Big data and karma

I am reading a book called “Big Data: A Revolution That Will Transform How We Live, Work, and Think” by Viktor Mayer-Schonberger and Kenneth Cukier. It is a fascinating topic, but what strikes me at the moment is some parallels for understanding how karma operates.

First, the authors describe “big data” as follows:

Big data refers to things one can do at a large scale that cannot be done at a smaller one, to extract new insights or create new forms of value, in ways that change markets, organizations, the relationship between citizens and governments, and more. (Mayer-Schonberger, p. 6)

It refers to the process of examining vast quantities of information (such as billions of Google searches or Facebook “Likes”) to determine patterns and gain new insights

An example used in the book is that Google has figured out how to predict the spread of the flu virus within the U.S. by looking at what people are searching for over the internet. The authors explain:

Google took the 50 million most common search terms that Americans type and compared the list with CDC data on the spread of seasonal flu between 2003 and 2008. The idea was to identify areas infected by the flu virus by what people searched for on the Internet. Others had tried to do this with Internet search terms, but no one else had as much data, processing power, and statistical know-how as Google. (Mayer-Schonberger, p. 2)

“What does any of this have to do with understanding karma?” you might ask. Well, there is this little nugget:

The era of big data challenges the way we live and interact with the world. Most strikingly, society will need to shed some of its obsession for causality in exchange for simple correlations: not knowing why but only what. This overturns centuries of established practices and challenges our most basic understanding of how to make decisions and comprehend reality. (Mayer-Schonberger, pp. 6-7)

So there are two things going on here that relate to how karma operates:

  • the sheer volume of data involved
  • a non-linear understanding of cause and effect

In the Buddhist view, every “action” of body, speech, and mind is a karmic action that produces corresponding results. If you listen to Buddhist teachings, you will hear some form of this statement repeated over and over again. Another way of expressing this is that every thought, word and deed produces corresponding results. (In this case, an “action” of the mind is equivalent to a “thought”.)

Also in the Buddhist view, it is taught that we carry our “karma” with us from life to life, and we have been trapped in this cycle of rebirth from beginningless time (that is a very, very long time).

So if we consider the sheer quantity of actions that we have accumulated over all of our lives, that is a huge amount of data. And we are continually adding to this data by continuing to think, speak, and act. So it is a vast amount of data that is continually being added to.

This is probably why the buddha said it is counter-productive to worry about the precise results of specific actions. There is too much data involved and it is constantly changing, so it is not something that an ordinary person can figure out.

The Buddha did provide general principles and guidelines for understanding how karma operates over time. He taught that actions motivated by the three poisons of attachment, aversion, and ignorance will lead to suffering, and actions free of these poisons (based on true wisdom and compassion) will lead to happiness.

When we first start learning about karma there is a tendency to relate specific actions to specific results, and there are even stories in the Buddhist texts that provide these types of simple examples. But the reality is that one action can lead to one thousand results, and one “experience” can be the result of thousands of previous actions and conditions.

Ringu Tulku explains:

Sometimes, in order to help us understand how particular actions contribute to particular kinds of result, such as how good actions bring about good results and how bad actions bring about bad results, the Buddha told stories like those we find in the Jataka tales. But things do not happen just because of one particular cause. We do not experience one result for every one thing that we do. Rather, the whole thing—the entire totality of our experience and actions—has an impact on what we become from one moment to the next. Therefore karma is not just what we did in our last life, it is what we have done in this life too, and what we did in all our lives in the past. Everything from the past has made us what we are now—including what we did this morning. Strictly speaking, therefore, from a Buddhist point of view, you cannot say that there is anything in our ordinary experience that is not somehow a result of our karma.

This can be sort of an overwhelming and possibly frightening prospect when one first starts to learn about karma. I expect that this is why so many of us have so much resistance to contemplating karma. But the good news is that we can change our situation by providing new input into the system–by reorienting our thoughts, words and deeds to be based in wisdom and compassion rather than attachment, aversion, and ignorance. This, I think, is one of the essential messages of Buddhism. It is a “be the change you seek” type of thing.

It is said that the more deeply we understand the implications of karma, then the more mindful we will become of our actions of body, speech and mind, and become more and more inspired to think and act with wisdom and compassion.


Thomas Merton on “success”

I just found this quote by Thomas Merton on success:

“If I had a message to my contemporaries it is surely this: Be anything you like, be madmen, drunks, and bastards of every shape and form, but at all costs avoid one thing: success . . . If you are too obsessed with success, you will forget to live. If you have learned only how to be a success, your life has probably been wasted.”

I am sure that he is talking about the “worldly” sort of success of wealth, fame, praise, good reputation and all that.

These types of hopes and fears are referred to as the “eight world concerns” or “eight world dharmas” in Buddhism. More info here:

What is nirvana like?

I have been doing some reading/research on nirvana recently, and I have found an analogy that like very much.

This is from Thich Nhat Hanh (The Heart of the Buddha’s Teachings, 1998, p. 140):

Imagine a meeting in which everyone is stating his own opinions and disagreeing with everyone else’s. After the meeting is over, you are exhausted by all these ideas and discussions. You open the door and go outside into the garden, where the air is fresh, the birds are singing, and the wind is whistling into the trees. Life out here is quite different from the meeting with its words and anger. In the garden, there are still sounds and images, but they are refreshing and healing. Nirvana is not the absence of life. Drishtadharma nirvana means “nirvana in this very life”. Nirvana means pacifying, silencing, or extinguishing the fire of suffering. Nirvana teaches that we already are what we want to become. We don’t have to run after anything anymore. We only need to return to ourselves and touch our true nature. When we do, we have real peace and joy.

Books on the Four Noble Truths

The Four Noble Truths are one of the central topics in Buddhism. But if you are new to Buddhism, it’s not easy to find a good explanation. In this post I am recommending some books that I have found very helpful.

Dancing with Life: Buddhist Insights for Finding Meaning and Joy in the Face of Suffering, by Phillip Moffitt.

This is an excellent introduction to the Four Noble Truths. As explained in the introduction of the book, Phillip Moffitt is an American writer who spent years in the magazine business before dropping out and then spending many years studying meditation and Buddhism with a number of teachers. His book is written for a general audience — meaning you don’t have do be a Buddhist, or have any intention of becoming a Buddhist, to appreciate the wisdom that is offered here. As indicated in the title, the book is intended as a practical guide to dealing with suffering, and I think anyone of any religion—or no religion—can benefit from this wisdom.

Daring Steps Toward Fearlessness: The Three Vehicles of Tibetan Buddhism, by  Ringu Tulku

This book is written in three parts. Part 1 of the book provides an excellent introduction to the four noble truths. Part 2 provides an introduction to the Mahayana path, and Part 3 is an introduction to the Vajrayana path. Part 3 will likely be very difficult for most beginners to understand, but I think this book is worth buying just for the excellent introduction in Part 1.

Turning the Wheel of Truth: Commentary on the Buddha’s First Teaching, by Ajahn Sucitto

Another great introduction to the Four Noble truths. This book is slightly more traditional than those mentioned above, and it is written from the Theravada Buddhist point of view (found in southeast Asia–Sri Lanka, Thailand, Burma, etc.) It
is also an excellent commentary on the first teaching of the Buddha.

The Four Noble Truths: The Foundation of Buddhist Thought, Volume I, by Geshe Tashi Tsering

The text presents the Four Noble Truths from the Tibetan Buddhist point of view. The author is a Tibetan lama who spent many years teaching Western students in London, and this book is based on his introductory courses. This book is especially helpful in providing some historical background and explaining the differences in the Theravada and Mahayana approaches to this topic.

The Truth of Suffering and the Path of Liberation, by Chögyam Trungpa

Another clear presentation from the Tibetan Buddhist point of view.

Buddhism: A Concise Introduction, by Huston Smith and Philip Novak

Chapters 4 and 5 provide clear explanations of the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path, respectively.

You can find more recommendations here: Four Noble Truths: Further Reading