Should a person do good, let him do it again and again. Let him find pleasure therein, for blissful is the accumulation of good.
— The Buddha, Dhammapada, verse 118
When I was a writer for a major multinational corporation, I often had to address new issues as reporters and government officials raised questions. Often, there was no company position yet, so by writing drafts and getting feedback, I created one.
Now, I write entirely for myself, but the same process applies. I read, think and write, and review my conclusions by checking the published works of authorities I respect. Then once I publish a blog post, the comments and questions from thoughtful readers help me formulate my own belief system and sometimes result in another post.
In everyday Western use, karma simply means what goes around comes around, but the Buddha lived in a time with widespread belief in rebirth. The karma he talked about has been taken to mean merit or demerit that the individual carries from one life to another. Spiritual leaders of the Buddha’s time had no other way to explain the illness and death of an infant, for example, so they believed it was bad karma from a former life.
Let me take the subject piece by piece:
If the self is an illusion, what is it that gets rewarded or punished? The Buddha often spoke in metaphors, and I’m not sure he ever quite said that the self is an illusion. But he believed that the individual self is impermanent and part of something bigger, a non-duality. Dzogchen Buddhists call the true self the heart-mind as opposed to the thought-mind. Other branches see it differently, but somewhere inside everyone is a pure self that is part of the universal Buddha-hood, or what some call the Amida Buddha.
Did the Buddha invent the idea of karma? Something like karma existed before the Buddha, but one received karma for performing the right ceremonies or accomplishing good works. The Buddha detested ceremony, and while he appreciated good works, he also elevated the importance of sincere good intentions. So if you honestly want the best for others, you get good karma even if your efforts fail to get the results you want. That doesn’t mean you’re rewarded for ignorance (“duh, I didn’t intend to piss you off”). It’s not an excuse for halfhearted failure, but a reward to the honestly compassionate. Compassion, after all, is s state of being, not a state of doing.
What happens to the good and bad karma? This gets sticky for me because I’m not comfortable with the literal idea of rebirth. And I’m not comfortable explaining away an infant’s agony by laying it on a past life the infant can’t remember or understand. I do believe in a form of afterlife that might involve an occasional rebirth (as with some great Tibetan lamas), but I think the afterlife takes other forms as well — other ways those who have died influence the world in real time. I wonder if the Buddha had lived in another culture, in which rebirth was not emphasized, whether he would have expressed himself in other terms. I do know that, in the quote at the start of this post, he portrays doing good as its own reward.
What about nirvana? In the Buddha’s time, the ultimate reward was to escape the cycle of death and rebirth. The Buddha was most interested in giving people the tools to escape unnecessary suffering. He believed in cause and effect. Once one understands cause and effect, trains his or her mind to avoid the clinging that feeds the cycle of cause and effect, and lives ethically with compassion, then that person becomes enlightened. I’m content to leave it there. I have taken the Bodhisattva Pledge, meaning that I’ll keep working for the enlightenment of all even if I receive a get-out-of-jail-free card. If I can live on in bliss by doing good, that’s acceptable to me.
I’ll take it.
— Mel Pine (Fearless Lotus)
NOTE: I’ve been slipping from my schedule of an original blog post a day. My wife and I are moving in three days, so life is hectic, as well as impermanent. You may not see much more from me for a few days, but I’ll be back on track in a week or so.
Copyright 2016 © Mel Harkrader Pine