It’s natural to think about karma if you get diagnosed with cancer or if you win America’s Got Talent; but karma is an ever-present, unceasing force in our lives.
Your everyday actions and reactions, small or large, affect you as well as others. In turn, you are affected by the everyday actions and reactions of others. In the more eloquent words of the Japanese poet Kukai, “A hand moves, and the fire’s whirling takes different shapes: All things change when we do.” That moving hand can be caustic, healing or neutral, but the teachings of karma make one thing clear: the cosmos is a seamless, profoundly interconnected whole.
Pleasant karma is not a reward and unpleasant karma is not a punishment.
The returning echo is going to be “You suck,” not “I love you.” It doesn’t matter if you’re an asshole or a saint; karma is impersonal. Whatever you shout into the canyon is what you get back. The cosmos is not trying to tell you something and it’s not imparting some kind of esoteric message: you are the cosmos.
As the 9th century Zen Master Yunmen put it, “My body’s so big there’s no place to put it.”
The Buddha agreed: “I am the sun, the stars, the moon, and wide, wide earth.”
Whatever we do to each other or to the planet is what we do, literally, to ourselves.
While intentionally harmful acts surely reap unpleasant results for the one who does harm, the mechanisms of karma are not always moral in nature and not always scrutable. If I go for a run in the mountains west of Boulder and get attacked by a mountain lion, I’m not necessarily reaping the result of some harmful act from a previous life. It’s possible that the cause of the attack is the fact that I went for a run in the mountains west of Boulder (or that I haven’t showered in a week).
When a tree gets struck by lightning, it’s probably just getting struck by lightning. We yearn to know why things happen the way they do, but any final or original causation must ultimately include the entire history of the cosmos/multiverse. In the words of the 19th century philosopher Frederick Nietzsche, “Nothing is definable unless it has no history.”
There’s nothing we can know in any final way about anything because everything has a history. Every effect stands on the shoulders of a previous cause and so on, back to before the Big Bang. So while karma is indeed cosmic cause and effect, it’s also grounded in the fundamental mystery of being.
This is why it’s important not to use karma as an excuse for not caring about what happens to others or to the planet. It can be tempting to observe the misfortune of others and say or think, “Guess that’s just karma,” and move on, confident that we’re seeing things in some kind of mystical, Gandalf-esque way. But this is a subtle jujitsu move of the ego. If we dismiss the suffering of others as “just karma,” we’re separating ourselves from many beings. The fact is, we’re not separate from anything or anyone, and no one knows the full complexity of her or his own karma or how it might change.
How we respond to the events of our life is crucial. Are we able to accept equally the good, the bad, and the ugly or do we create painful new karma by lashing out at what we see as an unfair world? Do we become cynical and embittered over the years or do we ripen and open up, unafraid of being vulnerable? The choice is ours.
In Torei Zenji’s “Bodhisattva’s Vow,” a 17th century text commonly recited in Zen temples and centers, we find clear advice about how to navigate everyday slings and arrows in a way that dissipates the perpetuation of suffering:
With our open response to such abuse we completely relinquish ourselves, and then the most profound and pure faith arises. At the peak of each thought a lotus flower opens, and on each flower there is revealed a Buddha. Everywhere is the Pure Land in its beauty. We see fully the Tathagata’s radiant light right where we are.
Easy to say, tough to do.
Of course it may be necessary to flee an abusive relationship or situation, but the possibility of seeing the other as oneself (aka Buddha) is always available—even in moments of profound duress.
We can talk about the karma of a corporation, the karma of a nation, the karma of a family, and the karma of a species, and yet, because there is fundamentally no self, we can talk about no karma. What is this no self? Twentieth century Zen master Yasutani Roshi said it best, I think: “When you hear about no-self, don’t be sad. Thanks to no-self, the entire universe is self.” Just as sustained practice eventually reveals the birthless, deathless, joyous self-nature at the heart of existence, so too does it reveal no karma. Fundamentally, we’re as unencumbered as the cosmos itself. Free from birth, free from death, free from suffering, free from karma—right here in the midst of birth, death, suffering, and karma.
We can indeed taste for ourselves liberation upon realizing that we are vaster than we think and vaster than we can think. There is karma and there is absolutely no karma and these are not two things. The power of practice is the power of climbing out of the slot-canyon of mere intellectual understanding.
More and more, one is able to live an ordinary life—in the world, with other people—in a deep and meaningful way: just washing the dishes, just walking the dog and chatting with a neighbor, just thirsty when thirsty, just sick when sick. Nothing missing, no self apart. The entire cosmos breathes when you breathe.
What could be more profound?
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Assistant Ed: Katharine Spano/Ed: Bryonie Wise