The Buddha taught that our thoughts manifest as words, and they in turn, manifest as behaviors, which develop into habits, and habits eventually harden into character or personality. We might add that character is destiny in that the compelling power of our habitual patterns shape our lives in conformity with who we take ourselves to be.
The doctrine of karma is very subtle and complex. Perhaps a brief re-telling of the timeless story in Genesis might be helpful. Our primal ancestors, Adam and Eve, lived in perfect harmony in the garden of Eden. Fully weaved into the fabric of their surroundings, there was no need to ponder experiential options nor make decisions. They did not yet have a sense of being separate and distinct entities, standing apart from their surrounding environment.
Their moment by moment experience was full and complete, and without any trace of lack, except of course, that they were without self-reflection. Not a word was spoken, nor a gesture made on behalf of a self-centered me. When Eve and then Adam ate from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, they abruptly entered the world of self and other, like and dislike, pleasure and pain, and for the first time feared for their lives. They gained the capacity to stand back from experience and create concepts in their minds, but lost their child-like innocence and spontaneity. Standing out and apart from nature, from each other, and even from themselves, they experienced self-consciousness, alienation and sorrow. This was the birth of time, individuality, choice and its consequences. They were now exiled from paradise.
Interestingly, in this biblical narrative, God immediately appoints a cherub to stand guard at the entrance of Eden with a flaming sword, should the primal pair dare to return and eat from the tree of eternal life. God forbids that they should become as gods, enlightened! The exile from Eden was a necessary development in our evolution as a species. We needed to cut our umbilical connection with mother nature and develop an ego-self so that we could be self-reflective and be free to make choices. The development of the ego-self was an intermediary step in a larger evolutionary arc, potentially culminating in paradise regained.
The birth and development of ego marked our alienation from being itself, our inherent buddha nature. Once we separated from our essential nature and created an observer in here, and an observed world out there, we inadvertently created a psychological abyss. Samsara or collective neurosis, is both a symptom of our disconnection from our primordial nature, as well as our confused search to recover it in all the wrong places.
Because of this basic split we live with a distrust that we’re not going to be taken care of unless we approach the world strategically. This in turn causes us to engage in all kinds of manipulative behaviors driven by the desire for safety, security and certainty. Identified with our idea of ourselves, we struggle with the profound ambivalence of seeking to return home to undivided, unbounded experience, and yet we are driven to maintain our separate, independent existence.
At the core of every personality is a terrible conflict. The ego-self is an expression of both the loss of being and the simultaneous search for it. Each of us is motivated by the primary desire to feel whole, complete, and unified with experience. It is the organismic wish to function spontaneously as an integrated human being, acting in accord with our own internal design, unobstructed by the feeling of deficiency or lack.
Secondary motivations and desires come from a place of deficiency. They are a camouflage for the primary motivation of undivided experience. For instance, when we struggle to do things perfectly in order to be beyond criticism because of the unsuspected belief that something is wrong with ourselves, feeling that we are not being loved or properly cared for, we may struggle to always feel needed and appreciated because of the unexpected belief in our unlovability. We might push ourselves to the point of exhaustion, striving to be successful and accomplished, largely because of the primitive belief that we are worthless unless our successes are recognized by admiring others.
The question of motivation is essential to an understanding of karma. Karma teaches us that both self and world are created by causes and effects, actions and reactions. The term karma comes from the Sanskrit root, kr, which means volitional or intentional action based on the idea of an individual self. Identified with our ego-self, we feel disconnected from our depths, from our innermost essence. Consequently, our desires are based on a nagging sense of deficiency, incompleteness and emptiness. Ego seeks to remedy this problem while simultaneously trying to preserve itself, which is precisely the very cause of the problem! Karmic causation begins with the secondary reflex to stand outside of experience as an observer, as a separate entity, an I.
Buddhist psychology holds that every thought, word and action that is motivated by the sense of being a separate self, leaves a psychic trace or seed in our mind. The implication is that experience prompted by deficiency desire, neurotic craving, aggression, denial or avoidance leaves a trace. Because every seed seeks completion or closure, every seed will reach a fruition at some undetermined time when the conditions are suitable. Consequently, we are pushed from within towards destinations not of our conscious choice, as we try to remedy a felt sense of dissatisfaction.
Meditation works directly with the karmic force by embracing whatever state of mind we find ourselves in. By not giving obsessive attention to our discursive thoughts, we don’t nourish our karmic seeds by feeding them with our obsessive attention. As we witness the bureaucracy of our mind, we have less motivation to seek alternatives to the present moment because of our benevolent acceptance of what is. We realize that based on innumerable karmic seeds planted in the past, various outer situations and inner landscapes will arise and fall, appear and gradually disappear. As meditative practitioners we remind ourselves that we are at the intersection of our own and others’ karmic seeds coming to fruition. Buddhist practice suggests that we don’t take samsara personally. This is precisely what cuts through karmic causation.
In order to liberate ourselves we must first accept who we are, how we are, and where we are, and not impulsively seek alternatives to our present condition. We must also challenge the primitive belief that we’re missing something and that we’re in a state of lack or deficiency that needs to be remedied. We already have Buddha in the palm of our hands! On the Buddhist path what is crucial is whether or not our present motivation is to cultivate safety, security, and certainty or to protect our path of mindfulness and awareness. This is the major fork in the dharma journey, moment by moment. To one side, is the samsaric alternative of thirsting for who or what we don’t yet possess, hoping for an alternative to this present moment. To the other side, is the dharmic path leading to the appreciation of what is, experience undivided by a presumed inner witness who judges, interprets, and endlessly comments upon everything, alienating us from this living moment.
To bring full conscious awareness into the world is to transcend the limited ego-self and to return to being, our essential awakened identity. This is the meaning of the term, Buddha. Perhaps it is none other than eating from the tree of eternal life, the experience of nowness, free of past, present and future, free from sorrow.
At this very moment, we have the potential to be at one with our experience, to fully embrace our immediate situation without resistance or manipulation. According to Buddhism, this hands-off mode of experience is an expression of openness and natural intelligence. When we are intimate with our experience as it is, and not trying to make it other than what it is, the current of life flows between us and our surroundings in sympathetic patterns of interaction.
Painting by Albrecht Dürer, Germany.
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