"I declare, O Bhikkhus, that volition is Karma. Having willed one acts by body, speech, and thought."I've been reading up a bit on the traditional understanding of karma. Many of the sources I've looked at, from the Dali Lama to other Buddhist teachers to the Advaitic Saradamma, are rather conventional in their understanding and recommendations. For the most part, they seem to view karma as a universal structure of justice that serves as warning against bad actions, and a spur towards good actions - a kind of cosmic moral police force that rewards good and punishes evil. The result is fairly reasonable moral advice, and one gathers that this is the whole point: whether such a thing as karma exists or not, the purpose of teaching about it is to get people to behave properly. To a degree this even seems rational and good. I simply question whether it's true.
-Buddha (Anguttara Nikaya)
If one comes from the usual western Judeo-Christian background, one gets exposed early on to this police-like function of God. In one form or another - Santa Claus, say - God rewards people who do morally good things, by giving them positive rewards in life. Likewise, God will also punish people who do bad things, and even send them to hell for eternal punishment if they are really bad. A lot of people have come to doubt whether such a God exists, in part because there seems little clear evidence that this sort of reward/punishment system actually exists. A lot of good people suffer and die for what seems like no cause, and a lot of bad people prosper as a result of their badness. Because that kind of evidence is virtually irrefutable, religions tend to hide the "results" of these rewards or punishments until after death - in the case of Christians, there's a judgment day, and one is sent to either heaven or hell as a result. In Hinduism and Buddhism, one's actions determine what happens in future lifetimes, where rewards and punishments will be meted out.
All of this is extremely suspect, in my view. It's natural enough for people to believe in this sort of thing, it certainly fulfills a kind of fantasy belief in justice and fairness, and it serves a useful self-policing function in society that keeps people in line. The problem in my view is that it just isn't true, on virtually any level at all. I know I'm contradicting a whole lot of people who are a whole lot better than me humanly, spiritually, morally, intellectually, and in just about any other area you could name, but that doesn't mean they are right on this matter of karma. I'd certainly recommend people be downright suspicious of what I say here, and if they prefer the recommendations and ideas of my betters, they are more than welcome to accept them.
Behind the traditional view of karma as a form of punishment and reward is the notion that often its the inner "intent" or motive behind an action that is more important than the action itself. Thus, if one's intentions are good, it doesn't matter if the results of one's actions turn out badly. This requires that God or karma be a "mind reader", and function in a very different way than the ordinary, mechanical laws of physics. It would be as if, when a pitcher intended to throw a strike, and beaned the batter in the head by accident, the moral "ball" never actually hit that fellow at all, and the pitcher gets off scot-free. The batter, on the other hand, was undoubtedly reaping the punishment for some earlier intentional misdeed on his part, for which he receives a purely accidental beaning. The logic of this is of course rather absurd if one breaks it down in this manner. It requires a force in nature that is able to evaluate every interior thought and motive we have, and assign some kind of moral value to it, positive or negative, and create active results that correspond to these interior thoughts and motives. I must ask you all, does this seem at all plausible?
Even if we can imagine the universe to operate by psychic laws that stretch through every dimension of mind and life, would they really operate in this manner? If we look at the laws of physics that describe the workings of the material world, we see nothing remotely like this at work. We see forces and energies operating without any moral prejudice whatsoever. Unless, of course, we merely define morality as "what is in accord with nature". Thus, smoking cigarettes could be considered morally bad precisely because it causes cancer, and not for any subjective reason. And eating healthy food could be considered morally good precisely because it increases one's health. But this has no meaning in relation to how the world actually operates. Cigarettes don't cause cancer as a form of moral punishment, nor does eating whole grain bread bring about health because it is morally rewarded. Morality in these cases is reduceable to the material effects of material causes themselves. This leads to the simplistic moral notion that if things turn out well, it must have been morally good actions that brought them about, or at least morally good intentions. When it does work out that way, we call it "justice", and when it doesn't, we call it "injustice". The problem, of course, is that morality seems to have virtually nothing to do with the consequences, it's the actual physical laws of the material universe that describe how things come out, and morality is just something we tack on latter. The best of intentions can turn out terribly wrong if they are not accompanied by genuinely correct actions.
If karma is real, as a universally functioning law of multi-dimensional nature, it too must function by some kind of real structure of energy and force that produces actual results through a morality-free series of causes and effects. We can construct a moral system based on those laws, and use them as a way of describing the results of that system as "fair" or "just", but that doesn't mean that the system itself is based on any moral values. In other words, regardless of one's intentions, the results of those laws would be the same, if the actions were the same. One could perhaps argue that one's intentions actually do create some kind of moral force or energy that creates effects, but if one does, then that is not a literal intention, it is also a form of action. If it is not, then it cannot produce a result. So karma has no power over us other than through the actions we actually perform, even if the actions are forms of thought or emotion.
But is this what is really meant by "intention" or "volition", as in the Buddha's remark quoted above? I would suggest not, and that what is hidden in this ambiguous concept of karma as being determined by inner intent or motive or volition rather than by outer action is something quite different than is commonly proposed.
The Bhagavad Gita voices another point of view about karma, and how to act. It says, "Do not act with any thought for the results of one's action". This teaching, I think, comes much closer to the truth of karma and how to transcend it. The view of karma pointed to here is that it comes into being when we seek any results from our actions at all, whether good or bad. I would suggest that this is superior wisdom, for a number of reasons, one of them being that the universe simply does not operate by the reward/punishment system that is so often presumed to control action. This approach is often thought to be "selfless", and it is, but not because it forgoes any genuine rewards that might come. It is selfless because it does not presume any form of moral justice in the universe at all, and recognizes that the entire edifice of moral or spiritual cause and effect is a sham, a lie, and untruth, the binds us to illusions that keep us miserable and unhappy, even if good things do occasionally happen.
The important thing to recognize about karma, according to this view, is that the cycles of cause and effect are illusory, and that we can best align ourselves with reality by not expecting any results from our actions at all. This is of course an amoral view of reality, one which sees no moral force operative in the universe at all, contrary to traditional views. Much of the Bhagavad Gita actually espouses those views before coming to this final conclusion about the nature of action, suggesting that the traditional views are useful for some, but are not literally true. This is why Krishna tells Arjuna to "abandon all dharmas", which means to abandon all the traditional modes of action which lead to favorable results, and instead to act without any thought for the results of his actions. This is in contradiction to the traditional teaching on karma, which is that we are supposed to keep in mind at all times that all our actions and intentions have consequences, and that we will suffer if we act or even intend incorrectly. To abandon that point of view is a radical recommendation, and I would say one that is based on reality, rather than justified by some morally desirable results that are supposed to follow.
The reason it is good to abandon all courses of action is, I would suggest, because action does not follow any cause and effect pattern. It certainly does not seem to be the case as far as morals and intentions go. Some people will defend this notion on the grounds that we cannot see the results of future lifetimes to judge what occurs, but I would suggest that this is dodging the issue. One of the things I find so refreshing about Drs. Newton and Weiss' past life regression therapy findings is that they didn't uncover any kind of punishment and reward system operating in their patient's past life history. Considering how deeply those ideas are embedded in people in our culture and religions, it suggests that these findings are more likely to be true, in that they clearly go against our conscious and subconscious conditioning.
What they found instead was a very different kind of reincarnational order, if you will. Instead of people being handed out future lives based on their past life actions, they are given the choice of multiple lives, and select from them on the basis of what they feel they want to do or learn. Difficult or suffering lives are not forced upon souls as punishment for bad actions in past lives, and happy, easeful lives are not given as rewards to those who were morally virtuous. To the contrary, the most advanced souls seem to often choose some very difficult lives, and the least advanced souls often choose the easiest and most pleasure-filled lives. Of course, there are many exceptions to this, and it certainly appears from their many readings that people who have acted selfishly or badly in the past will indeed choose future lives in which they are the victim rather than the perpetrator of such acts, but this is done voluntarily, as a way to get a fuller sense of life's possibilities, and to gain empathy for those who suffer, not as a punishment.
There is no sign in these studies of any cosmic moral scorecard, and in fact there doesn't seem to be any particular form of moral judgment going on at all. People who had lives in which they did terrible things, such as killing lots of people in Viking conquests, do not suffer any punishments at all for such things, but merely have to deal with a certain degree of insensitivity and even superficiality that results, which requires future lives where they overcome hardships and become more sensitive to others. If that can be learned without any particular tragic victimhood being experienced, no further results are required. The only result that seems to matter is maturity itself, and how that is achieved is largely irrelevant. Some may achieve it through great sufferings, some through inflicting great sufferings, some through very ordinary lives, some through high achieving lives, it hardly matters at all. What matters is that in the course of these lifetimes people learn basic lessons, such as how to love. If much suffering must be meted out in the process, there is no judgment attached to it.
The reason for this, I gather, is that there is no moral judgment involved in the universe, even at the most Godly levels of existence. The process of a soul's maturation has nothing to do with past actions or their future consequences, but only with the freedom one is able to manifest in the present. That freedom manifests as love, but love is not a part of the cycle of causes and effects. Love essentially has no cause, it is something that is natural to us, and spiritual growth is simply about becoming align to what is natural to us, and not climbing some ladder of causes and effects to get to heaven. There is no such place that is real, because reality is not determined by causes and effects, it is much more direct and immediate and uncaused. Heaven is not a reward, it is the natural state of consciousness prior to all causes and effects. And all action that presumes to create an effect, and thus either a reward or a punishment, will only create the illusion of either rewards or punishments, and in the process, hide the reality of the real universe. This is why we are told to surrender the results of our actions, and to act without any thought for results. In acting in this manner, we let go of the whole illusion of karma, of cause and effect, and we are thus able to live in reality, rather than in illusion.
The admonition not to engage in such action for the sake of results does not mean that one does not act at all. It means that one acts as a renunciate who surrenders all results - not by giving one's money to charity, say, but by recognizing that what occurs in nature does not happen by any cause and effect process, but by "Grace". This may not change the course of action itself, but it changes one's entire point of view about action. It severs the identification with action, and thus the identification with the egoic "actor". That is why it is considered "selfless". The self which is created by identification with action and its causes and effects is renounced. The process of living by Grace means that one does not try to bring about any particular result at all, but merely accepts the natural course of life as it unfolds. Even if one renounces results, the body will still act. One will not merely sit in samadhi, the body will continue its life in the world as always, but without pursuing any rewards or punishments, but merely living the natural structure of the body and its relations, with no illusory internal "ego" guiding or influencing one's actions. A life that is so surrendered to its own nature is no longer in conflict, because it does not reject any of the results which appear, or seek something different than what happens. The result is an ordinary, natural life, not a life of great achievement or "results".
We tend to think that we can control the results of our lives, but this is highly suspect. Even Ramana Maharshi taught that it was not possible to alter one's destiny, and that if one desired a particular result, not matter how hard one tried to achieve it, if it was not destined to happen, your actions would not produce that result, and that if it was destined to happen, no amount of action could prevent it from happening. He advocated that people operate under the assumption that they had free will, acting as if every act they undertook was their own choice, but that they should also surrender the notion that the final results could be influenced by their actions. He taught that the only real choice we actually had was whether we would identify with our actions or not, whether we would allow our consciousness to become deluded by identification with the body and its life, or whether we would question this entire structure of action and reaction, cause and effect, that seems to bind us.
When Ramana asked people to ask themselves "Who am I?" it naturally raises the question of who, indeed, is the one who suffers the results of karma? If there is no ego in reality, then who is it who has karma in the first place, and who will accrue these karmas in future lives? Any honest analysis must conclude that karma applies only to the ego-illusion, and not to our real Self. So if we enquire into the ego's identity, we don't ever find a karmic entity behind it, who accumulates karmas and must fulfill them. Instead, we find an empty suit. The belief in the ego-illusion naturally produces the illusion of karma. The ego knows that it is not forever, that it came into existence at some point and will die at some point. That is why it is always afraid and struggling to survive. It sees its own existence as a cause and effect struggle, because it sees itself as having been caused. That is why it presumes that the universe must be caused, that some God actually created it. And that is why it presumes that the universe operates by the principle of causation. It therefore creates the concept of karma to make the universe seem to conform to its own illusory existence. And it comes to experience all of its conscious life and actions as forms of cause and effect that endlessly creates more egoic lives, as a way to perpetuate the illusion seemingly forever. In this way, the ego never actually and fully dies, but is always reborn as an effect of the previous death.
What the ego does not want to do is die, which is precisely what would occur if we were to face the reality that causes and effects are an illusory foundation for life and the universe. In reality, the universe is uncaused, and what seems to occur here is utterly spontaneously appearing, a pure manifestation of absolute infinite Spirit. None of it is accomplished by the ego's efforts. It spontaneously happens perfectly well without any egoic effort or action at all. In fact, no such thing is even possible, for there is no ego in reality. What we suffer, then, is an illusion that is superimposed on the uncaused reality of existence. Even every seeming lifetime is not at all what we presume it to be. It is uncaused, and unaffected by our intentions, our inner egoic resolve, or any effort we exert. The ego simply tries to claim credit after the fact, and in the process so disturbs our perception of reality, even of the reality of action, that we cannot see it as it actually is, but impose notions of causation upon it.
Even the subtle ego creates illusions about itself and its purposes in reincarnating. Even if it is not filled with the crude delusions about karma that plague many of us here on earth, it still perpetuates notions of cause and effect that are every bit as deluding, and which also have to be undone if we are to be free of the illusions of causality. However, these are also fully addressed in the process of enquiring into the self as we experience it right now, since the subtle ego is no less present in our material lives now than it is after death. In fact, the inherent contrasts of earthly life exaggerates the subtle ego to such a degree that it's illusions are more easily seen through, if we are attentive to them. Unfortunately, these conflicts between the subtle and the material ego also create all kinds of illusions that are hard to penetrate, such as these childish notions of karma as a form of reward and punishment, and a whole host of religious and spiritual views that have no reality in either the physical or the subtle world, but are a delusional mixture of both in a manner that makes little sense in either context. And even more unfortunately, a lot of religious and spiritual traditions perpetuate these myths because they confer some material advantages to both the religion and the people believing in it. The problem is that those advantages come with serious costs, and the cost is the perpetuation of an unreal view of the universe.
Of course, perhaps its the case that many people just can't comprehend the idea that the universe is uncaused, and that action itself is uncaused. Perhaps they would only be disturbed by this kind of message. I don't see any reason why that should stop religious traditions from making clear what is real and what is not, however, and let people sort it out for themselves. I doubt this view will ever be popular, but whoever said that religion needs to be popular? It's enough that it be real.