Karma: a thing of the past?

We all understand karma. At least we think we do. When something bad happens to someone else, we might say, oh well, it’s karma. Even when something bad happens to lots of people, we might say the same thing.

There’s a suggestion of fatalism to this view, as if we have no choice about things that happen to us, although we would prefer to believe that we exercise more control of the good things that happen for us. Maybe we created something a long time ago, perhaps even many lives ago, and it is just ripening now in a way that causes us –if we are lucky—to ponder for a moment the possibility that this is something that has been on its way for a long, long time. There are entire cultures that take this view.

Then again, there is also the view of karma that looks into the present moment, what we are doing now, how we are thinking, considering the deeper intentions we have, the motivations behind our actions. Karma does mean “action,” after all.

On the general level, karma refers to the entire process of action and result, which includes thought, intention and motivation. Not just action. Developing a genuine, experiential understanding of karmic action and result—how all of one’s actions ripen into a result—is an essential aspect of the Buddhist path.

Karmic actions are compared to a seed that will inevitably come to fruition. But it isn’t simply action that generates karma. Both the action of mind in the formation of motivation coupled with the action in form together create the seeds of future results. In this sense, the very confusion that is embodied in this human life is that seed.

We are perpetually balanced on the cusp of two phenomenal processes, the fruition of past actions and also the purification of intention and the formation of motivations in this moment, enmeshed in a matrix of ongoing confusion and emerging clarity in every moment. The experience of this cusp is the ongoing dance between being victims of a past that cannot be changed and creators of a future that does not exist.

Another way to approach the dual aspect of each moment is to employ the view of the Two Truths. On one hand, they remind us that there is an apparent aspect to all phenomena, every arising in every moment. Likewise, in every moment we are presented with the ongoing mental polarization of phenomena into their respective extremes.  Likewise, in their absolute nature, as Longchenpa advises, “it is necessary to see the equality of virtuous and un-virtuous deeds as there is no cause and effect in their true nature.”

The very idea that every action ensures an equal and opposite reaction is the First Law of Thermodynamics. In the universe of Buddhist thought, mind–the confused mind–is the force by which karma is created in the form of motivation. In the universe of Newtonian physics, energy is conserved—it can neither be created nor destroyed. In the Buddhist view, every individual is regarded as a system that exists within a universe ruled by causality and limited by time. Each individual system interacts with others, though Buddhist orthodoxy suggests that one cannot influence anyone’s karma other than one’s own.

Purifying one’s motivations is an endless process of refining one’s intent in all actions–while simultaneously experiencing the quality of past intent– to transform the seeds that create karma into beneficial acts, actions that will eventually be returned in the form of higher birth and consciousness.

Again, Longchenpa:

The six confidences of realization of the profound vision are:
Realization of phenomena as the middle free of extremes;
Realization of phenomena as the great clarity, the union;
Realization of phenomena as equality, the great bliss;
Realization of phenomena as spontaneous accomplishment, free from partialities;
And realization of phenomena as  primordially pure, natural. Although one perfects them, (in their true nature) there is no one to realize,
Nor does the realization itself have any mentality of boasting about realization.

Karma requires an agent. Among all the phenomena arising in the universe, related to the chain of dependent co-origination, only those acts involving an agent are karmic. At the same time, from the view of self-knowing awareness (Buddha-mind), the true nature of all actions is the dynamic and random play of primordial awareness, including the illusion of agency since no agent can exist in any real sense, capable of generating any linear sequence of events whatsoever.

Casting one’s intentions into the ocean of existence, knowing they will return in some form and at an unknown future moment is the opposite of a direct relationship between action and reaction. We are, as it were, building systemic capacity for a positive return. In relative terms, we are creating merit (or demerit), although any sense of the fruition of that merit in the shifting economy of our karmic “account” is inconceivable: we are sharing an endless journey with all other actors in the karmic realm.

Nagarjuna has stated:

When all these phenomena are by nature devoid of coming and devoid of going, then how can karmic deeds and the ripening of karmic deeds have any reasonable existence? Being non-existent also in the ultimate sense, they have no going whatsoever. Conventionally, there is the teaching of entering the path as well as of the ripening of karmic deeds.

Light of Wisdom, V.I

In other words, when all events subject to cause and effect are by their very nature devoid of existence, how can karmic deeds and their ripening have any reasonable true existence? Being non-existent in the ultimate sense that transcends the relative, they have no coming or going whatsoever, neither in space nor in time.

When we attempt to dissect the workings of living systems, we look for the causal relationships between events or conditions. The more minutely we look, the more likely we might be able to reveal (the appearance of!) direct causality, but as we look ever closer, we also discover that causality is a shifting thing. The closer we look, the more questions arise, until all we are left with are conditional causalities, uncertainties and outright mysteries.

Backing out from our narrow (self-grasping) view, what we see is that systems behave in ways that mask direct causality. We see diffuse activity, decentralized, integral hierarchies and multi-layered interdependencies. In other words, to suggest that my personal karma is a seed that bears fruit in a future is actually the most indirect, non-linear statement possible.

 …we go from solving one situation after another, continuously altering our circumstances to avoid discomfort, frustration or anything unpleasant, forgetting at every turn the inherent changeability of every situation. Most importantly, we are overlooking one critical fact: we are not merely in a world in which events occur, we are the world in which events occur. So it is not simplistically clear whether things happen to us or whether we actually create events that only appear to happen to us, but which may actually happen from us.

—Herbert Guenther, Kindly Bent to Ease Us, V. I

Backing out even further, the nature of fully awakened mind is the definition of timeless awareness, a transcendent state of presence that neither is nor is not, without beginning or end, a timeless and infinitely spacious uniformity that transcends condition (karma), description or conception (rebirth).

We imagine that all of our manifestations—what we do and what appears to happen to us— are accounted for by the activity of our mind, our speech and our body.  We operate under the assumption that we have some influence over form (body, sensations, desires and projections of ourselves as a physical presence in the world) and speech (creation, communications, the external manifestations of our form in the world).

But the indivisibility of the Two Truths suggests that what we regard as control, the identification of a “self” or being able to identify a “source” for what happens to us in this world is, like every other aspect of what we perceive by our senses, far more tenuous, more elusive and illusory, less direct than we could ever imagine.

Which is not to relieve us of responsibility for anything. But that “anything” is not necessarily what we might have done in a distant past. It is the trust we cultivate in ourselves in this absolute moment, the confidence of knowing that whatever happens, we can respond with grace. The energy at the heart of relative and absolute nature is, after all, the limitless presence of a vast, dynamic and creative compassion.

2 thoughts on “Karma: a thing of the past?

  1. Thank you for writing this enlightening post. I never really understood karma (I still don’t :3), and I knew there was more to it than the dualistic view we Westerners take. I now understand something of the nature of its simply being part of the web of (the nondualistic or authentic) life.

    “It is the trust we cultivate in ourselves in this absolute moment, the confidence of knowing that whatever happens, we can respond with grace.” How beautiful.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks. Yeah, I also think it’s complicated and I sure don’t claim to understand it either, but I do think the idea of direct causality is a seductive trap. The other thing that’s very difficult to grasp is that all actions are equal in nature. As you said on your site, we “can’t know whether our actions are good or bad.” That’s because in an absolute sense, they are neither.

      Liked by 1 person

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