By John Pendall
Looking at the “likes” and comments I see on articles posted here, it seems like you all appreciate practical, practice-based columns more than heady philosophical ones (bunch of heathens).
So, I’m going to try to take the heady philosophical nonsense and show its practical side. That sounds like a worthwhile endeavor doesn’t it? Often seems like there’s a gulf between philosophy and “engaged Buddhism” even though there doesn’t have to be.
So today, let’s talk about karma.
Karma has a bad reputation here in the West. Most of us misunderstand it. Many Zennies just shrug it off as a moldy leftover that expired two thousand years ago. But there is a very practical side to pondering karma.
First off, let’s clear up some confusion. Karma isn’t inherently good or bad. Karma doesn’t determine whether I get hit in the head with a baseball or not. It also doesn’t necessarily determine who I’ll be in my next life.
Karma dwells in sensation.
Karma is what determines whether what I experience is labeled pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral. There isn’t some kind of Karma Auditor out there pulling strings, forcing a driver to cut me off in traffic. My karma is the unpleasantness I feel when someone cuts me off in traffic. It’s the pleasantness I feel when I see my cat, Zoe. It’s the neutral feeling of me sitting in this chair.
This is where understanding karma can influence our mindfulness practice. A big part of enlightenment is to stop generating new karma. It takes mindfulness to stop making new karma.
If Mr. Negligent Driver cuts me off in traffic and I feel unpleasantness, that unpleasantness is my karma. There’s nothing I can do about that unpleasantness except watch it rise and fall away. If I push it away, then I might get angry. My blood pressure could go up and a string of obscenities fly from my mouth.
That anger is what creates new karma.
It makes it more likely that I’ll feel unpleasantness the next time I’m cut off in traffic. It influences my reactions during similar encounters as well. Being cut off in traffic is an interruption. So if I get angry at Mr. Negligent, I may feel unpleasantness the next time I’m interrupted by an extrovert while trying to talk about mindfulness.
If instead of getting angry I just take a breath and watch the turbulence, it only lasts for a few moments. I don’t have to damage my state of mind with anger. I don’t have to risk an embolism just because of one driver being unmindful.
When I’m mindful of a sensation, I’m letting karma dry up. There may be no unpleasantness at all the next time I’m cut off in traffic. On the flip side, if I feel something pleasant but don’t cling to it, then there will be no unpleasantness when that karma runs out.
So karma is the “why” in, “Why should I be mindful?” It’s also the “how” in, “How do I get stuck in habits?”
I could even change my karma by smiling when I feel something unpleasant. That’s still a way of making new karma but if I do that, then I may feel pleasantness the next time some idiot cuts me off in traffic. I might think, “Thank you Mr. Negligent for giving me this opportunity to practice tolerance and letting go.”
My knee jerk reaction to flip him the bird might be replaced, “May you have a long and happy life, you jerk.”
There’s a little more to karma than what I’ve talked about in this post, but I’ll just leave that out to keep this column practical. If you want to know more, you can try your luck at reading the Abhidhamma. I just hope you have an ample head of hair if you decide to read it.
If not, then you’ll have to pull out someone else’s hair as you wade through the never ending abyss of cold analysis.
Editor: Dana Gornall
John is a Caodong Ch'an student in the Empty Cloud Lineage of Hsu Yun. His Dharma name is Feng Dao which means "Wild Way" or "Windy Way." He originally wanted to become a social worker, focusing on preventative mental health care, but writing is his passion. “Above all else, I’m just a writer. Words come, I write them, I drink coffee.”
Oppression and marginalization are key issues for John. “I was forced out of mainstream society at a young age by my peers. So I will always stand up for the underdog and criticize bullying, coercion, and any institution that relies on those tactics.” Asked about what the most pressing issue of our time is, he replied, “The environment. We’ve bullied the earth so much that it could almost be called marginalized.”
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