Karma, Eastern Thought and the American Mind

American Philosophy since Ralph Waldo Emerson has had a strong connection to Eastern Enlightenment traditions. Emerson was reading the Bagavad Gita, the Tao Te Ching, and Zoroastrian texts as they were being translated in the west for the very first time in the early 19th century. He passed these on to his disciples and Henry David Thoreau for instance read Eastern teachings voraciously. 

 

In the first decade of the 20th century, William James’s ideas of Radical Empiricism, which see a world of pure experience in which each moment expands reality into the next moment, so impressed the Japanese Zen Master D.T. Susuki that he sent James’s papers back to his teacher in Japan to read.

 

 In the middle part of the 20th century Thomas Merton and Jack Kerouac picked up the baton of Eastern thought. Merton, the beloved American Catholic monk, became very close with D.T. Susuki as well as the Vietnamese Buddhist monk, Thich Nhat Hanh. Merton spent a great deal of time in the last years of his short life in the East famously meeting His Holiness the Dali Lama and Chatral Rinpoche another Tibetan Buddhist Master.

 

 Kerouac whose novels were written in a “stream of consciousness” style that harkens back to William James’s Radical Empiricism, embraced Buddhism with other famous members of the Beat Generation. He wrote his novel Dharma Bums intending it to be in part a serious work of Buddhism, but was disheartened when the novel was not taken seriously by the Western Buddhist community of the time.

 

 This progression of American philosophy set the stage for the explosion of the East meets West spiritual movement that erupted in the1960’s and 1970’s. Out of that influx of Eastern Enlightenment teachings into the post-modern west emerged Andrew Cohen’s teaching of Evolutionary Enlightenment of which I have been a practitioner and later a teacher for the past 16 years. 

 

 Besides writing this blog I host a weekly webcast in which I discuss the philosophy of Evolutionary Enlightenment and other contemporary spiritual ideas. On a recent webcast I, along with my co-host Carter Phipps the managing editor of EnlightenNext magazine, tackled the subject of Karma.

 

 I used as the basis for that discussion some ideas that I found online in articles written by an American Buddhist teacher named Ken McLeod. In those articles McLeod describes how he feels that the term karma has been popularly misinterpreted in the West to mean “the law of cause and effect.” KcLeod goes on to describe how a more accurate translation of the term Karma from the Tibetan would be “growth.” I found McLeod’s articles profound and the idea of karma as growth very aligned with Radical Empiricism. Incidentally, McLeod calls his particular work “Pragmatic Buddhism.”

 

 AUDIO CLIP: In this 8min. audio clip you can listen to the discussion that Carter Phipps and I had about McLeod’s idea of karma as growth.

 

For those who want to read Ken McLeod’s articles on Karma there are three links here that will take you to them.

Karma

Karma and Growth

Karma Doesn’t Explain Anything