I think one of the essential keys to understanding what the Buddha taught is understanding the term karma. Now, I know this has come up before, but let’s look a little more closely at it, because karma is one of the terms that has been adopted into English in a horribly distorted, badly translated sort of accumulation of half-understood concepts combined with Victorian Orientalist New Age whoo whoo.
To put it gently.
The whoo whoo explanation of karma — which, to be fair, is at least similar to the understanding in more theistic kinds of Hinduism too — is that it’s some kind of Scale of Cosmic Justice that arranges, through reincarnation, to see to it that you are punished through horrible life experiences in one life for bad things you’ve done in some previous life, and that you’re rewarded for good things you’ve done. So anything, good or bad, that happens to you is the result of some thing you did in some previous life that you now have no control over. “It’s just karma, man!”
The word karma, though, has a much simpler and more straight-forward meaning: it’s “action”. It’s paired with another word, vipaka, which just means “consequences of an action”.
My favorite analogy of this is a game of pool. You start with a nicely orderly set up, the balls racked in a neat triangle at one end and a pool player and cue ball at the other. Hit the cue ball, the rack is “broken”, with balls scattering apparently randomly over the table. When a person chooses to hit the cue ball, that’s karma. The action of the pool balls is vipaka.
Humans, with their innate need to make patterns, can see things in those arrangements of the balls — three red balls together make a triangle, say — and of course some of those relationships are used by a good pool player to predict parts of what will happen and plan their shots, but the arrangements of the balls at any one time is essentially meaningless, a transient happenstance. On the other hand, if you run that video in reverse, you can see how each ball’s position at any time is in fact a consequence of some action in the past.
Buddhism sees the universe and everything in it as a configuration of the cosmic pool table, one that happens through cause and effect back through time. Some of those configurations have an apparent meaning — we give them names and we look at them as “things”.
My cat Ali’i is asleep under the desk, waiting for me to go to bed. I can look down through the glass and see him, and he certainly looks like something that has an independent existence, volition, a personality (wow, does he!) but if I think back over the ten or so years I’ve had him, he’s eaten a helluva lot of cat food, and excreted it, he’s shed hair and coughed up hairballs and accepted delicious cat treats diffidently but enthusiastically. He’s very different from the kitten I brought home ten years ago, and he probably doesn’t even share many atoms with that kitten now. And, he will go on exchanging atoms, and someday will die, like my Radar did in March, and those atoms will be scattered back to the universe where they will becomes part of something else forever and ever amen.
If we could watch the whole universe, all at once, we could see everything in the universe doing the same thing — arranging and re-arranging, making stars and galaxies and unmaking them, forming planets and then planets dissolving as their star changes. But none of those things has any independent existence: no matter what, we could follow every atom back through history from wherever they happen to be now.
What’s more, if we look more and more closely at those temporary arrangements, we can see they are made up of smaller temporary arrangements: cat, to tissues, to cells, to molecules, to atoms, to protons and neutrons, to quarks, and if we really looked, at the tiniest scale for the shortest time, we would see quanta appearing, existing, and disappearing, apparently out of nowhere.
Not to keep you in suspense, all those various arrangements that seem like enduring things, but aren’t, are known in Buddhist terms as skandhas, which means “heaps” or “aggregates”. A particular kind of heap of sand looks like a castle, or a church, but wind or waves will take it back to just part of the beach — its ground form.
So to speak.
This condition, this fact, that the things we see have no independent existence is called Sunyata, which means “zeroness” or “emptiness.” There are many Buddhist texts that say something to the effect that “existence is empty” and sunyata is the term that’s being translated as “emptiness”.
This leads a lot of people to think that buddhism is essentially nihilistic, that it asserts that everything is meaningless; this usually is carried on to assert that therefore there’s no real basis in Buddhism for morals or ethics or really any reason to live. This, I think, is a basic mistake that comes about from our cultural insistence on having there be an Outsider who made things, and is watching them work — or even meddling with things as time goes on.
When you practice meditation, when you practice the Eightfold Path, the Eight Beautiful Steps, the 八正道, though, you eventually get a different sense. Yes, everything you look at is a temporary heap that came together in the past, and will dissolve into something else in the future, but under it is the ordering principle, the cause and effect, the natural laws that are the universe. When your thinking shifts to see that, you see that those natural laws don’t have meaning, they are meaning.
And that meaning is, really, completely, and infinitely cool.
images courtesy shutterstock / jörg röse-oberreich