Buddhism 101: Karma Followup

My entry on karma had some good comments I wanted to address.

Harry, from The Unlikely Mage, corrected me in my use of terms. That technically Karma is cause, and Vipaka is result, at least historically. I don’t find that supported in Vajrayana Buddhism. In fact despite the language I used about karma being the result, we frame it as both the cause, and the effect.

While it might be easy and convenient to split things up into cause and effect, there really isn’t a distinction. Every cause is an effect, and every effect is a cause, and even if we take a specific event, like the punching analogy from the first entry cause/effect blur into an infinite sequence.

We tend to think of it as I punch you, you get mad and dislike me. But really it’s I get mad (effect), I’m mad (cause) so I punch you (effect), I punch you (cause) you fall back (effect), you fall back (cause) and get angry (effect), you get angry (cause) and dislike me (effect). Even that sequence could be broken down thousands of times into smaller units of both thought and action. As is I started part way into the sequence with me getting mad…but what caused that? And what caused that? And what caused that? This plays into the Buddhist concept of interdependence that I want to talk about next post, but basically everything is infinitely connected and entwined. There is no way to separate anything, so we see karma as cause, and effect, because they’re not different really, just a different point on an infinite continuum.

While in some ways it could be less precise, I like it because it eliminates the illusion of concrete events of cause and effect, and reveals a continuous stream of them. We do use language like karmic seeds and karmic ripenings to differentiate between karma as cause, and karma as effect in specific cases, but it’s clear they’re both karma.
Uratriura also brought up a good point (one I might have wanted to elide) “Since karma seems to be resolved in the here and now and only specific sections taken to other lives the theory of having several souls forming a group of “learning” from each other (or resolving each others karma or being interwined in each others karma) seems to be obsolete. It simply seems to be a random gathering in random lives. But when and what is this rare case of meeting up again in other lives?”

So I mentioned that interpersonal karma essentially dies with the people, and meeting up again in other lives happens rarely. I misspoke in an attempt to simplify matters. Remember how at the end of my last post I stressed that everything that happens is karma? Same is true for meeting people. What I should have said is technically you probably have some karma with everyone you encounter, so much so that it becomes meaningless to fixate on. In Buddhist theory this is commonly expressed in the idea that every sentient being has been your mother at one point in time. While this might not be literally true, the idea is what matters.

Let’s take some simplified math with generalized numbers. Modern humanity has been around for 200,000, average lifespan for most of that time was about 35 years. So assuming you’ve been incarnating on Earth all that time (Buddhism says it could have been elsewhere), and that you’ve been human all that time (you could have been anything), and we’re not counting human species that came before us, just to make the math simple, you’ve had nearly 6,000 lives. So that’s 12,000 parents, assuming monogamy (which is just false historically) that’s 6,000 partners. Let’s assume, for not reason other than to make more numbers, that you had on average four kids per lifetime, that’s 24,000 children. So we’re up to 42,000 people who have been parents/lovers/children. We’re not even including siblings, extended family, or non-family relationships.

You can quickly see how many people you’re connected to. Add in two more siblings, and three close friends, and we’re up to 57,000 people. That’s just 200,000 years as humans, not including life on other planets, or dimensions, or whatever. So while I said it’s rare to meet someone from the past. I guess it’s more accurate to say it’s rare to meet someone from the past, and have it be relevant or important in any way.

So while you might meet someone again, and you might have karma to “work out” it’s not a significant thing…it’s probably the majority of your relationship. Also, it’s not about them. If you didn’t meet up with them ever again, you’d still eventually be able to work out that karma in other ways. Like people who hold great (possibly justified) anger at someone else. Sometimes they can confront the person and work it out, sometimes they can’t, but over time it’s dealt with. Meeting up and working through karma is convenient, not cosmically significant. Karma is also not a perfect one-for-one, which is why Western notions of it often fail. Imagine I have karma with someone whom I abused in a past life, my karma is around my hate/ignorance to that person, but realistically anyone I encounter who “triggers” that karma can let me work through it. It doesn’t have to be the original person, just someone who “reminds” me enough of them to bring out that same mental/emotional pattern.

Now I’m getting more speculative, because it’s talked about less in these terms. When it is important, it’s probably due to something really intense. Here is where I shit on soul mates. I’m sure we all know at least one elderly couple who still seem to be very much in love, and have been so for decades. When people say they’re meeting up with a love again, because they’re soul mates and love each other so intensely, it again ignores the 11,999 other lovers they had (assuming the historically false monogamy), unless they claim to be really monogamous, over 9000 times. So when I say intense, I mean something more than love. In fact I’d argue you’re more likely to be connected to someone through hate or fear in the case of being murdered. Traumatic deaths stick with you more reincarnating because they’re an intense emotion at the moment of death which is imprinted in the mind, and part of that imprint is the person. When you’re murdered that fear/anger is the last thought and it fills you completely. But if you love someone, while it can be intense it’s not this flooding/pulsing emotion after all those years, so it’s not as prominent if you die slowly and naturally.

I find in interesting that all the people who claim they’re meeting up with old lovers or people to learn from again because of “karma” are people from cultures/religious upbringings that don’t have karma. I never hear my Hindu or Buddhist friends (who were born/raised that way) talk about it like that in any way. Perhaps it goes back to my last post as well about the idea that it’s said we really don’t know what’s going on with karma, that only highly-realized beings can really have that insight, so there is an arrogance to assuming that something is A) Karmically/Cosmically important, and B) that you can tell, you’re just that advanced.

Theoretically there are also karmic vows which are imprinted in the mind. While strictly a Buddhist thing (Mahayana and Vajrayana) I don’t see why it has to be limited to them. Vows often include mentions of future lives, and if you take that seriously, it becomes part of your mind. So when you reincarnate it, or at least the seed, is there, and if someone else has similar, you can be connected. Maybe not some cosmic bungee cord drawing you together, but just practicality. You’re both born in a time and place that gives you access to what you need to fulfill you vow, maybe born in a major city with a Buddhist population. You both are drawn to Buddhism, eventually through trial and error find a temple/teacher that clicks, and meet. It’s not karma drawing you two together to complete the past, but who you are leads you to make similar life choices and that leads to you meeting up. It’s similar to having friends who you always run into in public, because you have the same taste in movies, music, and food. You’re not cosmically tied, it’s just you have similar ways of thinking and only so many options.

The next question they brought up is about karma’s “storage.” As mentioned there is no universal track-record of karma, but wouldn’t there still need to be a place where karma is stored or recorded? After all if it’s action and reaction, you can’t react to something in a future life without an action. Is this higher self? If the universe doesn’t care, what brings it up again. If insignificant karma more or less dies with the body, who decides it’s insignificant?

A great and complicated question. I believe it is in Theravada Buddhism but I know during some of my initial training around anapana and vipassana the body itself was called the Storehouse of Karma. Our karma is recorded in our very being. Here is where it gets abstract. Our bodies “remember” everything that isn’t resolved, or that is significant. When you meditate, as in anapana or vipassana styles, you will eventually get distracted by physical sensations. In fact what you don’t realize is that right now, everywhere, your entire body is filled with sensations, but you ignore it, you block it out, and your attention isn’t clear enough to notice it. Your body feels the slightly draft of air that subtle shifts a hair on your arm. Every square centimeter of your body has dozens of sensations happening right now, it’s aware of heat and cold, even if you think about it, and can’t perceive it, there are probably itches and stabbing and shifting feelings everywhere. It might sound hard to believe, I didn’t initially until I did a retreat. After two days of nothing but meditating on the breath, you can see sensations everywhere. You could focus on any part of your body, and feel what is happening, temperature, pressure, pulses, itches. We have to ignore all this or we’d be overwhelmed.

Theoretically these unnoticed and random feelings are the karma playing out in our body, or representations of it, and when we ignore it (all the time) nothing happens, if we give in (get angry at that itch and scratch it) we reinforce it, and if we observe it but don’t react the karma is weakened, and eventually goes away. Less abstract think about a fight you had with your mother, think about it, hard. Now, do you feel that somewhere in your body? Maybe a pressure in your head, racing pulse, a sinking stomach. That’s your body record of the karma involved in the fight.

Now, you’re more than just your body. This is also stored in the mind. Like every time the topic of that fight comes up, you might feel guilty for what you said, or angry because it’s unresolved, or proud because you stood up to your mother, whatever. That’s a mental imprint of the karma.

So who decides if karma is insignificant? Believe it or not, you do. The person that holds onto karma, and makes you accountable to it in future lives? It’s you. Those imprints are in your body, and if they’re strong and unresolved they’re imprints in the mind which carries over into the next life. If you’re still attached to something, the universe doesn’t take that attachment and then drop it into your new baby mind, you carry it with you. If you still have karma around anger, it’s not the universe trying to balance cause and effect which gives you anger issues in the next life, it’s you, it’s been in your mind they entire time. No one can forgive you, and no one can make you guilty, it’s all about you.

Now, since for the sake of simplicity I misspoke previously. I’d like to say I’m not discounting, discrediting, or denying the more woogity side of karma, the magickal energetic side of it, but that the vast vast majority of karma is better explained as a mental imprint, a conditioning of mind/soul. I think the fixation on the woogity side of karma is problematic, and impractical. It’s like people who cry ghost or bad energy for everything that happens, without looking and mundane practical causes and ways of dealing with things. Not every random bad mood is someone beaming hate into your soul (cause you’re so special you’re worth that), sometimes it just happens, in fact I’d say almost all the time that’s what is happening. Karma is the same. Sure something might be happening due to some woogity out there karma influence, but chances are, butt number of 99.99% of the time, at least, it’s interpersonal/mental karma.

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2 Responses to Buddhism 101: Karma Followup

  1. Steve says:

    I am not saying you are wrong about soul mates or karma, but I doubt you have experienced love if you don’t think it is as an intense an emotion as hate. Don’t take this the wrong way. If your argument is that you are going to experience another person in another life based on intense fear/anger/hatred , you can’t discount intense love which is just as strong of an emotion. It is felt in the same way you describe.

    • Kalagni says:

      Perhaps I didn’t make it clear. It’s not so much that love, in and of itself, isn’t as intense as an emotion as fear/anger/hatred, but that it isn’t as intense and relevant in the process of dying.

      If you die violently, chances are you’ll die relatively fast, a matter of minutes before losing consciousness. In all the time, you’re occupied by presently feeling that fear/anger/hatred.

      If on the other hand you die of something related to old age the emotion of love towards someone won’t be as present. You don’t spend every moment of your life floating in a happy “I love you” place, it rises and it falls. If we lived in that state all the time, then anyone who found love would be the more pleasant person to be around and our society would be so much better. Instead, as you’re dying slowly, as your mind dulls, as your body grows heavy, as you struggle to breathe, your not going to spend all of that time focusing your emotions into “I love you.” You might be fighting what’s happening, you might be drifting with it ready to pass, you might, like many people, be more confused than anything.

      The reason fear/anger/hatred carry over as karmic traces is because they’re strong emotions that you die experiencing. Love, while it is probably stronger of an emotion, is not as relevant or immediate when dying, and since your not dying in a state of actively loving, it’s not becoming the karmic imprint you carry in your mindstream.

      Is that clearer?

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