A friend emailed me yesterday, and asked “If the Buddhist doctrine of anatta (which holds that the self is an illusion) is true, who is it that is accumulating karma? I’m genuinely puzzled by this, especially as it pertains to the concept of re-incarnation and the Atman (two seemingly incongruent concepts to anatta).”
[My friend was asking about karma, which is the idea that we are the inheritors of the results of our actions – in other words, the idea that what we sow, we reap. A common example of karma: if we eat healthily, exercise, and get enough sleep, we will probably be relatively physically healthy, and, if we don’t, we won’t. Simple enough.
The idea that our actions create results is sometimes envisioned as something like a positive bank account, or a negative debt, that can build up. So – my friend was wondering – the concept of karma (and, also, the Buddhist/Hindu/Asian idea that we are reincarnated into another life after we die) seem contradictory to the central Buddhist teaching of anatta, or no-self – a concept that is sometimes translated into English as “we do not have a ‘self'”].
Someone once asked Chogyam Trungpa: “If Buddhism says that there is ‘no self’, what is it that gets reincarnated?” Chogyam reportedly thought for a bit, and then replied: “Your bad habits”.
I love that. By bad habits, I think that Chogyam meant the impurities of mind that in Buddhism are called the kleshas.
My teacher Shinzen Young says that the kleshas are to human consciousness as viscosity is to a hydrodynamic system, friction is to a mechanical system, or impedance is to an alternating current system. The kleshas are the “tangles” in our deep mind/”soul”. And the most fundamental klesha is moha or avidya, “ignorance”, which largely consists of satkayadrishti – which literally translates to “self-body-view”, and figuratively translates to thinking of and seeing our self as a solid, separate thing. This is equivalent to thinking of a wave in the ocean as a “thing”, a thing that is separate from the ocean as a whole, and that has some sort of essence of “waveness” that is different from the water that it consists of.
Our kleshas are the aspects of mind that block our liberation, and have us feel ourselves to be a solid, separate, suffering entity. And, so the theory goes, they travel from rebirth to rebirth, until, through spiritual practice, they are untangled. But they themselves do not constitute a true separate self – they are persistent patterns of mind energy, no more. If a wave somehow was able to have the thought, “hey guyz sup look at me im a wave lol”, that thought would not give it some sort of “Essence of Waveness” separate from the ocean as a whole, or separate from just being water.
We can say that a curl forms on the crest of a wave in the ocean, or say that a wave is increasing or decreasing in amplitude, while also understanding that, really, the wave is an action and expression of the whole ocean, and there is no such thing as a wave separate from the ocean or the water. We can similarly talk about karma and the kleshas in a person, without believing that there is an essence of “person” separate from the process of Life as a universal whole.
To say that “a person is cultivating [good or bad] karma” is considered in Buddhism to be a statement of conventional, apparent reality – to speak in this way is like when we say “the Sun rises” or “the Sun disappeared behind the clouds”. We all know that these statements about the Sun are scientifically, technically inaccurate and imprecise way of speaking, but they are perfectly true, valid, and real, as far as they go, within the conventional conversational system in which such phrases exist. It’s similar to how twentieth-century physics didn’t disprove classic Newtonian physics so much as show that force, vectors, and molecules were perfectly true as a clumsy way of talking about things on a gross level, so long we don’t look too closely at the weird interconnected, energy-not-matter level that is actually, more profoundly happening.
Karma for people is similar to how, if we are playing Monopoly or World of Warcraft or any other game, there are certain rules that govern what we can or can not do within the system of that game. The rules are real within the context of the game – if we make certain choices and take certain actions, there will be certain predictable outcomes within the game, and those outcomes may compound and build on each other to the positive or negative. So, while we are within the game environment, we usually try to win it by following the game rules.
And, while we are in the middle of a game, it can seem real and gripping – in fact, we can get so wrapped up in games that we get panic-y and anxious when things go wrong, we can say unkind things in anger to other players if they damage our position, or we can forget to attend to real-world appointments outside of the game. But, fundamentally and ultimately, we know that the game is not “real”, that the rules of the game are not “real”, and that winning the game just gives us the pleasure of the experience, but nothing more “real” than that. So, perhaps a bigger victory than winning the game is to wake up and realize that we are just playing a game, to relax and enjoy it for as long as we play, and then to return to real life (a choice more-or-less dramatized in the movies “The Matrix” and “Inception”).
In this analogy:
- The game = human life
- The player(s) of the game = The universe/nature/Divinity/The Cosmic Dance
- Winning within the game rules = “good” karma
- Losing within the game rules = “bad” karma
- Getting lost in the game, forgetting about the real world = moha, the impurity of spiritual ignorance (which Buddhist teaching says is the root of all of our human suffering)
- Remembering, moment by moment, that the game is just a game = satori, moksha, bodhi, liberation, awakening, enlightenment, removing the kleshas
- Putting the pieces away or turning off the computer, ending the game = “nirvana without remnant” – in other words, according to the Buddhist tradition, not being reborn at the end of our current lives
Going back to the earlier “patterns in water” metaphor – if there is a whirlpool/eddy in the water of a flowing creek, that whirlpool will last as long as conditions that support its existence. If we remove a rock or tree branch that is causing the whirlpool from the creek, the pattern we take to be the whirlpool disappears. Did something actually change? In a way, yes. But, in another equally valid way of looking at things, nothing really changed – the creek has the same flow of water as it did before, just in a different pattern.
- The water flowing in the creek = The Universe/nature/Divinity/The Cosmic Dance
- The whirlpool = a person (being born through various lifetimes, if the Buddhist tradition is to be believed – just as a whirlpool is constituted by different water flowing through it from one day to the next)
- The hole at the center of the whirlpool = our suffering
- Conditions creating the whirlpool = our karma, our kleshas, our patterns
- Removing the conditions that create the whirlpool = sadhana, meditation, spiritual practice, removing the kleshas
(I suppose to be fully technical about it, what gets removed is the whirlpool’s thought and feeling that it has an essence of whirlpool separate from the creek, not the whirlpool itself – but that’s a little harder to make an analogy out of 🙂 )