In a complete violation of literary tradition, I'm going to start this column with a digression. Kids, don't try this at home.
Buddhism is divided roughly into three traditions, or "yanas", a word that basically means "raft": Hinayana, the "little raft", Mahayana, the "big raft", and Vajrayana, the "diamond raft". Hinayana is also known as Theravada, or "the teachings of the elders" -- especially, as you can imagine, by Theravadans. Honestly, the size of your raft isn't important; all of them derive from the same source, but with one major difference: Theravada or Hinayana uses literary sources in a language called Pali, while Mahayana sources are in Sanskrit.
Pali in turn comes from a language called Prakrit, or more precisely is a prakrit: Prakrit means "common language" or even "practical language." The comparison with "practical" isn't a coincidence. English, like nearly every other language you hear in Europe, derives -- along with Prakrit and Sanskrit and Pali -- from the same source language that was spoken in what is now northern India. Linguists, elegantly, call this language "Proto-Indo-European", or, familiarly, as PIE.. Who says there's no poetry in science?
Sanskrit, by contrast, means "ornamented" or "fancy" language. Classical Sanskrit is a literary language that really developed hundreds of years after the historical Buddha lived, and is used for Buddhist literature in the Mahayana tradition. I lean toward the Mahayana tradition, and a good bit of the original translations of Buddhist literature were made by the Victorian hippies from Sanskrit, or from literary Chinese translations of Sanskrit.
The problem is that when Buddha was actually teaching, speaking to pretty much anyone who walked past, he was undoubtedly speaking Prakrit of some sort. Religious texts were in a sort of liturgical language we call Vedic Sanskrit from which Classical Sanskrit derives, but it doesn't seem to have been anyone's normal language, just as Latin nowadays isn't used very often except in Church contexts, and as I say, Classical Sanskrit hadn't even been invented yet.
Now, Classical Sanskrit is a beautiful, eloquent, expressive language, but things written in Sanskrit tended to be purposefully eloquent. Then you add those Victorian hippies, with their desire for Oriental things to be mysterious and odd, translating the Sanskrit, and you get things that frankly sound like they were composed by total goons. On bhang.
I plan a chapter in Undecorated Buddha on how to translate Buddhist texts from Sanskrit without sounding like a total goon on bhang, but in the mean time trying to write clearly about Buddhism presents an interesting and sometimes annoying problem: lots of the technical terms have become loan words in English, and those loan words are usually very bad translations of the real term.
The worst of these, I think, is karma. We're used to the word, and most people understand it to mean something like "fate." If you asked in any rec center Yoga class, someone would undoubtedly talk about how your karma follows you from incarnation to incarnation, and bad things that happen to you now are because of some "evil karma" you picked up in a previous life.
This whole understanding of karma is really a sort of mashup of some Hindu concepts, and some ideas from Jainism, but even then it's a very unsophisticated view, sort of like the Christian picture of Heaven as a place where you sit on clouds playing harps.
The word, however, is very practical; it means "action". It's paired with vipaka which means "consequences."
You can understand karma and vipaka in terms of a pool game. You start a pool game with the 10 pool balls arranged neatly in a triangle. One player hits the cue ball into that triangle, and they scatter -- a "break".
If you watched in slow motion, you'd see the cue ball start moving from the way the cue strikes it. The cue striking it is karma; the way the cue ball moves is vipaka. Then the cue ball hits the racked pool balls, and that's karma; the ball or balls it hits start to move -- vipaka -- and hit other balls in turn -- karma. The moving balls interact with the felt -- karma -- and slow, as well as not following an exactly straight line because of spin and irregularities in the tabletop -- vipaka.
What's more, the paths the balls take are affected by other things in their past: the time when Fred tried a massé shot and bounced the cue ball off the table, which left a tiny nick in its surface; the wear on the felt from years of amateur games; the humidity that day making the felt more or less soft and so increasing or decreasing the friction; the hangover that makes one of the player's hands shake.
All of those things are both actions, karma, and consequences of previous actions, vipaka. When Buddha sat down to figure things out, at some point "in the first watch of the night" as the story is traditionally told, he saw clearly that everything has a cause, and an effect, and that the cause was an effect of some previous cause; the causes at any instant went on to cause effects that became future causes as well. Look at the pool table at any instant, and the balls are in some particular configuration; watch over time and you'll see those configurations change as each shot causes something to happen and produces some effect.
Watching these games, you also notice other things: the balls form configurations, with some balls close and some distant. If you're creative enough, you may see other patterns, from the Big Dipper to a snuggly bunny, in the way the balls happen to be arranged. Each configuration is the result of karma and vipaka, and as much as some configuration may look to you like a big fuzzy bunny with the one-ball as its yellow eye, it's not a permanent bunny: the next shot will change it to something else.
What Buddha saw was that everything is the result of cause and effect: what we see now is the result of previous causes, which came from previous causes, and so on. In fact, Buddha looked at the world, and couldn't see anything that wasn't the result of cause and effect. Your "self," in Buddhism, is just a transitory accident of successive causes and effects. When Buddha looked for a "soul" he didn't find one. In Buddhism, this is called the doctrine of anatman, from atman, or soul, with the prefix an-, which means "without."
The "things" we think we see, Buddha called skandhas, which is a word that just means "heap" or "pile" or "aggregation." They come together, like our billiard-ball bunny, as a result of cause and effect from things that happened in the past; they're inherently changeable and changing, and will disappear, to be assembled into new piles in the future.
Buddha said it this way:
When this is, that is.
What this causes that, that arises.
When this ceases to be, that ceases to be.
In other words, karma and vipaka are simply cause and effect; Buddha's first realization was that everything everywhere, for all time, is simply a transitory skandha that comes together as a result of cause and effect.
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