Understanding karma is a simple affair that need not be encumbered by terminological ambiguities it generates to a mind unfamiliar with the Sanskrit term “karma.”
It is an old idea delivered in the linguistic garb of a language we may not be familiar with, or, if we are familiar with the word “karma,” we may have fallen victim to the writings of overzealous authors whose tendency it is to make simple ideas complicated.
Karma is just reaping and sowing, not more no less, and so Christ and the Buddha help one another in this regard by teaching this liberated doctrine. As always, the devil is in the details, and while reaping and sowing is conceptually easy to understand, persuading the activities of body, speech, and mind to follow our good intentions is another matter.
It is often said, “What is past is past, don’t dwell on it,” or some similar well-intentioned and ostensibly “therapeutic” remark offered by a well-meaning friend. Everyone is a sage in the affairs of others, it seems, yet stumble in their own, so it is little wonder unsolicited advice is seldom helpful.
Dishes left in the sink until morning are more difficult to clean. Negative karma must be tackled with a sense of urgency, but in unhurriedly, carefully, and with patience. “Why did this happen to me?” is a question, not a directive to get another beer, get laid, or raise hell. It is a question we often ask in some form or other and fail to answer. But the longer the question sits, the more problems compound and become increasingly difficult to resolve. In other words, by ignoring an issue, we create the momentum to make the same mistakes again and again.
If we have the wisdom to ask, “Why did this happen to me?” we have the ability to answer our own questions through reasoning, analyses, and introspection. We may not be skilled at using these tools, but with practice we will become expert. It is not rocket science.
“Change” seems to be good medicine for bad times, and it is what we seek when we “escape” to businesses that provide the venues for escapees whose weaknesses support their enterprise. We become poorer materially and spiritually in the process. It is a process that keeps us fixed like a hamster on its wheel, creating an illusion of moving forward but going nowhere.
All of this is not to say that when we are on top of the world and life is going well, we should not spend time in silence. We should spend even more time because we can spend more time when things are going well. For one thing, we want to keep things going well, and for another, we want to make our lives better by developing our capacity for increasingly sublime degrees of happiness.
“While the past is past” sounds attractive, it is not a truth for those of us still burdened by it. Unless we are enlightened, our past is worth understanding and understanding well because it is by understanding it well that we can move forward. There are those who “dwell on the past” in a good way, and those who dwell on the past in a way that is not constructive.
Constructive “dwelling” is to seek from the past nuggets of lessons learned and considering how they might be employed to make a better future. Often people dwell on the past as a kind of musing or to pass the time, or lamenting this or that, or being remorseful, and so forth, all of which are not constructive. The mind is predisposed to muse or lament in ways that are not productive, at best, and destructive at worst.
To “dwell on the past” in a constructive way, we need to train our mind. Initial training can be as simple as sitting quietly watching the breath go in and go out, being mindful when it is going in, when it is going in, and mindful it is going out, when it is going out, and not mixing up the two. We may choose to label each breath accordingly. Even this simple exercise is difficult, for we will find ourselves saying it is going in when it is going out and so forth as thoughts and musings distract our mind.
Training in breath is brought up to illustrate that “dwelling” is not directly looking at our past but abstractly doing so by focusing on a training method that looks at thoughts as abstract objects represented by the breath and so forth. When our mental content is abstracted upon the breath, or another mind training device, we attract what we are looking for as a biproduct of this effort, without looking directly for anything.
So much for now on the past, now let us consider future karma. Every action has the potential to liberate and create. Both go together. Desire entangles us when we follow them and liberates us when we discipline them. How we associate with our desires determines whether we increase our attachment to objects of desire or become independent of such attachments. Wherever there are attachments there are sources of bondage.
As the word suggests, “attachments” are a burden. A person with few attachments is free and unburdened, while the opposite is true for one always seeking increase. Simplicity in lifestyle will help us sift through our needs and remove what we don’t need. Accumulation will only encourage more of the same, while frugality or resourcefulness leads to inner peace and contentment.
Distinguishing “wants” from “needs” can help us to recognize the value of simplicity. Frugality is not limited to material things but includes conversation, leisure, eating, sleep, and so forth. If we don’t want to be asking ourselves, “Why is this happening to me,” we need to take the above steps recently noted. The burden of our present arises because we failed to take such considerations in the past.
Shantideva, in his epic poem, The Way of the Bodhisattva, says:
“Now when a building is ablaze.
And flames leap out from house to house,
The wise course is to take and fling away.
The straw and anything that spreads the fire.”
*Read part one, Understanding Karma.