How are you feeling? Musings on karma continued…

(You may want to read this article first to get up to scratch. I’ve divided the article up into two parts to make it easier to read in a coffee break.)

Feelings

Going back to the discussion in the last article, as there are three types of object, there are three types of feeling that experience these objects – pleasant feelings, unpleasant feelings, and neutral feelings.

“It is impossible to cognize an object without experiencing it as pleasant, unpleasant or neutral.” ~ Understanding the Mind

photo 3Feeling that things are pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral is part and parcel of living beings’ subjective experience, whether we are a baby, an old person, an animal… Right now my cat is pursuing pleasant feelings by trying to get real comfy on the sofa next to me, with a choice view of the birds outside — birds who luckily are safe right now from experiencing unpleasant feelings to do with his murderous paws, the “same” paws that give me the warm fuzzies.

Again, if you check your own feelings or experiences, have you ever had a feeling that is not pleasant (or good), unpleasant (or bad) or neutral? Even during your dreams?!

So why, if my friend and I are both given a bowl of Haagen Daaz’s vanilla ice cream, does he experience it to be yummy whereas I would have preferred chips? It is mainly due to our karma. Understanding the Mind says:

The general function of feeling is to experience the effects of previous actions, or karma.

Karma gives rise to all our pleasant, unpleasant, and neutral feelings. Feelings and experiences are the same. In other words, all our feelings or experiences come from karma, which are the intentions or mental actions we created in the past. Pleasant feelings come from positive actions, unpleasant feelings from negative actions, and neutral feelings from neutral actions. Pleasantness and unpleasantness do not exist from the side of the object, but depend entirely on our karma. Therefore, as it says in Understanding the Mind:

Two people might eat the same food and one find it delicious while the other thinks it is revolting. 

Milarepa

Have you heard of Milarepa? He was one of the most beloved Tibetan saints or yogis because he gained incredible, deep realizations, in fact actual enlightenment, and then sang beautiful songs of realization that became known and sung throughout Tibet. There were no CD players back then, let alone MP3s or Spotify, so these songs passed down orally through the ages and he became very famous. He lived many years ago (1452-1507).

Milarepa's caveMilarepa spent many years in retreat as an ascetic living in caves and isolated places. Wherever he went, it seemed there would be an abundance of nettles. (These are a green plant with stingy bits on their leaves, and there are, arguably, way too many of them in the English countryside.) One famous fact about Milarepa is that he ate these nettles. He was miles away from anywhere and so he’d have nettle soup, nettle tea, nettle sandwiches… (maybe not, no bread). For him, nettles utterly nourished his body and sustained his spiritual practice. He ate so many nettles that he turned green. But he was perfectly healthy.

So Geshe Kelsang once asked how anyone living on nettles could be healthy? It would appear to be impossible. Frankly, even though, as mentioned, there are plenty of nettles in England, if I had to live on them I would not be healthy. I would be complaining vociferously; this would not be a 5-star hotel in my opinion. Milarepa was living in a 5-star hotel because everything he needed was in those nettles. Geshe Kelsang explained that this was the ripened karma of his practice of generosity, which meant that he had everything he needed to sustain his life and spiritual practice.

We can share a similar set of external conditions and yet have radically different experiences. Our karma does not ripen, therefore, as external conditions, so much as our experiences of those conditions. Whether those experiences are good or bad depends on whether our karma is good or bad. For Milarepa, eating nettles was good karma ripening – he was nourished by them and able to gain profound spiritual attainments, and even being green proved to be no problem. For me, having to eat nettles would be horrible karma ripening as I haven’t created that same karma of generosity. This is one example Geshe Kelsang uses to show how the quality of our experience doesn’t depend on the object but on our previous karma.

We can do something, everything, about causes, but once an effect is ripening it is too late to change it. Therefore, it is futile to run after pleasant feelings with attachment or to try to avoid unpleasant feelings through aversion. We need either to enjoy the pleasant feeling without attachment, or be patient with the unpleasant feeling. If we want to create the life we want, we have to pay more attention to improving the numerous intentions or karmic causes we are creating on a daily basis than to our ripened feelings.

(Funnily enough, just after writing that last paragraph I went to a nearby greengrocer to buy some fruit. On the way back I overheard a young man advise his girlfriend: “You should do the right thing, even if it seems a bit inconvenient and doesn’t immediately deliver you results.” Apropos, I thought.)

Back to the case in point, the blue bike …. 

karma paintingWas it F’s karma, as technically the bike had been given to him by N, or was it N’s karma? And if so, what kind of karma – good, bad, or neutral? My guess is that N won’t give a hoot, unless he gives into nostalgia for the fun in the sun he used to have with that bike when he lived here (and that in turn would depend on him finding out about his old bike, which may never happen). Some might argue that it was no longer even his bike, so all his karma related to that bike has gone. I don’t know if that is true or not. For example, if I give my cat away and then something happens to the cat, will I or will I not be experiencing the ripening of karma?

Also, F probably won’t give a hoot because (1) he never gives much of a hoot about anything; and (2) it is not directly affecting him as he has moved to New York. But any neutral feelings he may have are still the result of neutral karma ripening.

Was it my other friend’s karma, then, the person who always used the bike? He professed to feeling a “little disappointed” and, although he quickly got over it, one could argue that the unpleasant feeling was a result of some negative karma ripening, even if he didn’t own the bike. Or else, as he managed quickly to overcome his disappointment and be very positive again, was it good karma ripening overall?!

Or was it my karma, as the custodian and lender of the bikes? And if so, given my relative calm on discovering its theft, was it neutral, good, or bad karma ripening!? And what exactly did I or the others all do for this to happen? And did we do it at the same or at different times?!

As for the person who stole the bike, well, I can’t judge his karma because I have no idea of his intention, and karma depends entirely on intention. He might have needed the bike to go visit his mother on her deathbed, for all I know. We figured he probably needed it a lot more than we did, so we mentally gave it to him, which protected him from incurring the full karma of stealing and created good karma for more bikes to come our way later. In fact, the very next day we sold our old car for a couple hundred more dollars than we were expecting, and were able to go ahead and buy another bike!

See, karma is a curious thing! It is far from being fatalistic or simplistic but is a constantly changing, complex play of causes and effects. The immensely mind-boggling interdependence of all conventional appearances hinges on karma, individual and collective. Karma is the other side of the coin from ultimate truth, the emptiness (lack of inherent existence) of all phenomena.

Keep it simple

karma 5Still, however much fun we can have discussing whose karma and what kind of karma it all is, when it comes to actually observing the law of karma on a daily basis it helps to keep it simple. When I want to put good into the world, that’s what I’ll get out, one way or another. Same for my bad and neutral intentions. We can understand the general principles of karma (such as explained in Joyful Path) and leave most of the detailed, subtle stuff for once we’ve fully realized the union of conventional truth and ultimate truth. At that point we’ll be omniscient and can see exactly which actions lead to which effects while simultaneously seeing their emptiness.

I learned a couple more interesting things from this bike situation, which I might as well share now.

No bike 

When we first came off the beach, we both saw it, a rather significant absence, a space where the bike had been. “No bike!” In the meditation on emptiness, we are also seeking a significant absence — lack of inherent existence. That absence is filled with rather cosmic meaning. It means that nothing exists from its own side, so nothing is fixed, and everything depends entirely on the mind. As the great Indian Buddhist master Nagarjuna said:

For whom emptiness is possible, anything is possible.

Perspective = reality

While I was using the restroom before our long walk home, my friend happened upon a police aide and mentioned the theft of the bike. He was a jovial elderly Mid-Westerner with a moustache, who drove his blue and white cart up and down the beach all day, just waiting to help people like us, so he took it more seriously than we expected and called it in. Another police aide, his boss, a young friendly Latino turned up, and we chatted about all sorts of things while we waited the hour for the actual police officer to show.

Why didn’t they show sooner? Because they had things like murder and home break-ins to deal with – it seems fair enough. In fact, just as I was wondering whether I should perhaps be a bit more upset about the theft of this fine $700 bike, a crackling message came over the first police aide’s radio: “Woman distressed, male intruder in her house, over.” Yikes. Then this police aide told us that just the previous day his son, a police officer, had been called to a homicide – the victim had been shot in the back of the head for the $400 drug money he had just collected from the shooter.

The theft of our bike and the prospect of the long walk back home were becoming less and less significant the longer we hung out with our friends in blue, and indeed we were beginning to feel really rather lucky! If perspective can change in the light of other thoughts and/or events, it shows there is no “real” situation out there to begin with.

The kindness of strangers

Yet despite our trifling complaint, the police were still attentive and courteous to us, as if they had nothing better to do, and this in turn reminded me of the kindness of strangers and increased my love. So, all in all, a good day’s meditation work …

Postscript: I wrote this article months ago, and, apart from the Buddhism in it, pretty much all my personal circumstances have changed since then, showing the unpredictable nature of karma and how you never know what karma is going to ripen next.

Over to you: Have you been in any situations recently that particularly reminded you of karma and/or emptiness?

Karma and us

Some of you may remember the inappropriate attention I paid to the supposed theft of two bikes two summers ago… bikes that turned out not to be stolen at all.

clear sky cafeWell, some months ago, the big blue bike was stolen “for real”! Someone really wanted that bike. We’d locked them to a palm tree on a relatively busy pathway near the Clear Sky Café, and whoever it was must have pretended to be busily opening the lock whilst actually sawing through it. We figured he must have needed it for himself, rather than for sale, as he left the other bike standing there.

It is good I’d had the rehearsal earlier! And it would have been way too much of an indictment on my progress as a meditator if I had gone through all those mental acrobatics again… So this time, when we returned from two hours on the beach to the sight of no bike, I was prepared, and stayed totally calm. Imagine that!

(The cynical amongst you might say that I stayed calm because it wasn’t actually the bike that I ride that was stolen – my red bike was still next to the palm tree … Or you might ask who doesn’t feel relaxed after 2 hours on the beach?! You’d have a point. But I still claim a small victory.) stolen bike

A few conclusions from this latest bike saga:

Everything has a cause

As we started to walk with the remaining bike on the long journey back home by foot, we wondered whose karma it was and what kind of karma it was.

Everything has a cause. Nothing arises from nothing – a phenomenon arises from something that’s in the same substantial continuum. Physical things must arise from physical causes. The cause of an oak tree is an acorn seed, the cause of a flood is rain, and the cause of our human body is the union of our mother’s egg and father’s sperm.

Buddha was a scientist of the mind who penetrated the actual causes of our mental experiences. He observed that if an action is motivated by a good intention, such as compassion, an experience or feeling of happiness results; but if an action is motivated by delusion, such as anger, it is the actual substantial cause of a suffering experience. Also, there are neutral actions that give rise to neutral experiences. Buddha talked in detail about actions that cause negative effects and those that cause positive effects. He helpfully listed ten negative actions to avoid: killing, stealing, sexual misconduct, lying, divisive speech, hurtful speech, idle chatter, ill will, covetousness and wrong view. By abstaining from these, we avoid having to experience their painful results. By practicing positive actions, such as generosity, kindness, patience, cherishing, love, compassion and wisdom, we create the causes for happiness. In this way, we can gain control over the experiences of our life and make it successful.

Bill Meyer put it this way:

Every thought is a seed.  If you plant crab apples, don’t count on harvesting Golden Delicious.

Purification and accepting what is

VajrasattvaIt is worth remembering the teachings on karma often, and especially when we are really suffering deeply– that way we can assume some responsibility and feel less like a hopeless, hard-done-by victim. We can start getting the control back over our lives by purifying all the crud causing this kind of suffering since beginningless time so we don’t have to go through it ever again. Vajrasattva purification is immensely helpful for this, makes you feel lighter again inside, optimistic for the future. The complete blissful purity of all enlightened beings appearing as Buddha Vajrasattva obliterates the heavy karmic load we are bearing, which has been weighing us down year after year and life after life without our even realizing it. If we let our suffering remind us to purify what is actually causing it, this suffering itself leads us straightaway to far less suffering now and in the future! Therefore, suffering is not inherently bad and we can accept it.

We can also accept patiently if we understand this is all karmic appearance to mind — deceptive appearances with no existence from their own side. Our unbearable situation is the reflection of our own delusions and the karma they spawn, no one else’s fault, which means, very fortunately, that to be happy again we don’t actually have to wait helplessly in the (often futile) hope that others might improve. A good friend once said:

“Leave the object alone. Change the mind.”

Real deep, inner refuge and peace comes from doing this, rather than from struggling with the external situation that seems so inherently painful but in fact is not.

Whatever we think and feel depends on our karma

In this very useful manual explaining everything you need to know about your mind and how it works, it says:  

The general function of feeling is to experience the effects of previous actions, or karma. ~ How to Understand the Mind

Feeling is defined as a mental factor (or state of mind) that functions to experience pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral objects. Feeling accompanies every fleeting moment of mind – there is never a time when we are not feeling or experiencing something.

Have you ever come across an object that doesn’t feel pleasant (or good), unpleasant (or bad), or neutral? I can’t think of any; if you can, please let me know in the comments.

In truth, objects are not good, bad, or neutral from their own side – what they are depends on our minds apprehending them, and specifically on the mental factors of feeling and discrimination. Discrimination distinguishes one object from another and, when associated with conceptual minds, functions to impute, label, or name objects. As Geshe Kelsang says:

The defining characteristics of an object do not exist from the side of the object but are merely imputed by the mind that apprehends them.

How we discriminate and experience things depends entirely on our states of mind and our karma. This is rather a significant observation by Buddha.

What are your thoughts on ice cream?
Ice cream makes you happy
Nice try, Wall’s!

Do you like ice cream? And don’t you think it’s funny how if we like something we assume it is nice from its own side? We project or label niceness onto the object and then think that niceness inheres in it. We do this all the time. “Ice cream is great!” you may say, really believing that. However, if ice cream was really great, everyone would think so, yet I for one am more likely to say “Ice cream is okay, sometimes,” which is a fair enough comment from my point of view, and some Eastern cultures just as validly (from their point of view) say “Ice cream is disgusting, it is like eating snot.”

If the people who think ice cream is inherently great just because they like it insist that everyone else thinks that too, then we are in for trouble. And we do this kind of thing all the time, getting into conflict by assuming that the world is WYSIWYG (what you see is what you get) and therefore people must have a screw loose not to feel good about the things and the ideas we like, such as our politics, our religion, our country, our friends, and so on.

The same goes of course for thinking things are bad just because we personally discriminate them as such.

Buddha’s observation that everything depends on how we are discriminating and feeling it, both of which are states of mind, might seem obvious once it is pointed out, but we would behave quite differently if we were to live by it. We over-trust our highly subjective and fleeting discriminatory labels and feelings, believing that they are telling us the whole truth and nothing but the truth about the way things actually are. Then we generalize the way we think and feel out to everyone else, often with disastrous consequences.

More on the bikes in part 2 later … meantime, do you believe in karma? Have you got any karma stories you’d like to share?