Sunday, November 9, 2014

Verse 2.4 — freedom from karma

Because I am free from the thinking that distorts experience,
The evolution of good and evil ends completely.

Karma describes how good and evil actions (thoughts, words and deeds) evolve into experienced results. Part of the Indian cultural influence on Buddhism was that you stopped creating karma when you were free from the cycle (samsara) of endless birth and rebirth. From this point of view, it was reasonable to consider that enlightened beings are free of karma or, at least have a different relationship with it. This notion has been an important theological question and source of confusion and debate for Buddhists for thousands of years.  Hyakujo and a Fox or The Fox Koan  confronts this confusion head on. The fact that it is the second koan in The Gateless Gate indicates that this was an important topic.

In modern times, this notion, like most bad ideas, has generated more than a little suffering -- from harm and abuse that has arisen in teacher-student relationships, for example. On the one hand, some teachers claim that their actions should not be judged by ordinary standards because they are beyond karma. On the other hand, some students hold their teachers in such high esteem that a student sees the teacher's behavior as beyond karma and acts accordingly. The combination has created situations in which teacher or student or both are unable to acknowledge or accept that biological, psychological or social conditioning simply took over.

To claim that one is free of karma is equivalent to the claim that one is free of gravity. In outer space, perhaps, but on this planet, if you step off a building, you hit the ground hard. As long as you are alive in this world, your thoughts, words and deeds shape how you experience yourself, the world and life, no matter who you are or what you may have experienced.

Karma is not some magical force. It is the way earlier cultures described the process of growth and evolution of patterns of behavior. It is not cause and effect, at least not in the ordinary Western sense of these terms. My own teacher always used the metaphor of a tree. A seed doesn't cause a tree. A seed grows and matures into a tree, which then bears fruit. In Wake Up to Your Life, I describe how this metaphor applies to reactive patterns, using contemporary lines of thinking from the theory of evolution and complex adaptive systems. See  WUTYL pg. 173ff and 176ff and these podcast-transcripts.

What then, are we to make of Jigmé Lingpa's statement "The evolution of good and evil ends completely"?

Here are two thoughts on this.

First, if you look at The Fox Koan, one of the turning points is when the Hyakujō says, "Be one with karma." Other translations simply give "Do not ignore karma".

While I don't know Japanese or Chinese, I find the first rendering more useful. To me, it means to live precisely in balance with the forces and processes that shape the world we live in, becoming aware of imbalance as it arises and moving in the direction of balance. To be one with karma is to know and respond to the different pulls and pushes we experience in our lives, moment to moment. It is an intimate dance and we evolve, but we cease to evolve as a separate entity. We certainly do not ignore the evolution of action and result that is the essence of karma.

The second thought is similar, but in different words. We consistently want things to be different from what they are and we attempt to control, manipulate or ignore what is problematic for us. This oppositional stance constantly reinforces the sense of being a separate entity. From there, it’s a short step to the development of the concepts of good and evil. When we are free of the thinking that distorts experience, attraction, aversion and indifference lose their influence. We simply experience what arises and let go of wanting it to be different. We do what is possible and accept what is not. Good and evil as concepts don’t arise, and we are able to experience life as it unfolds in all it’s wondrous complexity.

3 comments:

EndlessRiver said...

Ken, I have always liked how you have approached the matter of karma. Kalu Rinpoche's take is also to be admired given the often near deterministic treatment that karma is given in some Tibetan schools.

For me, one of the take home messages of karma is that we should not think we can act without consequence. In modern western society compartmentalised thinking often ignores interconnection and emphasies freedom of choice but not responsibility. I see karma as a message to take responsbility for the effects our choices have on both ourselves and others.

However, within that, seeing our action as good or evil is unhelpful and even restrictive (I am a 'good' person gives something to live up to). Better to act according to what arises and what is needed in each moment.

As ever, much to contemplate here. Thank you.

Mri said...

I so agree with this:
"To claim that one is free of karma is equivalent to the claim that one is free of gravity. In outer space, perhaps, but on this planet, if you step off a building, you hit the ground hard. As long as you are alive in this world, your thoughts, words and deeds shape how you experience yourself, the world and life, no matter who you are or what you may have experienced."
There is much ridiculous magical thinking around the term 'karma'.

Unknown said...

Where do I start? The habit of trying to make or transcend "karma" is so strong. 10 minutes of daily meditation may not be enough to change the habits.