by Prem Prakash
The Nature of Karma
Much has been said and much has been misunderstood about karma, the universal law of cause and effect. Many presentations of karma make it sound as though it operates in a manner similar to the classic "billiard balls" example used to demonstrate cause and effect in Newtonian physics. There, ball a hits ball b, which hits ball c, which rebounds back into ball a. The example is attractive in its simplicity but does not reflect the subtle nature of karma.
Karma is actually not a matter of external phenomenon. External events may serve as the manifestation of karma, but events themselves are effects, not causes. Cause lies within consciousness. The karmic initiative is rooted in the vasanas, or tendencies, which reside in an individual's consciousness. Vasanas are the patterns by which thoughts, emotions, and behaviors manifest.
Every thought, word, or deed expressed by a person is a statement, be it consciously or unconsciously held, of how he wishes to be treated. By our thoughts, words, and actions, we continuously create a subjective reality which validates our beliefs. A person who treats others with kindness and compassion is informing the universe that he desires to live in a world which offers kindness and compassion. A person who treats others malevolently demonstrates how he wishes to be treated. He makes a statement that he wants his reality to include pain and suffering.
All such statements of intention, both positive and negative, create a subtle energy pattern in the consciousness. These patterns are the vasanas and can be likened to irrigation ditches. When rain falls it follows the course of ditches which were previously dug. To change the course of irrigation, new ditches must be excavated. Similarly, the energy of consciousness will continue to flow in established, conditioned patterns until new patterns are created.
Vasanas drive a person to manipulate his environment in order to fulfill the established energy pattern. This is karma in action; previously established patterns serve as causes for which present events are effects. The effects of the present events on consciousness then serve as causes for future effects, and so on turns the wheel of karma. Although this may sound like determinism, it actually provides the answer for how an individual can gain control over his experience of life. Because our experiences are the result of our own vasanas, we can change our lives by changing our consciousness.
Though I say that we can gain control over experience, it is more precise to state that everyone already has this control. But because a sense of responsibility is incomplete, some domains feel beyond control. When we deny that cause lies in our consciousness, that we reap just what we have sown, then we feel vulnerable and frightened before the world. The greater the acceptance of responsibility, the greater the power over experience.
Karma and the Aspirant
In discussions with spiritual aspirants about karma, two questions inevitably arise: "How did karma begin?" and "How can I get out of karmic bondage?" As for the first question, some of history's greatest spiritual teachers have refused to answer it! When asked, the Buddha did not respond at all, he maintained a "noble silence." The contemporary sage, Ramana Maharshi, responded to the nature of the questioner rather than the question. His answer was to ask the questioner, "Who is it that is asking the question?" The aspirant was to seek his own identity, and in the resolution of that quest all theoretical questions would be answered. "A Course In Miracles," a modern synthesis of psychology and spirituality, answers by saying that pondering metaphysics is an example of "senseless musing." The answer to all spiritual questions is to be found in experience, not theology.
Having said that, it is this author's experience that contemporary Western aspirants often have a psychological need for some answers, even if they only satisfy the intellect. For many, a reasonable answer to the first question is necessary before they feel comfortable undertaking the practices that will answer the second. Let us, then, explore the origin of karma.
Since karma originates in the consciousness of an individual, as discussed in the first part of this essay, it is valuable to probe the relationship of individual consciousness and karma. As we do, we find that karma and individuality are mutually dependent, two sides of the same coin. The individual falsely believes himself to be a separate person who "has" thoughts, feelings, and ideas. But, in fact, the sense of individuality arises simultaneously with these mental phenomenon, in the same way that a wave and a trough arise together.
For karma to occur, it takes "someone" to generate the karma. It takes an individual to produce a cause and later experience an effect. When no individual ego is present creating a cause, there exists no karmic reaction, for the chain of individuality which links cause and effect is broken. Phenomena -- thoughts, words, and deeds -- continue to occur, but these are realized to be unrelated to one's true Self. One sees that bodies, minds, and egos are part of Nature's process, in the same way as flowers, rain, or thunder. The individual has no more substance than a fascinating image formed by clouds in the sky.
Though we may protest that without our individuality we would be faceless robots, the fact is that until we reach Soul consciousness we do not know what it really means to be a unique individual. Our egoic individuality is not much more than the result of biological and social conditioning. The pride of false individuality is like a prisoner bragging about his chains.
Transcending egoic identity is also the key to the answer to the second question, how to achieve liberation from the bonds of karma. At first glance, it appears the karmic cycle is endless and unbreakable. As we have seen, once a cause produces an effect, the effect then serves as a cause for a later effect, and so on, ad infinitum.
The resolution of this problem is to be had in the experience of grace. Grace is the descent of compassion from the spiritual realms. This divine energy helps the aspirant rise above the cycle of karma, an ascension which he could never achieve by his own efforts alone. Some of us have had the experience of trying to assist a trapped bird regain her freedom. When a bird accidentally flies inside a building, the poor creature flies every which way seeking an exit. She will often crash into windows and walls, perhaps even injuring herself in the process. When someone attempts to help her, she struggles even more, trying to escape from the very hands which can save her. It is only when she becomes exhausted that she finally becomes still and can be released outdoors, where she can again happily fly free.
Such is the manner in which liberation from karma takes place. When one begins to see that he will never be able to free himself of the karmic trap, he then humbly turns toward God and asks for help. This humility and prayerful attitude produce the stillness which enables God to "release" an aspirant from his egoic individuality into his natural environment of Soul consciousness, where he can happily "fly" free. Just as the bird is incapable of understanding how she is helped, likewise are we human beings incapable of understanding Who it is that helps us or in what manner the assistance is granted. Let us only be concerned with sincerely calling upon the Divine in whatever form makes sense to us, and then simply be still and let grace descend. As the old adage goes, we should "Let go and let God."
Insight into the workings of karma helps one become aware of the unity of all life. As one's consciousness becomes broad and deep, one can see how everything he does interacts with the entire universe. Like stones dropped on the surface of a still pond, one's thoughts, words and deeds produce ripples in the ocean of the universe. As these ripples interact with each other, they produce an immense field of interpenetrating energy in which no part can be separated from the whole. This field is called Indra's Net. To touch one strand of the Net is to eventually touch all parts, for all parts are connected.
It is a beautiful fact of nature that positive change can be brought about in a much shorter time than it took to produce negative karma, as a ditch can be filled in far less time than it took to dig. The divine structure of Indra's Net is such that negative ripples -- such as selfishness and violence -- are quite short lived and have no significant result. Positive ripples -- such as generosity and kindness -- produce an energy which exists for substantial periods of time and generate long lasting results. And love, being omnipotent and eternal, produces eternal result.
Freedom from karma is not brought about through fighting against karma, for struggle leaves one more entangled in the sticky web of cause and effect. Nor is freedom from karma brought about through some grand accomplishment, for all sense of gain or loss are of the ego. Freedom from karma is brought about through love. At home in Heaven, love visits the earth in the forms of compassion, service, and forgiveness. And only the light of love is warm enough to melt the icy chains of karma, leaving the Soul free of vasanas of ego, suffering, and limitation.
To be free of karma does not mean that one dies and receives some heavenly
reward, nor that one lives emotionally constipated, without inspiration
for life or compassion for others. Just the opposite, by the alchemy of
love, daily life with all its ordinary events and relationships becomes
rich and fulfilling. The mundane is transformed into the magical. Everything
becomes infused with meaning and encounters with others become opportunities
to rejoice in the power of love. Every thought, word, and deed become a
part of the divine symphony of God's creation. Indra's Net is transformed
from a spider web of karmic bondage into a cosmic harp on which is played
the music of love, harmony and beauty.
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