Saturday, February 7, 2009

Swimming in Karma

Things seemed to point me in the direction of writing about karma today.  Both a chat I had with someone today and  a comment by Peter of the Monkey mind.  It's a big topic and one I approach with some trepidation.  So please, if you find me in way over my head, call the paramedics.  I'm going there anyway.  What's that about fools, you say? Picture me with one of those little plastic swim rings we wore as kids.  Mine has a little seahorse on it and I am going to have fun!

I have heard it said that no one fully understands karma, so I start the conversation with that in mind.  One of the definitions of  karma that I am familiar with, is that it simply means action. We take an action, we think a thought.  It has consequences. We may either feel the results of our action right away, later in this life time or in subsequent lives.  And some may not  share the belief in future or past lives.  (That's another conversation!)  

The karma that takes place in this life seems somewhat straight forward .  I say some angry words to my neighbour.  She says some back to me.  Instant karma.  (Tastes as bad as most instant things I've had.)  But then the karma gets more complex and harder to trace.  My neighbour now harbours a grudge against me.  She says something unpleasant about me to a new neighbour.  Now that person regards me with suspicion.  And so my single angry sentence has carried itself into the future having more unpleasant "karmic " consequences.  I feel bad now.  My experience of my neighbourhood feels a little less friendly and on and on, in ripples that I may not even see.

The comment about karma I made to Peter was in regard to his experience of his inner critic that seemed so strong.  My understanding was that he could see that he reacted strongly to a reasonably innocent comment by someone.   And yet there it was.... I always remember my Zen teacher saying, "when you have a reaction to something or someone that seems beyond logical explanation (it could be good or bad), it is probably karmic." .... In other words when something rouses us in this way , we have probably been dealing with this "issue" (or person) for more than this lifetime.  Hence it's industrial sized strength.  It's fairly accepted that we carry around things that we have been dealing with since we were children.  We can see the strength of that.  So it is an easy leap for me to make, to feel that those things that make me really crazy, come from even farther back than this lifetime.  While I have no logical proof of this, it feels true.  One of my irrational trigger points revolves around feeling left out.  Someone will do something that brings on this feeling or no one will do anything and the feeling will arise.   The same event might not even register on your radar but for me it create anguish.   I have a friend who, if you are the least bit late, begins to think you are not coming.  She knows it's irrational and yet there it is.  It's what comes up for her.  

I can't deny those strong feelings when they are stirred , nor can I explain them fully.  Sometimes they linger for days, like someone's unwanted cigarette smoke, clinging to my coat (quick, call in the karmic dry cleaner).  Somehow in the middle of the pain, I take solace in the fact that it is something old arising, that I have no control over.  I have also heard it said that you never know when old karma will come to greet you.

And with our willingness to just be with this karma, it is my understanding that something is happening.  It is discharging for lack of a better word, burning up like a flares in the oil patch.  We spend time with the pain and it passes.  We don't run off and create new karma by saying something unpleasant (although that's a possibility too!).  And it's not on our terms as to when the pain subsides.  Of course we do our part to let it go and not add to the suffering.  We don't drown or wallow but as Peter so wonderfully described we get on with life.  We do the next thing that needs to be done.

There are so many aspects of karma.  My partner and I were talking about the good karma that has allowed us to find and participate in a life of practice.  This is truly good fortune.  To have a human life, as the Dalai Lama points out in his poem, "This Precious Human Life,"  this too is good fortune.  .... an opportunity to study the Dharma and work with our karma.  (Please ignore the fact that this rhymes.  We are not going there. I may be guilty of many things but, No bad Zen poetry here.)

And finally just a comment from Uchiyama's book called "Opening the Hand of Thought" that I am reading these days.  He is talking about choice and how he chose in this life time to be a monk.  Even though it is my choice, he asks, where does that choice come from?  What makes one of us become a murderer,  another a human rights advocate, someone else a doctor.  Is that our karma playing itself out??  And our thoughts.  I always find this a scary one... that even what we think somehow gets accounted for in the karmic scheme of things.  Nothing is without consequence, which is the good news and the bad news all rolled into one!


  1. I like all the thoughtful topics you bring to your blog. This one, karma, has me thinking in relationship to my life, past and present, and this question has come up.
    Where does taking responsibility for our actions fit in this Karma discussion, if at all?

  2. When I first joined a monastic community, I found myself giving cooking instructions to another resident one day. Just then our teacher came out of her office, saying that she'd overheard our exchange. Knowing that I'd done a chef's apprenticeship as a lad (which, in the European tradition, entailed daily abuse in words and actions), she said that my action was breaking the chain of karma. By being patient and kind in my instructions, by NOT acting in the manner of my late master, i was creating 'good' karma instead. Also, she ventured, my action might well benefit my master's spirit who'd probably been mis-treated when he was an apprentice.

  3. Thank you for opening this topic. As you you clearly explain, karma doesn't just happen, it isn't god-given: it arises as a direct result of someone's thoughts, words, and action.

    The Bible is clear on this: "A person reaps what he sows" (Galatians, 6:7).

    Amnd H.H. the Dalai Lama writes: "Some people misunderstand the concept of karma. They take the Buddha's doctrine of the law of causality to mean that all is predetermined, that there is nothing the individual can do. This is a total misunderstanding. The very term karma or action is a term of active force, which indicates that future events are within your hands. Since action is a phenomenon that is committed by a person, a living being, it is within your own hands whether or not you engage in actions" (Path to bliss: a practical guide to stages of meditation, 1991, p. 111).

  4. Thanks Daishin and Peter for these responses. I had looked at Dawne's question earlier and though oh, oh, I started this conversation, what did I get myself into? So thank-you for the heroic rescues. I told you paramedics might be required! Both these are wonderful clarifications and extensions of this conversation.

    For me when I thought about Dawne's question my sense was we are always responsible for the choices we make. Life is a constant source of choices large and small, some are little forks in the road and some point us down a completely different path. But always things are moving and shifting based on what we do and the thoughts we cultivate. If I hold my tongue instead of spill out my anger, the consequence (karma) is different.

    I love the idea that we are all doing the best we can at any given moment but that doesn't stand against the fact that we may be able to do better. We look at what we do or have done and use it to alter future behaviour if that seems appropriate, always aiming to create less suffering for ourselves and others (or gasp, even a little joy!)

  5. ... and IF i don't hold my tongue, if anger and hurt express themselves, when words slip out before I can catch them, not all is lost ... there's the practice of atonement (familiar in many faith traditions): Reflect on your actions, make amends, apologize, and resolve to be mindful the next time ... and the next ... and the next.

    And slowly, over time, the gap between anger arising and words/actions resulting, gets longer. Time to return to the breath, or, in an emergency, to simply turn and walk away.

    Zen practitioners regularly chant the Gatha of Atonement:
    "All evil karma ever committed by me since of old,
    On account of my beginningless greed, anger, and ignorance
    Born of my body, mouth, and thought,
    Now I atone for it all."