from BARDO

The stars are in our belly; the Milky Way our umbilicus.

Is it a consolation that the stuff of which we’re made

is star-stuff too?

– That wherever you go you can never fully disappear –

dispersal only: carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen.

Tree, rain, coal, glow-worm, horse, gnat, rock.

Roselle Angwin

Thursday, 15 September 2011

karma: our life is the creation of our minds

There are times in all our lives I suppose when we stop and do a quick recce: Where've I come from? If I carry on on this path it'll take me where it's going – is that where I want to go? 'Forest' or 'threshold' moments, I think of these times as being, crossroad times, when there is perhaps some confusion and darkness, perhaps a sense of being a little lost; when we see other possible paths diverging away from the one we've been set on pursuing (perhaps more unconsciously than otherwise – out of habit, need [our own or another's], fear, or in pursuit of what we think might bring us happiness).

Various phrases, so common as to be clichés, have been chasing each other round my head the last day or two: Lennon's 'Life is what happens when you're busy making other plans'; 'To thine own self be true' (this is fine as long as you can define which own self!); 'If you do what you've always done you'll get what you've always got'. Then there's the pagan ethic 'An ye harm none, do as you will'.

I think a lot about these things; and I have also been thinking about them on and off, for decades in relation to the idea of suffering (the cause of suffering and the ways out of suffering lie behind the Buddha's teachings, which is why I mention it here in relation to my title).

I've been thinking about them too in relation to how ill-health manifests in an individual or a society; in relation to mind and body being so interlinked that there is an indefinable place where mental habits become so much part of 'us' that they have no chance but to manifest on the physical plane, often as chronic patterns of behaving/holding on/being ill.


I think a lot too about how the world's spiritual traditions share a view that a way forward for us as individuals (and us as a whole) has to be both true to what one holds dear at the level of the heart (rather than simply the grasping greedy ego), and one that takes into account one's affect on others.

Maybe you see where I'm going with this.

'Karma' is a much misunderstood word in our society, I think. But I also think it's a hugely important concept. Its 'meaning' is defined differently in Indian and Oriental cultures; in ancient Buddhism and in the modernist take. Many people understand it to mean that one 'pays' for past-life activities in current suffering and hardship; and many people, not finding themselves able to accept the notion of past lives and reincarnation, see it therefore as an outmoded and rather archaic concept.

And there are difficulties in the perception of the teachings on karma, now and in the past. Contemporary Buddhist thinker David Loy in his insightful book Money, Sex War and Karma says: 'Karma has been used to rationalize racism, caste, economic oppression, birth handicaps and everything else. Taken literally, karma justifies the authority of political elites, who therefore must deserve their wealth and power, and the subordination of those who have neither. It provides the perfect theodicy: if there is an infallible cause-and-effect relationship between one's actions and one's fate, there is no need to work toward social justice, because it's already built into the moral fabric of the universe. In fact, if there is no undeserved suffering, there is really no evil that we need to struggle against. It will all balance out in the end...' This view he sees as being dangerously fundamentalist.

For me, I think it's useful to see karma as a wake-up call to be mindful of the fact, right here, right now, that my thoughts, words and actions all have consequences. If, as science is increasingly showing and mystics as well as Buddhists have always affirmed, everything in the universe is intimately interconnected, clearly it makes sense to be aware of the consequences of our being in the world.

Zen thinking, which I find clear and uncluttered as a mountain stream, as well as socially-engaged Buddhism and some of the more traditional forms of Buddhist thought, emphasises that we are implicated in everything we see around us, and that our current society as well as our individual lives is shaped by the collective sum of our thoughts. If this is so, then what we bring, however minimal, might change everything – a concept which is also implicated in so-called chaos theory: 'Somewhere a butterfly stamped and suddenly everything changed.'

Some thinkers have suggested karma is like a garden: we choose the seeds we plant, we create good conditions for them to grow, ensure enough water, we tend the garden. (This is akin to St Theresa's ideas on Christian meditation in the C16th.) Intentionality is important here, too.

Another of the books (I've mentioned a few before) that made an impact on me when I was searching for a path, as a teenager, that I could follow without having to profess things I simply didn't believe, was the Dhammapada. This is a collection of Pali aphorisms compiled probably in C3rd BCE, illustrating the Buddhist ethical path, or dharma. It's another of the bedside books (yes I do also read fiction, and escapism, and other non-spiritual texts!). The profound simplicity in its teachings is memorable; says it all really. This is Juan Mascaro's translation, and the opening sentence:

'What we are today comes from our thoughts of yesterday, and our present thoughts build our life of tomorrow: our life is the creation of our mind.'

What freedom in knowing this! And what a hard task, implementing the sowing of the 'right' seeds...

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