A marginally disturbed Christian dude wrestles with Kundalini Tantra, right in front of God and everybody.
[T]here are in fact innocent victims in the harsh reality of the world, and our hearts go out to them and their families…It is the senselessness of such events that hits us hardest and this cannot be covered over with bad metaphysics. Life is precious because it is fragile and fleeting. ~ Julian Walker
A younger friend of mine recently died of a rare and fast-moving cancer.
It wasn’t her fault.
People want so badly for there to be reasons for things—and of course, everything does “happen for a reason,” inasmuch as every event has a cause. This is not the same, however, as saying that every event has a purpose. The latter presupposes conscious agency where, I am here to argue, none necessarily exists. My friend died because some cells in her body were induced, by environmental stimuli and/or genetic predisposition, to mutate and reproduce out of control. That’s it. The cause is the reason.
Jesus put it this way:
Now there were some present at that time who told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mixed with their sacrifices. Jesus answered, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish. Or those eighteen who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them—do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish.” ~ Luke 13: 2-5
The people crushed by the tower, or slaughtered by the Romans, did not bring those disasters on themselves by anything they did “wrong.” They may have contributed to what lawyers call the “proximate cause” of their sufferings—by being in the wrong place at the wrong time, for instance. But the “ultimate cause”—the legal term for what “really” made something happen, if you follow the causal chain back far enough—usually does not exist. At any rate, not in way people mean when they say “everything happens for a reason.”
And yet, what we do does certainly seem to “come back to us.” Jesus told his hearers that, while the individual sufferers in these two incidents did nothing to deserve their deaths, unless Israel as a whole changed its ways, it would meet with a similar fate. Which, of course, it did, when the Romans destroyed the Temple and drove the people into exile.
Suppose, for instance, that something toxic in the environment caused my friends’ cancer. That wasn’t her fault. But unless we stop fouling our planetary nest, we are all going to meet a similar fate.
Karma, you see, is a complex system.
Think, for instance, of a bathtub.[i] Water flows in from the spigot, and out through the drain. If your goal is to fill the bathtub, you increase the rate of inflow by turning up the faucet, and/or decrease the rate of outflow by plugging the drain. Your stock will then increase. If you want to drain the bathtub, reverse the process: increase outflow, and/or decrease inflow, and your stock will eventually vanish.
Now suppose this is a swimming pool, with multiple sources of inflow—say, a faucet and rain—and outflow—for instance, evaporation, splashing and a drain. Multiple inflow and outflow sources rapidly increase the complexity of the system.
Now imagine that we are dealing with, say, the Tucson water table. Between 1945 and 2005, the groundwater level under Tucson plunged 170 feet. Evidently, the complexity of the system—including rainfall, pumping, climate change, and conflicting human interests—has resulted in a dramatic loss of equilibrium in the system. Moreover, if I lived in Tucson, I might do everything humanly possible to promote responsible water use, and still run out of water myself. And without large-scale change, the whole system—and other systems with which it is interconnected—will be catastrophically altered.
Unless you repent, you too will all perish.
I am here to challenge the assumption that there is always a direct causal link between what we do and what happens to us on an individual basis; I’m here to say that, while our thoughts, words and deeds do come back to us, not everything that comes to us is the direct result of our own thoughts, words and deeds.
Back to the bathtub. According to Tantric thought, we each have a “stock” of karma, the samcita, or “accumulated” karma, comprising the sum of all karmas accrued during all our lifetimes. Through the “inflow” of our birth, we bring that portion of our total karma that we are meant to work out in this lifetime—the prarabdha, or “undertaken” karma. But there is another karmic inflow: the kriyamana, or “being done” karma, the karma we are making right now. Our thoughts, words and deeds continually generate new karma, which flows into the karmic bathtub.
All the while, we are, through spiritual practice and good deeds, doing our utmost to make the karmic outflow outstrip the inflow, so that our stock of karma diminishes, and we “drain the bathtub.”
Sometimes, karma is worked out comparatively quickly, resulting in no net increase.
“Agami karma (‘next’) is the result of actions that will be worked out within this lifetime and does not contribute to samcita karma. The criminal justice system, when it functions properly, is an example of agami karma in action. Agami karma is the closest to the pop culture understanding of ‘what goes around comes around.’ Unfortunately, it doesn’t always work that way!”~ Ian Boccio [ii]
No, it doesn’t. And I’m going to take it a step further: my college roommate’s three-year-old was not responsible for his own death from cancer at age three—not from anything he did in this life, nor anything he may have done in his previous life. What if samcita karma does wait in the svarga lokah, or causal body, for the soul to be reborn so it can work itself out? What does the death of a three-year-old work out? For himself, or his parents? What was learned? What was atoned for? How much fiery tapas can be generated for burning off karma by the immolation of a toddler? The idea simply doesn’t bear scrutiny.
And my friend didn’t do anything to deserve to die of her cancer, either.
Because if you think about it, there are simply too many variables in play; our karmas bump and jostle and slosh into each other like brimming beer mugs on a tray. You got peanut butter on my chocolate!
Did the victims of the recent Oklahoma tornadoes deserve to die? I tell you, no. But unless we do something, and soon, to stop the disastrous course upon which we have set our planet, more and more of us are going to die that way, because of our own and everybody else’s actions.
Unless you repent, you too will all perish.
Too much of what one hears about karma makes it sound like a simple drain-spigot problem in a private bathtub—a simple, closed system. But it isn’t. We’re more like all the various features at a water park—many, many inflows, myriad outflows, and endless opportunities for our stocks to become intermingled and contaminated. We each have our karmas, but so does everybody else, and our karmas bash into each other like bumper cars. It’s a system complex beyond imagination.
So if one cannot necessarily find meaning in individual events, does that mean everything is meaningless? A closer look at what we mean by “system” might help answer that.
“A system,” wrote Donella Meadows, “is an interconnected set of elements that is coherently organized in a way that achieves something.” I have been arguing against the idea that a conscious agency is at work in every event, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that the system as a whole doesn’t achieve anything. And I think Swami Vivekananda had as clear a sense as anyone of the goal of the universal system as a whole.
“’Come unto Me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.’ This is the voice that is leading us forward. Man has heard it—and is hearing it—all through the ages. Some inner voice tells us that we are free. But if we attempt to realize that freedom, to make it manifest, we find the difficulties almost insuperable. Yet, in spite of that it insists on asserting itself inwardly, “I am free, I am free.” And if you study all the various religions of the world you will find this idea expressed. Not only religion—you must not take this word in its narrow sense—but the whole life of society is the assertion of that one principle of freedom. All movements are the assertion of that one freedom. That voice has been heard by everyone, whether we know it or not, that voice which declares, “Come unto Me all ye that labour and are heavy laden.” It may not be in the same language or the same form of speech, but in some form or other, that voice calling for freedom has been with us. Yes, we are born here on account of that voice; every one of our movements is for that. We are all rushing towards freedom, we are all following that voice, whether we know it or not; as the children of the village were attracted by the music of the flute-player, so we are all following the music of the voice without knowing it. ~ Swami Vivekananda [iii]
We rush and struggle and stumble toward freedom, as the universe is designed to make us do. We do terrible things to ourselves and each other. Our every action comes back, ultimately, to ourselves, but also to anyone else who happens to be in the way. Sometimes we are the actor, and sometimes we are the acted-upon. Often, things that happen make no sense at all, happening for no discernible reason at all, and either malevolence visited them upon us or indifference looked on, bored, and both choices are terrifying.
But it is a false dilemma, because “the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time.”[iv] And birth is painful. Always, the system as a whole is driving us all into the great cosmic bottleneck through which, ultimately, we shall all pass, and be free.
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[i] I owe this metaphor to Donella H. Meadows’ book, Thinking in Systems: A Primer
[ii] This quotation, and all the preceding material on the different kinds of karma, are taken from Ian Boccio’s printed notes accompanying his Mantra Yoga Intensive.
[iii] Swami Vivekananda, Jnana Yoga