Karma: Cosmic Re-gifting for the Whole Family

The inscription reads something like "Wisdom of the ancients"
I think one of the biggest lies Buddhism teaches is about karma. The lie is not that karma exists, but that we can know when and exactly how it will "ripen." There are many scriptures and writings you can read detailing what results from specific actions; for example, in the ancient Indian system, being a thief led to deformed nails or black teeth. Dogen also explicitly instructs repentance to correct bad karma.

It is probably my *karma* as the child of two medical professionals that I don't think getting cancer is caused by bad karma. I also don't really believe in future lives. Or, who knows.

This week I got back from a long trip to Japan, where I did some research for my master's thesis and completed Zuise, the final step in dharma transmission, in which you visit both Eiheiji and Sojiji to be "abbot for a day." "Zuise" means "auspicious occasion for coming out in the world," and it is supposed to signify moving into some kind of leadership role. It involved a fair amount of paperwork, a crash-course in the ceremonial styles of Eiheji and Sojiji (respectively), and being treated like, if not abbot, then at least a welcomed guest at both temples. There is a lot of bowing, some stress, and a celebratory meal at the end.

Like most of the Zen training I completed in Japan, I was always a little unclear what Zuise meant or why I was doing it. In a similar way to going to college after high school without really thinking about it, I did Zuise because that is what I was supposed to do. And, like going to college, it was quite expensive. The ceremony itself costs upward of a thousand dollars, and then there were the plane tickets and other travel expenses.

Dealing with the money and logistics beforehand made me pretty fatalistic about the whole process; it seemed like an empty, meaningless hoop to jump through, pure bureaucracy. And yet my training has always been to engage with the thing in front of me, and then the next thing, and the next thing... so I did my best to find grants and fellowships to cover some of the costs, and dutifully flew back across the world for one last hurrah.

My first week in Tokyo, I had the chance to have lunch with my friend Yuko-san, a Japanese nun who has trained at Nisodo and lived in the U.S for a time. We had a few great meals and she gave me some very useful reading material for my thesis. She also gave me a present: a traditional stand for sitting zazen through the night (in the past, legend has it, monks would stay up all night in zazen posture and lean their chins on special sticks to keep from falling over) with Aoyama Roshi's calligraphy on it.

I knew this particular piece of calligraphy; a few years ago, at Nisodo's 100th anniversary, she had made a bunch of calligraphy stands as souvenirs for people who attended the ceremony. Because I was training there at the time, I had received one as well. But a few months later, I gave mine away to a random abbot of a temple I visited. At the time, I was going through a phase where I just wanted to give everything away. I had given away many of my clothes, and even my one really cool Buddhist tanka. Giving thing away seemed like the thing to do.

And yet, immediately after giving this calligraphy away, I regretted it. This was a special, personal memento, something commemorating the history of nuns in Japan, and I had carelessly given it away to someone who wouldn't understand its sentimental value. I was disappointed that I had given it away, but also, somehow, I suspected it would be possible to get back eventually.

Japan is famous for its gift-giving culture. When you visit a temple you bring a small gift (which is how I'd given away the calligraphy in the first place); when you travel somewhere and come back you bring gifts; when you do any kind of special ceremony you both give and receive gifts. Its how the spiritual (and economic) economy runs. It's a constant cycle of gift-giving. Re-gifting is also common, and not really frowned upon. Since it's understand th at gift giving is relentless and obligatory, no one is going to fault you for re-gifting.

When Yuko-san gave me my calligraphy stand back to me, I was so happy. It was also a hilariously simple example of karma at work. What else is karma other than one, long game of re-gifting? Karma means "action." The action is not even being good or ethical, but the action of being a nun in Japan. Being a nun in Japan and participating in the spiritual economy means giving gifts and receiving them back. Surrounding oneself by people who give gifts means increasing the likelihood of receiving gifts. Karma is not a singular, isolated experience of being a good or bad person. There is no way to know how karma will ripen. And yet, if you give a gift in Japan, someone will give you one back.

The last night I was in Japan, I called my partner on the phone and told him this story. He liked it a lot. It is a nice, overly simple explanation of karma. I told him that I was thinking about what to give my family and friends as souveniers once I got back.

"If I give away this calligraphy again, I probably won't get it back, right?" I asked. America doesn't have the same gift-giving culture. There's no understanding of obligatory gift-giving.

"No, probably not," he agreed.

Reflecting on this, though, I somehow suspected I would get the calligraphy back again even if I gave it away in America. I just probably wouldn't get it back in this lifetime. Maybe in the next one, or a million kalpas from now. Who knows.

I hope Zuise has some reverberations somewhere, hopefully in this lifetime, that I can actually see. But I will settle for invisible reverberations too.

James Ford and I are co-leading a one day sit next weekend, June 24! Please come! I will maybe even wear my brown robe. And work on not constantly undercutting my authority with deprecating humor! You can find more information and preregister here:


  1. Love this: "What else is karma other than one, long game of re-gifting?"


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