June 30, 1980 Dharma Talk by Dainin Katagiri Roshi

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Katagiri Roshi introduces a series of talks on karma. What is karma? Why is it important to study karma? Is karma only for Buddhist people? Is Buddhism itself only an aspect of Eastern culture? Can thinking about karma drive you crazy? Also: How to reconcile aiming for the long range with no goal in zazen.


Listen to this talk on mnzencenter.org


Katagiri Roshi: During this seminar I would like to study and learn about karma with you. I’m very happy to do that.

Not only human beings, but also trees and birds, animals [and plants], are born in this world and continually move, act, and die. All sentient beings always move, act, and finally we die. Why should it be that only human beings have to think about karma? If all sentient beings who are born in this world continually move, act, and then finally die, then that is our business; it is all we have to do in this whole world, in this whole life. If that is true, then why don’t we just be born in this world, act, move, and die? That’s enough. Why is it that human beings have to think about karma?

Karma is a huge topic. It’s very difficult to understand. Why is it that Buddhism has to think about karma? Do we have to think about karma because it’s characteristic of being human? But some people don’t think about karma. Does only Buddhism have to think about karma? Is karma a characteristic of Buddhism, or a characteristic of Eastern people? Maybe so. But I don’t think so.

It might seem that American people or Western people don’t think about karma, because karma is a Buddhist term. But from a different angle, American people and Western people [also] look at the human world, human life, human death. If you don’t believe this, please study the [traditional] funeral services of Greece, Egypt, Europe, wherever it is. Each country has a traditional ceremonial funeral service, and on the casket they draw or carve animals [or figures] in order to send the person to the other world in peace and harmony. This is exactly the same sense as that of karma. In a different way, human beings try to understand human life, human death, even though they don’t use [the word] karma.

So broadly speaking, this problem of karma is not only the business of Buddhists. This is not only the Asian peoples’ business. This is completely a human problem, humans’ business. Sooner or later, we have to think [about it].

Buddhism [in general] is pretty similar: Buddhist teaching is not only Eastern culture. Of course, as long as Buddhism is developing in a certain society, Buddhism is part of the culture. So we can say Buddhism is Eastern culture; yes it is. And then if you American people try to study and understand Buddhism, and try to develop Buddhism in the United States, you believe it’s impossible, because Buddhism is Eastern culture. [If] you try to plant Eastern culture into American culture, immediately you are against it, because they are completely different, don’t you think so? I often go to Milwaukee and Omaha and other places and talk about Buddhism, but very often people are consciously or unconsciously against it, because they believe Buddhism is Eastern culture, that it is characteristic of Eastern people’s way of thinking. But I don’t think so, I don’t think so. Buddhism always focuses on humanity. Please remember this. Buddhism as an Eastern culture: don’t worry, forget it. [He laughs.] It’s okay.

So if you want to study Buddhism, please study Buddhism until it penetrates your life. [Slowly], you’ll understand. Buddhism is always focused on humans, taking away all […] cultural backgrounds, whatever it is. Whatever aspect of Buddhist teaching you pick up – impermanence, suffering, karma, or time and space, whatever it is – it’s really universal.

So from this point, I don’t think the subject of karma is open only to Eastern people or particular peoples, but this is [for] all beings.


Traditionally, there are three meanings of karma.

One meaning is just action, human action, with no sense of morality. Just action means, for instance, stretching your arms, lifting your hands, lying down, jumping, sitting, walking, sleeping, et cetera – this is just action, with no sense of morality. That is [one meaning of] karma, particularly in Abhidharmakosha – that is the oldest Buddhist psychology.

The second meaning is religious ritual; this is also called karma. This is maybe influenced by Brahmanism, because Brahmanism believes that people can go to heaven by handling religious ritual in the proper way, and if you don’t handle religious ritual in the proper way you cannot go to heaven. Brahmanism particularly emphasizes this religious ritual. So broadly speaking, [this] religious ritual is called karma.

The third meaning is karmic retribution of causation, cause and effect. This is the subject I want to [study] with you at this time: karmic retribution.

Karmic retribution is the continuation of the process of karma and its result. Result means this human body and mind: what I am here, named Katagiri. This is retribution of causation.

From where does this body and mind come? It comes from karma, which we have accumulated from the beginningless past. What is this body and mind? Simply speaking, we say this is karmic result. In Sanskrit, we say karma-vipāka; vipāka means result.

Anyway, in order to have this body and mind, behind this body and mind there is something which makes it possible for human body and mind to exist, right now and right here. This is what is called karma. That karma has lasted through century after century, from the beginningless past. This is the karma we want to learn about at this time.

But it’s really mysterious stuff.


A certain Buddhist scripture describes four mysterious things:

One is the state of buddha mind. We don’t know what buddha is. [He chuckles.] Buddha is huge. And the concept of Buddha is not exactly the same as the concept of God, et cetera. It’s very difficult to understand.

The second is the state of samadhi. Are you familiar with the term samadhi? In English we say concentration, but samadhi is not concentration exactly. The real meaning of samadhi is a state of concentration with no trace of concentration. Traceless concentration; this is called samadhi.

For instance, if you play piano, or if you play football, you can be exactly one with them. You can concentrate on the football: wherever the ball goes, you can really move toward the ball. But at that time you don’t use consciousness; immediately you tune in to the ball. That is really concentration: becoming one. At that time you don’t use the consciousness; consciousness is constantly going, but consciousness doesn’t bother your actions. So [your] actions are exactly one with the ball, and the ball’s actions, and the people’s actions – exactly one. At that time, can you say, “I am concentrating?” I don’t think so. There is no trace of concentration. Do you understand? This is called samadhi.

So [samadhi is] full concentration; full devotion. When you do something you are interested in, at that time you can really devote yourself to dive into it. But if you don’t like it, if you are not interested in it – just like zazen – you really hate it. [He chuckles.] Don’t you think so? [Laughter.]

And also the problem is, with sports, or if you become an artist, or whatever you do, there is always an object you can concentrate on. If you play piano, always there is the piano, and the composer, and the notes, and also the audience. And after completely [experiencing] samadhi [in playing the piano], you can get applause from people. You always have some object before and after, and even in the middle. But in zazen, there is no object. Just using your body and mind, and just your body and mind become one. Become one with what? Body and mind. So there is no object.

And even though you do zazen perfectly, there is no applause. No one gives you applause after zazen or before zazen. And even though you yourself criticize your zazen – good or bad, right or wrong – no one [else] criticizes you, just you continue to criticize. Finally, you exhaust [yourself]. Finally you think, “This is stupid.” And if you tell the teacher that, the teacher says, “Fine, good. Why don’t you sit down?” Or even if you have a good experience: “Fine, good. Why don’t you sit down?” And if you experience something bad from zazen: “Fine, good. This is also part of your body. So, please continue. Sit down.”

So there is never any applause, before or after. You don’t understand this, because it’s pretty difficult to become one with, which is called samadhi. Samadhi is completely beyond your speculation. You cannot poke your head into it. […] Your whole body and mind can be there – just like a football player, you can be just there – but [there is] nothing to touch.

So this is the state of samadhi. It’s very difficult: the moment when you touch it, it’s already not real samadhi. That’s why the state of samadhi is one of the mysteries, [he chuckles,] the mysterious things.

The third one is the will of the world. The will of the world means maybe the will of existence. Maybe so. I know according to my understanding [it is]. The world has a certain will. This a really strong will – which is called impermanence, which is called change, which is called suffering. That is the will of the world, existence. Whatever you think, everything is changing, impermanent. That is really one of the mysterious things. It’s very difficult to understand.

And the last one is the state of karma-vipāka, karmic result. That is the human body and mind. Each of us.

So both karma and also the continuation of the process of karma and its result is one of the four mysterious things. And also the scripture says that if you try to think of them, you can be crazy and confused. Karma, and also the human body and mind as karmic result, is not something you try to think. But in the realm of samadhi you have to get a taste of it. This is karma.


But the Indian people are very afraid of karma, because karma is exactly the idea that if you do something good you will get something good, but if you do something wrong, you will have something wrong as a result. So karma is always a strong power behind them, just like a shadow, which controls their lives. Generally speaking, they understand karma according to three points:

One point is that karma, or karmic result, our human body and mind, is [something that] we already created in the past. That is one point: you, and everybody, already created your body and mind in the past.

The second point is that karma [or] the human body is that which certain gods made.

The third is that there is no cause: no one made the karma in the past, so human body and mind or human action just happen by chance.

The first two are sort of fatalism. Because you already made [your karma] in the past, so that karma is already a certain frame of categories, which [for example] is called Katagiri. If I say Katagiri, Katagiri already has a certain sense of solid being, which no one controls, which even I cannot control. That is [the meaning of] “I already made [it] in the past.” In the past doesn’t mean my childhood, it means beyond my birth. [The past is] including the past before my birth. My karma is that which I already made in the past – so, I cannot do anything.

Or, if you say karma is that which God made, at that time there is nothing to do. That is really fatalism.

The other excessive idea is, “Don’t worry; forget it. We were born in this world by chance! No cause. So don’t worry.” This is another excessive idea.

[These are excessive ideas] because karma is always sort of a demon, haunting the Indian people. That’s why they try to escape from karma, try to be free from that karma.

Well, not only the Indian people. If you start to study Buddhism, you can feel something common from karma. Probably most of you feel a little bit scared.

For instance, in [the book] Shogun. Did you read Shogun? I didn’t read it yet, but according to people and reviews, et cetera, people in the book Shogun sort of [had no] control [of their lives], because all the people, particularly Japanese women, were completely molded in a certain frame. It’s very sad. Even in such a situation, those people accept the situation of human life, which is called karma. So in this case karma is not a good sense, karma is an unwholesome sense. It makes your situation in human life get worse and worse. That is sort of [like] demons.

Finally in such a situation, people give up in their lives; they just blindly accept such a situation. That is how people usually understand karma.

And also if you read classic Japanese literature, you can feel a sense of pensiveness. Because the term karma is very popular in Japan; it penetrates into their lives. They use the term karma so well, very often; even though they don’t understand what it is, they use it very much. But that term karma is not the good sense; it’s always a little bit pensive feeling there.

For instance, when your situation is getting worse – if the more you try to develop your life, the more you realize that your situation in life is getting worse, going downhill – at that time people say, “That is your karma.” But [that] is not really karma.


[In my childhood,] I didn’t know exactly what karma was. But probably I’ve told you, my mother always told me that I was reborn from my sister. Constantly she told me this. And also, I was born in this world when my mother saw the morning sunrise, so she told me, “You are the reincarnation of the sun.” [Unintelligible.] [Laughter.]

For my mother, the sun and the moon were not different [in content from] the Buddha. My mother and my father always expressed appreciation to the Buddha and ancestors, and the sun, the moon, all things. Every day – morning, before going to bed. They appreciated [all things]. The sun and the moon were exactly the same for them. Buddha is exactly the sun, Buddha is exactly the moon. So they really accepted the existence of the sun and the moon very smoothly, straightforwardly. That’s why she could say, “You are the incarnation of the sun.” But I didn’t understand.

Well, even though I didn’t understand, if somebody is constantly telling [you] that way, finally you believe it, don’t you think? [He laughs.] [Like if] everybody says you should believe in God constantly, finally you believe. And also Dogen Zenji says, the Korean people first pretend to cry when they attend funeral service. Even though you don’t feel sad, anyway pretend to cry, and finally you can cry exactly. [He laughs.] Yes.

So, my mother constantly told me I was the rebirth of my sister, and the incarnation of the sun. But this is a pretty good sense of what is called karma, [although] I didn’t know the term karma at that time. On the other hand, in Japanese life, generally speaking, karma was not used in a good sense, but always in a bad sense. That’s why I was pretty confused: this other karma is pretty good, but [usually] karma is not good. Do you understand? Because if I say, “that is my karma,” at that time people don’t accept karma in [a] good sense. It’s sort of that my life is already set up; I cannot change, I cannot develop. People understand karma in that way. But I don’t think that is my karma.

Also in my childhood, a Buddhist priest came to my home and performed a Buddhist service every month. Spiritually speaking, I felt this priest was almost not a human being, [more like] a celestial being – beautiful. He was at that time about fifty-five. I was very [impressed] by him. He didn’t imagine [that], and my parents didn’t say anything about him – I just felt that. [Why would I feel that?] Even now, I cannot understand. But if I understand my body and mind as a karmic result, maybe my life is lasting from beginningless past – that’s why it makes me seeking for such a beautiful person.

And also, I was always thinking, “What is karma?”

When I became a monk and went to Eiheiji monastery, one of the monks was very elegant, and very smart and sharp. He was always sitting in his room by himself, in a straight posture, sitting in zazen at a table like this, reading Shobogenzo. I was very impressed. But I always just passed by. Finally I came across him in the hallway, so I asked him: “What [is] karma?” Because in Shobogenzo, Dogen Zenji explains about the karma in the past, present, and future. So I asked him, “What is karma?” He just smiled, and he said, “Karma is not something you have to think. Karma is something you have to believe in.” [I wanted to believe.] I think he used the term believe; that believe is to get a taste of. To get a taste of karma through what? Through samadhi, dhyāna. Sitting.

Do you understand dhyāna? Perfect tranquility. Perfect tranquility means you and zazen are one, [or] you and the football are one. At that time, there is no gap between. That is what is called tranquility. Because your life is constantly moving [flexibly with whatever it is]. No suffering, just movement. Even though you get hit or get cut, you don’t realize it. And then after finishing the football game, then maybe you can realize, “Oh, I cut my finger,” et cetera. But whatever happens, tranquility is not something still, [that] you don’t do; that is not tranquility. Tranquility is completely no gap between you and zazen, [or you and football]. But if you create a gap between, that is not tranquility, because that is already a space which human consciousness can get in. That is not tranquility; already you have stirred up the water.

So to get a taste of karma through samadhi means you have to be intimate with your life. Not through the intellectual world; through samadhi. I always tell you, samadhi means that if you be one with, right now and right here, that oneness is not [only] connected with you, but also connected with your past, and with trees and birds in the present, and also trees and birds in the past too. That is the realm of samadhi. That is peace and tranquility. That’s why this friend said, “Karma is not something you can think.”

Also Buddhist scripture says about the four mysterious things [that] you cannot think. If you think [about them], you can be crazy and confused. So finally, all we have to do is to get a taste of the karma through samadhi. There is no other way. Only through [samadhi] can we get a taste of human karma.


During this seminar, I will do my best to explain the karma which is continuing from the past. So that aspect of karma completely you cannot control. Remember this point. On the other hand, karma is a great place where you can practice the Buddha Way. In other words, still karma is a place where you can be free. Still karma is a place where you can develop, deepen, enhance your life.

So I will do my best to explain this. It’s sort of contradictory. That’s why we have to learn what karma is. […] Karma is divided into individual karma and universal karma, broadly speaking. I am Japanese, you are Americans: that is individual karma. But all of you are Americans: that is universal karma. Sort of like that. Anyway, whatever it is, [like] I am Japanese, at that time this karma is completely beyond control. So karma has two aspects: one is completely no control, and on the other hand, karma is the place where you can deepen, develop, enhance your life, be free from karma.

That is [what I will have to explain] with my best effort. Do you have some questions?

[Tape change.]


Question: Roshi, it seems that when people use the word karma in popular talk, they mean either the collection of your good and bad deeds, which will give you a higher or lower life next time, or else they mean your past deeds that ordain what happens now. Is that your understanding?

Katagiri: That is one aspect of karma. I’m suggesting that is a misunderstanding. Well, it’s not exactly a misunderstanding; that is one aspect of karma. Karma continues from the past, through the present, to the future; this is karma.


Question: Roshi, are all things that happen to me [karma]? Say I go walk outside of this building and trip and fall down. Is that karma, or are there things that happen that are simply action?

Katagiri: Yes, it is also called karma. In the scripture[s] those things happen, and those things are included as karma.

Same person: Are they included as karma in that second sense, though? Remember, you mentioned first there was karma that was just action, and then the sense that we were talking about was retributive karma.

Katagiri: Well, just actions, and also natural disasters; sometimes you have to die by natural events. Or if you walk on the street and someone hits you, or someone stabs you – those things happen. […] Those events are also karma.

Same person: Are they connected with your past, though?

Katagiri: Yes, I’d say so.

For instance, [one] Buddhist scripture says karma is one of the mysterious [things], okay? [In] another Buddhist scripture Buddha says karma is very powerful, [you have] no control [over it]. Well, this is always happening, don’t you think so?

For instance, [Maudgalyayana,] one of the Buddha’s famous disciples, was noted for seeing the past, the present, and the future clearly; that was his wisdom. But he was killed by someone. He died. That is the story.

And also, even in the modern world such things happen, don’t you think so? The other day, I forget the name of the state, but a bridge all of a sudden broke, and people died. But only one person survived. Her car stopped right on the edge of the bridge, so she survived. How can we explain this? No way.

When I was in college, I [studied] western novels and literature. A person in a certain novel, he died just like that – when he walked on the bridge, the bridge broke, and he died. I was very surprised by that conclusion. Why, [I wondered]? Why did only this person have to die like this? [The teacher] said, “Well, Katagiri, you should say something more than that.” [He laughs.] I always tried to think [about] karma. [Everyone said, “Stop thinking about it.”] […]


Question: Roshi? The second understanding of karma, where you have a place to experience, does that give you more control over the first aspect of it?

Katagiri: What?

Same Person: Does practice have an impact on the no control? Does the effort and practice of doing zazen, et cetera, does that have the power to influence whatever the karma is?

Katagiri: Yes. Sure. Right. I will talk about that point too.

Broadly speaking, the purpose of Buddhist practice is that we should accumulate the power of good customs, in order to reach the beautiful, ideal image of human life. Continue to accumulate power of habit, and then this is really what is called karma, and in the future it [shoots]. When the time is right, conditions arranged, it [grows].

So if you say karma, broadly speaking karma is understood as action. Physical and mental acts; psychological acts too. So if you act, there is an act which appears on the surface; in other words, there is one aspect of [an] act which manifests itself. The other [aspect] is [an] act which [does] not manifest – that is accumulated. That is, if you do something, you can leave a certain impression after your doings. This is the Buddhist theory, anyway. If you do act, if you do something mentally or psychologically or physically, always something is left as an impression in the human mind, the human body. That is what is called kunju; that means a sort of perfume.

[For example], practicing zazen, if you accumulate the power of custom which is called [concentrating on] your breath. Even though [you breathe] automatically, if you can [count the breath], this is a very good custom, don’t you think so? But if your mind pokes into it, you say that it is machine-like, so you hate it. But through the machine your consciousness really works pretty well. If you contemplate it, […] that is great power of custom.

So even with such a thing, we try to accumulate that power of habit, and then [this is] stored in your mind, behind your action. And then those things will shoot – either while you are alive now, or during your next life, or in the life after next. We don’t know. But we have to see not only this world, [but] past life, present life, and future life, the life after next. We have to think [about that]. That is the purpose of Buddhist practice: aiming at the long range. So just accumulate that practice, and plant good roots.


Question: Hojo-san? How does [aiming at the long range] exist with zazen as an end and not as a means, and not having any goals in zazen?

Katagiri: No goal of zazen is not no goal of zazen, okay? No goal means samadhi, exactly samadhi. You have to experience samadhi itself; that is what is called no goal.

If you say “here is a goal,” it’s already the object. But the main purpose is, if you want to live in peace and harmony, or what is called freedom or happiness, we have to experience samadhi itself. In the samadhi there is no object. That is what we temporarily call no goal in practice, or no merit, whatever it is.

If you do something, of course you experience [something]. But that experience is sort of scenery you can see.

So no goal doesn’t mean to ignore the purpose of human action. Human action always has a certain purpose. No goal doesn’t mean [to ignore] that; of course, we act something like this. But that is not the main purpose; the main purpose in Buddhism is to experience samadhi itself. In the samadhi, there is no object.

Any other questions?


I cannot talk about karma according to Buddhist philosophy at this time, because it’s a huge system. For instance, you have to study karma according to primitive Buddhism, the agamas. Next, we have to study Abhidharmakosha; that is the oldest Buddhist psychology. That is complicated! But anyway, it explains what karma is. It’s huge. It gives you a headache. [People chuckle.] And next, you have to study Madhyamaka; it is explaining emptiness, so Nagarjuna explains karma in this. And also next, you have to study the Buddhist psychology which developed after that Madhyamaka; this is also explaining karma. And also [he laughs,] another one is the Avatamsaka Sutra. This is a beautiful sutra explaining the interconnection of all sentient beings; it explains this state of perfect dynamic working. That’s a beautiful sutra. This sutra also explains karma, but it doesn’t have a particular section on karma, so you have to study the whole sutra and then pick up the points about karma. And also, maybe the Lotus Sutra. And also, karma according to Chinese Zen, and Japanese Zen, [he laughs,] and also the Pure Land school, and the Tendai school… Anyway, [Buddhist history is] huge.

I cannot talk about all [of those] things. So as much as possible, I would like to explain karma through my experience. And also I want you to get a taste of what karma is, even a little bit. Okay? That’s what I want to do at this time.

My seminar is [sort of] just an introduction to karma. But if you are interested in karma, you have to study [those things I mentioned], one by one.

And also, unfortunately, there are not many textbooks on karma [in this country]. There are lots of short essays, but they’re very difficult to find. In India, Japan, there are lots of things, but they’re very difficult to find. Now maybe we can get Christmas Humphreys’ Karma and Rebirth. That is a pretty good book.

1:03:36 end of recording

This talk was transcribed by Kikan Michael Howard. Audio recordings of Katagiri Roshi are being used with permission of Minnesota Zen Meditation Center.

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