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Many people may read the 11th century book The Tale of Genji because it was one of the world’s first novels. For Zen students the book may be of particular interest because it frequently refers to how the characters’ pasts affect their present.


The primary protagonist, Genji, is a son of the emperor; he is handsome, smart, accomplished in literature, painting and calligraphy. Even with all these advantages, though, Genji seems fated to go through life on his own. Numerous amorous liaisons always end unhappily, and he ends up a lonely man.


Other characters in the book look at Genji and declare that his life – the good and the bad – results from his previous actions. In turn, he attributes the fate of his many partners and family members to what they did in their prior existence.


The characters’ perspectives are that” fate” cannot be changed. “This is her karma.” “This is his karma.” Such conclusions, however, are too simplistic.


Zen defines karma as action – whether an act, a thought or an intention. All of these generate consequences that may manifest either in the present life or a later one.


Here, however, is a crucial point about karma that most people do not fully appreciate: While karma provides the situation, it does not provide the response. In that moment, you create karma by how you respond. Moment by moment, your actions create conditions for the following action. In other words, you create your own luck – the good and the bad.


With this framework, it is quite evident that we must take responsibility for our own actions even when we do not control the karmic situation in which we find ourselves:

Situation (karma) -----> generates action -----> generates situation -----> generates action, and so on. Cause is effect, and effect is cause.


We all have tendencies to act in certain way, but karma is not like a game of pool where a cue ball hit in a certain way leads to getting the ball in the pocket. Our predispositions are like seeds which may or may not come to fruition. Even the thought of bypassing our karma is an action, and this generates more karma, thus continuing the cycle.


Through training, we can respond differently and stop this cycle. Cessation must occur without intellectual intervention or reflection; the response must be natural, with no conscious choice of action. When there is no “choosing” of any particular option, this action of non-action generates no karma.


Thus, Genji – and all the other characters in the novel – could have changed their “fate.” This is actually within the power of all of us to do.


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