Copyright © 2001 by Theosophical University Press. All rights reserved.
Much thought is being given these days to our brotherhood with the whole of nature, that we are linked with sun, moon, and stars as closely as we are with the kingdoms coming after us. Here is oneness of essence of every god-spark throughout space because of identity of source in the Unfathomable; and yet, since each bears the fruitage of aeons of evolving, every god-spark is impressed with its unique seal of divinity. A oneness, but with differences — and herein lies the secret of life's unending mystery. This suggests that a vast treasury of individual karmic experience is capsuled within the core of each of us. In brief, we are one with all others in our inmost self, yet every human being has his essential quality or character, his distinctive grain, as it were, running true to form throughout his nature.
Stoic philosophers of ancient Greece and Rome understood that within the cosmos, as well as within every one of its myriad lives, was a creative power which held the plan or purpose, the "reason" for its being, which they named logos. To them logos is spermatikos, "seed-bearing," and from it a host of individual "seed-logoi" come into manifested existence, eventually to return to their source: "indestructible seed-powers, countless in number . . . spread through- out the universe, everywhere shaping, peopling, designing, multiplying . . . " (Edward Vernon Arnold, Roman Stoicism, p. 161)
Throughout its earth cycle, each of these myriad seed-logoi is evolving and therefore making karma, and in so doing is affecting other seed-logoi which in turn affect the destiny of each. It is this interrelationship and intermingling of karmas that make our lives difficult to understand at times. Problems arise now and then because we tend to think of karma as something inflicted upon us by an outside force, a kind of nemesis or dread fate falling upon us when we are least prepared, avenging some unknown deeds done, or left undone, in this life or in lives long past. In reality karma is an outflowing of our very self. Seldom do we look upon the universal law of cause and effect as healing, merciful because of its restorative power.
With the earliest Greeks, Nemesis was a goddess who personified our conscience, our inborn fear of committing wrong against the gods; also, our reverence for the moral and spiritual law of harmony, of balance. We have forgotten that the gods are not separate from ourselves and that we are an extension of their life essence, their care for us being as intrinsic a part of our growing process as our protection is for the atomic lives evolving within the human hierarchy. Naturally we ask ourselves what good it does to suffer the consequences in this life of deeds we don't remember committing in a previous life. We feel it would be fairer if we did remember, for if we knew where we had gone astray we would not object to meeting the consequences now; also, we could more easily see where to make amends. Yet, when all is said and done, we do remember our past, for the past is ourselves: we are the karma, the fruit, of our ages-long experience unfolding itself in the present. True, our physical brain, being newly formed for this life, has little power of recall, but this is not all we are. The personalities we assume from life to life are strung on a "thread-self" (sutratman) like beads on a cord. While the beads or personalities are only partially conscious of the radiant self linking them together and from which they draw their life-force, our atmic self or sutratman does remember. Something of the aroma of awareness carried over into each new personality may be intuited in moments of inner quiet.
Buddhist texts remind us that the time will come when we shall be required to gain knowledge, not only of our immediately preceding life, but of "the sequence of births and deaths." (Visuddhi Magga, Buddhaghosa (5th c. AD); cf. World of the Buddha, ed. Lucien Stryk, p. 159 et seq.) By then we will have become sufficiently mature spiritually to handle such knowledge without injury to others or to ourselves, and will have earned the boon of instantaneous recall of the wisdom that is innately ours.
All of this leads to large reflections, taking us beyond the immediacy of present circumstances to previous incarnations, possibly even to former world cycles. We cannot envision a beginning beyond which no causes were set in motion, for every god-spark is a consciousness, a living being that has been pursuing its individual course of evolution for aeons. We humans, within the tidal flux and ebb of our planet's growth pattern, have likewise a long history of births and deaths, successes and failures; more important, our entry into earth life, whatever the situation or place, is an outflowing of our karma, the inevitable consequence of causes sown in former incarnations.
By the law of magnetic attraction, whatever comes to us we ourselves must at some time have set in motion, knowingly or not. Every instant of our lives we are impressing on our entire being the quality of our thinking and feeling, lofty or base. It is we who leave these imprints on our life-atoms and, as the soul returns again and again to earth, those very life-atoms also return to us, to form anew our several sheaths, physical, mental, and spiritual. No one reaps a harvest that is not of his or her own making — in benefits and strength of character for good seed sown; in deprivations and weakness of will for tares. Not only is karma the stern yet always beneficent recorder of every movement of consciousness for humans, but likewise for all entities from atomic to macrocosmic. To regard karma as an avenging demon or a rewarding angel is to judge by externals. Whatever its evolutionary standing, each entity is its own lipika or "scribe," its own recorder, awakener, and friend. Just as we leave our characteristic mark on every particle of our composite constitution, just so every other entity is doing likewise.
All of us undergo trials that are hard to justify from the narrow limits of a single life; we are subject to laws and influences that seemingly have little relation to our personal lives: national, racial, global, even solar and cosmic in scope. When kindly and thoughtful persons suffer a cruel fate it is incomprehensible that they could have committed terrible wrong in the past. And what about the inexpressible suffering of the many millions through famine, war, or natural catastrophe?
If, indeed, the one inviolable law in the universe is karma, whose face is compassion and whose reverse is justice, then in the final reckoning it is impossible for an individual to undergo any experience that ultimately does not derive from some portion of his constitution, which extends from the divine to the physical. As the workings of karma are mysterious, they are not easily discerned. What happens to one may not be the result of evil deeds in the past, but may well be impulsed by the higher self for its own benefic purposes. Man's Search for Meaning by the Austrian psychiatrist Viktor Frankl is moving testimony to the fact that out of the hell and horror of concentration camps heroes were born. The ordeal for each of them must have been an initiation of a most powerful sort.
The fact that a few tragically misguided people can plunge a whole nation of fine men and women into conditions that normally no one of them would tolerate, must have its seeding long ago. Ever since we were lighted with the fire of mind and became aware of ourselves as thinking beings, we have had the power to choose between right and wrong. For millions of years we have been responsible for our thoughts and emotions and the deeds that spring from them. Because of the power of choice, and because we are as yet imperfectly developed, we are bound to make wrong choices, especially when the pull of the material seems stronger than the pull of the spiritual.
Human nature evolves slowly and today, as in the past, we have a choice between selfish and unselfish instincts; between acting for our own benefit, or for the benefit of our family and community. With every decision we are setting in motion causes for good or ill, which eventually will have their effects upon us and our surroundings. To be able to trace the interwebbings of karma among nations would require a knowledge far beyond present human capability — a comprehension of the vast panorama of past sowing by nations and individuals long ages ago. As we each have our individual karma, and are born in a certain country at a certain time, we also to some degree participate in its national karma.
If we conceive that justice and harmony are inherent in the universal order and that nature ever works to restore disturbed equilibrium, we must conclude that everyone, barring none, is reaping the quality of experience that belongs to him. When we are beset with trials beyond our control, perhaps our higher self is rejoicing at the opportunity offered us to learn valued lessons, nurture compassion and, possibly, in these particular circumstances to be of quiet help to those around us in greater need than we. Have we not all discovered, usually after many years, that the harshest passages of our life yielded lasting gifts? "Blessings in disguise" is the common phrase, suggesting an intuitive recognition that pain and sorrow hold hidden beauties, not least in our deepened love and understanding for those in travail.
Having suffered the illness and death of many close friends, I have thought often, "If only I had the power to heal; if only I could bring surcease of pain." As I have grown older I have come to realize that this may not be the wisest and most compassionate way to help. I have come to understand that the kindest and most effective way to sustain another is to help him find the courage and the love and the confidence to meet his karma creatively. Of course we should use the medical aids that are normally available, but let us allow our friend the honor and the dignity of recognizing that he has the capacity to handle his karma with understanding. Maybe his body will die earlier than the norm, but in meeting the karma that is his, he is accepting consciously the privilege of working through a heavy karmic experience for a beneficent purpose. There is solace and strength for both the dying and the living in being able to take this attitude.
How best can we stand by? By getting down and weeping with our friend? Yes, there may be tears, tears of understanding and love, not of pity and despondency; tears of recognition that the soul has the courage to take on a severe ordeal, knowing that a great cleansing process is going on, a clearing of the karma for the future. It doesn't need a lot of words — words are often quite unnecessary. But there has to be a willingness to be strong, steadfast, and loyal, so that our friend may draw on our caring strength when he most needs it.
How do we know what the soul must undergo to be truly free? How do we know that the terrible suffering, which may in a sense be worse for the bystander than for the one going through it, is not the very karma that the soul has been yearning for? But to shrug off another's pain is diabolic and leads to hardness of heart. Such an attitude is to miss the whole purpose of life. We must relieve suffering as far as we can; in every possible way we must share our sympathy and understanding — not by lifting the burden from another's shoulders, but by helping him to meet and carry his life's challenges with greater confidence in himself and in the larger perspective.
When we reflect on the meaning of disabling affliction, be it physical, psychological, or mental — often calling for infinite resources of patience and love — we are bound to ask why? Why are some born into a tortured body, or others struck down by crippling accident or illness? What assigns one to a life of advantage, while another, possibly with richer potential, has to fight every inch of the way just to handle a body nonresponsive to normal command, and then is obliged often to work far more intensively to achieve a flowering of mind and spirit? Millions of people today are carrying a burden of private sorrow and asking themselves where is the justice and mercy in a universe supposedly administered by an all-loving God? It is cold comfort indeed to anguished parents to be told it is God's will, the decree of Allah, or the working out of old karma.
The cause and cure of suffering reach to the core of mystery and will remain beyond our comprehension, beyond the words of all the teachings humanity has received, until we can feel with every atom of our being the compassion of divine purpose behind all that happens. Certainly no one can say categorically that a child born with a congenital malformation is paying for some misdeed in a previous life or lives. It may well be the case; but equally it may not be so at all. Is it not conceivable, for example, that a returning entity — for we are primarily spirit-souls, not bodies — could be far enough advanced interiorly to "choose" the karma of severe deprivation in order to gain a profound empathy with all who suffer? Is it not also possible that a reincarnating ego, in need of temporary respite from certain mental and emotional pressures, selects a "retarded" vehicle for an incarnation? Again, it could be that cruelty or selfishness had been so ingrained in the character that the surest means of removing the warp is to take birth in an impaired body so that empathy and compassion might be burned deep into the soul and the nature gentled.
"Judge not that ye be not judged" — only one able to read the spiritual history of an individual would be able to determine just what lines of karma had been traced in lives long gone that culminated in the precise conditions which the reincarnating ego now finds itself handling — or not handling — in this life. All of us have been weaving grandeur and baseness into the tapestry of our soul; but when we intuit, as many do, that we are linked with our divine parent and that whatever we experience of joy or pain is an intrinsic part of our destiny that we have been building for cycles beyond number, we know that there is a fitness and a beauty in even the most heartrending of circumstances.
A letter typewritten with a mouth-stick by a friend, who from birth has weathered the trauma of severe disablement, bears this out. Viola Henne earns her living as an artist, and devotes what time and energy she can to working with children and young adults who are more incapacitated than she is. Viola is not concerned with what they can't do; she focuses on what they can do. In this way she energizes their will and creative talent to bring forth whatever potential they have. She writes:
Please promote erasing the false idea that people get about the word "karma." Neither I nor others handicapped have been "punished" by being in damaged bodies (brains, or . . . ). No! In fact, once one's consciousness has sprung past the illusions of faulty education, then in a flash one changes one's attitude about the disability — changes and realizes once and forever that the damaged form is not a punishment but a holy privilege, through which one is at last permitted to "work" on a conscious (awakened) level.
It's like wearing a proper costume to "go to work" — the damaged vehicle is a necessary and self-imposed outer draping. Our own inner mechanisms permit the current "body" and momentary circumstances so that the teaching-learning conditions may be met. Each of us has in some moment of time had to "pay" for past errors in thought or deed. Able-bodied people are not purer than cripples; they "pay" for their errors via a different cause-and-effect situation.
Karma — the word should be explained as meaning "circumstances currently the soul chose as the best opportunity for the soul's growth and for teaching others."
A powerful response to the question "Is life fair?" by one who refused to stay bitter and has consecrated her gift of courage and love to all in need of hope and self-worth. Even when someone's life is heavy with trial, to feel that he or she has a very "bad" karma this time round is to hold a totally mistaken view from the standpoint of the human soul or reincarnating ego. Purucker said it well: "we are our own karma," meaning by this that everything that comes to us, in character or in circumstance, is an outflowing of ourselves — our past. If we or those we love have trying and painful circumstances to go through, ill health, personal reverses, or the like, this is not "bad" karma. Admittedly, it may be an extremely difficult karma to meet, but if in the long run it furthers the progress of the soul, it must be counted beneficent.
This is one of the most helpful ideas because many today are feeling crushed under the weight of life's burdens. When we realize that we are our karma, then we know that whatever is unrolling before us is really ourselves having the opportunity to learn and to grow and to deepen our perceptions and our understanding. As our sympathies expand beyond the periphery of our personal problems and we observe the humor and dignity with which others, seemingly less favored than ourselves, face their life situation, we may discover that those of us who have the most difficulty in handling our character failings are the more disadvantaged. A bit of self-examination is therapeutic, reminding us that we are all fellow climbers, and that those who appear to be making little progress may well be clearing the way of obstacles for themselves and for others behind them that otherwise might have proved insurmountable.
Of course, it is easy to philosophize when one has reasonably sound health and comfortable circumstances. But what of the poverty-stricken, and those doomed to die of disease or starvation? Shall we say it is their karma and they will have to work through it, with better luck, hopefully, next life? Such an attitude would be reprehensible. Obviously, it is their karma or they wouldn't have to meet those conditions; but how can we isolate their karma from our own? We are one family, and all of us have had a share in creating the present difficult circumstances. Besides, is it not also our karma to be profoundly concerned, and if at all possible to help alleviate the awful misery that exists in so many parts of our globe? There is some consolation in the fact that the world conscience is awakening and becoming more sensitive and acute, so that an increasing number of self-sacrificing and knowledgeable men and women are already dedicating their lives to practical humanitarian service.
Much as our hearts yearn to be of help, many of us can offer little in the way of tangible relief. But there is not one of us who cannot work to eradicate the causes — deep-seated and long in the making — that have resulted in humanity's plight. This is an enormously long-range goal, admittedly, but does this make it any the less worthy? In a letter written in 1889 to the American theosophists assembled in convention, HPB quotes these lines from one of her teachers:
"Let not the fruit of good Karma be your motive; for your Karma, good or bad, being one and the common property of all mankind, nothing good or bad can happen to you that is not shared by many others." . . . "There is no happiness for one who is ever thinking of Self and forgetting all other Selves."
And then this telling sentence:
"The Universe groans under the weight of such action (Karma), and none other than self-sacrificial Karma relieves it." — H. P. Blavatsky to the American Conventions: 1888-1891, p. 22.
This is provocative, and is there one human being to whom it does not apply? Indeed, the universe groans under the weight of our selfish acts and thoughts, and it is we, individually and collectively, who are responsible insofar as we contribute to that weight. Being human, all of us have mixed motives to a degree; but we have before us the grand ideal of making our lives altruistic. This is a goal that requires many lifetimes to attain, but it is a goal worth keeping ever living in our hearts. When it becomes the dominant influence in our daily experience, we shall express a larger measure of unselfishness than of its opposite.
Selfishness inhibits the natural growth of the soul; it is inimical to the growth of mankind, because it is a turning in upon oneself. Conversely, not thinking ourselves to be of first importance releases light from within, and the light which flows into our souls bursts the barriers of our personalities and sheds a radiance upon the lives of others. It is a fact that every altruistic impulse and aspiration, uniting with an elemental being, sends its influence into the thought atmosphere of our world, and every individual who is in sympathetic vibration with that quality of aspiration responds in kind. His life is ennobled and his surroundings irradiated. In like manner the opposite is true, and for this also we are accountable.
No matter what outer circumstances karma may place us in, we can always remember that we are souls, each of us having his individual dharma to fulfill. Krishna tells Arjuna that the dharma of another is full of peril, and even if it is not the most excellent path, he is admonished to fulfill the dharma that belongs to the self (sva-dharma) (Bhagavad-Gita 3:35; W. Q. Judge recension, p. 21). In this way he shall be following his own path, and doing that for which he was born into this world.
Orientalists have translated dharma variously — duty, truth, law, religion, piety — but all those words are only an approach, they do not convey the richness of thought imbodied in the Sanskrit term. Dharma, from the verb dhri, "to bear, to carry, to sustain," implies that each of us came into incarnation bearing a destiny that is ours, sustaining the truth of our inner being as we fulfill our outward duties to the best of our ability. We have first to recognize our destiny as being within, not outside of ourselves. We don't have to go to Tibet, America, Thailand, or Africa to find it. We are our destiny, our karma, our individual dharma.
There is so much awry in human relationships all over the world that it may take many ages to set things right; no doubt we've tallied up quite a karmic score against us that must be balanced. But we should not overlook the other side of the ledger, the nobler entries made in this life and in lives gone by. Could it not be that the intensity of global and individual suffering and confusion of values is due as much to a karmic awakening, a stimulus from our higher selves, as it is to karmic debts still unpaid?
Surely we were meant to live our lives as a wholeness and not be continually fractured by anguish or despair. Sorrow comes to us all, but like rain to Mother Earth it should nourish and bring new growth. So let us give ample room for joy in our lives, the inner joy that warms the heart and balances the karmic scales. One day, in this life or in another, we may be able to look at all we have been through with the eyes of the seer we intrinsically are — as an eagle high above our earth karma — and glimpse with panoramic vision our entire experience, past and present, in terms of motivation as well as in deeds. We shall know that all hindrances, all suffering, physical and mental, and also death, are part of the natural pattern of growth, etching into the soul the larger perception, the truer love, the deeper caring for all.
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