Thursday, September 26, 2013

gotcha Karma

Circumstances I prefer not to detail have landed in my life and led to a thought train like this:

An upside-down horseshoe assures ...
Buddhism is not a matter of superstition. Gautama did not roam the earth and speak his words so that others might run away and hide in suppositions they could not verify. Gautama, if I am not mistaken, taught people to be happy and whole ... not superstitious.

Consider the notion of karma.

Karma may very well be true: Now prove it!

Spiritual students who set foot upon the path -- who decide to implement what they have heretofore only believed or hoped -- invariably find themselves confronted by a wall of misunderstanding. Bit by bit they learn to shoulder responsibility for those parts of their lives that led, in the search for happiness, to unhappiness. This is not easy. Still, bit by bit, they learn to see their misfortunes more clearly. Attachment, to take one example, is clearly a precursor to sorrow and a little at a time, through investigation, that recognition seeps in. I am attached. I am responsible. And, perhaps, what a jackass I have been. The bad news is my responsibility.

But is this recognition and the effort to clarify it enough to assure happiness? I would say not.

Along this road of shouldering responsibility and looking matters more surely in the eye, the notion of karma may arise and may offer a convenient explanation to a complex and daunting problem. If all things are the effect of previous causes, then perhaps it was my karma -- even into previous lives -- that explains the misfortunes of the present. Put baldly, I deserve misfortune because I was a bad person at some time in the past. This notion may be soothing and satisfying. It may also relieve the student of the burden of shouldering responsibility: Life is crappy because I was mean, nasty and awful in some other time and place ... oh goody, an explanation I can get my head around!

This is a misunderstanding seeking to clarify a misunderstanding. But that doesn't mean it can't take root: All the misfortunes of today become elucidated in known or unknown bad actions in the past. It's sort of consoling ... having an explanation: Bad stuff in the past, ergo bad stuff in the present. Karma addresses all the bad stuff.

But the explanation fails even on its own terms: If the misfortunes of today are contingent and the misfortunes of an earlier time, what happens to the good stuff, the happy stuff, the fulfilling and enriching stuff ... you may have the bad news nailed down with "karma," but what simultaneous willingness is there to explain away the good stuff? What honesty is there in it?

In Zen there is a saying: The hard stuff is easy. It's the easy stuff that's hard.

Shouldering responsibility for good news is, if anything, harder, than shouldering responsibility for the bad news... assuming anyone were to premise an appreciation on the gotcha doctrine of karma.

But more important than concocting an unverifiable explanation of life is the problem of Buddhism itself and what it aims to accomplish. Isn't Buddhism as depicted by Gautama a way that says thank you? Isn't it gathering together a willingness and actualization that sees the good stuff come and go, sees the bad stuff come and go and says, without a backward glance, "thank you." Of course running around saying thank you like some do-good robot is not what I mean. I mean a thank you without words ... an equanimity that sees and is reluctant to put superstitious explanations to work.

No one can grasp -- and therefore know -- the past. Approximations? Yes. An unadulterated knowing and grasping? A pipe dream ... and one too often littered with a superstition that simply cannot inspire equanimity or the happiness that Gautama outlined.

It's not enough to moan endearingly when misfortune strikes: "It's my karma." This would be a superstitious Buddhism, a witch-doctor world. Nor yet would it be enough to observe, smooth as phony-baloney silk, that good times are likewise "my karma." Buddhism is more honest than this sort of approach.

Shoulder the responsibility for the bad times.
Shoulder the responsibility for the good ones.
Learn to say thank you.
Learn that saying thank you is not enough.
Relax ...

Have a cup of coffee.

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