For modern Buddhists, karma isn’t so much a theory of multiple lifetimes over eons as it is a model explaining the psychological cycles we go through in daily life—the pattern of making the same decisions, having similar experiences, over and over again. On a practical level, this view of karma can give a model for understanding our perpetual cycle of bad habits and repeated thought processes. Karrma isn’t played out over multiple lifetimes, but many times a day, even from moment to moment.
In this modern view, the human experience of the work, the steps in the karmic cycle, go something like this:
Forms arise in our various human sensory faculties. Through eyes, vision arise. Through ears, sounds take form; through skin, touch sensations arise. Though the tongue, tastes; through the nose, smells; through the brain, thoughts.
This initial level of experience is purely abstract, preverbal. Immediately, though, these physical sensory forms enter a network of associations and memories, a process through which “meaning starts to become assigned.
Sitting at the bus stop, my eyes and ears become aware of a large, shiny black shape, from which a low, throaty sound emerges. Forms.
What I see and hear, the forms that arise, is now compared to millions of different memories and ideas and concepts stored away, including memory of language symbols.
This is Cadillac SUV with spinning silver hubcaps and loud music.
Sometimes immediately upon receiving sensory form, other times through the assignment of meaning and names to these sensory forms, some kind of feeling arises. This is not yet a judgment of any kind, but simply a very basic sense of pleasant feeling or unpleasant feeling. When the feeling is extreme, I might experience it as pleasure or pain. At this early stage, though, it is really nothing more than the recognition of pleasantness and unpleasantness; no judgment is really made regarding this experience of mine.
Memories of my political beliefs, my experiences with drivers of SUV’s, causes an unpleasant feeling to arise.
The next step happens so quickly and so automatically that we may well regard it as inevitable and incontrovertible. The sensation of pleasantness or unpleasantness is now immediately joined by some variation of either greed or hatred. In milder forms, we may think of it as longing or vague irritation, but whatever the name, this next step in the karmic chain involves either grasping to capture a pleasant feeling; or a revulsion and repulsion of an unpleasant feeling.
I dislike my unpleasant feeling, find myself with an opinion of derision regarding the driver of a gas-guzzling vehicle.
Wanting/hating leads immediately to volition, or intent: a decision to take action in order to accomplish the desireous or hateful goals.
I decide either to ignore the SUV, turning my attention elsewhere; or perhaps to say something confrontational and hostile to the driver, who happens to be playing loud music through open windows.
Volition initiates physical action: our muscles and joints literally create physical changes in the environment.
I follow through on my intent.
Upon action—perhaps nothing more dramatic than a change in position that brings a new view of the world—an entirely new set of sensory forms begin to take shape. Presto, chango, a new cycle of karma begins. On and on, again and again, forever and ever.
The description of this cycle makes common sense logic to many people, even those who don’t lean the Buddhist direction. It does seem to be a perfectly plausible model for how we experience the world.
It’s also a little disheartening and discouraging, really, because careful examination shows that there is not a lot of freedom here. With all actions and thoughts and feelings arising out of a reaction to conditions preceding, there is seemingly not much room for free choice in this model. Even those moments of apparent choice, when closely examined, arise out of previous beliefs and thoughts and in response to current situations.
But what Buddhism suggests is that this entirely karmic cycle is not a description of how things actually are, at all. It is really an illusion. This karmic cycle is, in fact, the artificial construction of ego.
Ego, in the Buddhist sense, can be likened to a still pond of water that suddenly receives a sharp smack on its surface, which temporarily causes ripples to create the illusion of a hard, firm plane upon which to stand. The action of ego, the Buddhists say, is like continuing to slap the water frantically, trying to perpetuate the illusion of a hard, solid surface, on and on, forever and ever, for fear that might might fall still and silent and deny us of our illusion.
Now, spiritual practice in the Buddhist sense is really a pretty simple affair. All we’re trying to do is introduce just a little natural spaciousness into the illusion of solidness that is created and fiercely defended by the ego. We’re letting the surface of the pond fall a little bit still in order to experience the waterness of it.
Introducing spaciousness (meditation is the primary tool for this, initially) does several things. First, it allows us to identify the various stages of the karmic cycle described above. Meditators, for example, may soon begin to see that the stages in this mental cycle occur with blindingly fast speed, and they may actually find themselves able to spot the moment where form transforms into language and naming, for example.
Secondly, the introduction of space lets us consider the possibility of stepping outside the chain of karma. Seeing the stages lets us consider what it might be like to choose something else, and we see the possibility of this through observing that there is a small gap, a natural space, between each stage of the karmic cycle. These gaps are what we look at with interest.
Thirdly, introducing spaciousness through meditation might allow us to experiment with non-karmic existence. Perhaps only for a few moments, or maybe a few minutes at a time, we might actually get a glimpse of what a non-conditioned, non-cause-and-effect existence might be like.
A finally, spaciousness, for those particularly dedicated and courageous, might lead to a permanent renounciation and escape from the dreariness of karmic existence.
Now, in modern Buddhist practice, the karmic, psychological stages can be divided into two types. First, there are resultant karmic stages. These are simply the natural result of conditions that have come prior, and for this reason they are viewed as completely, utterly, without moral implication. Form, perception/memory and feeling/emotion—the bare experience of pleasantness and unpleasantness—all these are regarded as resultant karmic stages. There is nothing that must be done in response to them; they are simply the completely natural result of experiences and memories and conditions that have come prior. This is in pretty sharp contrast to certain other spiritual traditions, in which thoughts and feelings are thought to be reflections of our moral character.
But then there are karmic stages which are said to be causal. These are stages that actually create new karmic outcome. These stages include wanting/hating, volition, and action. It’s here, the Buddhists say, where free will enters.
Buddhists focus considerable attention particularly on the stage between the feeling of pleasantness/unpleasantness, a stage which carries no moral overtones whatsoever, and the next step, when feeling/emotion becomes joined by wanting/hating of any kind.
For it’s here, the Buddhists say, that there is a pretty exciting opportunity for freedom. Here is the point, it’s suggested, where you can simply interrupt the cycle. It’s the point where you can simply choose to accept a pleasant and unpleasant experience, and not join it with wanting or hating. Rather than an event that demands response, this stage of experiencing pleasantness and unpleasantness is simply the logical outcome of previous conditions, and doesn’t demand a response at all.
To most of us, this seems utterly illogical and impossible. Of course we’re supposed to act when we feel pleasantness or unpleasantness. That’s what we do: seek pleasantness, reject unpleasantness.
But perhaps it seems this way simply because of our habits, our ego belief.
In sitting meditation, for example, it’s quite common for a skin itch, a slight muscle ache, or some other mild physical discomfort to arise. In group meditations, I’ve seem some meditators who twitch and fidget pretty much constantly in an effort to overcome the vaguest of unpleasant sensations.
But what becomes very clearly evident, though, is that joining the sensation of unpleasantness with desire or aversion, wanting or hating, does nothing whatsoever to prevent the unpleasantness from arising. In fact, the people who twitch and scratch seem to be far more prone to more itching, more aching. Nor does itching and shifting really do all that much to even relieve the present discomfort. Left all on it’s own, a skin itch naturally evaporates of its own accord, almost as fast, and usually more permanently, than if you react with irritation by scratching it.
The suggestion meditators are given, to sit quietly and be present with physical discomfort is not about demonstrating some kind of impressive emotional restraint. It’s not the Eastern version of wearing a hair shirt. What we’re seeking to do is examine the small gap between the experience of unpleasantness/pleasantness and the leap to wanting/hating. We’re just examining the spacious gap, playing with it, even.
The fact is that nothing very disastrous happens if we don’t jump to wanting/hating. The unpleasantness naturally evaporates anyway, and pleasantness can never be permanently captured, despite the Herculean efforts of our wanting. Both conditions come and go of their own accord, not because of the wishes of our ego.
What we find is that the ego’s wanting/hating was not driving the world at all, as we thought was true. The world was, and always has been, driving itself.
This doesn’t mean that we go through life symbolically refusing to scratch the things that itch. Our memories of poison ivy rashes and hornet bites is probably going to cause us to automatically respond with a scratch to most itches.
But it may well be possible to respond to the world intelligently without bringing wanting and hating into the equation at all. We can scratch without resenting the itch. We can recycle our trash without hating litterers; we can walk to work without disliking SUV drivers; we can answer truthfully without feeling morally superior to liars. We can appreciate this good meal without wanting a better one or worrying about where the next one will come from.
Wanting/hating isn’t what drives the world; the driver seems to be simple, natural intelligence.
It’s that moment in the mind just before wanting/hating begins where things get interesting, where new possibilities arise.