Talking Dharma – Talking Baggage
The secular western approach to the Dharma is not afraid to refer to the classical Buddhist version of karma and rebirth as little more than cultural baggage that is no longer in accord with known science. It does not do so out of a lack of respect for classical Buddhism. It does so because it is doing what the Buddha asks us to do. He asks us to test, challenge and let go of anything that is no longer relevant or helpful. The time has come, I suggest, to leave this baggage on the carousel until it finds itself in the unclaimed lost luggage department until finally it is disposed of into the landfill of ancient history. There can be no denial that the Buddha used these pre-existent Indian concepts to show people how unhelpful it was to cling to those aspects that were not based in actuality but were formed as some aspect of blind faith religious system. For that reason alone it is unhelpful to dismiss them out of hand because there is much within them that is helpful if they are engaged with in the way they were originally intended but explored on the basis of our own western conditioning,
So what is karma? If you strip it down to its most basic understanding it means intentional action and the results of the intentional action. An action, in this context, is a thought, something you say or something you do. Karma is nothing more than a learning opportunity to observe the fact that the quality of your mind state in the next moment is the consequence of your intentional action in the previous moment. No magic or mystery required. Helpful intentions result in contentment or peace of mind and unhelpful intentions result in the worrying mind. That is it in its most simplistic nutshell. But it is actually a bit more complex than that when you explore it at a more insightful level of understanding because not only is there the immediate karmic payoff in the next moment, but the consequences of that moment might not be fully realized until some point in a yet to materialise future moment. For instance a lie you tell today will have an immediate effect on the quality of your mind now, but the consequences of the lie might not come to fruition until much later on where it will trigger an even greater level of worrying when it is found out. And of course there is the on-going worrying of being found out.
Your present experience is shaped by three karmic factors. 1. The results of past intentions and this includes all your conditioned sense experiences. 2. Your present intentions 3. The results of your present intentions. Past intentions provide you with the raw material aspect because you’re potentially free to create any type of new karma and these conditions can interact in many complex ways. In fact, in your experience of the present, your current intention arises prior to your awareness of the senses. Without present intentions, you’d have no experience of space and time. You’d be free from their limitations. At the level of actuality, this fact is what makes awakening possible. On the subjective level of reality, it means that even though you may experience the effects from past unhelpful thoughts, speech or action, known in classical Buddhism as the fruits of karma ripening, in your current field of experience, you can bring conscious choice into play at this point with awareness so that you do not have to worry about them. In effect you can be proactive in preventing worrying from disturbing peace of mind by the practice of awareness. This is why we meditate. It is to sensitize ourselves to and become aware of our present motivational factors, our present intentions, some of which are very subtle and buried within the subconscious and unable to be seem without introspection. This sensitivity enables us to expand the range of our freedom in the present, training the mind in the skills it needs to create a helpful state of mind.
If your intentions influence the quality of the result, does this mean that every action done with helpful intentions will tend toward a helpful result? For an intention to give helpful results, it has to be free of want, not want, and confusion. Now, it’s possible for an intention to be well-meaning but based on confusion, in which case it would lead to unhelpful results. To experience helpful results, an action has to be not only helpful but also wise. This is why the Buddha communicates three qualities to develop. 1. Action based on wisdom to develop or maintain peace of mind. 2 Committing yourself to do the least amount of physical, emotional pr psychological harm to yourself, others and the world around you 3. The observation of the on-going quality of your mind state, to develop conscience, as opposed to rule bound ethics. It is a system of learning from your mistakes so as not to be fooled by an intention that seems wise and compassionate but really isn’t.
In the Buddha’s times, the Jains believed that they could burn off old karma by not reacting to the pain of their austerities and the Buddha reserved some of his sharpest ridicule for that belief. He said they should have been aware that the pain experienced during their austerities ended when they stopped the austerities, which meant that the pain was the result not of old karma being burned off, but of their present karma in doing the austerities. According to the Buddha it is possible to minimize the results of unhelpful karma though. The Buddha compared past unhelpful karma to a big lump of salt. If you put the salt into a small glass of water, you can’t drink the water because it’s too salty. But if you toss it into a large, clean river, it doesn’t make the water of the river too salty to drink. The river stands for a mind that has developed kindness and equanimity, grown mature in the integrity of Dharma practice and has trained itself not to be overcome by pleasure or pain. The Buddha used the teaching on karma to explain only three things. 1. Why you experienced pleasure and pain and worried as a result 2. That worry could be alleviated or eradicated 3. How you could engage in a practical way of living that might help you to realize clarity yourself. In effect the eight-fold journey is the karma that puts an end to karma. Beyond that, he said that if you tried to work out all the implications of the results of karma, you’d go crazy. Because his communication deals simply with worrying and the end of worrying and that’s as far as he took the issue.
One of the major difficulties with the way classical Buddhism promoted karma is that it leads to a dependence on a rule-bound system of ethics that provide no learning opportunity. It can develop in unhelpful ways such as being callous towards the worrying of others and only being concerned with yourself. It can so easily head in the direction of thinking that you can blame them because it is their karma and they somehow deserve it. It can move away from a compassionate response. Compassion does not recognise good and bad. It can also be used as a means of keeping people in their places, in poverty, away from education, from social justice by writing their current situation off on some mythical past life. I am thinking here of situation like the Tsunami in Thailand where Buddhist monks blamed the populace for creating bad karma that caused the Tsunami, or the Buddhist monks in Nepal who blamed the Nepalese for creating the earthquake that was karmic payback for their annual ritualistic slaughtering of the bulls. A belief in karma as set out in classical Buddhism is an attempt to convince yourself that somehow the universe is just and fair and not just a process of cause and effect. In an ancient text there is the story of the murderer Angulimala, who transformed his life around after meeting the Buddha and hearing the Dharma. But still local people gave him a hard time by throwing things at him when he was on his alms round because they believed he had escaped justice. In one way it is fortunate that karma isn’t always just. As the Buddha said, if we had to pay back all the unhelpful karma we’ve done in the past before reaching awakening, no one would ever awaken.
Although within classical Buddhism karma and rebirth are intrinsically linked it is, I suggest, helpful to separate the two because they both show different aspects of what the Buddha was trying to communicate about causality. It is also helpful to let go of any kind of metaphysical aspect to these teachings because the Buddha was not concerned with such ideas as the origins of the universe, life after death etc. He was only interested in the practicalities of living on a moment by moment becoming process that led to the seeing through of the confusion of the self-biased mind. He used those pre-existing ideas as a means of explaining how intentional action was the key to helpful mind states that provided the opportunity for deeper levels of concentration that would give rise to irreversible insight into the nature of actuality.
The Buddha was very clear on the point that his communication was an experiential journey and not an intellectual pursuit. He insists that you do not believe what he says but adopt a working and lived hypotheses that you test, challenge, refute or realize within your own direct experience. The litmus test as always is the quality of your state of mind. When you think, say and do this is the mind worrying or at peace? In his day there were people who believed in past and future lives and people who don’t. Nothing has changed. But what the Buddha was trying to say is that the question is irrelevant to your current experience. What he awoke to is the actuality that people’s intentional actions did have an impact on their next moment of experience that may have consequences at some future moment.
This inevitably leaves us with two questions. 1. Can I be considered a Buddhist if I do not believe in the classical Buddhist version of karma and rebirth? 2. Can I be considered a secular western Buddhist if I do believe in the classical Buddhist version of karma and rebirth? According to what the Buddha actually communicated the answer to both questions would be yes. The only thing that defines you as a Buddhist is that you go for refuge to the three jewels of Buddha, Dharma and Sangha. The belief either way does not get in the way of living a Dharma life in accord with the eight-fold journey. Every time you think, speak or act, you’re subconsciously calculating whether the results will be worth the effort. The fact that you’re expecting results indicates that you have some understanding of the karmic causality process. Even if you deny that you’re acting with any expectation of results, part of the mind is calculating that your denial will give good results of one sort or another. If you do something you know is unhelpful, but tell yourself it won’t matter, you’re taking a position against karma. So let’s be clear you’re taking positions on these issues all the time. The Buddha’s simply pointing out that you’ll benefit from adopting the moment by moment learning opportunity consciously and consistently by observing the mind state.
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