Were we shown a video review of our lives, would we, seeing the sequence of events, realize that we could have done better, that we could have been more loving and caring, could have developed more of our spiritual potential?
It is not too late. We still have time and the power to achieve whatever we desire thanks to the operations of karma — a Sanskrit word meaning action or consequences. Sir Edwin Arnold states this clearly:
My brothers! each man's life
The outcome of his former living is:
The bygone wrongs bring forth sorrow and woes,
The bygone right breeds bliss. -- The Light of Asia, Bk 8
Every one of the world's great religious and philosophical systems mentions this teaching. Moslems talk about Kimet, one's lot in life, or the Fate we make as we write with our thoughts and deeds our individual Script of Destiny; ancient Greeks mention the retributive justice of the goddess Nemesis and the three Spinners of Destiny, the Moirai of Past, Present, and Future; Hebrews and Christians speak repeatedly of sowing and reaping — Jesus was asked if a man was born blind because of his sins or those of his father? Oriental philosophies, social mores, and scientific research are based upon cause and effect, giving and receiving, action and corresponding or opposing reaction.
Still few understand: if more did and applied these principles in their lives, the world in time would be freer from its load of suffering and confusion. But the concept of karma, whose philosophical rationale has been elucidated in the writings of H. P. Blavatsky and others, is being popularized in plays, novels, songs, and catchy slogans like, "what goes around comes around," and "you'll get what you give." Serious thinkers, realizing that karma is one of the most important factors in understanding and improving ourselves and the world, are offering in-depth explanations of its intricate workings: explanations which can help us understand what karma means, how it works, what constitutes good and bad karma, if it is possible to rise above or avoid the consequence of our deeds, and why so many good people suffer poverty and disease.
Karma implies that when a being moves — and thinking and feeling are forms of motion — it is impelled from within and expends a portion of its own vital force. This force, colored as it is by feelings of love or hate, jealousy, annoyance, or whatever, not only affects that individual's nature as it moves through his system towards expression, but impacts upon the environment and affects every being and thing therein. Furthermore, this movement and its impact bring about both an instantaneous and a delayed reaction — the one usually seen, the other unseen because affecting the inner or psychological natures of those involved. Now the action-reaction that flowed from the originator's mind, heart, and body and impacted upon the minds, hearts, and bodies of all who felt its force, produces additional and continuing actions and reactions from all the individuals involved. Could we see this energy flowing outwards and spreading, we would perceive not one chain of action-reaction-action extending from an infinite past into an infinite future, but a web of interacting strands binding and connecting us with friends, associates, and a vast host of other living beings.
Picture a doctor who, alone in his laboratory, discovers a cure for cancer. Hundreds of thousands all over the world will benefit from his endeavor, most of whom will never know he exists. Or is there some karmic connection that enabled them and not others to be cured? In addition, the blessings generated by all who are helped not only will return to that doctor, but will bind together all those involved in a special and beneficial way. This is because karma is the manifestation of that which already exists within and unseen. Though we are not aware of it, involved relationships exist between every cause and its effect, between every actor, the cause of his action, and those who experience the effects of his deeds. Everything that happens, no matter how accidental it seems, is the fruit of previous sowing.
Understanding this, we realize the tremendous power our thoughts and intentions have on our world; and how seriously we disturb and unbalance nature's ecosystem when we think irresponsibly. For, as the Buddhist scripture tells us:
All that we are is the result of what we have thought: it is founded on our thought, it is made up of our thoughts. If a man speaks or acts with an evil thought, pain follows him, as the wheel follows the foot of the ox that draws the carriage. — Dhammapada, 1:1 [F. Max Muller, trans., Sacred Books of the East, 10:3.]
Were historians able to follow the course of causes and effects, there would be no question as to why the world is in its present condition.
Furthermore, as we create and shape events, we create and shape ourselves. Eastern scriptures are explicit: by the quality of our desires, thoughts, and actions we determine our appearance, our mental and psychological characteristics, our birth, life situations, death and after-death experiences. Everything is shaped by karma, which alone carries over from life to life. They sum up this whole complicated process in one word — phala, fruit — we are the fruit of our past and the seeds of our future. The child is father of the man and the man is parent of the child he will be in the future.
In this we realize that karma is more than action and reaction, more than nature's unceasing effort to restore balance. It is character: the character each becomes as a result of lifetimes of acting and reacting, learning and growing. Acknowledging this we no longer blame others, or the dark hand of Fate, for our troubles, knowing that we have created them and that we alone can change them by taking responsibility for and directing our own evolution. This isn't easy, but fortunately we have various codes of conduct to aid us. Ethics is the most reliable method of harmonizing mind and emotions and aligning our entire constitution with our spiritual self.
The Buddhist code is specific: in order to free ourselves from ignorance and suffering, it recommends that we take refuge in the Law (Dharma), that is, that we raise our consciousness to higher levels by contemplating spiritual truths. Following the Noble Eightfold Path consists in doing our best in every situation: having the most complete understanding of truth or belief, the highest resolve, the best speech, behavior, occupation, effort, contemplation, and concentration. Doing this we impress and in degree spiritualize our entire nature so that our life, character, and after-life experiences are refined and ennobled.
Christians have a similar code consisting of four virtues: prudence, justice, temperance, and fortitude, which Jesus encompassed in a single commandment: "That ye love one another, as I have loved you" (John 15:12). Arabian writers illustrated the power of such love in a story about a young girl, Rabi'a, who once was asked:
"Do you love God Almighty?" "Yes." Do you hate the Devil?" "My love of God," she replied, "leaves me no leisure to hate the Devil. . . . [my] love of God hath so absorbed me that neither love nor hate of any other thing remains in my heart" [R. A. Nicholson, A Literary History of the Arabs, p. 234].
By loving we bind ourselves to the rhythmic cycles of evolving life. Every individual human, animal, or plant that acts with love, helps restore balance and harmony, and in addition generates in the invisible environment of the world energies that produce works of love, of beauty, and peace. This is important for our sake and for the world's if we would counteract the evil produced by centuries of ignorance and selfish endeavors, the consequence of which is enough to crush men's souls — or to awaken them to reform.
When we judge events from the soul's point of view, we realize that all karma is good karma in that it provides opportunity for growth. An awakening soul would find little challenge in a life of ease, but in adversity, poverty, and illness it could find an opportunity to benefit others, to work off unexpended karma, and to develop important spiritual qualities: fortitude, discernment, and compassion. It is for this reason, no doubt, that many good and innocent people, including children and older folk, suffer so greatly. They are strong souls who inwardly know that what comes is for the best, that nature's operations are just. Therefore the load will be tempered to their strength and endurance.
W. Q. Judge brings this and other ideas home with a story: [told in "Thoughts on Karma," The Path (7:5), Aug 1892, pp. 157-61; reprinted in Echoes of the Orient, Point Loma Publications, San Diego, 1975, 1: 256-9]. There was once an Eastern prince who committed a dreadful crime, the penalty of which was that a great stone should be dropped down upon him. Knowing this would kill the young man instead of giving him a chance to reform and make restitution, the counselors ordered the stone to be broken into pieces, some to be dropped on the prince, some on his children, and the rest on his grandchildren when and as they were able to bear it. This was done. Three generations were thus made to suffer, yet none were destroyed. Was this just? It was thought to be, in that land where people understood that children and grandchildren, born or unborn, bear in part the consequences of deeds committed by their kinsmen. Drawn into the family they had in other lives helped to shape, they share karmic responsibility for each of its members.
Is this not true on a larger scale also? Do we not benefit or suffer from our parents' and forebears' visions and errors, and from those whose thoughts and actions touch us through media exposure? Past and present, far and near, we are all bound together.
The idea that karma is opportunity for the soul's advancement gives us pause to consider what the soul is. Philosophically, the human soul is that part of our natures which incarnates repeatedly on earth in bodies and with personalities its karma prescribes. All the while, its higher, divine essence overshadows and, as karma allows, illumines and inspires it to express more and more of its spiritual endowments. In addition, when we think of karma as nature's method of achieving balance, we realize that it is not a being or thing; that its adjustments are impersonal and hence more just and effective than man's would be. It presents opportunities souls can profit by to re-form their lives. Perhaps it is for this reason that the Great Ones have urged us to let its workings flow through our lives by acceptance, by being forgiving, reverent, and loving in all that we do. Conversely, dwelling on hatred and jealousy seeds the soil for a harvest of anguish, while seeking revenge is committing a crime possibly worse than the original offender's.
Two things we can be sure of: no one escapes the consequences of his act, and no one can harm us but ourselves. Energy sent forth returns as surely as waves upon the beach. We can, however, change ourselves — our desires and the habits of thinking that drive us repeatedly into disaster. Then, when karmic situations return, we will be able to fathom their purpose and use the opportunity constructively. In this sense we "rise above karma," lift ourselves out of the rut of automatically acting and reacting. However, because karma operates throughout every level of being, we soon discover that on the higher levels karmic consequences and responsibilities are greatly increased.
This idea of individual responsibility and the intermingling of karmas is interesting and involved. Being human, our hearts instinctively reach out to others. Time and again we meet someone we wish we could help, and we're tempted to pay his or her debt, find him a job, bear the pain that tortures his body or soul. But then we pause wondering: will this help really help? The Bhagavad-Gita cautions us about interfering: "the duty of another is full of danger" (ch. 3). H. P. Blavatsky insists, however, that "Inaction in a deed of mercy becomes an action in a deadly sin" (The Voice of the Silence, p. 31), implying that when we find ourselves in a situation where help is needed we are there for a karmic reason, and it is our duty to be helpful.
There are, obviously, many ways of helping. To find one that encourages and enables others to develop their own strengths and resources requires sensitivity and wisdom — both are "pearls" of lifetimes of experience, and yet they can be ours if we are motivated to benefit others. Gradually, by examining the purpose and operations of our daily karmic script we learn not only how to turn adversity around but gain the ability to empathize with others.
To do this takes only one moment, this moment, which is the fruit of the present-that-was and the seed of the present-to-be. Living in it in the best way we can guarantees a brighter future for ourselves and the world with which we are intimately connected. It can't help but work.
(From Sunrise magazine, June/July 1991; copyright © 1991 Theosophical University Press)