Karma and Emptiness
When I studied under a monk of the Dalai Lama’s lineage, we were all focused on the concept of Karma. In our school of Buddhism (and I’d imagine in all schools) Karma was keenly tied to the concept of Emptiness.
Emptiness within the Buddhist frame of mind refers to our perception of reality – that our reality is not necessarily being “correct,” but rather the result of being influenced by our karma. For example: A person see’s themselves living in a middle class neighborhood in California – do to past actions. The cause and effect nature of karma, indicates that these past actions influence our perceptions, which create the reality that we believe we live in. To the Mahayana Buddhist, this is evident in how two beings can see the same object entirely differently. Example: a pencil can be perceived by a rational adult human as being a writing instrument, but to a dog it is perhaps a chew toy. The only difference in this object is simply the perception of the individual. The object itself is not transformed into a “chew toy” or “writing instrument” based on use. It just exists. It is one perceptions that color the object. In this sense, they are both right and wrong about the same object. This can be extrapolated to people, society, and in fact all things in life.
It is believed in Buddhism, that true reality, can be seen by one who has ascended to an Enlightened state. Glimpses of this true reality can be seen from time to time, as one practices such things as Mahamudra Meditation – but for the most part we live in our flawed perceptions, until we gain the perfection of wisdom, to see clearly how all things exist.
Some have pondered, that if it is simply our perceptions, then why should we get involved in any aspect of improving life. If someone is suffering, why not let them suffer, since it is just a perception. The answer to that, from a Buddhist perspective is if you see suffering and do nothing about it, then that has a karmic consequence. A consequence which ultimately returns to the perceiver. This return yet again coloring the perceptions of one’s world. In essence, even though it’s a perception, one must act accordingly with wisdom.
How does wisdom determine the right action? In Buddhism, it is taught that the action that best returns to you is right action. What is our ultimate goal? Is it to be worried, fearful and angry? Or be enlightened? Or be at peace? Buddhism would encourage a person to know their true will – and perform those acts in accordance with the laws of Karma and Emptiness, so that the goal is achieved Karmically.
I came into the work Liber ABA (by Crowley) recently. In one chapter, Crowley discusses Karma. In much part I do agree with him, but in some part I disagree. Crowley’s view of Karma was that it is a law of Cause and Effect, but he also believed that inert actions of individuals (unconscious acts) nullify most negative Karma. He states, “With the majority of people their actions cancel each other out; no sooner is effort made than it is
counterbalanced by idleness.” We see people’s actions (which are the product of a thought), causing much disruption, pain and suppression all around us. Evidently their thoughts are not being nullified, not even in the slightest. As an action is the product of a prior thought, which is the product of a past cause.
Further, does Unconscious action have a superior edge over Conscious? Crowley states in Liber ABA, “The dead weight of the original conditions under which we were born has counted for far more than all our striving. The unconscious forces are incomparably greater than those of which we have any knowledge.” Yet that seems to undermine the power of one’s will. While unconscious action has a return, it is the conscious act that works out the greatest of return. Perhaps I misread Crowley. But if he is speaking of unconscious in reference to the individuals unconscious mind, having greater power then the conscious act of the individual – then I see this as a flawed argument.
In Buddhism: For one to negate their perceived “negative” karmic return, one would have to consciously deal with it. Not unconsciously. If we worked best in an unconscious state of mind, then the answer to life would be complete sedation. Buddhism actually does have an answer to handling ones past karma… and it’s consciously recognizing the ill act performed: a) Understanding with Wisdom, that the act was an ill act, as defined as being outside one’s True Will or ultimate goal. This ill act, has slowed one down on their own individual path b) this act is then regretted as it has detoured the individual from their path/goal/will c) the individual devises some sort of act of restoration (and accomplishes this act in a timely manner) d) the individual vows to not return to this act again (if the act is a compulsion or obsession, then the individual needs to put daily activities of mental training into effect to retrain the mind.)
Where Crowley is correct in his view of Karma is that it isn’t the “tit for tat” that he describes some as teaching. But really Buddhism doesn’t accept that either. What some are not aware of, is that Buddhism teaches it’s doctrine to the level they feel a recipient is ready for. In other words, if a Buddhist Lama or Monk feels the listener won’t get Emptiness – they’ll neglect it. They’ll teach a simplified version of Karma – the Tit For Tat, most likely. So, in his example of unknowingly killing a thousand lice – won’t necessitate himself being killed a thousand times by lice. However, this is relegated by one’s motivations. Motivations in Buddhism are key, as is scope. A person can do the same act for a variety of motivations, and the cause/effect is completely different. If Crowley had no motivation about killing lice – then the return is far less, then if he desired to inflict harm and destruction to a life form. Regarding scope, according to the core teachings of the East, it is the human condition that has superior function of reaching enlightenment. This scope would suggest that it is superior for a human to live at the expense of lice.
Crowley says that return based karma in proportions is ludicrous. He indicates that Karmic proportions would indicate that killing a thousand lice means one would be killed a thousand times by lice. Incorrect. Proportion indicates scope. If a man willfully kills lice, then he is duly getting a return, but in proportion to the act. In Buddhist thought lice are not equal to man – in the sense that a human has the ability to become enlightened. The lice massacre, will return, but based on the motivation of the individual and the scope of what is taken. The life of a lice, is small scope (similar to a bee bee being shot from a gun at a target – there is less impact, then say a .45 caliber being shot at the same target), so the return is smaller to the human. But if a person willfully and permanently blinds another person – then that act has great return. It may not be the exact blindness that was given, but surely the attacker will have their “empty” perception colored by the karma of the action they performed – in essence, to have something in their life taken away. Similarly the blinded person, had the past karma to become blinded. Thus the cycle, and interconnectedness of all things.
This bit isn’t to say Crowley was off base on Karma. For the most part I do believe him to be giving some good meat to a discussion that is oft neglected in the mystical paths of the West. I’ve had several Western Mystery students/magicians argue with me regarding Karma as either a) not existent, so their actions have no return b) that it exists, but only a physical manifestation of cause and effect.
Here are some highlights, where I think Crowley espouses some deep truths regarding Karma:
“The Karma of a man is his ‘ledger.’ The balance has not been struck and he does not know what it is; he does not even fully know what debts he may have to pay, or what is owed him; nor does he know on what dates even those payments which he anticipates may fall due.”
“Many of the entries in his ‘ledger’ are for the ordinary man necessarily illegible; the method of reading them is given in that important instruction of the A.’.A.’. called “Thisharb,” Liber CMXIII.”
Point of fact, Liber Thisharb is quite valuable, in my opinion. It is a method by which a person can find, discover and ultimately nullify past karma.
What I just don’t understand, is that if Crowley had such a keen insight into Karma – knew of the existence of Past Lives – Understood the necessity of building positive karma to cross the abyss – the need to destroy karma in the end… is how he dismisses Karma in certain aspects.
If one’s goal is to accomplish the Great Work – or perhaps otherwise state, become enlightened – then how can this be achieved if one does actions that karmically will return to slow one on the path? Then by simple deduction, those actions which do not karmically benefit one would form one’s personal ethical doctrine. I say personal, as one individual may have a different goal then another – and thus their own personal guideline of ethics. While Crowley does state, that “Do what thou Wilt shall be the Whole of the Law” meaning, to do your True Will, he also backs it up a bit seeming to suggest that most karma doesn’t return to us, but is nullified by unconscious action. If he’s wrong, and most action and thought is not nullified so easily – then we should be even more observant of our thoughts and actions – and more importantly our true will. To know our true will, and to only do those things to assure it’s rapid establishment.