Karma-formed States and Personal Freedom
by Dr. Stephen Ruppenthal, The Buddhist Channel, Aug 2, 2007
Millions of people the world over believe in karma. The law of karma states that as we sow, so shall we reap: everything we do, say, or even think has consequences, good or bad, and sooner or later, these consequences will come back to us. The question is, is karma fatalistic and set in stone, or is there something we can actually do about it?
First of all, karma isn’t negative and judgmental. Traditional religions declare that some god will punish or reward us for our actions, bad or good. But in the law of karma, there is no one judging or punishing us for harmful actions, nor is there any outside God to reward us for good works. Instead, reward and punishment issue from the self-fulfilling law of karma, which operates as surely in the spiritual sphere as Newton’s “what goes up, must come down” operates in space. And it leaves the future entirely up to us.
Like any physical law, karma operates everywhere and at every moment. It is totally impersonal, requiring no agency except ourselves. For any action to produce karma, it must be accompanied by a conscious will, which presupposes the capacity of free choice.
We decide whether or not to act, wisely or badly, and put the force of our will into whatever we do; it is totally up to us. If a small child hits another child, there is probably no karmic residue, because he or she is still innocent and does not fully acquiesce in the action as an adult would have to; they may be playing happily with the same child minutes later.
When an adult says angry, hurtful words to someone, the will is an accomplice, and the action will bear karmic fruit. When thinking of this power of what we will and sign onto, I always remember the words of the psychologist John Bradshaw, who calls the human will “an intensity of desire raised to the level of action” (Healing the Shame that Binds You, p. 22).
That adult who erupted in anger, then, has poured will and desire into the action. So whether it be minutes, days, or years later, they will karmically receive angry words back from someone else. The karma must return in kind, whether good or bad, even though it may take time for the right circumstances to come around.
If, then, such a large part of our experience is simply the mechanical return of the karma our previous actions have accumulated, how can we influence our own karma? Are we destined, say, to be in an accident or suffer a grievous separation from a loved one, because of a previous action, or can we do something to prevent it?
This question leads to the subject of karma-formed states, called samskara by Hindus and Buddhists. A samskara is not just one action and its karmic return, but a mental inclination to act in a certain way. The reason Buddhists caution us against falling into wrong actions—and exhort us to repeat good ones—is that such habits cut a track in consciousness upon which future actions are likely to run. The Buddhist sage Han Shan says
Anger is fire in the mind
Burning up the forest of your merits and blessings.
If you want to walk in the path of the bodhisattvas,
Endure insults and guard your mind against anger.
The message is, if you want to change your karma, change yourself at the most fundamentally deep level that is accessible. This means change at the level of samskaras, in this case, of proneness to anger. Neuroscientist Candace Pert says the same thing in the language of science: if we continue to commit a mistake—say an outburst of anger—then each repetition releases certain peptides that dock on the receptors of our cells.
With the all but automatic habitual actions, these same peptides habitually dock to our receptors, and it becomes harder for the peptides of other emotions, like compassion or love, to find place there. So anger, as well as other emotional addictions becomes part of our character, propelling us to perform karmically harmful actions. In fact, Pert’s findings come very close to what Buddhists mean by a samskara: a habit of thinking which karmically locks us into patterns of behavior over which we have less and less control with every succeeding repetition.
With a samskara like anger, karma acts on the individual not just in his or her external environment, but also from within. An anger-prone individual may get anger returned to him by other individuals, but they may also suffer karmic harm within: increased anxiety, risk of heart disease, or other behavior-aggravated ailments, the turmoil of a mind not yet under control. Those who stand up to their addictions, whether to anger or other harmful emotional addictions, change themselves at the very level of the cell. And that is the level at which karma applies and operates.
In a very real way, we are what our karmic samskaras are. As the network of choice-pathways in us, they are the legacy of all our previous choices. Again using Pert’s language, it’s easiest to follow the worn path of stimulus and response, to react reflexively to the emotional peptides that have already hogged all the room on our cells; so the harmful samskaras, those of emotional addictions that sap our self-control, are always the easiest to form and get trapped in. Evil in Buddhism thus becomes a question not of judgment from the outside, but of how a person becomes prone to harmful, addictive action and what new course can set his or her situation right.
The wonderful thing about this teaching is, it puts our destiny in our own hands. It is possible to reroute the future course of karma by getting control over our samskaras. They are ours, no one else’s. So work we do on ourselves can have profound consequences—physically, emotionally and spiritually--not just for ourselves, but for those we love and work with every day. For it is our samskaras draw and suck in the types of experiences that will feed them. That is why the most adventurous seekers say, change samskaras, and we can change, even co-create, the kinds of events that happen and the situations we encounter. As the poet Milton says, “The mind is its own place, and of itself can make a heaven of hell, or a hell of heaven.”
So do we want to be trapped in the samskaras of anger, insecurity, worry, sadness, self doubt, and continual failure? Or do we want vigor, positivity, and a life worth living every second? The choice is ours! Here is a list of behaviors to target, whether you do this work on yourself through a twelve step program, with a therapist, or in your own program of self-growth:
* self doubt
* addictions to emotions or substances
I would also recommend memorizing and using in meditation selected inspirational passages that address at the deepest level those samskaras we wish to alter. It helps greatly to have such an inspiriational practice, doing the hard work to change our karma.
Dr. Stephen Ruppenthal is the author of The Path of Direct Awakening: Passages for Meditation. He is also the co-author of Eknath Easwaran’s edition of The Dhammapada and the author of Keats and Zen. He has taught meditation and courses on Han Shan at UC Berkeley and San Francisco State University. Dr. Ruppenthal is an international workshop leader in passage meditation and in courses for those looking for end of life spiritual care and for the spiritual step component of twelve step programs. Visit Stephen’s work at www.directawakenings.com.