Thursday, December 31, 2009

Craven Westerners: Buddhism For Bozos Part II

The last post, "Buddhism For Bozos", focused on the central teaching of Buddhism: that all suffering is the result of craving, and that the elimination of suffering requires the eradication of craving. Much of modern Buddhism in the west tends to sidestep this teaching and focuses instead on what people actually crave: a better, less stressful life, a more peaceful mind, some practical wisdom on how to live more intelligently, meditation practices that make us feel better, more compassionate, healthier, and happier. Rather than directly confront our cravings, modern western Buddhism tends to cultivate cravings that are  less crude than our normal appetites would have us indulge. This is, comparatively speaking, a positive thing. Buddhism does not approach the matter of craving by making the perfect the enemy of the good. It tries at every level to reduce cravings where it is not possible to eliminate them, to discipline craving where they tend to run wild, even to condone craving that is not recognized by us as such.

The principle of "Good Conduct" in the Middle Way Eightfold Path is not idealistic. Buddhism does not expect people to realize nirvana in an instant. Therefore, it recognizes that people have to gradually reduce their cravings by cultivating conduct which does not support craving, and even conduct which deliberating undermines and discourages craving. This is particularly important to westerners, since western culture has historically always tended towards craven desire, and modern western culture seems to have elevated craven desiring to some kind of pinnacle of human achievement. It's what we are all expected to pursue, with as much vigor and enthusiasm as we can, and not give in to the "weakness" which would have us settle for less than the best in everything.

"Carpe Diem!" (Seize the day!) is the call to arms for the westerner, whereas for the eastern Buddhist the battle of life is conceived quite differently. The original Buddhist was called not to make the most of this life by pursuing his cravings to the utmost, but instead the opposite: to fight desire, to fight his cravings, and not to give into his craven nature. As mentioned in the previous post, Buddhism took a novel approach to this battle, which has been central to most religions since ancient times. Krishna in the Bhagavad Gita is also seen as an advisor to the warrior Arjuna, telling him to fight the Asuras (desires) through sacred combat. Eastern religion's approach to desire has been one that might be called "the diversion of attention". Instead of dwelling on desire and its fulfillment, one is advised to meditate on God, and to allow God to direct one's life and fulfill one's needs. Surrender to God is the call of the ancient Hindu, therefore. And the ancient Hindu method was one of surrendering one's desires, rather than fulfilling them. The central rite of ancient Hinduism was the sacrificial fire, into which one poured one's offerings, allowing God to burn up one's desires.

Gotama did not find this method to be productive. He tried the life of an ascetic, and found that it did not actually burn up his desires. Instead, it merely inflamed them. He reasoned that the entire viewpoint of traditional Hinduism itself actually inflamed one's desires rather than bring them to an end. It's belief in an eternal soul and Gods and Goddesses created a cosmological system that guaranteed endless cravings, if not for material goods and sensual pleasure, then for metaphysical salvation, peace, and heavenly bliss. His solution was to inspect all these matters directly, and see that they were all merely "concepts", meaning empty thoughts and impulses, without any substance in reality. By seeing that all things were impermament, changing, shifting, dying, and being reborn over and over again, he became convinced that there was nothing to crave in any of them. Hence, his cravings collapsed through the strength of his insight, and the radical view this insight produced in him.

Modern western Buddhist tends to be afraid to directly address this insight into craving. There is a fair amount of talk in western Buddhism about insight, about the "Void", about clarity, peace, and happiness, about "emptiness", about states of mind that are powerfully easeful and blissful, but not much talk about the cessation of craving. You might hardly even be aware that Gotama ever taught such a thing, much less that it was the central focus of his teaching and path. When Buddhist talk about "emptiness", they tend to be very careful to make it clear that they aren't talking about the world, they are merely talking about their own minds, about "concepts", etc. But that was not Gotama's original use of the idea. He was talking very specifically about all the phenomenal objects of one's seeking, from the most ordinary to the most metaphysical. He was not talking only about metaphysical craving, however, he was talking about all of it, including the desire to have a happy, fulfilled life or ordinary pleasure and achievements. To Gotama, the entire world of sensual pleasures and ordinary desire was itself "empty", and thus all its cravings pointless and without substance.

Seeing that the world is empty produces a radical shift in perspective: it undermines the whole purpose of craving. If we see that what we have been pursuing is a mirage, and cannot be held or attained, not because it's really difficult, but because it isn't even real, we have to give up the craving, or we are destined to endless suffering and misery. But westerners tend to reject the notion that the world isn't real. We are very convinced that the world is indeed, real. We just notice that it tends to be very frustrating, and that we need to learn a better way to relate to it. So westerners initially become attracted to Buddhism because they notice that Buddhist tend to be more at peace than craven westerners, and they'd like some of that action. They start to take up Buddhist practices and meditations and conduct, and feel better just from that. This isn't a bad thing, mind you. It's a movement in the right direction, to be sure. But it evades the central teachings of Buddhism in the search for peripheral effects that can benefit it's ongoing dedication to craving itself. The beginning western Buddhist isn't trying to reduce his cravings, per se, he's just trying to be more intelligent in his pursuit of craving. At a certain point, however, he begins to find conflict in himself, and in Buddhism itself, because the deeper practices of Buddhism are not designed to support the life of "higher craving", they are designed to undermine it.

Westerners, we have to recall, really, really like their cravings. The original western religions, generally called "paganism", were rooted in shamanistic practices aimed at getting the goods of life: better harvests, more children, more goats and camels, protection from bad things, including bad weather and demonic spirits, all for the purpose of having a more enjoyable life. Some of their rituals were sacrificial, as in the east, but many were also hedonistic. The primary celebration was the feast, in which people enjoyed as much food, drink, dance, music, and other entertainments as they could afford for as long as they could. Intoxication was a regular feature of these feasts, and sensual enjoyment was their purpose. It was thought that the Gods wishes us to enjoy ourselves, that they took pleasure in our pleasures, and even occasionally joined in them. The Greek Gods were always getting drunk and bedding mortal women as part of these festivities, and they themselves had no desire to discipline their own cravings. The whole point of being a God seemed to be to indulge one's cravings as much as one could.

It's important to recognize that the Abrahamaic religious tradition of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam are not primarily western religions, they are Middle-Eastern in origin. They are influenced heavily by the eastern ethic which sees desire as un-Godly, and which wishes to control, discipline, and even eliminate it. One can even see a progression from early Judaism to Christianity to Islam of increasingly severe taboos against sensual desire and craving. The dominance of the latter two religions over much of the western world for the last 1500 years kept the craven desiring of the western personality in check, often through a highly repressive regime of near-totalitarian mind-control. In the last century or two this has been increasingly rejected by westerners, who have reverted for the most part to the pagan attitude towards desire and the pursuit of happiness: the more, the better. In many respects this has actually been a healthy thing, since repression of desire often produces even worse results than its indulgence.

Into this world comes eastern Buddhism, and the clash is strangely receptive, at least on the margins. The mainstream world of the west finds Buddhism rather charming and innocuous, in part because they only see the superficial aspect of its message: the robes, the chants, the peaceful attitudes, the compassionate caring for others, the non-violent attitudes, etc. At a deeper level, however, it's hard to see two attitudes which are more opposite. Buddhism sees the core western values of pursuing happiness through worldly and sensual pleasure and fulfillment to be thoroughly empty and delusional. It doesn't pick a fight with the west, but it's core teachings undermine the very concept and purpose of life that westerners consider "common sense" and cannot conceive of not pursuing in one form or another. Therefore, western Buddhists tend to be those who are already something of "dissidents" who are have found the western value system to be so seriously broken that an entirely new system needs to be instituted - in their own life at least, but over time, they hope, the west itself will change its ways.

The problem of course is that those who are disenchanted with the west, and come to Buddhism seeking an alternative, are still largely wedded to the western viewpoint, especially in regards to craving. They don't like the outcome or style of crass western craving, but they haven't come to the point of appreciating just how radical the Buddhist approach is. They certainly seldom embark on the practices of Buddhism with the explicit purpose of putting an end to their own cravings. Instead, they see Buddhism as a way to make their cravings manageable, intelligent, less frustrating and disturbed, so that they can continue the western project of perfecting the world all the better. To them, Buddhism is an essential part of the project of creating a more perfect world, not a way to end the craving for a more perfect world. And so they tend to inwardly oppose the very religion they have adopted.

This problem is not new. Gotama himself noticed it early on in those who came to him, and it was one of his most strenuous and difficult challenges: to find a way to help Buddhists see the futilty of craving even Buddhist temporal values and goals. For this reason, he insisted in pointing out that even all dharmas were "empty", were merely concepts, which it was futile to crave the fulfillment of. The cultivation of "right view" undermined the ability of Buddhists to use Buddhism to seek a better life. The life which resulted was merely a simple, uncomplicated life, not a "better" one.

Of course, merely eliminating gross cravings does make life better for most people. As much as we like to think of desire as a way to get a better life with more enjoyment to it, the result seldom matches the idea. A better life generally results from fewer desires and fewer attachments and their consequent frustrations. So even a cursory application of Buddhist principle does indeed result in a better life, which is all most people want to begin with. The result is that the general population of western Buddhists is mostly oriented towards the reduction of craving to the level at which they can enjoy a better, saner life. The problem is, the means they generally use to achieve this sidesteps the core Buddhist methods, and uses instead methods and ideas that are actually peripheral to Buddhism, such as living a simple life, disciplined life, meditating in various ways that promote peace of mind, and ordering one's life in a "middle class" rather than a "middle way" manner.

When western Buddhas do acheive some kind of success in their practice of Buddhism, they therefore tend to attribute it to something they did, something magical in the practices, the teacher, the methods, the discipline, etc., rather than in the simple absence of craving. Westerners are accustomed to think of life as a series of causes and effects. Therefore, if there is a good effect, a good cause must be the reason. But what "works" in Buddhism is not causes and effects, but the absence of these. The cause of suffering is craving, and by eliminating craving, suffering is removed. But the western Buddhist can't accept that things are this simple. Merely removing craving can't be enough, in there view, there must be a cause for any happiness or relaxation or pleasure that comes from Buddhist practice. So they focus on the practices themselves, the meditations, the chants, the teachings, the abstractions of thought, anything but the simple elimiantion of craving. They imagine that a certain kind of meditation "works" for them, because they see positive results. They have a hard time imagining that meditation doesn't produce any results at all, other than the elimination of craving. In part, this is because they don't meditate for the purpose of eliminating craving in the first place, so they don't attribute any result to this. They meditate to produce positive effects, and when they do certain Buddhist practices, they notice that postive effects do accrue. What they don't understand is how this works. If their practice has been correct, they "effect" is merely the elimination of craving, and it is this that produces a sane life.

But many Buddhist don't even do practices aimed at the elimination of craving, but instead practice things which increase their cravings, and the positive results they notice aren't actually positive at all, in the Buddhist sense. They are merely an increase in one's appetite. Westerners in particular equate an increased "appetite for life" with happiness. Westerners are most happy when they are in pursuit of a goal, not when they achieve the goal. The desire for enjoyment is often more enjoyable than the enjoyment itself. So many westerners adopt Buddhism as part of their exciting pursuit of happiness, and they are thrilled to be a part of something so exotically productive of happiness, which in their case is the happiness of the search, not the happiness of attainment. They are not genuinely aware that their misery is a result of craving, they merely think it is a result of craving sensual pleasures rather than enlightenment. They are engaged in a process of re-directing their cravings, rather than eliminating craving altogether. They substitute higher cravings for lower cravings, generally, although even this is not necessarily the case. If they join some of the tantric Buddhist paths, they may end up pursuing good old sensual pleasure with the idea that it will transmute into spiritual transcendence at a certain point, if their intentions are genuine.

The results are mixed. The general outcome, however, is a relatively mundane form of Buddhism, which often gets exalted by reverse-elitism into an exaltation of the ordinary, as if what Buddhism is really about is making the ordinary moments of life something "special". Again, to the degree that this occurs in any genuine way, it is merely a result of living a life that has eliminated gross cravings. But this is not to be made into something that is itself exalted into a goal of our cravings. The real insight to be gained from this is that eliminating craving eliminate misery. One is not to focus on "the ordinary" as if there's something special hidden in the ordinary. There isn't. The ordinary is also empty. Doing ordinary things is empty, it's not fulfilling at all. The point of Buddhist practice is to notice this, and to cease craving something from it. This frees us to live in an ordinary way without complicating things by craving anything from it, because there's no "there" there. Seeing the emptiness of ordinary life is precisely what frees the Buddhist to simply be happy in the midst of ordinary life. His happiness does not come from "being in the moment" or from appreciating the simple pleasures of lfie. It comes from not craving things which are empty and unreal.

So many Buddhists miss the point of Buddhist practice, and the result is a fairly superficial practice, and a fairly superficial understanding. The positive results that come from Buddhism are attributed to some "thing" that Buddhism has going for it, rather than the absence of anything remotely like that. People not only want results, they want causes that they can control and repeat to obtain those results. Buddhism has certain practices that can do that, but none of them are actually what Buddhism is really about. Those practices are meant to be simple aids to reduce and eliminate our craving, not ways to fulfill some higher spiritual craving. The only real motivating insight in Buddhism is the insight which tells us that craving itself is what we suffer, and this motivates the Buddhist to eliminate craving, by eliminating anything in his life which tends to promote craving, and adding things to his life which replace craving.

The real problem with western Buddhism is the lack of deep and serious practice that brings about genuine nirvanic liberation from craving. That kind of practice requires that people consciously understand the basic Buddhist teaching about craving, and to actively enjoin in a concerted effort to eliminate craving on every level. It's almost unheard of to find a westerner who is even interested in such a thing. You find many westerners who want enlightenment, they want to experience sunyata, kensho, emptiness, satori, etc. And they do experience things like this sometimes. The problem is, they don't go from there to the systematic elimination of craving. Instead, the tend to leave their cravings pretty much intact, even while developing these "higher" practices. But even these higher practices are really nothing more than ways of eliminating craving, not ways of encouraging craving. If they do not result in the elimination of craving, they are essentially useless. And all too often we see examples of Buddhists in the west - not just westerners, but many easterners who have come to teach in the west - who demonstrate all kinds of cravings even while teaching and practicing these so-called higher methods. What exactly is the point, one might ask?

If Buddhism is to genuinely succeed in the west, it will require that at least some westerners actually devote themselves to the eradication of craving, and thereby achieve genuine nirvanic freedom from the miseries of craving. This may of course take time. Many westerners practicing Buddhism in the manner I've described will go on in that way for a very long time before beginning to see the emptiness of it. And many will see that emptiness, and return to a more standard western method of craving. A few, however, will begin to see the real point of Buddhist teaching, and seriously apply themselves to the elimination of craving, and not to any secondary effect of Buddhist practice. That will be a marvelous time for western Buddhism. I hope it may come soon.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Buddhism For Bozos

The dialog on "Ramana and the Religion of Atman" over at the BY Forum leads me to make a few comments about the essence of Buddhism and its viewpoint on the nature of reality. There's a lot of confusion among western newcomers to Buddhism as to what its essential insights into reality are, and what its aim is. Bozos like us need to be reminded how the core Buddhist message is at once most simple, and yet very difficult to accept without long struggle.

Buddhism is founded in Gotama's observation that the source of all misery in life is craving. All of the illusions and delusions and miseries of this life are founded in our unending craving, which left to itself will perpetuate itself, and its illusions, forever. To end our misery, therefore, craving must end. Having observed this deeply, Gotama set out to find a way to bring an end to craving. He sat down to examine himself and his cravings directly, determined to break through the cycle of misery that craving induces in us all.

What he noticed, first of all, is that all cravings require an object to be craved.  It does not matter if the object craved is material and sensual, or spiritual and heavenly, there must be an object to our cravings. Without an object, craving collapses. This had been observed by others before, he noticed. He himself had been raised a prince, and given every earthly pleasure to pursue, but had been miserable anyway. He then left home as a spiritual seeker, and joined up with various spiritual paths, which taught that desire and craving were the enemy to be vanguished, and that the objects of craving were the enemy to be eliminated. Thus, he adopted the mode of an ascetic, and his main practice was the rejection of all sensual objects, because it was thought that by rejecting all sensual objects, craving would go away and bliss would ensue. However, he found that this only created a cycle of craving on a deeper level. It did not end the cycle of craving and misery, but merely created a new cycle of craving for release from sensual objects. He knew there was something missing from his understanding, and he left the ascetic path to find out what it was.

As he sat under the Bodhi tree examining himself and his cravings, he entered into a mode of observation which we now call "phenomenal realism". He began to inspect everything which entered his awareness to see if any of it had any real and permanent "substance" to it. Was there actually a "self" or an "it" to anything which he sensed or experienced? The more he observed of the world, and of his own mind and experience, the more he began to see that everything was impermanent, shifting, changing, and lacking anything which did not appear, shift, change, and disappear. He did not merely analyze phenomena in the materialistic manner, he examined them on every level, gross, subtle, causal, you name it. He examined samadhi states and subtle objects of attention. All of them, he noticed, were devoid of the "it" factor. They were "empty" in other words, of any real substance. They were merely phenomenal appearances, with no "there" there.

How was it possible, he asked, to crave something that was empty, that had no substance to it, that could not be grasped and held and attained? We can only crave that which we think is real, which can we think has real substance to it. We crave the objects and states and pleasures of the material world because we think they are real. We crave spiritual objects and states and pleasures when we think they are real also.

What Gotama noticed was that if we see that there is no such reality to objects, that they are empty of substance and self, the cycle of craving collapses upon itself. So what Buddha did was an exhaustive meditative process of examining his experience, inner and outer, until it became utterly clear that no such "thingness" existed, anywhere, even in himself. Eventually, he discovered that what was important was not even the inspection of any particular phenomena, but the development in himself of what he came to call "right view". In other words, examining phenomena need not be repeated endlessly, re-inventing the wheel over and over again. Instead, he saw that it was possible to simply develop a view which could instantly and naturally see that all phenomena were "empty". The purpose of the inspection of phenomena was to develop this right view, and in developing right view, the cycle of cravings would fall apart. The "fire" of craving would be quenched by the "water" of right view, and it would be extinguished in nirvana.This would bring about the end of misery, which was nothing more than craving and its consequent delusions.

It's important to recognize that Gotama was strictly pragmatic in his evaluation of "right view". He defined "wrong" view as any view that supported or perpetuated craving. "Right view", on the other hand, was any view that did not support or perpetuate craving. So he began to inspect all his views, and he eliminated those which supported craving, and encouraged those which did not support craving. He examined such views as the Vedantic notion of an eternal soul, and found that this view supported craving, so he abandoned it. He found that the view which said that no inner soul exists either in oneself, or in any person or thing, did not support craving, and so he encouraged it. Eventually, he found that all views were themselves "empty", and were to be abandoned, leaving only "nirvana" itself as the default.

Gotama did not set out to glorify any concept of "emptiness", and it's misleading to speak of Buddhist enlightenment as the attainment of some "void" state. These are semantic misnomers that can lead to the reification of voidness or enlightenment itself as a state or thing to be craved and attained. The opposite is the case. The whole point of his understanding of "right view" is a negation of all "content", leading to the abandonment of any and all objects of the mind, senses, and any views which encourage the craving of these, by imparting some sense of metaphysical reality to them. It's a very hard view to come to, precisely because we are so attached to craving, and don't want to give up our cravings. Instead, we seek  views which will in some way support our continued craving. We might agree with Buddha to some degree, but then depart for a compromised view that suggests there really is something in us or in objects which is real, which is worthy of pursuit, and which therefore will keep our cycle of craving alive and well.

Much of the evolution of Buddhism over time can be criticized as looking for ways to perpetuate some form of craving, either for ordinary pleasures or for spiritual states, while still accepting many of the basic tenets of Gotama's teaching. As the fellow in my debate over at the Forum demonstrates, people will try to find some way of looking at "voidness", and seeing it as full of wondrous objects, and evolve spiritual theories and dharmas about all that, for the purpose of perpetuating craving. The genuine Buddhist doesn't spend a lot of time analyzing these matters and arguing the fine points, he merely asks himself, does this view support craving, or does it not support it? If the view supports craving, he abandons it, no matter how attractive it might otherwise seem.

This is of course the opposite of how we have learned to think and act, even in spiritual circles. It is assumed that if some view, some path, some method, is able to enliven our cravings by giving us positive results, that we should pursue it. To Gotama, however, this was evidence that it's a wrong view, and a sign that we should abandon it. This is because Gotama's goal was the cessation of craving, not the fulfillment of craving as we are all inclined towards. And most people involved in spiritual practices of one kind or another, including Buddhists, are looking for the fulfillment of craving, and not its cessation. So this brings about much conflict within Buddhism, and even within every Buddhist. A part of us is convinced that craving is suffering and wishes it to come to an end, but another part of it feels that the best way for it to come to an end is by having our cravings fulfilled. So even Buddhists look for views which allow them to continue to seek the fulfillment of their cravings, even while disciplining themselves and engaging in all kinds of meditative practices and good conduct and so forth. Many engage these practices with the idea that it will fulfill some deeper craving for enlightenment. But Gotama's teaching is that even these cravings must be abandoned, that any view of enlightenment which supports craving is a false view, no matter how fulfilling it might seem.

Gotama's teaching, therefore, is not very popular even among Buddhists. Not many Buddhists really wish to end the cycle of craving. They do not wish to come to the view that all things and all views are "empty", because they wish to continue the cycle of cravings just a little bit more.

There's a great Zen Buddhist story about a Zen master whose students come to the morning meditation session to find their master sitting on the dias with a large bowl of hot peppers in his lap. As they sit to meditate, the master begins eating the hot peppers, one by one. As he does so, his lips begin to swell up from the peppers. The master's face begins to sweat. One can see that he's in tremendous pain from the hot peppers. Soon his whole face is swollen, his eyes are tearing, his mouth is red and clearly in agony, but he keeps eating the hot peppers. Finally one of his students can stand the sight of his master's suffering no longer and he jumps up and shouts out, "Master, please stop!" But the master ignores him and keeps on eating. Others also start shouting out for him to stop, but he ignores them too. Finally, someone desperately asks, "Master, please tell us, why won't you stop eating these hot peppers?" And the master finally stops for a moment, and nonchalantly replies, "I'm looking for a sweet one."

And that is what all us Bozos are up to in the final analysis. We are looking for a sweet one. We are looking for some view, some practice, some teaching or dharma, which will allow us to keep eating hot peppers because we crave that "sweet one". Gotama's solution is not a description of the real, true, and indisputable "sweet one" that those in the know will recognize as being the real McCoy. It's a rejection of the whole process of craving any sweet one at all. It's an observational approach that sees that there is no "thing" out there or in here, and thus that there is nothing whatsoever to crave. Craving collapses without an object. As Ramana noticed, the 'I'-thought requires an object to latch onto. When it cannot find an object, it collapses upon itself. Gotama's method was similar, in that it denies our cravings a destination, an object, which it can latch onto, and the result is a radical collapse of all craving.

That is of course not the end of anything but craving itself and its illusions. In the absence of craving, the true nature of reality is understood - not as some eternal "thing", but as blissful emptiness in all directions, at all levels, and thus, perfect peace. As Gotama said in one of his discourses:

No sensual pleasure,
No heavenly bliss
Equals one infinitesimal part
Of the bliss of the cessation of craving.

The "bliss of the cessation of craving" is not like the bliss we achieve through sensory pleasure or spiritual seeking. It is uncaused, and uncreated. It has no object, and is not itself an object. And yet, it is infinitely greater than any such bliss or pleasure that comes from objects, high or low. It is the bliss of peace, of the cessation of all struggles and cravings and attainments and experiences and visions and views and so on. It is radical bliss, and it does not support craving, unlike other blisses, which are always a goad to more craving. Because it is not created, it cannot die; because it is not caused, it cannot be ended. Because it has no content, it cannot be emptied. It is already empty. There is not even any self to experience it, because the viewpoint of "self" has been seen as empty also.

The practice of vipassana  as Gotama used it and recommended to others was nothing more than this simple approach of examining phenomenal existence on every level, and seeing that it is empty, and that it does not support craving at all, as we have mistakenly assumed. Vipassana is not a way to find justification for one's cravings. It is a way to find freedom from craving, by dispelling the illusion that some inner reality exists in either objects or self which can be craved. It may begin with an inspection of outer objects, but it eventually finds that all phenomena are merely that  - images without content. Our presumption is that images exist only because something "real" is behind them. We presume a mirror that reflects from some real object, some real "sun" that provides the light for these images. But Gotama's radical finding was that there is no such reality behind objects, that they are merely empty images, with no causal origin at all, no "self" or "it" in them, behind them, or anywhere else. They merely arise spontaneously, uncaused, and cannot be the basis for craving, therefore. We cannot possibly grasp hold of them, because they are just phenomenal images.

This leads to the Buddha's final admonition, which he gave shortly before his death: "Be a refuge unto oneself". In other words, take this whole approach of "right view" and apply it directly to one's own self, as he did under the Bodhi tree. In doing so, the whole matrix of craving will collapse. If even our own self is empty, how can one crave at all? This leads to perfect, nirvanic peace, the cessation of all craving, and the uncreated bliss of reality. This is the discovery of the Unborn. It's what Buddhism is all about, in essence, for us Bozos.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Vacation Boxing

My apologies for not posting during the holidays. I hadn't meant to take this much time off, but it worked out that way. Will see if I can catch up on things soon.

Even though I haven't been posting, I did engage in an amusing if somewhat heated debate over at the Forum, in the topic "Ramana and the Religion of Atman". What began as a fairly innocent discussion of the issue of ego and Atman became a fisking showdown between two hard-assed know-it-alls. Unfortunately, I was one of them. What can I say? I found the whole exchange a good learning experience, regardless of the outcome, which is how these things usually work out. Check it out if you're into spectator sporting events.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Fidelity to the Source

Discussions in the comments of the thread on "Karma, Causation, Liberation, and Love of the Source", as well as at this Broken Yogi forum thread, suggest my thoughts on the acausal nature of reality need some clarification. John at the BY Forum, who may be the same commentator as "anonymous" in the comments thread above, responds to some things I said:

BY: "To live in that world requires only that we understand and surrender to our own source"
John: Doesn't the word "source" imply a "cause"? Even the word "requires" implies cause and effect.
I made an analogy in the comments section to an orchestra that is playing a symphony written by a composer. In such a universe, the composer is the origin and source of the music that is played, but he does not cause it to occur. The musicians must gather together and cooperate. Neither does the conductor cause the music to come into being, he merely acts as a focal point of attention for the orchestra to coordinate their efforts. Nor do any of the musicians cause one another to play - their individual music simply harmonizes with the source composition. They are not the creators of the music, and their responsibility is not one of literal creation, but of fidelity to the source. Their responsibility is merely to be surrendered to the composition that has been written for them, and to reproduce it with the full power of their mind and bodies and heart, with full feeling and love.

Analogies like these can't be taken entirely literally, because even in this case, one could argue that the sounds themselves are caused by each musician playing his instrument, and if they do not play, there will be no music. That, however, would be to adopt the ego's viewpoint, which presumes that in some way we are the one who acts, that our own volitional acts are the primal source of the life we live. It certainly does appear this way to the ego, but that is precisely my argument: that the ego does not live in reality, but in a fantasy in which he is not only the origin of what occurs in this life, but the willful cause of it, and that the ego can even play whatever variation or improvisation he wishes.

Another variation on this analogy, common to the traditions, is that of actors in a play. Again, the actor is not writing the script as he goes, he is playing the role assigned to him, and reading the lines as written, and going through the drama as it has been arranged by the author, the source of the play. The ego is like an actor who has forgotten that he's in a play, and imagines the story is real and the characters are objectively real as well, rather than fellow actors. He speaks his lines as written, but in his mind he thinks he is actually coming up with the lines on his own. He thinks that he is causing the words to come out of his mouth, and his body to move about the stage, but he is merely doing as written and directed. He is, essentially, unconscious of what he is doing, and where he is, and who he really is.

From this state of unconsciousness, if he starts to question the play he is in, and the source of his actions, he will at first try to interpret everything that is occurring in causal terms, because he thinks that is how the play came into being. He thinks that God is a separate being who has actually caused the play to come into being, and that God acts as writer and director with some kind of absolute power over him. And this is of course how it looks to the ego. But that is only because the ego has a deluded viewpoint, not because this is how it is in reality. The ego merely projects its own presumptions and aspirations on God and the play, and presumes that each of the actors in the play are related to one another by a series of causes and effects. In reality, however, there is no causal force at play, only a synchronization of characters from a common source - the script. There are good actors and bad actors, to be sure, but that is not written into the script, that is a performance issue. An egoic actor who thinks he is creating his own lines and actions will act badly, be a ham, or play his part feelinglessly and with no skill. If he surrenders to the part, however, and plays it with full feeling and love, in fidelity to the source, the play will be performed beautifully and movingly.

One could even compare the process to the movie "Groundhog Day", which starred Bill Murray, and was written and directed by Harold Ramis, who happens to be a practicing Buddhist. The movie is a parable about reincarnation, in which Bill Murray finds himself reliving the same day over and over again, first in despair, then resignation, and finally, fully embracing the day and living it to its utmost. He finds that he cannot change everything in the day - a homeless man dies no matter what he does to prevent it - but he can nonetheless treat the man with love and care rather than indifference.
I hope this gives some sense of the difference between a cause and a source.
John continues with this comment:
It seems to me that the main motivation behind this anecdotal attack on the concept of causality is actually a veiled desire to avoid personal responsibility. That's the real enemy here: personal responsibility. This essay and the ones' that preceed it strike me as merely the futile yearnings of a guilty conscience gone rogue.
I cannot speak to my own unconscious motivations, but I can say that there is no absence of responsibility in the acausal view of reality. The notion of responsibility merely shifts from the causal notion of our creating the play we live in, to one of showing fidelity to the source. An actor is not responsible for the lines he speaks, but he is responsible for his performance, and the depth of feeling he brings to his role. Likewise, we are not responsible for the bare facts of our life, but we are responsible for the depth of feeling and love we bring to it. We as egos did not create this world, and we did not create our bodies, or the DNA and all the influences which make our bodily life what it is. Most of what we are is simply beyond our control. Likewise, most of what we do is not beyond our control. We act in response to a millions things we cannot be responsible for, and in a fashion that is largely determined by the makeup of our own body and mind, gross and subtle. In that sense, we can barely make any claim to free will in our overt actions. The only true responsibility we can exhibit is in acting with full love and feeling, responding to the role we have in this life and the events that unfold with as deep and subtle a "performance" as we can muster. That is a creative matter, and not merely a rote one, as any actor can tell you. But it is a creativity that occurs within the bounds of a drama that is uncaused, and yet also "predestined". The paradox implied by that seeming contradiction is due to the ego's point of view, however, which presumes that the play and the author and the director and the set are separate from the actor on the stage. In reality, all this occurs in a single living consciousness. If we consciously understand this, and relate directly to that source in the midst of the play, the entire play is transformed in our awareness, and the experience of it is lifted beyond mere repetition of lines in a rote manner, into a powerful drama of overwhelming power and significance.

So the key to the whole process is our conscious fidelity to the source, through living each moment in conscious awareness of the source, and allowing that awareness to transform our participation in the play to one of profound, cathartic awakening, and not merely a series of unconscious, selfish acts of soulless repetition.The viewpoint in which we see ourselves as the cause of our actions, and even of the entire cosmos as a series of causes and effects, each actor acting upon one another and producing the universe as we see it through their own actions and how they effect each other, is what arises when we act without awareness of the source. We may even imagine a God who is the also a cause, and the universe his effect.  And then we wonder why he would create such a dismal universe. But this outlook is artificial, the product of a mind which has been deluded into thinking he is both cause and effect, rather than a part of a synchronous drama in consciousness. The actor who is unconscious of the source and nature of the play will not be able to play his part with any skill or passion, and will only complain about the faulty nature of the production, when it is he who is being irresponsible and taudry. He will think he is the creator of his own life, and will try to force the action, as if he can produce better results by taking charge of the play. He will presume to cause things to turn out better by being "responsible" for the causes and effects he produces. But this is folly, and a false notion of responsibility. No actor can be responsible for the role he plays except by playing it with the utmost skill and passion and love and sensitivity. No ego can presume himself to be the source of the role he plays. It has been given to him as a gift, because it fits his own needs and requirements if he will only recognize these.

John continues:

Simultaneous synchronicity? Isn't this redundant? The whole idea of synchonicity, as I understand it, is that the synchronious events have a common cause. Maybe it's just me, but I sense no objectivity in this exposition. I fail to see the harm in the concept of causation.
The point of synchronicity is precisely that events are not linked to one another by causality, but arise in spontaneous harmony with one another. Imagine a play written by a mad Divine genius, in which he spontaneously harmonizes the roles of billions and trillions of actors in a single production within his own conscious mind, each of his creations being made of consciousness itself and thus able to know themselves as being one with their own source. Each of those roles has a single source, and they act in harmony with one another because they are a part of a single mind, but they are uncaused in any sense that might appear within the drama itself. It is merely an inspired creation, so to speak, not the product of any cause, but the manifestation of a spontaneous movement in the mind of God, if you will. None of those beings can be said to be an effect of some cause, because they are a part of the very mind they are the creation of, not outside of that mind. They live out the dream of the Divine Mind, and can be fully aware of their nature in the midst of the play. Or, they can be unconscious of their nature, and think that they are actually a separate being who has been independently created, and thus caused to come into existence on their own, to act as a cause within the play.

But again, these analogies have inherent limits. One cannot take them literally. The uncaused nature of reality is in some sense ultimately not understandable to the ego. To understand it we must become directly and feelingly aware of our source, and surrender to that source. As we do so, we will be able to grasp these principles directly, rather than merely intellectually or abstractly. Even so, grappling with these ideas can help stimulate that process, so it's not a useless exercise to think about and discuss the matter, no matter how frustrating it might seem to be. The mere fact that someone is interested in it indicates a readiness to make use of these arguments.

There is no harm in the concept of causation if it is used within the proper limits. In other words, a scientific viewpoint in which all things are considered to be related either by cause and effect or sheer randomness has its value when one examines things abstractly, as if they are purely material mechanisms operating only in relationship to other material mechanisms. Likewise, a religious viewpoint that sees the universe as the causal creation of God has a limited value in certain contexts as well. It's a metaphysical view, however, and can't be strictly applied on the level of material cause and effect. If it is, it creates a distorted understanding of God. And this is in part what I mean when I say that causation begins to lose its power as a useful description of reality when we expand our context beyond one single plane of existence - in this case, beyond the material plane.

If we try to understand how God might cause the universe to come into being, we encounter paradoxes that cannot be fully resolved. Which leads to John's next question:

BY: "The more dimensions of reality one examines simultaneously, the less they are found to operate on the basis of cause and effect."

John: Can anyone offer an example of how this might work? I'm not getting it.
 I've mentioned before that even our most basic conscious awareness while alive represents a different dimension of existence from the purely physical. While we can abstractly see the material universe itself as operating by cause and effect if we pretend that the observer's presence has no real meaning, when we include the observer in the equation everything immediately gets very strange. I'm not just speaking of the complications of quantum mechanics and relativity, I'm speaking of the simple acts of bodily life themselves. We cannot fully account for our own awareness and its relationship to the body as a causal one. Is consciousness created by the body, or does it act upon the body? When we "will" ourselves to move our fingers, is our consciousness actually causing our fingers to move? Or, is the movement of our brains and body causing consciousness to arise and be aware of itself? One can side with either one of these causal viewpoints, and make decent sense of our experience that way, but genuine flaws and paradoxes are created that are not entirely resolvable. This is what I mean when I say that causality begins to dissolve when we examine two dimensions of existence simultaneously.

Likewise, if we examine this life in relationship to reincarnation, which involves a viewpoint that includes even more dimensions of existence and more deeply requires us to examine how they relate to one another, causality begins to break down even further. The common, egoic solution is to invent the notion of "karma" as a binding law of cause and effect which determines how reincarnation works. But the reality of this is not so simplistic. The circumstances of reincarnation are not so easily fixed by laws of consciousness thought of in the same way as the "unconscious" laws of the mechanistic, material world. Thinking of karma as something like Newton's laws of motion, in which for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction, is again an attempt to reduce the process to a single dimension, when it is by its very nature multi-dimensional and thus not strictly causal. Many questions arise, such as how the physical world comes into being at all. Is it "created" by subtle beings or Gods, and is thus caused to come into being by them, or does it merely arise in synchronicity with some larger pattern or play of consciousness? When we come into this life, do we consciously choose the role we play, or is it just assigned to us by some greater "cause". The experience of subtle life suggests that, depending on one's viewpoint, both are true, that we both choose the role we play, and it is assigned to us simultaneously. That paradox is not understandable by purely causal analysis, it requires a deeper understanding of the principle of acausal synchronicity.

The more deeply one observes the process of life, the more inadequate cause and effect notions of how things work becomes. The greatest jnanis seem to agree that from the perspective of genuine enlightenment, all things that occur are predestined, without even the slightest ability for us to change what occurs. In that sense, there is no cause and effect process operative in nature at all. A devotee once picked up a stick and dropped it on the ground in front of Ramana, and asked if this act was predestined, and Ramana said of course it was, that there was no possibility of him having acted differently. But he reminded the man that this could only be accepted in enlightenment, and it wasn't true from the ego's point of view, and therefore we shouldn't try to force this viewpoint on our ego. It would simply become more and more clear to us as we practice self-enquiry and begin to see beyond the ego.

The point being that in enlightenment we see the universe in its entirely, as a single whole, rather than as a disconnected series of dimensions that we might only be partially aware of. It is our partial awareness of the whole which leads us to think that the world operates by cause and effect, whereas if we see the entire universe in a single vision, it becomes obvious that no cause and effects process is involved at all, from its original creation to its evolutionary development to the very moment of our present participation in it. The ego operates by the principle of separation, and thus of a partial viewpoint, and it thus tends to see things as being caused rather than arising in synchronous uncaused harmony.

There's a false understanding of synchronicity that presumes that it's the result of an underling cause that we just can't see. This even applies to what we might call "psychism". People with psychic abilities of one kind or another tend to presume that there's some causal relationship between the thoughts or visions that arise in their minds and the world around them, as if some mysterious power is entering their minds and informing them about distant events. This is simply not how it happens. Psychism does not involve such causal forces at all. It may look like that, but this is an illusion. What is occuring is merely a conscious alignment with a slightly deeper layer of the source pattern that gives rise to our synchronous experience. By surrendering the mind even a noticable bit into this underlying reality, we become attuned to the pattern that is manifested everywhere, and this produces a synchronous affinity that may even demonstrate a correspondence to outer events. But no force is at work producing an effect at a distance. There is simply a disposition of alignment to the deeper patterns of consciousness.

As I've noted in older posts, astrologers frequently make the mistake of assuming that a cause and effect force governs the universe through astrological influences. They presume that the stars and planets emanate some kind of subtle force which influences people and events in some way, similar to the forces of gravity or magnetism in the material world as scientists understand these things. This is simple hogwash, however. There are no such causal forces, in either the gross or subtle worlds. Instead, there is a synchronicity in all events that can be seen precisely by examining patterns that arise which are clearly NOT the result of causality. Astrology is meaningful precisely because the planets and stars are so far apart that there is little possibility that they can influence human events on earth. By eliminating any clear causal connection, astrology is able to examine the purely acausal patterning that links events together. Which is why science considers astrology meaningless, and why many astrologers fail to understand the meaning of the discipline when they try to explain it by resorting to notions of "subtle influence" of some kind or other. The real meaning of astrology can only be understood as an attempt to see patterns through consciousness, and thus using an interdimensional acausal perspective rather a single-dimensional causal perspective.

The key to the process, therefore, is one of conscious awareness of the source. In exploring spirituality, people generally become aware of deeper dimensions of the psyche, which we might presume are closer to the source than the material world. But this is not actually true. All dimension are equally 'close" to the source. It is only that by becoming aware of multiple dimensions, we are able to "triangulate" the source more effectively. The more dimensions we become aware of, the more aware of the source we can be. But to pursue knowledge of these dimensions for the purpose of knowing the source rather has things backwards. A more direct and effective path is to try to know the source directly, and in so doing, one will naturally become aware of the multidimensional nature of reality. That is why practices such as self-enquiry, in which one directly contemplates the source of one's own self, are supremely useful. The more deeply one enquires into the source of one's own being, the more one will be able to see that we exist in all dimensions simultaneously, that the ego's sense of separation is an illusion, and that in reality we are arising within the singular consciousness of our very source and nature, not through any principle of karmic cause and effect, but through a process of uncaused, synchronous Divine Play. If we are attentive, we can see that even the supposedly material "forces" of the physical world arise in acausal synchronicity with this source, and do not arise through or develop through any causal process at all. it only appears that way because of the perspective of our own material body, but in reality the process we see is not brought about in the way that science presumes. It's not that their material observations are wrong, it is only that their perspective is "flat", so to speak.

One could summarize this process of awareness and surrender to the source by the simple admonition of love. Love is how we become harmonized with the source of our own being, which is not outside us as we might tend to think, but is in our very heart, the very source and center of our conscious being. To love our life and consciousness and to see one another in that light is to become directly aware of the source of our life and consciousness. Love and knowledge of the source are the same thing. That is why it is taught that bhakta and jnana are the same, and that we cannot have the one without the other. They are inseparable, because the source has no separate parts, in reality. By cultivating fidelity to the source, we achieve real responsibility for our lives, and we gain true understanding of our own source and nature. If for the time being we must make use of cause and effect concepts to help us along, that is fine of course, but we must also be willing to surrender these as they outlive their usefulness.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Karma, Causation, Liberation, and Love of the Source

Let me clarify a few more things about karma and reincarnation.

Spiritual traditions have created the notion of karma in order to fulfill some very human ideas about justice, based on the notion that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction, even within the realm of spirit, ethics, morality, and intention. These traditions have failed, for the most part, to understand the nature of this world, even in strictly spiritual terms. They don't understand that this world is something akin to a "virtual reality", rather than a real place. They don't understand that what goes on here has only limited repercssions spiritually, and does not carry over like some cosmic karmic reaction aking to Newton's second law of motion.

Actions within a virtual reality don't carry over from one "game" to the next. The only way in which that is true is the extent to which they have left an impression upon us, in establishing certain patterns of gameplay. Past mistakes, however, do not mean that we are bound to suffer equal compensating mistakes in future games. It only means that we become habituated to certain patterns, and certain kinds of mistakes, and thus become prone to repeat them, and to become trapped in those patterns repetitively. This may look at first glance like "karma", but it isn't the same thing at all.

It's important to recognize that reincarnation is a learning process, not bound by any particular laws of simplistic justice. The point of spirits being born in conjunction with physical bodies is to learn something, not to become trapped in a cycle of cause an effect. If we can recognize each lifetime as an exercize in learning, as a kind of test rather than a kind of criminal justice system, I think this becomes simpler to understand. When we take a test at school, the results of each test are independent of one another. We may do well on one test, and fail another. If we do well on one test, of course, we are more likely to do well on the next one, and if we do badly, that too is likely to be repeated. Lessons learned tend to build a body of skill and knowledge, and lessons failed tend to build a pattern of failure. However, none of that is strictly causal. If one does well on one test, it does not mean that one will do well on the next test automatically, one still has to actually study and improve and get things right.

Nor does it mean that if one passes a test, one will get easier questions to answer on the next test. The opposite is actually more likely. Doing well actually increases the likelihood that the next test will be even harder, since one has already mastered one level of learning and is thus more likely to get a harder test the next time on material one is less skilled at. So if karma is equated to a process of universal learning, rather than one of universal justice, the process of reincarnation is not going to be based on a system of rewards and punishments, but of increasing difficulty based on merit and performance. There is certainly some degree to which increasing skill and competence in the art of living a human life is its own reward, of course, but this is not do to some kind of karmic system of action and reaction, but to the conscious pattern of one's own learning process.

I hope it's clear then that the kind of "laws" which govern reincarnation are not akin to criminal laws based on rewards and punishments, but on a system of voluntary schooling. They are not meant to regulate behavior in some cosmic justice system of moral action and reaction, but to school us in a process of spiritual learning. At least, that analogy is a much more apt one than the justice system analogy that has been promoted by most religions.

For this reason, there is no genuine form of punishment for failing badly in any particular life. That failure is its own punishment, and has consequences to be sure in that we are "held back" and must repeat various lessons until we get them right, but there is no sense in which we are literally going to have to pay for having done something bad in a past life. That idea is an old misunderstanding that has become embedded in religious and spiritual thought because it perpetuates certain myths and patterns that humans have found comfort in, rather than because they are true. One can see how that illusion could seem logical to us, in that it simply creates a distortion of the spiritual process of reincarnation that makes some sense to many people who take this world to be the model for spiritual truth. They see the cause and effect patterns of the material world, and think the whole of spiritual reality operates in the same way. But it does not.

As I've said before, the more dimensions of reality one examines simultaneously, the less they are found to operate on the basis of cause and effect. Looking at the reincarnational model, therefore, involves looking at two major dimensions of reality and their interelationship,and in so doing, the strict causal model already begins to break down. One can see that it is not so rigid at all, but operates more like an educational system where causes and effects are moderated by one's own conscious learning, and not by some automated legal system of "laws". The laws which do operate in this relationship are more akin to the rules of a classroom, and not that of the halls of justice. One is not punished for getting things wrong, both literally and morally. Rather, that merely holds one back from growing and prospering. This is a lessening of the logic of cause and effect, but not its elimination altogether, which only occurs as one begins to see even this process from a more inclusive viewpoint that takes even more of the levels of existence into account. Of course, even then, the model of the school or a "learning process" remains valuable, The sense of what is fair changes more and more, but the basic concept of fairness itself remains intact, it merely shifts its context as one looks deeper and deeper into the karmic game.

Stepping out of the karmic viewpoint is thus even a part of the "plan", one could say. It's a form of graduation from the illusions of this world. However, it does not necessarily require full master of all karmic possibilities. One can begin to step out at time or place in the karmic wheel, which in itself never ends, but simply cycles us back and forth through all levels of learning and mastery, which can never become perfected in themselves. We can indeed repeat the same levels of learning over and over again if we wish, gaining deeper and deeper mastery of each level or place, and never actually graduate. Old souls are not necessarily more interested in graduating from the karmic round of appearances than younger, less capable souls. So the purpose of non-dual teachings is not about gaining greater mastery over the karmic process, but about gaining freedom from it. That too operates as a kind of school, but of a different nature than karmic learning. It involves stepping out of the karmic pattern entirely, which is done by looking at all dimensions of existence equally, and not concentrating one's attention or viewpooint only within one, or within a small range, but looking at the whole. This entails recognizing that the spiritual cosmos as a whole does not operate by cause and effect at all. Instead, it operates by synchronized patterns of consciousness that all emanate from the same source.

If we look around us at the objects in a room, we will see all kinds of shapes and colors. We might imagine that each object radiates a particular "energy", and that this is what makes them appear as they do. If we look closer, however, we will see that there is only one genuine source of light in the room, and that it merely reflects those objects depending on the nature of the light. If we have a very bright light on in the room, things will appear bright, with of course some variations. If the room is lit by a red light, everything will appear reddish in color. If the light is flickering, the objects will appear to flicker. These patterns are not caused by one object in the room affecting the next, in some chain of causation, but by changes in the source light itself. In a similar way, the patterns of this manifest universe are not actually caused by the apparent objects in the universe acting upon one another, but by the pattern of light and energy at the source shifting and changing. The process if infinitely more complex and occurs on many more levels than the analogy of the lighted room could convey, but the principle is similar. The ever-shifting pattern at the subjective, conscious source of this universe creates the changing patterns we see all about us, not the interactions of those patterns themselves. They are in synch with one another, but they do not create that synchronicity through a cause and effect process. Rather, their relationship is at the source, and the similarity in their patterns originates in the source. At each level of manifestation, that pattern exhibits its own character and apparent connectivity, such that it appears at that level as if causation and randomness were what connected each changing pattern, but neither is the case. The source-light is the only thing that changes, and it creates a natural harmony at all levels of manifestation. This synchronized harmony, however, is not visible if one's viewpoint is limited. Limited viewpoints make the mistake of seeing cause and effect as the ruling pattern of manifestation, when this is merely an illusion of perspective. In order to achieve true harmony and thus a true viewpoint on reality, one's viewpoint must include the source-light itself, otherwise one will always be fooled into thinking some causal, karmic process is at work. If one fails to see the source-light, one can't imagine how the objects in the room could possibly be connected other than by causation. But seeing the source-light clarifies the entire picture.

This is why the most important part of our learning is to become familiar with the source of our existence, and not merely to observe the process of appearance in and of itself. If we look to the source as much as possible, it will clarify the many optical illusions created by partial viewpoints. Karma is one of those illusions that seem sensible from a limited perspective, but which begins to evaporate once we look at a larger and larger picture. When our viewpoint begins to include the source-light itself, then everything begins to fall apart and simultaneous come together. We begin to see that cause and effect paths cannot possibly reveal to us the truth or reality, but will only perpetuate illusions in a perpetual cycle of seeming causes that never end up producing the ultimately desired effect of genuine happiness and freedom. The understanding of the world as a karmic cycle of caises and effects cannot possibly lead to liberation from that cycle, therefore, but only to its perpetuation.

We must come to understand the world as being uncaused, and uncreated, in order to find genuine liberation. We must recognize that the source-light "creates" the world in reality, and not through some process of cause and effect that trickles down from the source, but through a process of simultaneous synchronicity, at all levels and in all worlds. Knowing the source si therefore the key to liberation, not knowing how to create effects from the right set of causes. Therefore, there is no method of causation that brings about liberation, but only insight into the nature of the source and its relationship to manifestation.

I would also like to make it clear that this understanding is not some special form of esoteric knowledge only suited for special people. It's just the basic truth about this world and its source. There's no particular reason why anyone couldn't begin to understand it and operate from this understanding. It doesn't negate the basic practical knowledge achieved within any level of existence, or even between levels. It merely relates these levels properly to their source, and orients us to the unifying principle that actually does create this world we live in.

What is that unifying principle? It's nothing more or less than simple love. We can speak of love in many ways, but when understood in relationship to the source, we must recognize that love is at the very root of manifest existence, and it radiates to every part of it simultaneously, not as a process of cause and effect, but as instantaneous harmony. That harmony is not only evident from one aspect of existence to the next, but is most direct evident in relationship to the source. That relationship to the source is what is called love. That is why religion so often speaks of the source in devotional terms. Even non-dual teachings, which tend to use various impersonal abstractions in their language, are all based on the process of deepening love for the source. The experience of love, at any level, represents a basic freedom from cause and effect, and an immediate relationship to the acausal source. That is why love is so precious to us. It instantly penetrates the veils of karma, and relieves us of the heartless burdens of our past actions. Love transforms us at the heart of our existence, by revealing to us the source from which all of manifestation flows. The more deeply we love, the more deeply we are liberated from the karmic cycle, therefore. The process of learning non-dualism, therefore, is entirely about love.

Love does not operate by causes and effects, but by a spontaneous, synchronized harmony with the source of creation, which is not causal in nature at all. The uncreated "buddh", the unborn, is not something that is far away and disassociated from the manifest worlds, it is merely outside the illusion of cause and effect. It is the very heart of the reality of manifestation, which is love, and not some disassociated "emptiness". It is empty of causes and effects, and entities which see themselves as part of that chain of causes and effects, but it is not empty of love of the source-light.This love of our source is all that it realizes and understands, and by understanding the source, all understanding appears in synchronicity with it. We need not accumulate knowledge, therefore, or methods which can produce effects, but we need only love our mutual source and they will manifest themselves spontaneously in the natural course of things. This may take the appearance of causes and effects to those not including the source in their viewpoint, but that is not evidence that causation is the process of how existence works. Love is how existence "works", and by loving we are able to live in harmony with the source, and thus to experience the nature of the source in the midst of its mysteriously manifesting process, which is not properly understood by causal logic.

The best non-dual practice, therefore, is to put loving attention  upon the source of our own existence. Self-enquiry is about love, therefore, and not merely some disassociated process of self -inspection. There is no genuine self-enquiry apart from love of the source, and thus love of all others as manifestations of the same source. This is what it means to love all others as one's very Self. It's important to understand such teachings in an acausal manner, however, because looked at by the logic of causation they would make little sense, and even be false. Following the chain of causation, one only finds oneself trapped in endless loops of effects. By stepping outside of causation, and looking to the source-light that illuminates the world, one is able to drive directly to the source. This is far more effective than any method aimed at producing effects themselves, paradoxically, because it bypasses the time necessary for an effect to be produced. It goes to the source of time, and makes use of the process by which time itself is synchronized to all appearances.

Therefore, it is said that love takes no time at all. And for the same reason, enlightenment takes no time either. This is because it isn't the effect of some cause. It steps entirely outside the time-frame of causes and their effects. It may appear to occur within time, but it does not. The source-light is not visible as an object in the room, it is the light which makes all things appear. It does not appear in time, therefore, but is the source of time. It synchronizes all forms of time, such that all things appear in harmony with one another. Even causes and their effects are harmonized naturally by this process. Even when enlightenment appears to be synchronized with some effect, some teaching incident or the grace of a Guru, it is not caused by any of these - any more than loving someone is caused by anything they did. One loves spontaneously, through recognition of the source, and this allows us our greatest moments of freedom and happiness. The love which is the real nature of enlightenment similarly manifests spontaneously, and not by any method or cause, other than the method of not resorting to any cause.

This is why living by grace is the key to spiritual practice. Genuine spiritual life is uncaused, is spontaneous, is free of any method, is a manifestation of the source. To live by grace, however, does not mean being dependent on some causal source who will make things happen for us by responding to our prayers. It means recognizing that no causes actually exist, and that everything happens by grace, not just "miracles". It means stepping out of the "world as we know it", because what we know is causes and effects, karma, and the source is not a part of that world, because it's an illusion, not the real world at all. In the real world, there are no causes and effects, only a spontaneously synchronized harmony with the source-light. To live in that world requires only that we understand and surrender to our own source.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Karma, Reincarnation, and Causation

"I declare, O Bhikkhus, that volition is Karma. Having willed one acts by body, speech, and thought." 
-Buddha (Anguttara Nikaya) 
 I've been reading up a bit on the traditional understanding of karma. Many of the sources I've looked at, from the Dali Lama to other Buddhist teachers to the Advaitic Saradamma, are rather conventional in their understanding and recommendations. For the most part, they seem to view karma as a universal structure of justice that serves as warning against bad actions, and a spur towards good actions - a kind of cosmic moral police force that rewards good and punishes evil. The result is fairly reasonable moral advice, and one gathers that this is the whole point: whether such a thing as karma exists or not, the purpose of teaching about it is to get people to behave properly. To a degree this even seems rational and good. I simply question whether it's true.

If one comes from the usual western Judeo-Christian background, one gets exposed early on to this police-like function of God. In one form or another - Santa Claus, say - God rewards people who do morally good things, by giving them positive rewards in life. Likewise, God will also punish people who do bad things, and even send them to hell for eternal punishment if they are really bad. A lot of people have come to doubt whether such a God exists, in part because there seems little clear evidence that this sort of reward/punishment system actually exists. A lot of good people suffer and die for what seems like no cause, and a lot of bad people prosper as a result of their badness. Because that kind of evidence is virtually irrefutable, religions tend to hide the "results" of these rewards or punishments until after death - in the case of Christians, there's a judgment day, and one is sent to either heaven or hell as a result. In Hinduism and Buddhism, one's actions determine what happens in future lifetimes, where rewards and punishments will be meted out. 

All of this is extremely suspect, in my view. It's natural enough for people to believe in this sort of thing, it certainly fulfills a kind of fantasy belief in justice and fairness, and it serves a useful self-policing function in society that keeps people in line. The problem in my view is that it just isn't true, on virtually any level at all. I know I'm contradicting a whole lot of people who are a whole lot better than me humanly, spiritually, morally, intellectually, and in just about any other area you could name, but that doesn't mean they are right on this matter of karma. I'd certainly recommend people be downright suspicious of what I say here, and if they prefer the recommendations and ideas of my betters, they are more than welcome to accept them. 

Behind the traditional view of karma as a form of punishment and reward is the notion that often its the inner "intent" or motive behind an action that is more important than the action itself. Thus, if one's intentions are good, it doesn't matter if the results of one's actions turn out badly. This requires that God or karma be a "mind reader", and function in a very different way than the ordinary, mechanical laws of physics. It would be as if, when a pitcher intended to throw a strike, and beaned the batter in the head by accident, the moral "ball" never actually hit that fellow at all, and the pitcher gets off scot-free. The batter, on the other hand, was undoubtedly reaping the punishment for some earlier intentional misdeed on his part, for which he receives a purely accidental beaning. The logic of this is of course rather absurd if one breaks it down in this manner. It requires a force in nature that is able to evaluate every interior thought and motive we have, and assign some kind of moral value to it, positive or negative, and create active results that correspond to these interior thoughts and motives. I must ask you all, does this seem at all plausible?

Even if we can imagine the universe to operate by psychic laws that stretch through every dimension of mind and life, would they really operate in this manner? If we look at the laws of physics that describe the workings of the material world, we see nothing remotely like this at work. We see forces and energies operating without any moral prejudice whatsoever. Unless, of course, we merely define morality as "what is in accord with nature". Thus, smoking cigarettes could be considered morally bad precisely because it causes cancer, and not for any subjective reason. And eating healthy food could be considered morally good precisely because it increases one's health. But this has no meaning in relation to how the world actually operates. Cigarettes don't cause cancer as a form of moral punishment, nor does eating whole grain bread bring about health because it is morally rewarded. Morality in these cases is reduceable to the material effects of material causes themselves. This leads to the simplistic moral notion that if things turn out well, it must have been morally good actions that brought them about, or at least morally good intentions. When it does work out that way, we call it "justice", and when it doesn't, we call it "injustice". The problem, of course, is that morality seems to have virtually nothing to do with the consequences, it's the actual physical laws of the material universe that describe how things come out, and morality is just something we tack on latter. The best of intentions can turn out terribly wrong if they are not accompanied by genuinely correct actions. 

If karma is real, as a universally functioning law of multi-dimensional nature, it too must function by some kind of real structure of energy and force that produces actual results through a morality-free series of causes and effects. We can construct a moral system based on those laws, and use them as a way of describing the results of that system as "fair" or "just", but that doesn't mean that the system itself is based on any moral values. In other words, regardless of one's intentions, the results of those laws would be the same, if the actions were the same. One could perhaps argue that one's intentions actually do create some kind of moral force or energy that creates effects, but if one does, then that is not a literal intention, it is also a form of action. If it is not, then it cannot produce a result. So karma has no power over us other than through the actions we actually perform, even if the actions are forms of thought or emotion. 

But is this what is really meant by "intention" or "volition", as in the Buddha's remark quoted above? I would suggest not, and that what is hidden in this ambiguous concept of karma as being determined by inner intent or motive or volition rather than by outer action is something quite different than is commonly proposed. 

The Bhagavad Gita voices another point of view about karma, and how to act. It says, "Do not act with any thought for the results of one's action". This teaching, I think, comes much closer to the truth of karma and how to transcend it. The view of karma pointed to here is that it comes into being when we seek any results from our actions at all, whether good or bad. I would suggest that this is superior wisdom, for a number of reasons, one of them being that the universe simply does not operate by the reward/punishment system that is so often presumed to control action. This approach is often thought to be "selfless", and it is, but not because it forgoes any genuine rewards that might come. It is selfless because it does not presume any form of moral justice in the universe at all, and recognizes that the entire edifice of moral or spiritual cause and effect is a sham, a lie, and untruth, the binds us to illusions that keep us miserable and unhappy, even if good things do occasionally happen. 

The important thing to recognize about karma, according to this view, is that the cycles of cause and effect are illusory, and that we can best align ourselves with reality by not expecting any results from our actions at all. This is of course an amoral view of reality, one which sees no moral force operative in the universe at all, contrary to traditional views. Much of the Bhagavad Gita actually espouses those views before coming to this final conclusion about the nature of action, suggesting that the traditional views are useful for some, but are not literally true. This is why Krishna tells Arjuna to "abandon all dharmas", which means to abandon all the traditional modes of action which lead to favorable results, and instead to act without any thought for the results of his actions. This is in contradiction to the traditional teaching on karma, which is that we are supposed to keep in mind at all times that all our actions and intentions have consequences, and that we will suffer if we act or even intend incorrectly. To abandon that point of view is a radical recommendation, and I would say one that is based on reality, rather than justified by some morally desirable results that are supposed to follow.

The reason it is good to abandon all courses of action is, I would suggest, because action does not follow any cause and effect pattern. It certainly does not seem to be the case as far as morals and intentions go. Some people will defend this notion on the grounds that we cannot see the results of future lifetimes to judge what occurs, but I would suggest that this is dodging the issue. One of the things I find so refreshing about Drs. Newton and Weiss' past life regression therapy findings is that they didn't uncover any kind of punishment and reward system operating in their patient's past life history. Considering how deeply those ideas are embedded in people in our culture and religions, it suggests that these findings are more likely to be true, in that they clearly go against our conscious and subconscious conditioning. 

What they found instead was a very different kind of reincarnational order, if you will. Instead of people being handed out future lives based on their past life actions, they are given the choice of multiple lives, and select from them on the basis of what they feel they want to do or learn. Difficult or suffering lives are not forced upon souls as punishment for bad actions in past lives, and happy, easeful lives are not given as rewards to those who were morally virtuous. To the contrary, the most advanced souls seem to often choose some very difficult lives, and the least advanced souls often choose the easiest and most pleasure-filled lives. Of course, there are many exceptions to this, and it certainly appears from their many readings that people who have acted selfishly or badly in the past will indeed choose future lives in which they are the victim rather than the perpetrator of such acts, but this is done voluntarily, as a way to get a fuller sense of life's possibilities, and to gain empathy for those who suffer, not as a punishment. 

There is no sign in these studies of any cosmic moral scorecard, and in fact there doesn't seem to be any particular form of moral judgment going on at all. People who had lives in which they did terrible things, such as killing lots of people in Viking conquests, do not suffer any punishments at all for such things, but merely have to deal with a certain degree of insensitivity and even superficiality that results, which requires future lives where they overcome hardships and become more sensitive to others. If that can be learned without any particular tragic victimhood being experienced, no further results are required. The only result that seems to matter is maturity itself, and how that is achieved is largely irrelevant. Some may achieve it through great sufferings, some through inflicting great sufferings, some through very ordinary lives, some through high achieving lives, it hardly matters at all. What matters is that in the course of these lifetimes people learn basic lessons, such as how to love. If much suffering must be meted out in the process, there is no judgment attached to it. 

The reason for this, I gather, is that there is no moral judgment involved in the universe, even at the most Godly levels of existence. The process of a soul's maturation has nothing to do with past actions or their future consequences, but only with the freedom one is able to manifest in the present. That freedom manifests as love, but love is not a part of the cycle of causes and effects. Love essentially has no cause, it is something that is natural to us, and spiritual growth is simply about becoming align to what is natural to us, and not climbing some ladder of causes and effects to get to heaven. There is no such place that is real, because reality is not determined by causes and effects, it is much more direct and immediate and uncaused. Heaven is not a reward, it is the natural state of consciousness prior to all causes and effects. And all action that presumes to create an effect, and thus either a reward or a punishment, will only create the illusion of either rewards or punishments, and in the process, hide the reality of the real universe. This is why we are told to surrender the results of our actions, and to act without any thought for results. In acting in this manner, we let go of the whole illusion of karma, of cause and effect, and we are thus able to live in reality, rather than in illusion. 

The admonition not to engage in such action for the sake of results does not mean that one does not act at all. It means that one acts as a renunciate who surrenders all results - not by giving one's money to charity, say, but by recognizing that what occurs in nature does not happen by any cause and effect process, but by "Grace". This may not change the course of action itself, but it changes one's entire point of view about action. It severs the identification with action, and thus the identification with the egoic "actor". That is why it is considered "selfless". The self which is created by identification with action and its causes and effects is renounced. The process of living by Grace means that one does not try to bring about any particular result at all, but merely accepts the natural course of life as it unfolds. Even if one renounces results, the body will still act. One will not merely sit in samadhi, the body will continue its life in the world as always, but without pursuing any rewards or punishments, but merely living the natural structure of the body and its relations, with no illusory internal "ego" guiding or influencing one's actions. A life that is so surrendered to its own nature is no longer in conflict, because it does not reject any of the results which appear, or seek something different than what happens. The result is an ordinary, natural life, not a life of great achievement or "results". 

We tend to think that we can control the results of our lives, but this is highly suspect. Even Ramana Maharshi taught that it was not possible to alter one's destiny, and that if one desired a particular result, not matter how hard one tried to achieve it, if it was not destined to happen, your actions would not produce that result, and that if it was destined to happen, no amount of action could prevent it from happening. He advocated that people operate under the assumption that they had free will, acting as if every act they undertook was their own choice, but that they should also surrender the notion that the final results could be influenced by their actions. He taught that the only real choice we actually had was whether we would identify with our actions or not, whether we would allow our consciousness to become deluded by identification with the body and its life, or whether we would question this entire structure of action and reaction, cause and effect, that seems to bind us. 

When Ramana asked people to ask themselves "Who am I?" it naturally raises the question of who, indeed, is the one who suffers the results of karma? If there is no ego in reality, then who is it who has karma in the first place, and who will accrue these karmas in future lives? Any honest analysis must conclude that karma applies only to the ego-illusion, and not to our real Self. So if we enquire into the ego's identity, we don't ever find a karmic entity behind it, who accumulates karmas and must fulfill them. Instead, we find an empty suit. The belief in the ego-illusion naturally produces the illusion of karma. The ego knows that it is not forever, that it came into existence at some point and will die at some point. That is why it is always afraid and struggling to survive. It sees its own existence as a cause and effect struggle, because it sees itself as having been caused. That is why it presumes that the universe must be caused, that some God actually created it. And that is why it presumes that the universe operates by the principle of causation. It therefore creates the concept of karma to make the universe seem to conform to its own illusory existence. And it comes to experience all of its conscious life and actions as forms of cause and effect that endlessly creates more egoic lives, as a way to perpetuate the illusion seemingly forever. In this way, the ego never actually and fully dies, but is always reborn as an effect of the previous death. 

What the ego does not want to do is die, which is precisely what would occur if we were to face the reality that causes and effects are an illusory foundation for life and the universe. In reality, the universe is uncaused, and what seems to occur here is utterly spontaneously appearing, a pure manifestation of absolute infinite Spirit. None of it is accomplished by the ego's efforts. It spontaneously happens perfectly well without any egoic effort or action at all. In fact, no such thing is even possible, for there is no ego in reality. What we suffer, then, is an illusion that is superimposed on the uncaused reality of existence. Even every seeming lifetime is not at all what we presume it to be. It is uncaused, and unaffected by our intentions, our inner egoic resolve, or any effort we exert. The ego simply tries to claim credit after the fact, and in the process so disturbs our perception of reality, even of the reality of action, that we cannot see it as it actually is, but impose notions of causation upon it.

Even the subtle ego creates illusions about itself and its purposes in reincarnating. Even if it is not filled with the crude delusions about karma that plague many of us here on earth, it still perpetuates notions of cause and effect that are every bit as deluding, and which also have to be undone if we are to be free of the illusions of causality. However, these are also fully addressed in the process of enquiring into the self as we experience it right now, since the subtle ego is no less present in our material lives now than it is after death. In fact, the inherent contrasts of earthly life exaggerates the subtle ego to such a degree that it's illusions are more easily seen through, if we are attentive to them. Unfortunately, these conflicts between the subtle and the material ego also create all kinds of illusions that are hard to penetrate, such as these childish notions of karma as a form of reward and punishment, and a whole host of religious and spiritual views that have no reality in either the physical or the subtle world, but are a delusional mixture of both in a manner that makes little sense in either context. And even more unfortunately, a lot of religious and spiritual traditions perpetuate these myths because they confer some material advantages to both the religion and the people believing in it. The problem is that those advantages come with serious costs, and the cost is the perpetuation of an unreal view of the universe. 

Of course, perhaps its the case that many people just can't comprehend the idea that the universe is uncaused, and that action itself is uncaused. Perhaps they would only be disturbed by this kind of message. I don't see any reason why that should stop religious  traditions from making clear what is real and what is not, however, and let people sort it out for themselves. I doubt this view will ever be popular, but whoever said that religion needs to be popular? It's enough that it be real.