The Projection of Karma

By Andrew Goodman (Won Bup Woo), June/14/2020

Karma is one of the central concepts of Buddhism. It is the focus of four of the practices of the Eight Fold path: right intention, right speech, right action, and right livelihood. Essentially, karma is the law of cause and effect which means that our actions have consequences and we are responsible for our behavior.

From the Buddhist perspective, karma is intrinsically linked to the suffering and distress we experience in life. Acting out of our fear, anger, greed and other impulsive emotions we create negative patterns that bind us to frustration, disappointment, and despair. Dharma teachings often talk about breaking the cycle  of karmic activity. They also refer to liberation as being free from the cycle of birth and death. They are really the same thing. Our karmic actions perpetuate the cycle of birth and death.

Traditionally Buddhism has focused on the individual effects of karma. If I act in a negative way, I will find myself in a life surrounded by negative conditions. If I act in a positive, constructive way, I will develop a life with positive merits or benefits.

Sotaesan spoke about karma from a more mutual, interpersonal perspective. If I act with hostility toward someone I not only develop negative effects for myself in the future, but my actions will probably cause the other person to retaliate with anger and  this will have harmful effects for him or her. Sotaesan used the metaphor of a cauldron to illustrate the power that harm has on us. He said if there is a big cauldron of boiling water and you pour a small amount of cold water on it you will cool it a little temporarily, but the effect will be minor. Even if you pour a lot of cold water into the cauldron, as long as the fire is burning underneath you will not have much of an effect. It is only when you remove the fire that is heating the cauldron that the boiling will cease.

Sotaesan used this metaphor to teach that when most of us try to change our negative behavior we do not work at this consistently enough, and usually we do not change the underlying motivation of our behavior to produce real, long lasting change. Sotaesan wrote,

“There are many people in the world who repent of their previous mistakes, but few who do not repeat those mistakes subsequently. Some people perform one or two types of merit through a temporary sense of repentance, but leave the greed, hatred, and delusions intact in their own minds: how can such persons hope to have their transgressive karma purified?” ( WBS, p66-67).

This certainly rings true to me personally and professionally. In my experience as a psychotherapist I have seen that it is difficult for most of us to change behavior and thoughts that we know have negative effects on ourselves and others. Changing ourselves is a gradual process and involves a lot of repetitive effort.

A psychological concept that I have used to help people change, and that I have used to try to change personally, is called projection. It refers to the thought process that we use when we put our expectations and assumptions onto another person or situation. This usually occurs so quickly and seamlessly that we don’t notice it.

I want to discuss how projection operates and how it causes difficulties in our relationships because I think that working to identify and manage our projections can be a useful tool in our Buddhist practice. I think being aware of how we can work to reduce our projections is a way of understanding how karma functions on a day to day basis.

So let me give some examples of how people project to make the concept more tangible and clear. Someone comes home from work later than he expected, as he  approaches his apartment he starts to feel tense, expecting his wife to be angry or annoyed. When he walks inside his wife says “you’re later that I thought you’d be”. The man snaps and says “i couldn’t help it”. He hears his wife being more critical and aggressive than she is because he approached the situation with the anxiety that she would be angry and it took very little to set him off. This man’s mother often criticized him for being late both as a child and into adulthood. The man was then projecting his experience with his mother onto his wife.

A woman, let’s call her Anne, is in a graduate program. She finds that she gets very irritated when another female student, Susan, speaks in class, especially if it after something Anne has said. One day Anne gets angry at Susan and say “you are always interrupting me”. Anne says to herself that Susan says things right after Anne because Susan is competitive and wants to outshine Anne.

In this situation Anne may be denying how competitive she is with people. Because Anne is very competitive as a person she assumes this is how other people think. Anne projects her assumption about Susan’s motivation onto Susan and then experiences herself as being mistreated. Let’s make things a little more complicated and say that Susan is being somewhat competitive. This is not really so unusual in a classroom environment. The point is that even though there might be some accuracy to Anne’s assumptions about Susan being competitive, it is Anne’s projection that intensifies her feelings which cause pain for both Anne and Susan.

An even more complicated situation is when two people are in an argument and they are both projecting thoughts onto one another which fuels the intensity of the feelings on both sides. ( This situation is also sometimes referred to as being married.)

As an example, let’s say there is a married couple, Rob and Linda, who have been married three or four years. One Sunday they decide to work on cleaning up their apartment, getting rid of some things and reorganizing others. After a couple of hours Rob wants to take a break. Linda says that’s fine, but she wants to finish organizing a closet. Rob asks Linda to sit down with him a few time and to relax. Linda says no she really wants to finish this project. As they keep repeating this pattern they get increasingly frustrated and irritated with each other, until Rob yells that Linds is such a type A personality and can’t take it easy. Linda yells that Rob is a control freak and should leave her alone.

Underneath the surface disagreement, Rob was feeling guilty for taking a break when Linda wasn’t. He was worried that Linda would feel angry and resentful if he stopped working. He also started to feel rejected when she didn’t want sit with him. Linda was putting pressure on herself to finish the closet and resented Rob for suggesting she stop because it would only make her feel more anxious, not better. Linda also felt angry and anxious because she felt Rob was trying to control her. This had more to do with her mother being very controlling and judgmental when Linda was growing up, than with the way Rob was being in the moment.

Often in a marriage or long term relationship when people are arguing, there is an underlying level of both people projecting fears and assumptions onto each other that usually do not get expressed or clarified.  

Published by wonbuddhismnyc

It is a place of peace and restoration, and a place to learn and practice Won Buddhism and meditation.