The Sanskrit word Karma means action, work, or deed. The word has its roots in the ancient Vedic teachings of India and concepts derived from karma have found their way into Hinduism, Jainism, Sikhism, Taoism and Buddhism. In studying the Buddhist meaning of karma it is appropriate to cite its Hindu origins, since the Buddha drew from and reformed Hinduism, not just in the notion of no abiding or eternal self – anatman – but in the doctrine of karma (and many other concepts and principles).
In writing about karma, I will cite from – and highly recommend – Traleg Kyabgon Rinpoche’s excellent book, Karma: What it is, What it isn’t, Why it Matters, which, among other things, documents the Buddha’s view of karma. For instance, the Buddha accepted one of the prevailing beliefs of his time that the human being was a form composed of air, fire, water, earth and space (these were of course metaphors for our body/mind qualities). However, in his “five skanda” teachings, the Buddha added to this concept of body/mind, stating the human experience consisted not just of form, but of feelings, perceptions, concepts and consciousness.
Skanda (Sanskrit) means “multitude, quantity, aggregate” – and is sometimes translated simply as “heap.” The five skandas are a definition of human nature, that we are creatures that perceive, have thoughts and feelings, form concepts, etc. But, crucially, in no way are the skandas seen as solid entities or as enduring. These aggregates only create a semblance of an entity. Not only do they not endure beyond death, they didn’t even endure moment to moment. They are like the elements that make up a cloud: water vapor, dust and pollen, the atmosphere and sunlight. A cloud is apparent yet ephemeral — and a human being is also. Traleg Rinpoche writes:
“This was a completely new idea, as until then people had thought of the individual as a unitary entity, based on the dualistic philosophy of a substance standing apart from the mind/body a belief in some kind of principle, like jiva (the immortal essence of a living being) or soul.”
Based on his own experience, the Buddha refuted the notion of a jiva that existed side-by-side with the body. He stated that this soul not only could not be found, but holding on to the concept confused us and hindered self-realization. Buddha proposed, as Traleg Rinpoche writes, that “the best way to see our nature was to see it made up of many elements” and also proposed that we simply “pay attention to ourselves” in order to discover our true nature. In Buddhism, the preeminent method for paying attention is, of course, meditation.
In the observations we make in meditation, we discover a most prominent and greatly magnified feature of our existence: that it is largely habitual, that our daily life consists of habits of perceiving, habits of behaving, habits of thinking. The skandas accurately model our habitual experience since each skanda is itself a habit (for instance, the skanda of feeling responds to the “external” world in the most limited and habitual of ways: grasping it, avoiding it or ignoring it).
Our habits, whether “good” or “bad” form the basis of our karmic experience, they influence our present state of being and form the overriding potentialities of our future existence, including rebirth. Quite simply, our future — including future lives — is the result of our habitual volitional action. To believe in — and discover first-hand — this proposition of karma can be quite disturbing. “What about all those insects I killed as a child? we might wonder. Not to mention remembering the people we’ve harmed (even however subtly), the addictions we have, the sloth we are prone to. Most of us are not overly confident of a favorable rebirth.
But there is extremely good news in the Buddha’s notion of karma. Although our present experience is largely determined by our past habits, the future is far from predetermined. Our future also depends on the very real free will that we can wield in the present moment. Although we might operate habitually, it is precisely because our experience (1) lacks an essence, (2) is impermanent and (3) is interdependent (the definitions of anatman) that we can readily influence our character and fate. It’s a question of closely examining our habits, it’s a question of glimpsing the alternative, it’s a question of undoing the conventions of our own psyche. As Paul Klee said, “Genius is the error in the system.”
It is noteworthy that people who have survived life-threatening accidents and near-death experiences often seem to awaken — at least for a while — into a far less habitual experience of life. The old conventions of taking life for granted are shattered; impermanence is seen in all its vividness and one feels the joyous interdependence of life. Even the lack of an abiding self might be glimpsed. Meditation is a tool that brings similar gifts into consciousness. Daily practice of meditation creates gaps in our habits and is a first step in breaking karmic habituality. We can also take advantage of all the small and usually harmless accidents that befall us in daily life. Forgetting our passport when we’ve already left for the airport, suddenly fighting with our wife or husband or spilling coffee on our shirt each produce small moments of loss and panic that can be capitalized on if we use mindfulness to avoid our habitual responses. Each of these types of events can be an awake-death experience. Each of these experiences can be used to shape our future. Each can become a moment of genius.
Bill Scheffel is a writer, creative writing teacher and videographer who has directed Shambhala Training since 1980. Bill was a student of Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche and taught classes in meditation, creative writing and poetry at Naropa University for thirteen years. Currently, Bill teaches online classes in creative writing and the I Ching. For more on Bill see Vertical Time Yoga.