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.
- 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.