Now when you’re released you’ll see no heaviness in this world; you’ll see nothing but beautiful harmony all the time. Everything that formerly looked bad was just the right thing that was needed to do something to that person to make them move in the right direction. So as heavy as this world looks, when you are released, it looks harmonious to you—and it really is. — Lester Levenson (“Get Off the Rollercoaster” 1986)
The state of sinfulness
It is difficult for someone who has not embarked on a spiritual path to understand the need of the religious to confess their sinful nature and be cleansed of sin. From the outside, the religious lead a virtuous life, they harm no one, and their earnest confessions of their faults make us suspect them of making a show of virtue. Furthermore, the idea of original sin seems unjust. We want to believe that children are innocent and that as adults we can choose whether to be wicked or good. Additionally, from an egoic perspective it seems natural for human beings to have desires, and so as long as nobody is harmed, their fulfillment shouldn’t condemn a person to damnation.
Only the religious know what is really going on in the battle over the soul. They have had a realization of something, and a realization is a certain knowledge of a truth, which is no less true for being impossible to express through language or images, which can only point to it. Since religions were founded around enlightened beings, and thus preserve some truth about the content of enlightenment and a means to attain it, those who have had a realization, however fleeting, recognize its expression in a particular theology and so adhere to that faith.
Christians and Muslims express the realization in this way:
“I am separated from God on account of my state of sin, and this separation causes me to suffer. In order to become reunited with God, I must be cleansed of sin.”
The same realization is expressed by Hinduism and Buddhism thus:
“I am separated from awareness of God, Consciousness or my true Self by my state of ignorance, and this separation causes me to suffer. In order to realize unity with God, Consciousness or my true Self, I must lift the veil of ignorance.
Eastern vs. Western views of sin
Karma simply means activity, but it is activity performed willfully by the ego, the self, and its actions are manifested in a physical universe—that is to say, the actions as well as the actor are an illusion. Since it is attachment to the illusion of a separate self in a physical realm that keeps us in a state of ignorance, karma can be considered the Eastern equivalent of sin.
In Buddhism and Hinduism, sin has a different connotation than in the Abrahamic religions, in which it is associated with blame or guilt. The latter view God as a personality who is either pleased or displeased with our conduct. The Eastern view of God is of an undefinable is-ness or suchness, which nevertheless knows and is aware and loves. More precisely, this reality is the knowledge and the awareness and the love itself, because a ‘something’ that ‘knows’ or ‘is aware’ or ‘loves’ is a duality, and this reality has no trace whatsoever of duality. There is no subject that does anything: everything happens spontaneously.
Because of the Eastern view of God as a reality instead of a personality, there is no judge and no judged, no soul that has transgressed against God. Karma isn’t a punishment but a natural law of cause and effect, like natural laws. It isn’t something to feel guilty about, but a fault that one must be free of in order to escape from the bondage of birth and death.
Furthermore, it isn’t only “evil karma” that keeps us in bondage; all karma is a fault. But selfish or wicked deeds, being more egoic, bring a heavier karmic burden than good deeds, which in their perfect form are characterized by complete detachment or selflessness, and thus free of karma. Charity practiced in the right way, with no thought whatsoever, is a Buddhist perfection. As Suzuki (1953) explains,
That we are sinful does not mean in Buddhism that we have so many evil impulses, desires, or proclivities, which, when released, are apt to cause the ruination of oneself as well as others; the idea goes deeper and is rooted in our being itself, for it is sin to imagine and act as if individuality were a final fact. As long as we are what we are, we have no way to escape from sin, and this is at the root of all our spiritual tribulations. This is what the followers of Shin Buddhism mean when they say that all works, even when they are generally considered morally good, are contaminated, as long as they are the efforts of ‘self-power’, and do not lift us from the bondage of Karma. (“Passivity in the Buddhist Life“)
The Western religions view suffering as a punishment imposed by God in order to turn us away from sin and toward righteousness. We exercise self-will and move away from God towards worldly pleasures, and the punishment shows us our error. In Eastern philosophy, suffering is likewise the consequence of egoic activity, or karma, and it serves the same purpose, which is to turn us away from wrong thoughts and deeds and towards liberation.
Historically there have been people who voluntarily subjected themselves to suffering and even death. Catholic saints in particular were known for self-mortification and martyrdom, but asceticism in varying degrees was practiced throughout Asia as well. While this may seem to be the result of a misapprehension, a primitive belief that you don’t receive something without giving something, there is truth behind that belief. Reading the personal accounts of the enlightened, there are rich and poor, high-born and low, religious and laity, but all suffered. As I will attempt to show, the difference between voluntary and accidental suffering is only in the mind; it is the difference between being aware that one “wants” suffering and being unaware of it.
Madame Guyon was a 17th-century Catholic mystic, who remained a Catholic in spite of being persecuted by the Church. She endured a great deal of physical and psychological suffering throughout her life, and she came to the conclusion that God caused her to suffer to purify her soul so that she could become united with him. On the other hand, she repeatedly states in her autobiography that she prayed to God to give her suffering, and that God always obliged her:
“I cried punish me any way, but take not the cross from me. This amiable cross returned to me with so much the more weight, as my desire was more vehement.”
A. W. Marston wrote a preface to an 1875 Protestant edition of Mme. Guyon’s “A Short and Easy Method of Prayer,” in which he took issue with her view of suffering as a purification, instead attributing it to the mystic’s own willfulness.
It is true that in order that we may “live unto righteousness” we must be “dead indeed unto sin,” and that there must be a crucifixion of self before the life of Christ can be made manifest in us. It is only when we can say, “I am crucified with Christ” that we are able to add, “Nevertheless I live, yet not I, but Christ lives in me.” But it does not follow that this inward death must always be as lingering as in the case of Madame Guyon. She tells us herself that the reason was that she was not wholly resigned to the Divine will, and willing to be deprived of the gifts of God, that she might enjoy the possession of the Giver. This resistance to the will of God implies suffering on the part of the creature, and chastisement on the part of God, in order that He may subdue to Himself what is not voluntarily yielded to Him. (A. W. Marston)
Marston’s view of the cause of suffering is a Christian version of the law of karma: “The resistance to the will of God implies suffering on the part of the creature, and chastisement on the part of God.” The Eastern perspective is, “Thoughts and deeds that come from self-will are karma, and karma bears the seeds of future suffering.”
That karma is the cause of suffering is well understood. Most believe that it is a natural law, a force external to one. However, this belief is contrary to the Buddhist and Hindu belief that each one of us is indivisible from the Absolute, and that we are therefore the cause of our existence and everything that happens to us.
Most people are aware that it is sinful to indulge the ego or to indulge passions and desires. Therefore, they either expect punishment, thus causing it to happen, or they unconsciously do things in order to bring suffering on themselves, which amounts to the same thing. As an example, a person may hold a good job, have a business or be in a course of study for a career. The person knows deep down that success will not bring spiritual fulfillment, but the ego refuses recognize this consciously and give up the endeavor. Therefore, he or she unconsciously wreaks the endeavor by getting terminated, ruining the business or getting herself expelled from school. The successful may have heart attacks or other painful, career-ending illnesses.
This same principle applies to romantic relationships: one knows deep down that spiritual fulfillment can’t be found in another person and so seeks to wreak the relationship.
This being the case, the “fruit” of karma, suffering, isn’t the operation of a natural law, but comes from one’s own unconscious volition. And the reason why one wills himself or herself to suffer is because the attachment to a self and to existence so strong that it is necessary to suffer in order to break this attachment. But if the suffering isn’t enough to cause a person to let go of the self—in other words, to become enlightened—in that lifetime, then the karma is carried over into the next life. This view of karma as self-inflicted suffering accords with Hinduism and Buddhism because reality is undivided: to imagine a law that acts upon a being is just as dualistic as imagining a God who punishes a soul.
Yogananda tells a story about a famous swami named Trailanga, who went for long periods without eating, but would then break his fast with potfuls of soured milk offered to him by devotees. A skeptic once offered Trailanga a bucket of calcium-lime mixture, used for whitewashing walls, and the swami drank the whole thing down. As Yoganada tells the story,
In a few minutes the evildoer fell to the ground in agony.
“Help, swami, help!” he cried. “I am on fire! Forgive my wicked test!”
The great yogi broke his habitual silence. “Scoffer,” he said, “you did not realize when you offered me poison that my life is one with your own. Except for my knowledge that God is present in my stomach, as in every atom of creation, the lime would have killed me. Now that you know the divine meaning of [karma], never again play tricks on anyone.”
The well-purged sinner, healed by Trailanga’s words, slunk feebly away.
Yogananda explains, “The reversal of pain was not due to any volition of the master, but came about through unerring application of [karma].” A more accurate interpretation is that the guilty one caused his own stomach to burn, and that upon hearing the words of the master he likewise healed himself. Furthermore, he knew ahead of time that the swami wasn’t going to be affected by the lime and that he himself was going to suffer for his impiety, and so the attempt was actually an act of self-mortification.
Not the deed but self-will
The Abrahamic religions hold to the duality of soul and God, as well as to a belief in the finality of death. But despite these differences between Western and Eastern views, Madame Guyon’s treatise on sin accords closely with karmaic law.
I saw at this time, or rather experienced the ground on which God rejects sinners from His bosom. All the cause of God’s rejection is in the will of the sinner. If that will submits, howsoever horrible he be, God purifies him in his love, and receives him into his grace; but while that will rebels, the rejection continues. For want of ability seconding his inclination, he should not commit the sin he is inclined to, yet he never can be admitted into grace till the cause ceases, which is this wrong will, rebellious to the divine law. If that once submits, God then totally removes the effects of sin, which stain the soul, by washing away the defilements which he has contracted. If that sinner dies in the time that his will is rebellious and turned toward sin, as death fixes forever the disposition of the soul, and the cause of its impurity is ever subsisting, such soul can never be received into God. Its rejection must be eternal, as there is such an absolute opposition between essential purity and essential impurity. And as this soul, from its own nature necessarily tends to its own center, it is continually rejected of the Lord, by reason of its impurity, subsisting not only in the effects, but in their cause.
It is the same way in this life. This cause, so long as it subsists, absolutely hinders the grace of God from operating in the soul. But if the sinner comes to die truly penitent, then the cause, which is the wrong will, being taken away, there remains only the effect or impurity caused by it. He is then in a condition to be purified. God of his infinite mercy has provided a laver of love and of justice, a painful laver indeed, to purify this soul. And as the defilement is greater or less, so is the pain; but when the cause is utterly taken away, the pain entirely ceases. Souls are received into grace as soon as the cause of sin ceases; but they do not pass into the Lord Himself till all its effects are washed away. If they have not courage to let Him, in His own way and will, thoroughly cleanse and purify them, they never enter into the pure divinity in this life. (Autobiography)
“All the cause of God’s rejection is in the will of the sinner.” That is to say sin doesn’t lie in commission of a wrongful act, nor in the intention to commit a wrongful act, but in one’s self-will.
Suzuki quotes the following passage from the Maha-prajnaparamita-sutra: “If anyone regards enlightenment as something to be attained, to be cultivated by discipline, he is guilty of the pride of self.” One of the central themes of the Maha-prajnaparamita is that the self is nonexistent; but the quote further says that pride of self is a fault. Mme. Guyon also says that sin consists of pride of self, of a refusal to let go of self-will. She goes on to say, “If that [will] once submits, God then totally removes the effects of sin, which stain the soul, by washing away the defilements which he has contracted.” In karmaic law, too, the moment the self is seen as nonexistent, karma ceases to operate.
‘It behooves us to emulate the dead in dispassion towards good and ill and pain of every kind.’ – Meister Eckhart (Suzuki, 1957)
What, then, is the origin of this “rebellion against God” or congenital state of sin, and how is this conceptualized in Buddhism?
In Genesis the original sin was when Adam, in defiance of God, ate the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil; as a punishment God condemned him to a life of farming to survive, ending with death. Those who believe in evolution may see this as the point at which man ceased to be an animal and became aware of himself, but Buddhism and Christianity both teach that self-aware humans and the universe arose simultaneously. Meister Eckhart was more Buddhist than Christian, preaching the Dharma that humans created the universe.
Buddhism also has a doctrine of original sin, but it is far more complex; this is the doctrine of interdependent origination, which lists twelve causes of rebirth into a life of suffering. In Genesis the original sin was becoming aware of the differences between things, and seeing some as good for survival and some as bad for survival. In Buddhism the awareness of differences is called discrimination, and it is is of the highest importance, being what “sets Heaven and Earth apart.”
When we discriminate between things we immediately become attached to them. Attachment leads to desire, and desire leads to unwholesome passions and actions, called klesha or klesa, a word that is often translated as “defilements.” The word klesha comes up a lot in the sutras and it wouldn’t be going too far astray to see klesha as “sinfulness.”
The reason why people say, “I have accumulated karma” instead of “I have accumulated klesha” is because the concept of karma is more than unwholesome passions, and includes any action performed by the self: even thinking of a thing or another being as “not me” is a fault. Karma also includes the concept of future consequences that even death can’t prevent.
The Hebrew scriptures state that knowledge of good and evil was the beginning of separation from God. D. T. Suzuki and Erich Fromm (1960) both eloquently explain that knowledge of good and evil is tantamount to awareness of a mortal “self.” It is knowledge of what will help ‘me’ to survive (good) and what puts the survival of ‘me’ in doubt (evil). I can add nothing to what they say but only point out that “Inscribed on the Believing Mind” begins with four stanzas telling us that the key to liberation is to cease to know the difference between good and evil:
The Perfect Way is not difficult
save that it excludes picking and choosing
Once you are freed from hating and loving
that which is hidden will become clear and bright
Buddhism doesn’t only tell us not to discriminate good from bad; it tells us not to discriminate right from wrong, gain from loss, self from not-self, existence from nonexistence, and even Nirvana from Samsara. Robert Pirsig abandoned his studies of Hinduism in India after he asked a professor whether the dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki was an illusion, and the professor answered that yes, it was an illusion. On the subject being dispassionate about the very worst atrocities imaginable, I have wondered whether Lester Levenson, in 1952, thought about the Nazis and decided to love them, and if he did, whether this decision annihilated a large part of his ego.
Edward Conze, in his introduction to his scholarly translation of Maha Prajnaparamita Sutra writes, “‘Yes’ and ‘no’ are not reflections of actual fact, but of the attitudes of self-willed individuals.”
In a discussion of “signs” (laksana or lakshana), which might better be called distinctions as they distinguish one thing from another, Conze says that “bad actions” follow the recognition of differences between a man and a woman. When Adam and Eve ate of the forbidden fruit they became aware that they were naked, and were ashamed, which showed their state of sin.
Further, all “signs” should be avoided. We have to do with a “sign” (nimitta) wherever the impression of a stimulus is either taken as an indication that there is something there—as in perception—or as a reason for doing something about something. The taking up of a “sign” is regarded as the salient feature of perception. Innocuous as it may seem, perception as such is an obstacle to salvation in that it is both erroneous and misleading. It is erroneous because the world as perceived is largely a fabrication of our desire for adaptation to it [or our desire for it to adapt to us], and covers up the vision of what is really there, i.e. Nirvana, or the succession of ceaselessly changing momentary dharmas. It is misleading because, as the commentators put it, we first “recognize” a set of data as a “man” or a “woman”, and then base bad actions on that “recognition”. The sign is “defilement”, and the Absolute is called the “signless” (animitta). It is, indeed, unrecognizable when met. (p. 11)
Though the story of original sin contained in Genesis is primitive in comparison with Buddhism or Hinduism, both hold the doctrine that consciousness of self is a state of defilement. Ignorance or avidya (literally, not knowing or not perceiving) is a belief in the reality of a self, something that exists on its own independently of the One. The greater our attachment to this self, the more karma we accumulate and the more we are bound to suffer. But as with the Christian doctrine of God’s grace, the moment we let go of the self we are cleansed of all impurity.
(The Buddhist equivalent of the stain or taint of sin that attaches to one is samskara or sankhara, which are the volitions that precede the formation of things. First there is a volition, then there is a conditioned event. When it comes to rebirth, karma and samskara are joined as a compound word, karma-abhisamskara—literally, volitions which are conditioned by actions. These volitions are the cause of the rising of the mind.)
Karma and hell
Ancient religions were quite backward, practicing cannibalism, human sacrifice, etc., but some beliefs came out of a vague apprehension of a truth, which was distorted by the discriminating human mind. A place called hell is one of these, and a belief in hell existed not only in Palestine but in India and Asia too. The truth behind the myth of hell is that we have attached to ourselves some impure thing, some defilement, and that through suffering we become pure. The Jewish and Christian association with fire came about because the Hebrew word for hell came from a place where children were burned as sacrifices. But Hakuin, in his autobiography, Wild Ivy, also tells how he determined to seek liberation because of a childhood terror of burning in hell.
In his autobiography, Lester Levenson (2003) says that after he attained Self-realization in the early 1950s he had the idea of buying “entire villages in Long Island available because of non-payment of FHA-mortgaged [homes].” His aim was to use the schools to impart his discoveries to children from an early age. But after getting into the real estate business, he changed his mind: “One day while contemplating it came to me that I had no right to interfere in the relationship of children and their parents who wanted them to get the conventional training. It would be interfering with the karma of a child and the parent.”
The idea that children have karma to work off with their parents isn’t alien to one who believes in reincarnation. I mentioned samskara above in the context of reincarnation. Karma-abhisamskara, according to the Buddha, is what determines which of the six paths of existence one will follow into the next life. One of those six paths leads to a heaven and one leads to a hell; one leads to a world of hungry ghosts and another leads to becoming a beast. However, these may be interpreted as life situations.
My birthplace? I am born of figoku (hell);
I am a stray dog
Carrying its tail between its legs;
I pass through this world of woes,
I am not to go to figoku,
figoku is right here,
We are living right in figoku,
figoku is no other place than this.
— Saichi (Suzuki, 1957, pp. 151-181)
What if being born into a hellish life isn’t a chance occurrence in an uncaring universe but the opposite; what if the life you are born into, with your dispositions, was tailor-made for you by you?
If there were no wretchedness,
My life would be wickedness itself;
How fortunate I am that I was given wretchedness
They understand who have had sorrows,
But those who had them not can never understand:
There is nothing so excruciating as sighs –
The sighs that refuse to be disposed of.
But they are removed by Amida,
And all I can say now is ‘Namu-amida-butsu, Namu-amidabutsu!’
That such a sinful man as Saichi, whose sinfulness knows no bounds
has been transformed into a Buddha!
How grateful for the grace, and how happy!
Karma might be illustrated by a center with discreet points that move away from it and are then pulled back toward it, the points being sentient beings. But since the “center” isn’t a center, but is a reality that has no boundaries, the moving away and the pulling back are imagined by beings themselves, which never actually leave it. Karma is any self-willed activity that moves us away from realization of what we are and toward multiplicity, and its consequences are what pull us back toward realization and unity.
And among all creatures He does not love one more than another: for as each is wide enough to receive, in the same measure He pours Himself into it. If my soul were as capacious and as roomy as the angel of the Seraphim, who has nothing in him, God would pour Himself out into me as perfectly as into the angel of the Seraphim. It is just as if you were to make a sphere, with the perimeter covered with dots, and with a point in the centre: from this point all the dots would be equally near or far. Then for one dot to get nearer to it, it would have to be displaced, for the middle point remains constantly at the centre. So it is with divine being: it is not questing around but abiding altogether in itself. In order to receive from it, a creature must of necessity be moved out of itself. – Meister Eckhart (Walshe, Vol. II, p. 280)
Conze, Edward. The Large Sutra on Perfect Wisdom. University of California Press, 1975.
David-Neel, Alexandra. Magic and Mystery in Tibet, Penguin Books Ltd., 1931.
Erich Fromm, D. T. Suzuki, et al. Zen Buddhism and Psychoanalysis. N.Y., Harper Colophon Books, 1960.
Guyon, J. M. B. de la Mot. A Short Method of Prayer. London: Sampson Low, Marston, Low & Searle, 1875. https://faculty.gordon.edu/hu/bi/ted_hildebrandt/spiritualformation/texts/guyon_shortmethodofprayer.pdf
Jeanne Marie Bouvier de La Motte Guyon. The Autobiography of Madame Guyon.
Chicago: Moody Press. https://archive.org/stream/theautobiography22269gut/pg22269.txt
Levenson, Lester. No Attachments, No Aversions: The Autobiography of a Master. Sherman Oaks, CA, Lawrence Crane Enterprises, Inc., 2003
Suzuki, Daisetz Teitaro. Essays in Zen Buddhism (Second Series). London, Rider and Company, 1953.
Suzuki, D. T. Mysticism: Christian and Buddhist. London and New York, Routledge Classics, 1957. https://terebess.hu/zen/mesterek/d-t-suzuki-mysticism-christian-and-buddhist.pdf
M. O’C. Walshe. Meister Eckhart: Sermons & Treatises Volume II. UK, Element Books Limited, 1987.
“Because of the apprehension of a self, and of what belongs to a self, beings do not overcome birth-and-death. And why? It is because one views self and other that conditioned actions (karma-abhisamskārā) come about. The foolish untaught common people who do not know that all dharmas are absolutely, completely empty seize ‘self’ and ‘other’. Having seized that, they abide in it. They then become greedy, full of hatred and confused. Thereupon they bring about the threefold action: by body, speech and mind. Discriminating, by superimposition, what does not exist, they say ‘I am greedy, full of hatred, confused’.” (Conze, p. 14)