful experiences in life (especially with men). My confusion and pain inspired discussions with my sensei Kevin, in our meditation class. I was trying to figure out how someone can do the right thing, and still be treated poorly.

How can someone experience ‘bad karma’ for doing the right thing?

This past summer I was honest with some people I love dearly…and ended up being abandoned by them. I lost some of the people I love the most (yes, I still love them, in spite of the pain) because I found the courage to speak our truths. It didn’t seem fair to me. Especially when the person I was honest with “won the prize” in the first place by being dishonest and endangering the health of many.

I was confused, angry, and wondering where the justice of Karma comes in.

One night in meditation at the dojo Kevin pointed out that the view of Karma as justice is actually a Western concept. I think we even discussed how this view of Karma and justice is a New Age syncretism between Christianity and Buddhism. Christianity is so suffused with a sense of justice, retribution, punishing people for their sins and forgiveness that when Westerners got ahold of the concept of Karma it became suffused with Christian ethics.

Or, as Thubuten Chodron points out in Tara The Liberator:

A Buddha is not a creator God.

A Buddha does not manage the universe, controlling sentient beings’ destiny, rewarding some and punishing others. Those of us who were not raised Buddhist can easily bring our previous religious conditioning into Buddhist practice and substitute Buddha for God. Since this would create many difficulties in our practice, let’s be careful to avoid it.

However, in spite of my conversation with Kevin, I was still puzzled, pondering the concept of karma around in my mind for quite some time.

Until recently.

One day, I was sitting with and observing some fear I was feeling, and it hit me: it’s so simple. Just like the Buddha said, suffering is caused by desire. Generally when we act we are acting based on our desire to either get more pleasure or avoid more pain. But the suffering is actually caused by our mind, and not by the situation itself (of course certain situations are physically painful).

Thubten Chodron discusses this when he discusses the manifestation of Buddhas:

Out of compassion, in order to benefit us, Buddhas manifest in our world and appear to us as ordinary beings in forms that resemble ours. They may seem to have ups and downs in life just as we do, but internally they do not experience confusion and turmoil because they have eliminated all causes of suffering.

In other words, someone might treat a manifest Buddha poorly, but they will not experience any pain because they are able to see that the sentient being is simply confused, caught in the cycle of longing, aversion from pain and clinging to/chasing after pleasure.

Practicing detachment is how one is released from the wheel of Karma, if one does not cling and instead practices and develops all the good qualities “equanimity, love, compassion, joy, and the six far-reaching attitudes- generosity, ethical discipline, patience, joyous effort, concentration, and wisdom” (Thubten Chodron, 16) one will be released from the wheel of Karma. One is released from the cycle of Karma not because people or life treats you well, but because one uses these chances to practice compassion (Ex: Ton Glen meditation) and unconditional love for all sentient beings.

…Back to my above example, when I cling to a desire for justice in the above situation, I experience a lot of pain. I become angry, indignant, and outraged by the situation. But when I choose to sit back and observe my thoughts and feelings, and to use them to practice compassion for other beings who have felt this way, and to gain understanding as to where the clinging to those feelings can lead them, the negative actions they can inspire, I am able to let go of my attachment to and longing for justice. Occasionally, once I am able to acknowledge my own feelings, I even get insights into the feelings and motivations of others. These insights help me to further practice compassion for them because I can acknowledge their confusion and clinging as so very common and human because I have seen them in myself.

When I just sit with my feelings and do nothing with them, detach from any lust for result, I am able to joyfully accept any outcome. But then, who am I to be teaching this? I am still practicing, and far from perfection, but this new understanding has helped me to begin to deepen my practice.

I have some more personal experiences that helped me come to this insight, but for the sake of brevity will not publish them here, but feel free to let me know if you want to discuss it further and I’ll send them to you personally. We can dialogue.

Oh and a final note… I have known many spiritual types who think that practicing detachment means not caring deeply about others, or avoiding those you have deep feelings for. It doesn’t! Buddha taught that we are all each other’s mothers and should treat each other as such. We should love, and love deeply, we should just avoid having a ‘lust for result’ of that love. His Holiness the Dalai Lama clarifies, stating:

“The practice of developing or cultivating equanimity involves a form of detachment, but it is important to understand what detachment means. Sometimes when people hear about the Buddhist practice of detachment, they think that Buddhism is advocating indifference toward all things, but that is not the case. First, cultivating detachment, one could say, takes the sting out of discriminatory emotions toward others that are based on considerations of distance or closeness. You lay the groundwork on which you can cultivate genuine compassion extending to all other sentient beings. The Buddhist teaching on detachment does not imply developing an attitude of disengagement from or indifference to the world or life.” (from his website training the mind verse 2)

*quotes reference: Chodron, Bhikshuni Thubten. (2005) How to Free Your Mind: Tara the Liberator. Snow Lion. Ithaca, Boulder.


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10 Responses to “Karma isn’t Justice. ~ Hollie Hirst”

  1. Well put, Hollie.

    This distinction between detachment and indifference is absolutely critical in Yoga as well. One could even say this is one of the two central themes of the Bhagavad Gita, which exhorts us to act decisively with love and purpose, but to DETACH OUR EGOS FROM THE RESULTS.

    That's very different than trying to accomplish anything and detaching ourselves from the world. Yet I've seen devotees of both Buddhism and Yoga misunderstand this key distinction. They think detachment means not caring and they either become do-nothing, risk-nothing spiritual automatons or are in constant conflict with themselves over striving vs. not giving a damn.

    Excellent article. Thanks.

    Bob Weisenberg

  2. Hollie Hirst says:

    Bob, wow! I'm honored by your support and positive input!
    I'm a fan of your work and website!
    Thanks so much!!!

  3. You're welcome, Hollie. I really did like your article very much.


  4. Gloria Stenski says:

    You are so well spoken..
    Love your work
    Gloria Stenski

  5. Quanita says:

    In integral theory there is a concept of karma and creativity that teaches the meaning of karma as: when something happens once it is easier for that same thing to happen again. It goes on to say that creativity is: the ability to change and create something new in each and every moment. I like this because it doesn't have the justice piece but it does speak to this idea of destiny and free will. Karma is our destiny and creativity is our free will, they live side by side. Karma in this way is our history and every moment we live out both our history (karma) and our choices (creativity). -Quanita

  6. Hollie says:

    Bob, thanks again! It was funny… I was really excited after reading your comments. I had to laugh at myself and thought “Wow, is sure is a lot easier to practice detachment when it comes to pain! I’m really wanting to get the ego involved and cling to this praise!”

    Thanks so much for your insights, Q!
    And for your kind words, Birdie, oh, Gloria, that is 😉
    Much love,


    Oh, I’ve posted my website, but it’s still under construction…

  7. Greg says:

    Joining the discussion late…

    Perhaps the confusion we encounter with karma arises in correlation with depth of perception. In other words, we fail to see the layer upon layer of karmic imprints that burden our mind. These imprints not only predispose us to certain attachments and to certain reactive responses, they tend to obscure our perceptions.

    For example, we might suffer from karma accumulated (in the form of imprints) over many, many lifetimes. If we do not perceive this expanded notion of our continuous consciousness, we allow karmic imprints to work "in the shadows" and we experience surprise and disappointment.

    When we come to view all past lives the importance of the viewing is not the past lives themselves but rather the cleansing of accumulated karmic imprints. We wash clean those imprints to which we have become attached – which make up our storehouse mind or monkey mind. In other words, our ignorance of our mind can be fairly profound.

    In the same way that we build up a karmic structure that is our storehouse mind, the actual physical universe is the result of karmic accumulation. One might consider it to be collective karma in that it is mental fabrications brought about by prior causes and conditions that persist.

    Thus, karmic accumulation, when seen in its larger significance, is the collection of manifestations arisen from causes and conditions. Samsara is thus one karmic snowball and the practice is melting the snowball so we experience detachment in the sense that we recognize the fabrications or manifestations are not us but rather the product of our minds.

    The gentle entry point into this awareness is the recognition of how our subtle predispositions cause us to view the world in particular ways.

    If we consider karma to be the accumulation of appearances that result from causes and conditions that have not been fully understood we begin to see the profound depth of karma.

  8. Hollie Hirst says:

    Sorry for my delayed response.
    Thanks so much for your input, very well stated!

    When I allow my mind to cling to desire I create more karma for myself… my mind clings based on past clinging and aversion. Only through mindfulness practice can we clear up past karma by stopping the cycle of clinging and aversion… And of course on an outer level, because of dependent co-arising, if we treat others poorly then this will come back to us, as is the more common understanding of karma.

    At least this is my understanding, and a less eloquent version of what I hear you saying. (please correct me if I misunderstand!)

    Namaste, Hollie

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