This is a follow-up to the previous post ‘What is Karma?’ and elaborates on that.
In the west, the first aspect of karma is the one we usually think of – karma as the fruition of past actions. When something significant happens, either to us personally, to someone we know, or of national or international significance, this is often viewed as the result of past actions coming back to haunt us. Such events are usually, although not exclusively, negative ones. Examples include getting sick, losing money and, by some, natural disasters. Many people saw the terrorist attack of 9/11 as karmic retribution for America’s actions in Middle Eastern politics, some Buddhist teachers explain war zones and disaster areas as resulting from the terrible behaviour in past lives of those who are affected. Survivors can be said to not have that bad karma.
Whereas there may be an element of truth behind some of these things, karma used in this way is little different in my eyes from the Christian notion of ‘God’s will’. Cause and effect is often more complicated that we would like to think but human beings are often uncomfortable with uncertainty, so providing a concrete explanation is welcomed in order to understand why bad things happen to good people. Even if America has blood on its hands in terms of military actions in the Gulf region of the Middle East, I suspect that few of those directly affected by the attacks on the twin towers were involved in that. Rather than neatly packaging these things up based on unknown past life actions, we could instead open to the unknowingness of why events unfold as they do, or else look more closely at the complex relationship between cause and effect while holding on to the possibility that what we believe is often just an inspired guess.
That our present actions will have consequences in the future is apparently obvious. When I previously talked about this, several people pointed out to me that this makes the second aspect of karma meaningless. Well yes, and no.
Like the fact that we will one day die, the notion that all our actions will have consequences of differing size and temporal effect, is something we tend to know intellectually. Whether or not our actions are based on this reasoning is a very different matter. How many of us think about the conditions products are made under when we are standing at a shop counter? When we choose between local or non-local food to we consider the effects this will have on producers near or far? How often do we think about the wider consequences of a single harsh word or smile on a stranger or colleague?
In common with many Buddhist teachings, the second aspect of karma is an invitation to mindfulness and an opportunity to think about how much our actions affect the lives of others and vice versa. This opens up the idea of a complex web of causation undermining the notions that we are both self-sufficient and can behave pretty much as we wish. Actions based on this way of thinking will not necessarily always work out, and consequences can be unpredictable, precisely because of the complexity of the causal web, but I would imagine that acting as if we are a small part of an intricate whole, rather than a closed system, would tend to have less negative effects on others.
Almost all of us reading this are pretty much top dogs in the current global socio-economic system so can perhaps afford to do as we please with the cushion of living in economically prosperous societies rather more than those living in developing nations. However, this gives our actions more of an effect than a sub-Sarahan subsistence farmer for example. If the tables were turned I also suspect that we would be rather more wishing that the behaviour of the prosperous held those less well off in mind more often than they do.
In terms of conditioning, how we act, and continue to act, impacts on how we will tend to behave in future. If our usual response to criticism is anger, then this will likely always be our reaction unless we take steps to change it, and the consequences of that anger will be something we have to deal with. Similarly, if we react to unfavourable circumstances by blaming others rather than taking personal responsibility, life will mostly seem to be outside of our control.
The main function of Buddhist meditation is both to allow a space to see what is going on in our lives, and to increase the capacity to be with what is happening rather than reacting in an impulsive way. Therefore, through contemplation on how things are, we can begin to change our conditioned behaviour, so that our response to events gives more chance of a favourable outcome. Given the complexity of human interactions we cannot always be sure what the consequence of any particular action will be, but it is generally true that kindness will be met with kindness and hatred with hatred.
For me, all three aspects of karma represent the very essence of the spiritual path, particularly the Buddhist one. The willingness to open to uncertainty, rather than always look for a simple explanation, helps us to respond with compassion instead of judgement, and looking at the wide-reaching effects of our actions will hopefully lead to a greater consideration of our behaviour. The possibility to learn from our past actions and change in the light of this, is fundamental to our ability to grow as human beings, and constant reassessment of how we interact with other and our environment ensures that we do keep evolving.
Often in life we allow our behaviour and responses to become more hard-wired and fixed as we get older, with a concomitant desire to defend our position and how we are. The alternative is to increase our openness to change and improve our mental flexibility. The majority of great spiritual teachers report that their uncertainty with how things are becomes greater, the further they progress along the path and this, paradoxically, seems to be the best way to live in order to avoid suffering.
Further reading: Karma Doesn’t Explain Anything by Ken McLeod