right action

“Our deeds determine us, as much as we determine our deeds.” George Eliot

George Eliot

Karma is one of the most misunderstood Buddhist teachings. Often people think of karma as some kind of external, impersonal force that “rewards” us for our good deeds and punishes us for our bad. Consequently, even some people with an otherwise good understanding of Buddhism reject karma (usually along with rebirth) as being non-rational.

But karma is not external, nor is it about rewards and punishments. Karma simply means “action.” As an ethical term, it refers to the intentions underlying our actions, understood very broadly as anything we might think, say, or do. As the Buddha said, “I declare, intention is karma” (Cetanāhaṁ kammaṁ vadāmi).

What this means is three-fold:

  1. First, ethically speaking, we can see our intentions as being either skillful or unskillful. Skillful intentions embody qualities of mindfulness, contentment, clarity, and care for the well-being of oneself and others. Unskillful intentions embody the opposites: they are motivated by impulsive selfishness, craving, confusion, and ill will.
  2. Second, the importance of this distinction is that skillful actions (i.e. those arising from skillful volitions) lead on the whole to a decrease in unhappiness and an increase in ease. Unskillful actions, as you might expect, do the opposite. So in choosing our actions, we also choose (whether we know it or not) the consequences of those actions. We create much of our own suffering and happiness through our actions.
  3. Third, habits are like muscles in the brain. By exercising a habit, it becomes stronger. As the Buddha said (and with apologies for the gender-specific language), “Whatever a monk keeps pursuing with his thinking and pondering, that becomes the inclination of his awareness,” and “What a man wills, what he plans, what he dwells on forms the basis for the continuation of consciousness.”

We create our consciousness through the actions we take — even our thoughts and words.  And so, as Eliot observed, not only do we create our actions, but our actions create us.

Mindfulness (sammā sati), right view (sammā ditthi), and right effort (sammā vāyāma) can free us from this feedback loop. Together they act to break open a circular track and turn it into a path that leads to awakening.

We need mindfulness because without it, we become submerged in our thoughts and feelings. Unable to stand back, we act unreflectively, strengthening our unskillful habits and creating suffering for ourselves.

Right view is important because it allows us to evaluate our potential actions. We can realize, “If I act in this way (e.g. angrily) then there will be painful consequences. On the other hand, if I act that way (e.g. with patience and kindness) then the consequences will be more beneficial for me and others.

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We need right effort because it’s not enough just to know what we should do. We also have to be willing to act. On the one hand, right effort is our commitment to bring into being and sustain the skillful. On the other it’s to eradicate and prevent the further arising of the unskillful.

Karma is essentially a feedback mechanism, showing us the extent to which we’re in tune with reality.

Something the Buddha was quite clear about is that not everything we experience is a result of karma. Some Buddhist traditions seem to have overlooked that fact, however. So it might rain on your wedding day, or you might hit a red light when you’re already late. But that’s not the result of your karma. (Neither is it ironic, as many people have no doubt pointed out to Alanis Morissette.) But how you respond emotionally to such events, and how much you suffer as a result, does depend on your karma. If you’ve developed the emotional “muscles” of acceptance, patience, and flexibility, then you’ll be able to meet these events with elegance and with a minimum of suffering, or perhaps none. If, by a lifetime of exercise, you bulk up your emotional muscles of impatience and anger, then once again you’ll experience these events as acutely frustrating, painful, and stressful.

The extent to which we’re able to meet life’s difficulties with grace is the measure of our wisdom.

One thing we have to be aware of is the tendency to say “My intentions were pure, therefore I’m not responsible for the fact that you got hurt by my actions.” Our own intentions are never entirely clear to us. That’s why the Buddha pointed out that we have to look at the consequences of our actions to help us divine intentions that might be hidden to us. If we’ve caused pain to ourselves or others, then we likely had some kind of unskillful motivation mixed in with the skillful.

Karma, then, isn’t anything mystical. It’s simply a description of the psychology of happiness. It’s not an external force, but a feedback mechanism. And it’s not a judgement, but the natural result of how we act.

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George Bernard Shaw: “A life spent in making mistakes is not only more honorable but more useful than a life spent doing nothing.”

george bernard shaw

Are you addicted to busyness? Do you have a sense that your life could hold more meaning? Bodhipaksa discusses George Bernard Shaw’s provocative quotation, and draws out some important lessons about how taking the risk of going deeper into our experience leads to greater fulfillment.

A classic definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result, and yet our lives are often characterized by repeated actions that cause us suffering and bring suffering to others as well. We get stuck in patterns of behavior that are destructive, or at least unhelpful or unfulfilling.

For example, I often find myself at the end of the day, after my parental duties are over with the baby tucked up in bed and my work filed away, surfing the web, reading the news. It seems like a harmless enough activity; after all, many people make more questionable use of the internet. But so often there’s a sense of restless compulsion to my endless browsing, as if I’m looking for something that will bring a sense of satisfaction. And no matter how many op ed articles, news reports, or blogs I dip into, no matter how late I stay up, that sense of satisfaction doesn’t come. And the reason it doesn’t come is because I’m looking in the wrong place: outside of myself. The satisfaction I’m looking for arises — I realize in my more mindful moments — by breaking out of the cycle of compulsive seeking and instead connecting with myself, going deeper into my experience.

When I turn my attention from the stimulation that I am craving to the experience of craving itself — when I turn my awareness to the sense of longing, to the feelings in my gut, to the underlying sense of dis-ease that I feel — I start to regain a sense of completeness once again. And if I start to reflect on my day, on what I’ve accomplished, on what I’ve learned, on the little things that I can now appreciate more fully, I begin to experience a positive sense of wellbeing.

So much of the time what we need to do is to stop doing and just experience ourselves. But this sounds, perhaps, paradoxical. After all, didn’t Shaw just disparage “doing nothing”? The problem is that we can’t take that phrase too literally. When Shaw talks about doing nothing he doesn’t literally mean that we’re disengaged from any activity whatsoever. We can never really do nothing. Even when we’re vegging out watching TV we’re still breathing and metabolizing and processing sound and images in the brain. What he means is that in our lives we can end up doing nothing of any consequence, doing nothing creative, nothing that leads to us being better, happier, wiser, more compassionate people, or to the world being a better place.

It’s perfectly possible in fact for us to “do nothing” and yet be intensely busy. The 11th to 12th century Tibetan teacher and founder of Kagyu Buddhism, Gampopa, talked about three kinds of laziness. The worst kind of laziness — gross laziness — involves “being attached to non-virtues such as destroying enemies and accumulating wealth.” To put this in more contemporary language we’re grossly lazy when we expend all our energy in pursuing status and materialism. Status and material wealth are inherently unstable things. “Past performance is no guide to the future,” as they say. “The value of your investments may go down as well as up.” So what happens when we’ve invested our sense of well-being in status and material possessions and something happens that sweeps these things out from under us? How are we then? That’s when we find out what lies deeper.

And just as for Shaw, doing nothing is not “doing nothing,” so making mistakes is not simply “making mistakes.” He’s pointing here to a life of creative experimentation in which we strive to find true meaning and to make something of our lives that’s more than just the “gross laziness” of climbing the career ladder and gathering a pretty collection of consumer goods. He means that it’s honorable to spend our lives engaged in a search for what is truly meaningful, to live an examined life, to see life as a creative endeavor with ourselves as the raw material for the creative process.

Such a life inevitably involves making mistakes, but the only way to create is to make an effort, fail, and learn from those failures. Many of us, when we first try learning meditation, inevitably bring along a consumerist mentality as we look for a quick fix. In the modern mind it seems there is no problem that we can’t buy our way out of or pay someone to fix for us. This isn’t necessarily a problem, because we all come to meditation with mixed motives and because meditation can help to broaden those motives as the doors of perception are opened.

But we come, sit awkwardly on the floor, and then discover that our minds are chaotic, unruly, full of unwanted thoughts and stray images. We may come back for the full four or six weeks of the course, but often we haven’t found the fix they’re looking for. We may decide that we have “failed” or that the technique has “failed” us, and so off we go looking for a better, quicker, easier tool to sort out the stress and lack of meaning in our lives. It doesn’t always work out like that, of course, and some, realizing that they have encountered a goldmine, begin furiously to dig. But many simply give up.

If babies were like adults none of us would be walking now. We’d have tried walking, fallen over, and then decided that walking isn’t for us. We’d have decided that crawling’s not so bad after all: “I’m just not the walking type.” “Walking? I tried that once but it didn’t work out. I’m into rolling now.” Fortunately children haven’t yet internalized our mental frameworks and so they pick themselves up after a fall and joyfully throw themselves forwards, falling again and again until finally they crack the mystery of moving forwards while remaining upright.

That’s how we need to approach meditation, and life generally — with a steady determination to live life better than we have done in the past, with faith that this is possible, and with the attitude that falling (or failing) is an inevitable part of the learning process.

Those who adopt this attitude not only live “honorable” lives but are frequently very “useful” people. Those who are determined to succeed frequently do so in spectacular fashion, and they are often highly effective individuals, shaping not only themselves but the world they live in, and leaving a legacy that gives them something approaching the immortality that Shaw himself has found. This kind of life requires that we always be prepared to “go deeper,” seeking self-knowledge and a more satisfying way of being, seeking the sanity of a life that doesn’t repeat the same mistakes over and over but instead seeks to learn from each and every experience.

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