The third Thought that Turns the Mind to Practice is contemplation on karma. Karma is commonly described as cause and effect. Something happens to us which then becomes the cause for our response, the effect. We perceive something and this is the cause of our reaction. If the perception is distorted then our response is also likely to be distorted. If we perceive through the filter of our referential, neurotic patterning, then our response will also be coloured by that referential, neurotic patterning. To make matters worse, if we respond in alignment with our distorted patterning, then we make that pattern even stronger, even more ingrained.
However, our response, the effect, or the reaction is not predetermined – even though it may sometimes feel as though it is.
We can discover the space between perception and response, action and reaction, cause and effect. Spiritual practice offers a real and potent opportunity to undermine our own patterning. We can take control of our reaction and discover freedom from patterned response.
Karma can be misunderstood to mean that everything bad that we have ever done or thought is somehow stored up somewhere, and that at some point we will have to experience the consequences – like Marley’s Ghost1 burdened by a long chain of interpersonal misdemeanours. We may understand karma to mean ‘If I am nasty to you, then at some point you are going to have to be nasty to me.’ We may think that merit2 is a repository where the good thoughts and deeds are stored—like some helium balloon relieving us of the weight of our chain—but we may never feel terribly confident that the ‘merit balloon’ is as powerful as the miscreant chain.
Although the approach of Sutrayana is to gradually replace unhelpful actions and attitudes with helpful ones, this is often misunderstood as increasing the balloon of merit and decreasing the weighty chain of misdeeds. Cause and effect however, is not some kind of mechanism inherent in the fabric of reality. It is created by the way we have trained ourselves to perceive. The root of karma is dualism – the perceptual separation of emptiness and form. Through attaching to form and rejecting emptiness, we distort our reality dualistically. This leads us to manufacture our own discomfort.
I hold on to the hurt I felt I received from Mrs Jones, in order to remind me to be wary of her next time. When I meet her, I remember the hurt and protect myself by being cold or aggressive towards her.
Mrs Jones senses the aggression and responds aggressively towards me. I feel justified in my approach because of her aggression, and congratulate myself for effective self-protection. The pattern is laid down. Any chance of discovering that Mrs Jones is friendly is lost. Our inability to enter openly into the empty-opportunity of my second meeting with Mrs Jones, is instigated by the projection of the emotional form-memory of my previous meeting. This is the process of duality and the functioning of karma. When dualism ceases however – karma ceases. When form and emptiness are recognised as a unified experience, there is no dualistic distortion woven into perception and therefore no karmic cause. There is therefore no distortion to be experienced as a karmic effect. I can meet Mrs Jones for the first time – every time we meet.
If karma is seen as independent of the individual experiencing karma, then we have a form of fatalism, which has more in common with predestination as it is presented in popular Hinduism. Dzogchen views karma in terms of ‘perception and response’ rather than ‘cause and effect’3. The essential meaning is the same but this approach opens our understanding of karma so that we cannot mistake it for fatalism. If the cause—which is our perception—perceives a focus of attraction, aversion, or indifference, the effect will be our response to that cause. There is no sense in which the actual circumstances of our lives are preordained according to a system of rewards and punishments for our previous actions. This is a primitive misconception which would make enlightenment dependent upon karma.
A misunderstanding of cause and effect as predestination makes it seem as though there could be no escape. It could feel as if there is no room to move or possibility of free will. This view offers no hope of change or incentive to engage in spiritual practice. This view of karma as a process of balancing merit and sin, does not function well as a ‘Thought to Turn the Mind to Practice’. It is a structural linear approach and perhaps some people respond well to the discipline of filling the merit balloon and avoiding additions to the chain of egregious behaviour.
However for me, this approach to the principle of karma produced despondency, a feeling of powerlessness, and a belief that grinding, sparkle-dimming self-control was my only method of escape. Considering karma as perception and response offered me a sparkling, spontaneous approach. When I came to understand the view of karma in terms of motivation, and as perception and response, the process of cyclic existence became transparent.
As a result of distorted perception, I respond in a manner which conforms to the cyclic patterns of my neurotic conditioning. I interpret a situation in a particular dualistic way, based on my habitual referential patterning. I judge the situation and interpret it through learned responses. I filter my clear, naked, unconditioned perception through referential conditioning and self-protection. I am unaware that I automatically measure every experience against previous experience and roll out the response that seems to best fit the situation: I see this as a threatening situation (empty) so I must protect myself with aggression (form); I see this as an attractive situation (form) so I must hang on to it as long as possible (make it more form); I see this as a neutral situation so I do not really care.
We respond with emotion, action, behaviour or communication that is based in dualistic perception. We look for the interpretation and response that seems safest or most attractive for retaining and substantiating form. We attempt to avoid emptiness. Dualistic response reflects the distortion we create through dualistic perception. This could also be called action and reaction.
This happens so I respond with that. I experience a particular emotional response to a situation and react to it in a particular way—creating a cause—and at some point I will experience an effect of that cause which I have laid down.
Cause and effect are often misunderstood in a fatalistic manner, as if our lives are predetermined with no possibility of chance or free will. Such an approach ignores the unknown factor of chaos and the possibility of choice of response. It also negates the non-duality of ‘form is emptiness and emptiness is form’. If a particular cause always created a definite, certain, corresponding effect, that would mean that both the cause and the effect were eternal and could never change. Although this would appear to be eternal form, because it had become permanent, separate and defined, in fact it would actually have become emptiness. Only emptiness is changeless. Once movement ceases, we are no longer dealing with form, because it is the nature of form to move and change. Movement, change, and impermanence define form. Form arises, abides, and dissolves. The whole idea of changeless eternal form is nonsense because perception can never be independent of the perceiver, and effect can never be independent of the effector.
Let us examine this using a mundane example: eating Brussels sprouts. If I have never come across sprouts in my life up till now, then I have never created a Brussels-sprout-reaction. The cause has not arisen. My taste sense has never perceived sprout taste, and I have never experienced attraction, aversion or indifference to it. No cause, no effect. One day however, I am given sprouts with my meal. My perception initially is likely to be open, because it is a new experience. The minute the sprout stimulates the sense of taste, I perceive the taste of sprout.
I immediately judge that experience against previous like/dislike responses, and say, ‘Hey, this is nice – crunchy and fresh, with a good strong vegetable flavour’. With this response I have created an attraction response, and begun a pattern of attraction to sprouts. However my response might be, ‘Good grief this tastes like a mouldy sock. It tastes foul!’ With this response I have created an aversion response, and begun a pattern of sprout aversion. Sprout perception and sprout attraction do not exist independently. Sprout perception and sprout aversion do not exist independently. I may remember the feeling, but the perception and response will not arise again unless the cause of eating sprouts is revisited.