What is Karma? (Part 1)

It is impossible to build one’s own happiness on the unhappiness of others. This perspective is at the heart of Buddhist teachings.
Daisaku Ikeda

Awareness is without choice, without demand, without anxiety; in that state of mind there is perception. Perception alone will solve all our problems.
Bruce Lee

Karma, from Sanskrit, is now a household name, so to speak, as commonplace in usage as Super Bowl or Barack Obama – though it first entered English, surprisingly, less than 200 year ago (1827). The word has been absorbed into our psyches and has proliferated so universally that nearly everyone has something to say about it. We seemingly instinctively know what it means… and so did Confucius, who wrote, “When you see a good person, think of becoming like her/him. When you see someone not so good, reflect on your own weak points.” Kurt Cobain tried to nail it, too: “If you’re really a mean person you’re going to come back as a fly and eat poop.”

Merriam-Webster says karma is “the force generated by a person’s Sandalsactions held in Hinduism and Buddhism to perpetuate transmigration and in its ethical consequences to determine the nature of the person’s next existence.” This definition comes close to what many people think karma is. Buddhism, though not necessarily requiring its adherents to believe in transmigration, does posit a sophisticated and lucid understanding of the transmigration or rebirth process, though, the process is not considered something that happens only at death. Rebirth occurs moment to moment. Our “next existence” – whether upon actual death or in the moment a love affair ends – is the result of the momentum of our ways-of-being that preceded it.

What are the “ethical consequences” that determine our rebirth? They fall into two broad categories, those of conduct and those of “pure perception.” The first is what everyone more or less agrees upon, that good deeds lead to less pain for self and other, while negative deeds lead to the opposite. But there are endless subtleties and even mysteries to the issues of conduct. For instance, should we strive to achieve good deeds or concentrate on refraining from negative ones, or both? The late Traleg Kyabgon Rinpoche, in his excellent book Karma, states that our first focus should be to refrain from the negative, but that we should be realistic in our efforts:

“The idea, simply enough, is that it is more helpful to focus on what we can achieve rather than struggle unprofitably with a problem that overwhelms us and will in itself become more burdensome if handled incorrectly.”

In other words, if we are not realistic in our aspirations to refrain from negative acts we will only end of blaming ourselves for our failure to become better (see also Chogyam Trungpa’s Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism). What have we achieved then? Curiously, as Traleg Rinpoche goes on to say, “Letting go of the things we cannot immediately attain itself creates very positive karma.” What is the nature of this “very positive karma”? It is maitri or loving kindness to oneself… which of course affects others.

There is another notion of working with karma, which is how to not create karma at all. From the Buddhist perspective, even good karma creates the momentum of rebirth (and in fact can lead to very difficult states of being, such as the “god realm,” where one becomes unconsciously enmeshed in ultimately transient spiritual pleasures; when the spell breaks the “fall” from the god realm is severely painful). This understanding of karma is rooted in the experience of meditation itself.

DSC_1836In meditation we begin to see that thoughts fall into three categories: thoughts of the past, the present and the future. In daily life, these thoughts proliferate as the discursive web we find ourselves believing. In deeply unconscious and habitual ways, we project the past onto the present…and thus determine our future. As Chogyam Trungpa said, “The memory of the past renews the past in the present situation.” This constant renewal clouds our ability to recognize the nature of the present moment. To experience this bewildering ignorance is to be karmically entrapped.

From this perspective, this momentum, itself a flimsy creation or habit, can be penetrated through the training of meditative experience. This is the experience of nowness. Chogyam Trungpa described it this way:

“Nowness is what certain tantric teachings talk about as “the fourth moment” – a state which transcends past, present and future. So there’s no reference point at all: we are just simply being right there. We could just be open and straightforward. At this point the meditator sows no seeds of karma for a moment.”

One of the terms in Tibetan for meditation is gom, which means “familiarization.” The fourth moment is what the meditator has the potential of familiarizing herself with, gradually, day by day, each time she or he meditates (or has moments of “meditation in action” in daily life). Through the disciplines of refining our conduct and seeing nakedly into the fourth moment, we may potentially not only “solve all our problems” but also help alleviate the problems of others.

Read More: What is Karma (Part 2) “The Sanskrit word Karma means action, work, or deed…”

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.

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