Friday, 2 March 2018

KARMA - The Third and Last Alternative


One of the great mysteries of life: Why is it like it is? Why does it have to be this way? 

Everything in life is explicable up to a point. Cause and effect is sustainable all over the place. From, if you touch fire it will burn; to, an apple falls, planets orbit the sun due to gravity; to, the atom can be split – I may not understand that but I know the evidence of it. These things satisfy the mind - from what I can see with my own eyes, what I understand from experience, what evidence persuades me to believe, even what a trusted person tells me is true, as in quantum physics and therefore the computer I’m using.

But there comes a point when this breaks down. On the earliest maps of the world there would be intricate detail of what was then known, then drifting off into uncertain space, often there would be written "There be dragons". And there we may fear to tread.

The most enigmatic question

Why is it that I can work up success for 20, 30 years and then have someone embezzle everything? Why does a successful relationship fall apart in acrimony. Why is someone less talented than me becoming famous and I'm still struggling with a daytime job? Why is it that some horrible rich kid is given all the perks and advantages in life and then squanders them. Why is an apparently healthy child suddenly struck down with a lifelong sickness with no support? Why do things happen that are patently so unfair?

These are examples of the kind of question in every life that go on defying a satisfactory answer: why do these things happen? These are difficult questions. And we do ask them, but usually only when they relate to me and mine personally, not as a speculative exercise. Then it looks too… something. It turns into an emotional issue because the mind can't or won't go there because… there be dragons.

If we try really hard to satisfy the mind finally with an explanation for the seemingly irreconcilable, there are three usual possible explanations. Maybe we try two, and then give up.

First explanation

It's all random, there is no ultimate sense or logic in the universe, no power in control. It’s all chance. But maybe things that we don’t understand just don’t have enough quantifiable data… yet. In the meantime random says there is no ultimate sense in the universe, no original cause to the effect. You and me - we are an accident not waiting to happen. We come in, exist for some time; then it’s over, end of story.

There is no integrated reason for any action which, because there are no ultimate consequences to our actions, reduces everything to a struggle for survival of the fittest in true Darwinian fashion, to get what we can out of it while we can while we’re here. So if things go well I say I’ve earned it. If things go badly then someone, something, anything else must be to blame. That's just the way it is. Sound familiar?

No one with a scientific way of thinking could accept this. Every action sets up some kind of reaction, this is the practical foundation of logical thought. There is an effect to a cause, and also a cause to any effect. Random, chance does not sit comfortably. Why else are billions spent on scientific research and discovery? Because deep in the human mind-set, with things as we’ve got to know them so far, this randomness is not acceptable. There has to be a reason for, or theory of… everything.

Second explanation

Then there is a force in the universe which controls everything, which we call God. This can be a delicate matter, but one thing is clear, whether we accept god, or not, every interpretation of any god will be confined within the limitations of human perception, and not the thing itself. It would actually be way beyond what we could think of it, logically or emotionally. But still it seems to be common among those who claim God to be the ultimate cause (and effect): They know what God thinks! 

God is represented almost like a person, endowed with superhuman qualities to be sure, but we infer that He thinks just like us, just on a really Grand Scale. He (it usually is a he) has judgement and preferences. And as a true believer I know what those preferences are and how to interpret those judgements. And then as a final explanation, beyond what we do claim to understand, the hands are thrown up: "God works in mysterious way".

As a result, there is either a turning away from religion, because that would be the 'enlightened' reaction, on the one hand; or on the other a more determined, more certain, more rigid interpretation; because at a certain point the mind gives up trying to reason and think it through, and comes to depend on a prescribed set of precepts, even though the same mind claims to know what God is, and what he wants.

This is not meant either to negate or affirm God. Lord Buddha provided the best answer for modern times. He was not an atheist: He simply said, this mind is not presently adequate to know, understand or interpret what is god, so stay with the task at hand and know and understand yourself completely first. Then the light of God will shine in you, and no explanation will be necessary.

Third explanation

Then there is a third explanation, sometimes muttered under the breath, as a resignation, an accusation, as a last resort: Karma… And this is like going off the map, so here too, there be dragons.

Suppose just for a moment with the impartial vision and insight of possibility: a person is not just a body, and not just an individual mind; that a person at the core is more than both of these and is potentially not limited to anything definable in normal terms. And we would aspire to know that. There is a term for it: Atman.

The Atman

The Atman is a constant not limited to time or space, and not limited to one body or mind. It is as the constant self within. If we take that to be so, not finally dependent on a body and mind to be my self: we were, before this life; and we will be, after this life. Birth was not the beginning and death will not be the end. Therefore what happens in this life carries some weight. And what happens in life are of two fundamental types: what happens to me, which is the effect, of some previous cause. And what we do in reaction, which becomes a cause to a subsequent effect. That in simple terms is the nature of the working of karma.

It's central to ancient cultures; and implied incidentally but quite often in modern cultures, for example: what goes around comes around; how you behave with other people is very influential on how other people will behave with you. My father, who didn't even know about karma, told me when I was learning to drive: you know it's a funny thing, but if you're polite to people on the road you find that people are polite to you. 

It can be seen to operate in one lifetime, sometimes very simply, that what I do today comes back to me tomorrow. But that is too simplistic and doesn't finally add up. But when there is the possibility of more than one lifetime, of an accumulation of experience, over many lifetimes, there begins to emerge an inner logic that gels into a unified theory without contradiction. It's the only one that can do that, so it's worth thinking about.

I come into this life as an embodied form directly as a result of past learning: my parents, my body, mind, everything. However, I am not without free choice. And within all my choices, there is a constant, ever present, which is whether I identify myself as just a body, mind, a person, family member, eye colour, race, culture, religion, or whether the true identity is something more than any or all of these - Atman

Karma is the medium of the learning of the truth of this. When we misidentify and go on misidentifying, it is the force of equilibrium, which is inherent in karma, which reminds us of mistakes we have made, not as a random or arbitrary force which chooses why, who, how, and when; but as something so finely calibrated as to be an absolute wonder to try to understand. They say that if you truly know and understand karma you would know everything.

Karma as opportunity

Every life is an opportunity to learn the fundamentals. Everything in life is a medium, because everything is an agent of karma, to learn the hidden lesson that karma is inexorably teaching us. That also includes everything we consider usual, like family, relationships, profession, ambitions and desires - especially ambitions and desires. Check out the movie Groundhog Day... again and again, and again and again…!

I have my situation, who I am, what I take myself to be. Into that mix things happen, sometimes as hoped for, sometimes as expected, sometimes surprisingly, and sometimes disastrously. These all describe not necessarily the actual events, but my reactions to them. Therein lies the seeds of future karma.

How I react will determine my learning. If I react personally and take credit for all that I want and apportion blame for all that I don't want, the wheels of karma will turn and return in time – karma is very patient – to remind me that this is not accurate thinking, which throws things out of alignment and balance - and it will insist I keep trying until I get it. Groundhog Day again.

If I assume responsibility for my karma up to this day - that is, all that I have experienced, (which may just include time before this life on the learning curve) - my reaction will be more one of understanding and acceptance, and my behaviour will be one of forward momentum by trying to find/maintain the balance through appropriate action and less of impulsive reaction.

But, we may still ask, yes, that’s all very well, but why bother? What's the point?

The three karmas

Once we have accepted that we have taken on influence from more than just this one life, we understand better why we may have come into this life within certain parameters. These parameters come out of our storehouse of karma, known as Sanchita Karma. These parameters also include the environment, inner and outer, for the lessons we have to learn. These lessons are already coming at us. There is no avoiding them. They are like arrows released from a bow; there is no recall, they will hit their target. This is known as Prarabdha Karma. 

Our free will determines how we experience these lessons that are coming toward us according to the choices we make and attitudes we adopt. And experience them we must. Then when we make contact, how we behave at that moment will determine our future karma. This is known as Kriyamana Karma. If we react according to a previous disposition (very likely in a habitual state of mind) we will set in train the karmic process which will at some stage remind us yet again that there is a lesson to learn, until we learn it – Groundhog Day… again.

On the other hand, if we can transcend instinct and react with a deeper understanding, that our events are a product of karma and that our actions at any moment will influence the outcome of experience further down the track - all judgement is off the table, court is adjourned for a retrial.

It’s as well to keep in mind that karma is absolutely neutral, and definitely not arbitrary. There is no such thing as bad or good karma, only tough learning or valuable opportunity. The key word is equilibrium. Karma indicates correction to the balance, and so seeks to find harmony. It can be very kind or quite ruthless in its way to achieve that, it all depends, but its influence is inevitable. 

Of course this doesn’t make it easy; it’s counterintuitive, or just plain crazy. Whichever way you go with karma philosophically, you have either to accept it totally or not at all. It’s a complete system, so you can’t take a bit of karma here and a bit there and then overlook it for the sake of convenience - that begins to look like a selective god. If you accept it, it stays integrated and maintains its integrity universally. And if you reject, you reject it totally which takes you back to random and then you also have to accept all the implications of that, completely. 

Introducing dharma

Managing karma could be said to be the central aspect of our life, whether we know it, or accept it, or not. And to complete the picture it really helps to bring one more idea into play: a sense of purpose in this life; a sense that there is a part to play, and to play it well, continually; a sense of doing what we believe to be right. It's called Dharma. Dharma is our path in life, and if it is accurately chosen it will not falter when the vicissitudes of karma put us to the test. It lessens the impact because in aligning ourselves with dharma the karmic lesson is already half-learned.

Dharma and karma are the two forces that taken together make life make complete sense, from top to bottom. A mind ruled by strongly held opinions will find this difficult to accept. But after analysing impartially, intelligently, one thing following another, there is an inherent logic, scientific if you like in its elegance, which cannot be bettered by any other philosophy.

Incidentally incarnation is not limited to the body as we know it. It can be anywhere in any form according to the state of evolution, because evolution only goes so far in the physical realm. There is also evolution at the karmic level which only begins to be recognised in the human form (or not as the case may be). There’s a whole universe to choose from, and infinite forms. There is no return in evolution, just slow learning. It's the fishing in the past for I-was-an-Indian-prince-or-princess idea that gets incarnation a bad name.

This is a big ask, but it adds up. Mind can bend over backwards to get any answer it wants, or refuse to see what it doesn’t want, prompted by emotions stretched beyond the power of acceptance. You can argue with it intellectually, you can argue with it emotionally, but if the possibility is accepted that you were before this life, and you will be after this life, the logic of karma is irrefutable. So the question remains: which would I rather, a philosophy I understand that works perfectly in limited circumstances, or a philosophy that fits perfectly even if I don't understand it at all? Did I mention Groundhog Day?

We may think we never think about this, but somewhere deep inside there is a core belief system that operates and influences throughout life. Examined closely it will probably show itself to be one of the three options outlined here. It's really worth thinking about and getting to know what is the inherent motivating force we carry with us. Then only can we operate according to free will, the unique gift of humanity. We have to use it responsibly.


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