Saturday, November 29, 2008

The Four Reminders, Part Three: Karma

Third, when death comes, I will be helpless.
Because I create karma, I must abandon evil deeds
And always devote my time to virtuous actions.
Thinking this, every day I will examine myself.

-- The third of the Four Reminders, on Karma

The law of karma holds that all the suffering we experience -- and for that matter, all the positive things we experience too -- are the result of our own actions of body, speech and mind.

For those of us who grew up in a Western culture, this idea may be hard to swallow. Generally, depending on our influences and our own inclinations, we are taught to adopt one of two standard viewpoints:

  1. Theism/eternalism: Someone else (God) is pulling the strings, deciding where we're born, how long we live, the experiences we have, and so on; and when we die, God decides the eternal destiny of our "soul"
  2. Nihilism/materialism: There's no rhyme or reason to our existence here; it's all random events taking place in an existential vacuum, and there is nothing beyond the flesh; when we die, our mindstream ceases to exist in any form whatsoever

Karma, on the other hand, is Buddhism's famous Middle Way, residing somewhere in between those two untenable extremes. Karma means that our experience is neither random and meaningless, nor is it being dictated by a creator god or puppetmaster. Rather, our experience is somehow the fruition of what we've created for ourselves -- even if we're not always capable of seeing the connections between cause and fruition.

At a practical, mundane level -- in terms of explaining our moment-to-moment, day-to-day and year-to-year experience of the world -- we might find that the view of karma makes more sense than either theism or nihilism. We can find evidence to support this in our own lives. Often the suffering or the happiness we experience is obviously self-created.

At a metaphysical level, too, some people find that karma provides a better explanation of our existence than either of the more commonly held alternatives. Having rejected both the theistic belief in a created "soul" that is eternally rewarded or punished for its actions in this life, as well as the nihilistic belief that every aspect of consciousness dies with the body, it follows that some part of the mind will survive the death of the body, and that the force of whatever karma it has accrued in the past will go towards shaping its future experiences or lives.

The good news about karma is that it means that we have the power to bring about the happiness and benefit of ourselves and other sentient beings. It's not a question of waiting and hoping that things will work out in the end, or that some higher power will step in and make suffering go away and shower us with everlasting happiness. The power to create suffering or happiness is in our own hands.

Karma is like a snowball: whichever direction we roll it in, it accumulates more and more mass. In each moment, we have a choice about which direction to roll the snowball: we can roll it towards further suffering and imprisonment in samsara, or we can roll it in the direction of freedom and ultimate happiness.

What kind of karmic future are we creating for ourselves? How much of a disconnect is there between how we aspire to be in the world and how we actually are?

Because of our tendency towards shame and self-denigration, however, it's important for us not to use karma as another way of beating ourselves up. While we should be aware of how we create negative karma, we should also be aware of how we generate positive karma and focus our energy and attention on doing more of that.

Our "individual" karma also has an impact on the beings around us. When we suffer, we tend to make others suffer along with us, and when we are happy, we tend to make others happy too. So our individual karma is not as individual as we think it is. Even if we don't say or do something, we can affect other people simply through the energetic quality or state of mind that we manifest in their presence. If they sense our tension and aggression, they become tense and aggressive. If they sense our love and compassion, they relax and open. We can have an impact on someone's life simply by the way we look at them in the subway or on the street, and this too creates karma. So it's important to remain aware of our state of mind and how we're manifesting that to the beings around us.

Everything we do creates a karmic result. It is a misunderstanding to think that there are some moments or situations that have moral implications, and others that don't. To contemplate karma is to realize that every instant of consciousness as a human being has moral implications, because even thoughts and intentions have the power to generate positive or negative karma and thus to bring about the happiness or suffering of sentient beings.

This is why our meditation practice is so important. Practice leads to the removal of cognitive and emotional obscurations, the transformation of poisons, and makes it possible to purify our karma. Practice is what carries us along the path, and the path is what leads to awakening.

The key to transforming and purifying karma is to bring awareness to all actions of body, speech and mind -- and our practice is the key to generating this awareness.

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