Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Karma and the Wheel of Life and Death

Everyone has days when they think to themself, “This really sucks. How did I get myself into this mess?” For no apparent reason life just seems to take a sharp turn and we find our self in the off-ramp. Actually there is a reason but not one that is readily apparent. The reason is contained in the dharma teaching of the Wheel of Life and Death leading to suffering, which we surely do when such a day hits us. That’s the bad news. The good news is that this wheel has another side called the Wheel of Dharma. One side explains how we got our self into this mess. The other side tells us how we can find relief (emancipation). The teaching says that both sides are reflections of karma—bad karma on one side, good karma on the other.

Today we’ll look at the bad news and tomorrow we’ll end on a positive note. So how does karma work? It’s like this: picture yourself on a dusty road on a really hot and sweaty day. Every step you take you’re kicking up dust which goes airborne where it sticks like mud to your sweaty body and enters your mouth and lungs. In a nutshell, that’s karma. You kicked up the dust and you suck it in. No dust, not sucking. Of course there are other people on that same road and all of your dust kicking migrates to them as well. So not only do we have an impact on our self, we impact them also. They don’t like it and neither do we, but the responsibility lies firmly with us. We did the kicking.

Now the best thing is to not kick up the dust in the first place. The second best thing is to own up to what we’ve done and make a wrong, right. Avoidance is always the preferred route but sometimes kicking dust is unavoidable and we make wrong without the intension to do so. There are, of course some who seem to take sadistic pleasure in doing wrong but as the saying goes, “What goes around, comes around.” So that’s karma, but now let’s see how we get on this dusty road in the first place. Wouldn’t it be better to walk along a dustless path? That’s tomorrow’s story. Today is about dust and grit and mud in the mouth.

In the Mahaparinirvana Sutra the Buddha taught about many causal links. The most important causal link pertains to the dust (my metaphor). Here is how this link plays out. It starts out with branches high up on a tree of misery and is called The miserly mind, greed and jealousy which comes from a trunk of ignorance which in turn arises from indolence, which comes from inversions of truth (four inversions), which comes from a tap root called doubting mind. These causal links are like a tree. At the bottom is a root which grows upward into branches of bad karma.

So let’s start at the bottom (the tap root) which the Buddha says is doubting mind. This root is easy to understand given our nature as sensory beings. We trust what we can lay our hands on and doubt what we can’t. Form is tangible stuff. Emptiness is not. We see form and think, “that’s it—nothing else.” It takes a leap of faith to go beyond form and accept emptiness. Most of us are remiss to take that leap. That’s doubting mind.

Doubting mind morphs into the four truth inversions. What are the four? They are: Bliss/Suffering, Eternal/impermanent, Self/non-self and Pure/impure. These are like four two-sided coins with truth on one side and inversions on the other. Without the leap out of doubting mind we find our self distorting truth (inverting it). We imagine that everything is impure, egotistical, impermanent and full of suffering. After all isn’t that one of the Buddha’s premiere teachings—life is suffering? Yes it is but that is just the first of four noble truths and if we stop there we miss the pay-off: there is a way off this dusty path. Doubting leaves us stuck with these four inversions. Acting on faith leads us to a better path with no dust (tomorrow).

OK, let’s move along to the next link in the chain: indolence. There are a couple of definitions of indolence (1) avoidance and (2) fear stemming from a lack of confidence. The first definition could apply for a host of reasons. Avoidance is what we might do when we are persuaded of a particular point of view. We know this condition as denial or clinging or close-mindedness. It occurs when we are attached to something and are not open to other possibilities, even when those other possibilities could restructure our lives in a positive way. The second way of considering indolence is fear, with a similar outcome. A lack of confidence can be like an excuse for doing nothing when something needs to be done. Knowledge is not the issue. Doubt-based fear is. Which leads to hesitation and inaction. In either case indolence keeps us stuck because of doubt. Because of indolence we stay on that dusty path absolutely convinced that it is the only path and we are just going to get used to it.

Now we’re moving up the tree and starting to branch out. Next comes ignorance. When we cling to a particular perspective, come Hell or high water, we are subject to ignorance (close minded). What started with doubt, transformed into avoidance and that leaves us ignorant. On the other hand when we leap out in faith we discover what would otherwise not be possible, but that is tomorrow’s story.

Being close minded and ignorant makes us cranky and produces a really bad attitude which the Buddha calls a miserly mind, replete with greed and jealousy. Well that makes sense doesn’t it? When we are persuaded that all is suffering with no way off the dusty path with endless mouths full of mud, we get possessive, greedy and jealous. Those other folk seem to be getting ahead of us, the storms are coming and we better batten down the hatch. Nobody wants to be around a greedy miser who is defensive, possessive, jealous and hostile. And guess what? We just defined bad karma.

All of this from that bad tap root spewing up poison and growing a bad tree which is called the Wheel of Life and Death. And the reason it is called that is because such behavior keeps on turning out bad stuff which causes us to just keep on repeating until we get tired of the misery we create for ourselves and adopt a new way, which violates everything we think we know but might be worth a shot. Who needs dust in the mouth? Tomorrow, a better path—The Wheel of Dharma. Now that we understand the Wheel of Life and Death, the opposite should be easy to explain (but hard to do).
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