Karma -- the return of the ego in Buddhism

Buddhism as traced through the Mahayana branch, especially Ch'an in China and Zen in Japan, proposes a therapy which remedies suffering through a dissolving of the problem. Nirvana is Samsara; Samsara is Nirvana. Realize there is no problem, affect a shift in perspective, and the problem disappears.

This Buddhist mode of therapeutics can employ rational thought to reduce the notion of the self to absurdity, but has historically focused more on physical practices which act upon the body to reduce one’s sense of individuation. Through chanting and meditation, the practitioner melts into a continuous flux, actualizing an unbroken continuum which includes themselves and all things. Dogen claimed that the essence and only requirement for Zen was to sit cross-legged. That's it.

But what of the seemingly intractable experience of being a self? Psychoanalysis made a great leap forward by identifying the multiple registers of the self – unconscious, ego, and subject – and locating their origin in a complex system of our biology's interaction with the human technology of language.

Buddhism critiques the notion of the self by unmasking it as a fictitious reification of a fundamentally undivided flux. While psychoanalytic theory is no less clear that the self is indeed a reification, I think that psychoanalysis more honestly poses the dilemma we face — discard the self and you lose language; keep language and you keep the self. Another way to put this is that you can live in language or you can enjoy psychosis. The self and language are a package deal.

I'm moving beyond psychoanalytic theory in making the following claim, but I think it's significant enough to venture — if we lose language, we also lose the notion of responsibility. We can see this in the Buddhism concept of karma.

In Buddhism, the suffering we experience in the realm of samsara (the cycle of death and re-birth) operates on the principle of karma, that one is either rewarded or punished in their re-birth based on their actions in their previous life. The notion of responsibility inherent to the doctrine of karma presumes (1) the existence of a self to hold responsible, (2) language for the construction of the self, and (3) language for holding the self responsible (the making-addressable of the self). Karma seems to reproduce the self and the structures of holding-responsible.

It remains to be seen whether the presence of karma within Buddhist thought represents simply the great difficulty of achieving true fidelity to the teachings of the Buddha, or if this represents a crippling flaw and fundamental impasse in the Buddhist theory for life and practice.

Perhaps this question merely comes down to one of valuation — do we prefer language, self, and responsibility, or do we wish to sacrifice them? And if we do sacrifice, what do we build in their wake?

I’m personally not quite ready to make those sacrifices yet. Perhaps it's the jouissance talking.

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