Karma

Between cause and effect there is no difference or separation. This, in short, is the doctrine of karmic retribution. It appears to contradict common sense, and indeed we must admit that it does so. Common sense is the law of the land, but we must here draw a distinction between land and sky, between earth and heaven, between sacred and profane. Common sense is just that, common. As such it is the tool of many, the reliable bedrock upon which modern life has been built. It comes by many names, among them reason, rationality and logic. Each are powerful rhetorical devices, but for our purposes, let us abandon rhetoric in favor of the plain and unadulterated truth. The objection may be raised that many a rhetorician has claimed as much at the outset of their own treatise and it gives no more weight to their arguments as to mine. I must again admit that I have no defense against such claims. Rather, I must define the truth only as that which speaks to you, the reader. If you read a line that strikes a chord in your mind, you will know it then as true. This is the only test for such things as truth, as empiricism no longer holds sway over the intelligently minded soul—too many times it has been shown that belief is prior to and constitutive of experience. Let us then consider the topic at hand. One’s karma is often thought of as being either good or bad, depending on the situation. Good karma is thought to be the result of performing some good deed or another, while bad karma is the result of an unjust act. The goal, from this perspective, is to accumulate as much good and toss aside as much bad as is possible in this life. If one succeeds, their eventual release into Nirvana is assured as the round of birth and death is brought to an end. Karma, it is true, is the fuel of rebirth, but thinking of it in terms of reward and punishment is a bastardization of the original intent of the doctrine. As are all genuine religious doctrines, karmic law is meant to provide the seeker with a vessel within which they may sail through the sea of unknowing to find that island of harmony and peace known as enlightenment or salvation. Once the island has been found, the craft is meant to be tossed aside and forgotten. It is not the destination on its own, but the means of departure. In this sense, the law is not meant to be taken literally. That is not to say, however, that it is not to be taken seriously. I can assure you that it is. The difference is one between the literal and the metaphorical. As in any religious tradition, the metaphorical language spoken is not meant to be read through the lens of the profane and everyday faculties of common sense and rationality. These faculties are to be suspended in favor of a certain reverence for the sacred. This, it must be admitted once again, requires a certain element of faith on the part of the devotee. It is not of the nature of the sacred that it be open to debate or to proofs. The sacred is always self-evident, making itself known only at the edges of the profane world, during crisis or great upheaval and change. Those who would seek to prove or disprove it in fact have never touched it. Karma, then, is a descriptive tool designed to connect person to deity, to help the individual remember their original face, to point the way toward the sacred. The simplest translation of the word would be “doing.” More specifically, your karma is “your doing.” Instead of thinking of karma as either good or bad, we must get rid of such relative judgments and focus on what can actually be known. What the doctrine of karma attempts to show us is that it is our action that traps us, and that all action, whether good or bad, traps us just the same. How can this be? What kind of doctrine is this that rewards good and evil the same? Let us first be reminded that reward and punishment is of no importance to our purposes. Neither, similarly, are good and evil. Instead, let us focus on ignorance and enlightenment. The ignorant would have it that good and evil are clearly distinguished, that the former is just and the latter an abomination. The more enlightened, though, find such opinions carry no weight. The seeker does well so that he might be rewarded, and in so doing he becomes evil and selfish. The greatest men with the grandest visions of peace and unity are notorious for being the most violent and devilish in their pursuit of such goals. The good define themselves thus only in comparison to those they label evil; those same people who are evil in the eyes of the good appear to themselves just as good and mirror the former in their disdain for their opposition. How then, are we to distinguish between the good and the evil? We cannot. All that can be said of such dualisms is that they exist only by virtue of their opposed nature, the one giving meaning to the other by providing its opposite pole. Just as the directions right and left depend on one’s perspective, good and evil depend on which way you are facing. So then, we are left only with the fact of our own action. We, as people, are raised to have desires and to seek after the good. This education is a devastating hindrance to our chances of escaping the cycle of rebirth. We are told from the get go that we have not what we want, and therefore, we ought to seek after it. This sets us up to become so entangled by our wishes and desires that we become trapped and confused by our own mind. The law of cause and effect, as we earlier established, is among the most cherished of profane facts. Every effect has a cause, and every cause an effect. What would be the result of a simple grammatical alteration, changing effect from a noun to a verb? The law now becomes: every cause has an affect. How does this new semantic situation illumine the original law? We see that an effect must itself be a new cause by virtue of the fact that it is a noun. A cause has an effect, and that effect itself becomes a new cause for more effects, which become causes in their turn, and so on. On the other hand, a cause with an affect remains the only cause; it has not given birth to a new center of agency, as an affect is merely a peripheral property of the original cause rather than a new thing in itself that might attain its own causal power. This grammatical game is meant to shed light on the mysterious nature of causes and their affects. It appears that there in fact are no effects at all, only causes and affects. Of course, if we think this through to its conclusion, we arrive at the undeniable fact that there can only be one cause, a First Cause, whose subsequent affects are the manifest world we see in action all about us. Much like the previous debate about the definitions of good and evil, we run into similar trouble trying to distinguish an effect from an affect. The distinction is really one between nouns and verbs, between what counts as a thing and what as an event. Rather than try to solve this issue here, we will leave it open and merely suggest that any answer to it would be one of opinion rather than necessity. The point of all this talk of causes, effects, and affects is to reveal to the seeker their own unconscious. Raised to seek after what we do not have, we assume that our sense of agency is causal. In other words, because we can affect the world, because the effects of our action are real, we believe our goal is attainable. “I can get what I want because I am a cause and what I want is an effect of that cause.” Such simple logic can hardly be argued with. It must be pointed out, however, that, as we typically define a cause (as a thing that has an effect), there can only be one true cause, or at least one Great Cause which holds power over all lesser causes. This is so because, as we have said already, all causes are logically indistinguishable from their effects. Only a First Cause is truly causal, as any lesser cause would be too tainted by the myriad of other causes and their effects on it to have a purpose or design free of interference. What does this mean for the seeker who assumes he is his own cause? Quite bluntly, it means he is under an illusion as to his own causal efficacy. This illusion creates karma, as we have already said “your karma” amounts to the same thing as “your doing.” It follows then, that any act of the will is an act that creates karma. Karma, in this sense, is not inherently good or bad; it is merely the name for the process by which all distinction and separation is sustained. It performs this task of division and frustration for exactly the same reason that enlightenment performs the task of unification… because without samsara there is no nirvana, without suffering there is no bliss. It remains true, however, that for those still on the path toward nirvana, an end to samsara is desperately sought. How, then, is one to keep from creating karma? If karma arises from assuming that we are ourselves causal agents, it becomes impossible for us to then act in such a way as to prevent it. The act itself creates more karma, pushing the goal of a karmicly free life further away the harder it tries to achieve it. It becomes clear that this is a problem with no straightforward solution. Many times, in this case, it is necessary to rephrase the original question, or possibly to do away with it all together before the issue can be made clear. We must recall what was said earlier, that karma is created by assuming a false sense of agency—in short, the desire for free will is the reason karma arises. The result, strangely enough, is total determinism, as our karma becomes our destiny. The mechanism by which this works involves a subtle dance between the conscious and the unconscious. The biggest limit to knowledge is not the height it can reach, as the history of philosophical inquiry has shown us that any number of all encompassing intellectual structures is plausible. The real limit to what can be known is the ground we select when building its foundation. A truly free being would not be concerned with asserting its will, as against what background of determined influence must such freedom be won? We must come to recognize that the whole debate between free will and determinism is a distraction from the heart of the issue. In truth, the agent we assume might “choose,” or cause our action, is an abstraction without substantial existence. In truth, we are but the affects of an unmanifest original cause outside time and space. We are more like arbitrarily named events, singled out because of some defining characteristic or another from the grand scheme of the entire process of the universe for practicality’s sake. We are a whirlpool amidst the river of reality. This sense of ourselves as more fluid and connected, rather than self-contained and autonomous, allows us the opportunity of simply coming to terms with the actual state of our experience. We are creatures born from we know not where into a universe of both love and hate. We live a short time and then pass away to we know not where. Such a mysterious existence does not afford us the better vantage point required of objective truth. We are left only with metaphor. We should therefore avoid all attachments to literal truth, as no such thing can be said to exist. To find the real meaning of life we must abandon the possibility of being literal and accept our proper place as metaphorical beings. Reality, as it appears to us, is our own creation. Reality as such is uncreated. It does not exist because existence implies experience of existence. Shining the light on the ego that feels trapped exposes its seams. Spiritual exercise begins to unzip them. When the seal is broken and its contents pour out, one becomes released from bondage and unites with the infinite consciousness of nirvana. Soon after, the initial bliss wears off and consciousness of the ego role begins to return. The once released ego consciousness, though, has been forever altered. It retains faith in the unknown identity that it became conscious of during past moments of grace. It similarly knows it owes its own limited existence to the infinite. It gives thanks for its finiteness, because it knows that without it there would be no play. Without large curtains one cannot hide what goes on backstage and the whole show becomes pointless. Karma, then, is no problem at all. Karma is necessary, as necessary as trishna. Trishna is our natural inclination to become separate. But this natural inclination is our very thirst for life! Without it we would be mere inert particles. Instead we are wavicles that can’t help but diversify and organize themselves into all the intricate and beautiful patterns we find all about us. The karmic baggage we carry with us from our past incarnations is not a burden. It is our life spring! Without it we have no foundation, and therefore no opportunity for definition. We need a limit to our freedom in order for chaos to become ordered. Without a past we can have no present (and certainly no future). Samsara and nirvana are one because karma cannot be gotten rid of, it can only be accepted. In acceptance, one finds peace. It is not a peace without trial, and one should not expect literal perfection from enlightened life. Instead, expect only to feel quite at home amidst all of it.

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One Comment Add yours

  1. Andras Magagna says:

    I think the realisation of events as value neutral is important. I think it allows us to understand that there is at least limited choice in the expressed response to the affect(s) of an event by an individual. I think that if the expressed response to the affect(s) of an event by an individual is determined; then an event would initiate the same expressed response to the affect(s) of an event by all individuals. However, differences in expressed responses to the affect(s) of an event by individuals are purported. I think that differences in expressed responses to the affect(s) of an event by individuals can not be due to the event. I think that differences in expressed responses to the affect(s) of an event by individuals can be due to valuation of the affect(s) of an event by individuals. I think individuals learn of different valuations of the affect(s) of an event and that different valuations of the affect(s) of an event are justification of at least limited choice in the expressed response to the affect(s) of an event, for different valuations of the affect(s) of an event would initiate different expressed responses to the affect(s) of an event.

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