Sunday, February 20, 2011

The Law of Karma

One of the differences between conventional Christianity and Buddhism is the law of karma. Christianity and many of the other prophetic religions believe in a creator g-d, some kind of supreme being who is separate from creation and makes it. Buddhism generally does not believe this idea of g-d, but believes in the Dharmakaya, an energy field infused with love, wisdom, and creativity that permeates and manifests creation, and is the basis for why all the universal laws operate, including the law of karma. According to Buddhism, karma creates the universe of events. All events are linked with each other through a web of interdependence and causality. There are, therefore, no accidents, everything happens for a reason.

The law of karma is usually stated as "what you sow is what you reap". This theme appears in both the Old and New Testament of the Bible. It seems every religion has some understanding and acceptance of the law of karma. Although it does not follow perfectly, Yahweh can symbolize the operation of the law of karma and Adonai can symbolize the operation of the law of grace. The anthropomorphic idea of g-d an some kind of personal powerful entity who rules the universe can be seen as symbolic of the more impersonal Dharmakaya and how it operates through universal laws. I say "more impersonal" because there it is still infused with unconditional love and love is always personal in some sense. Yet because this love is unconditional, it is impartial, available to all equally, operates in the lives of all sentient beings equally, and does not favor one person over another. Anything that operates without exceptions, as a consistent principle, across all space and all time, is a universal law.

One phrase that is repeated often in the Dhammapada is: "Trust in the Dharma (Dhamma), not in people." The Dharma sometimes means the teachings of the Buddha and sometimes means the Dharmakaya which is the basis for everything that the Buddha taught. I take that this phrase means the Dharmakaya and only secondarily to the teachings of the Buddha that illuminate how it operates. The gesture that makes one a Buddhist is to take the "triple refuge" in the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha. Although these three refuges are really very deep subjects and could each be expounded in long discourses, to summarize, taking refuge in the Buddha is taking refuge in the truth that someone just like us attained nirvana, a state of consciousness beyond sorrow, and therefore we can do the same, taking refuge in the dharma means to harmonize with universal law so that we can do the same as Buddha did, and taking refuge in the Sangha means to live in community with others who are doing the same as us, living in accord with the dharma with each other. There are other meanings to the triple refuge, like taking refuge in the Buddha means to open up to the help that Buddha can give here and now, because Buddha did not die and did not vanish from human history. In the Lotus Sutra, there is an affirmation that the Buddha is still alive, on this Earth, and still teaches and helps advanced Bodhisattvas and Dakinis serve and heal this world, still emanates teachings telepathically to help and support those who are open to his guidance, and has an immortal light body beyond aging and death that can move at the speed of thought to go anywhere he is needed. In some of the initiations and empowerments of Vajrayana Buddhism, we can be attuned to the Buddha or some other enlightened being, a member of the Mahasangha, and chant to stay in this connection and be healed through this connection.

The law of karma is not the only universal law. There is also the law of grace which can burn away the seeds of bad karma that are stored in our subconscious mind. The laws are scientific in the sense that we can verify their operation in our personal experience, rely on them, and use them to heal ourselves. Part of the healing of anger is to recognize that karma has no exceptions. As painful as it is to accept, when bad things happen to us, some part of the causation is our bad karma accumulated in past lifetimes by our own doing. Sometimes it is possible to see the chain of cause and effect clearly and see why some things are happening to us right here and right now. Sometimes it is not possible to easily see this without going into a past life regression trance and finding out. It is possible to ask the subconscious mind to reveal these patterns. After having done a lot of processing, linking past causes with present effects, I mainly just assume these days that karma is operating and do not have to analyze the exact chain in detail. If someone has wronged me, the first thing that I do is just assume that I behaved similarly to someone in my past and repent of the actions, seeing now how it felt from the other side, and thereby deepen my compassion for others.

It is tricky to use hypnotic regression to verify the law of karma, because the subconscious mind is very suggestible and very creative, and can manufacture things to prove whatever we believe. It takes a very precise mind to frame the right kind of suggestions to keep the process open-ended, not locked into any preconceived conclusion. This is partly why very few Buddhist texts talk about using hypnotic regression. Some talk about "tracing memory backwards". This is where, at the end of the day, you trace your memories backwards for about a week, reviewing the last 24 period of time, like rewinding a videotape backwards at about 24x speed and slowing down when we are reacting emotionally to what is happening and need to process something. After a while, you go back and review a month, then a year, and then go backwards into other lifetimes. It is possible to do this discipline and go back to past lifetimes this way. It is a very rigorous and scientific way of getting reliable past lifetime information.

It is possible to do a faster way, through free association, through regular psychotherapy with a larger context. Our usual memory does not have rigid partitions between our different kinds of memories, information is always flowing from one kind of memory to another. We have short term memory, working memory, long term memory, dream processed memories and bardo processed lifetime memories. When we go through various life phases, we tend to review our memories. If we are open and sensitive, we can open up to any memories that might be relevant to what is happening in our lives now. The feeling that we met someone before is valid one. I find that my long term in this lifetime memory has been a little sluggish lately and I usually get this feeling of having met a person before in this lifetime and if I hang out long enough it will get verified by a memory flash. There is a kind of relaxed and open space, free from a kind of worry and thinking, that makes these memories available. It is trusting the subconscious mind to bring up what we need.

There is one psychotherapist who accessed past lifetimes without hypnotic regression protocols through free association. People just tuned into the stream of consciousness and stayed open to whatever impressions were arising from the subconscious mind and shared them. I call this "the floating space" where the conscious and subconscious mind have a more fluidic and sensitive boundary and interaction with each other, become a functional whole, and can process things more easily within this unity. I think this space is accessed with Jung's active imagination method, with process oriented hypnosis, and with the Buddhist approach of "nonclinging and nonresistance" to whatever is. The therapist/guide mainly is sensitive to when a person moves into resistance to feeling something or clinging to some other feeling, and helps the person to let go of each to keep the impressions flowing into nirvana.

What happens is the images will arise from other lifetimes, they will feel like memories and have an emotional resonance to them. Because American culture does not always validate past lifetime memories, sometimes these images are discounted, resisted in some way, and so we move into a edited worldview where we live only one lifetime and die, and either, atheist version: become compost and annihilated as a personality, theist version: are judged and go to eternal heaven or eternal hell. Since I remember past lifetimes and since I have helped others to remember theirs, if these memories are valid, then neither of these two views is correct. Buddhists do believe there are hell worlds and heaven worlds, and we might reincarnate in one of them when we die. The Tibetan Buddhists map a larger landscape than just two possibilities, there are rebirths as animals, hungry ghosts, demons, humans, asuras, and devas, as well as the dharma aligned worlds of bodhisattvas and dakinis, and Buddhas and Mahadakinis. Tibetan Buddhism maps six kinds of samsaric worlds of sorrow, with the human world being one of them. Tendai Buddhism maps out 10 kinds of worlds, though six of them have sorrow and four of them either do not have sorrow or sorrow is dissolving through a meditation process. One of the higher worlds is of the genius/scientist types who eliminate the outer causes of sorrow, like poor sanitation, poor diet, and the like, but have not eliminated the deeper inner causes of sorrow at their root in the three poisons of the mind (addictive craving, condemning negativity, and obscuring delusions).

There are several sides to the law of karma. One is how our choices (causes) interact with universal law to produce effects. Two is how our choices become habitual, form attitudes, and create our life condition. If we are angry all the time, this becomes a general causation which creates our general life condition. For instance, it is harder to become close and intimate with someone who is always angry. Intimacy entails mutual vulnerability and anger does not make such a vulnerability safe for another person to do. Repressing anger still does not stop the anger from producing effects in our lives. Overtly expressing anger towards others will increase the karma. There is a difference between feeling our anger and sharing how we feel with someone and speaking from anger and attacking the other. The first one is being emotionally honest and the second one is attacking the other and creating a bad karma wave. It is possible to feel our anger and process it in solo meditation or with a guide, to come to a complete resolution about what we feel, and shift how we feel. It is possible to have a loving partnership that knows how to support this process in each other and create a mature loving space for healing to perpetually happen. How we choose to think and feel are all part of what life condition we create. When we just react to events and act out whatever our conditioned mind is, then we live a level of karma and it manifests our life. Part of meditation is to raise our life condition, sow good seeds in our life so that they sprout into a better life condition.

Although it is highly underrated, it is good to do good deeds. When I share this, a lot of people question the motive. If you are doing good to others because you are raising your own life condition, then is not the motivation selfish. The answer is "yes". But it is a better way of being selfish than the less wise selfishness where we lie, cheat, and steal from our relationships and produce tons of bad karma and a bad life condition. If we do good deeds because of a good intention, eventually we will forget our selfishness and move into a deeper altruism. We will trust the process of karma and relax our self clinging. We will learn that we need to be awake, sensitive, and aware to find valid opportunities to do kind acts. It is not as easy as it first seems. You cannot force kindness on people. If you do, there is a subtle aggression that negates part of the good deed. One way of translating a passage of the prayer of Jesus is, "Save us from poor timing". It is like playing Tennis, only a right swing at the right time will hit the ball at the sweet spot and zing over the net. There is also "stupid compassion" which does not have this sensitivity. Where, for instance, money is given to a homeless person to further deepen a drug addiction and weaken themselves, versus giving an apple for real nutrition, showing where an apple tree is, or sensing a homeless person who is really trying to break free and giving the needed money. The very intention to be sensitive, awake, and aware of where real help might be given opens us in a certain way and changes our karmaic fate.

The law of karma, too, links us to a different kind of temporal flow than the usual chronological time. The past, present, and future have a kind of interdependence to them and are constantly changing each other. For instance, we have impressions in our subconscious mind. These impressions, called "samskaras" can be triggered by external stimuli. If a certain word is said to us about us, like "you idiot", it will produce an automatic emotional reaction. We might become angry, afraid, and/or sad. This impression, too, is not merely a passive potential waiting to be triggered. It is a subtle pattern of thought, a kind of internal story, that is actively trying to fulfill itself and validate itself. It will project itself on to situations, mold them and make them fit the story, and prove itself right even by ignoring certain features of the situations. Most karmas run a victim/abuser story. We usually feel ourselves to be a victim in the story and sometimes use the story to justify revenge/abuse in return or use the feeling of abandonment to leave somebody.

What I find interesting is that behind these patterns is usually a negation of the law of karma. When we feel like a victim and hold ourselves in that feeling, we do not open up to us doing anything to have chosen the karma we experienced. There is always a history of choices leading us up to the karmaic events. For most of them, no one put a gun to our head and forced us to make them, and even if they did, what we choose to do when a gun is pointed to our head will also have karmaic effects. If we are choosing one abusive relationship after another, then we are the common factor in all those situations, we are the ones who is running the pattern and repeating the pattern. Something in our conditioning, our accumulated thought impressions that we identify and believe in, that has woven into a story and a personality, is choosing over and over again, attracting the same situations to itself and being attracted to the same situations, forming our life condition. This is what karma is about.

Below all the patterns of cause and effect is a stable and impartial law. The stability of the law of karma is something we can relax into and bring order into our lives. We can see the wisdom of living by some basic precepts, (1) not to kill but to cherish all life, (2) not to steal but to take only what is freely given, (3) not to lie, but to speak kind and truthful words, (4) not to misuse sexual energy, but to conserve sexual energy and only have sexual communion with a willing and consenting partner within an atmosphere of love, honesty, and respect, and (5) not to intoxicate the brain and body, but to keep the mind calm and the body clean. Most bad karma events in our lives can be traced back to violating one of these precepts. These five have a deeper side that opens up inside them. For instance, "not to steal" means also not pressuring someone to give you something that they do not want to. The precepts also have exceptions to them. Sometimes, sadly enough, some killing is needed in human life, like when invaders come and attack a peaceful village. We have a right to defend ourselves and sometimes need to shoot back. When such things happen, though, it is good afterwards to "treat war like a funeral" as Lao Tzu (chapter 31) says, and feel remorse that the whole karmaic pattern had to manifest, to look at whatever causes one contributed to the invader attacking. For instance, some of the messy corporate politics around the getting of oil in the middle east may lead to anger against the US and a terrorist response. The unfoldment of karma in the middle east can be very complex, meaning it can have multiple causes on many levels. It would be very wonderful if we could have political leaders who grasped the immensity of the law of karma and entered wisely into the political world very awake, aware, and sensitive to how this law operates. My sense is that the US government would be working very hard doing "repentance" practice, like the Vajrasattva Empowerment, to burn away as much karma as possible. Some of the relief programs to other countries, to help after tidal waves, earthquakes, and eruptions, has helped the US some to soften its karma, but much more needs to be done. Part of remorse is to consciously do some balancing karma, like in the AA "making amends for the wreckage of the past".

Because most of my American friends do not really believe in the law of karma, they see corrupt politicians getting away with murder, lying, and stealing. I see people to be pitied, who are accumulating so much bad karma that I want to cry for them, because they are ignorant of this law and are delusionally imagining that they are beyond cause and effect, yet it is showing up in their faces, in how they are getting worn out, and in their conscience. The politicians seem to age very rapidly and may need to ask why. It is not a group known for its long life. Sometimes you can see in their aura the shadow of their next lifetime, of where and how they will be reborn next. Sometimes one only picks a kind of darkness and a slightly creepy feeling. The reverse happens when a saint or enlightened being dies. There is a wonderful glow of energy and sometimes one sees advanced bodhisattvas and dakinis welcoming them home or massive rainbows appearing in the sky. Some signs of accomplishment will happen to show something of where they are going.

The best way to get the feeling for the law of karma is to do some experimenting with the law. Experiment with generating some good karma and see if you feel better and see if positive life events start to happen. One simple practice is to visualize love as light radiating towards everyone that you meet. Visualize this as you go about your day. Keep it up for about 21 days. When you have to work with someone, send this light first into the situation. When you are having trouble with someone, send this light first into the situation. You do not have to look for results too quickly. We need to do this until it changes our mass of habitual thoughts. If you wrote down all your thoughts for one hour and just slotted them into "positive", "neutral" or "negative" and notice what percentage of your thoughts in each category is, you might notice how little the positive category is and you might not even be entirely honest with yourself about what category each belongs to. For instance, there is corruption in the world, this is a fact, and facts are always at least neutral thoughts. But notice how you might be spinning stuff around the facts, how you are taking them in, how they are making you feel, how they might be used to justify anger and a feeling of victimhood inside, how they might form a karma story that you are living out, and then it becomes negative. The same facts may have a different frame around them, about how all this corruption is appearing so that karma can manifest, complete, and be transcended, and how we can use this mirror to cleanse ourselves to our own deepest roots. In any case, from a scientific view, you would need to practice enough radiating compassion to change the percentage of positive thoughts in your mind by at least 20 percent. For me, every single loving thought raises our energy, but we will not notice it unless there is a mass of them. It is like adding a drop of blue dye into some clear water. Even though every drop is coloring the water, it will seem clear until a certain critical mass of blue drops is reached and we notice the water is at least tinted blue.

I found it interesting in some fundamentalist Christian writings that they thought the law of karma is cruel and exacting. I found this odd, since eternal damnation has no balance between evil cause and evil effect, how a finite number of sins produced infinite torture without parole forever. But I found it also interesting that those writers must feel that they do not want their own negativity to boomerang back to them and feel that THIS is cruel and exacting. It is a curious thing to say to an impartial mirror that is not adding anything to what we radiate out. I think there is some wisdom in feeling that there is something exacting about karma and how it reflects back what we radiate out. We do know that we do put out a lot of negative stuff and we suddenly wake up and see that it is not only hurting others, but it is coming back to us. This shock of awakening can inspire us to manifest greater compassion. We can then ask Divine Grace to burn away all our karma, forgive everyone who has hurt us, and feel remorse for having hurt others. This purifying remorse is part of compassion. We see that no one is truly evil or negative. It is only out of ignorance and it is forgivable. This energy can enter into our subconscious mind and burn away the samskaras, uprooting the karma at its most subtle cause, and finishing it there. Some outer causes may reverberate for a while and we might need to endure them. For instance, there was one woman who kept saying harsh things to the Buddha and the Buddha peacefully endured her talk. When his disciples asked why she was so harsh to him, the Buddha said that in another lifetime as a sannyasin he was harsh to her and that this karma was coming back. He was just letting it finish. The inner root was done, but some of the outer momentum was still playing out.


  1. Referenced above:
    Chapter 31: Treat War Like a Funeral
    (freely translated from the Tao Te Ching)

    When a strong military appears,
    misfortune and suffering soon follow,
    therefore followers of the Tao
    avoid warfare whenever possible
    and do not glory in military might.

    When warfare is necessary,
    calm detachment
    like surgeon
    removing diseased tissue
    is needed,
    but no glorying in war.

    To glory in war
    is to delight in killing,
    those who delight in killing
    are never truly respected
    by those who simply wish
    to live a human life in peace.

    In the movements of war,
    some are positioned to the right,
    while others are positioned to the left,
    some officers are assigned
    to each rank and file,
    this is also how a funeral is conducted.

    Therefore, treat war as a funeral,
    those who die are mourned
    with great sadness
    and those who are victorious
    are the survivors who carry
    the coffins to bury them.

  2. The above translation is my own. I used several translated as a basis. There were some "right" and "left" metaphors that do not make much sense in English and which were omitted and retranslated in a simpler context. I added the metaphor of the surgeon and the coffin to allow the passages to work better in the English. The basic sense of the passage I feel is intact. Readers are invited to compare different versions of the Tao Te Ching to understand some of the translator choices. I also avoided the more technical term "the superior man" or its alternate translation as "honorable gentlemen". I used simpler and more gender neutral terms.