Thursday, December 1, 2011

Karma and Rebirth (part 2 of 2): the Solidity of Your Actions

If there is no heaven and if there is no reincarnation, what’s with all the talk about re-birth? I don’t have all the answers to that question and maybe later I'll have another conclusion, but there is a lesson here that I’m going to take away for the time being: if we have no soul, then the only solid thing, which carries on after we die, is the momentum of our actions.

Here is where the concept of Karma kicks in. The concept of re-death and re-birth can be taken on a very practical level, forgetting the metaphysics. In every split-second, we are making choices and we are engaged in actions. Those choices and actions generate karma in a network of interdependent causes and consequences. They create momentum that carries on for a while and sets off other chain reactions. 

Each action leads to rebirth in the sense that a new situation is born. That situation is generated by the accumulation of karmic circumstances that came out of my actions and lots of other actions that I might have had nothing to do with. So, for example, a starving baby in Somalia has not made any choices or done much of anything, but he is suffering from the karma that has accumulated due to the actions of people around the world, including some powerful people inside and outside of Somalia, some not so powerful people, some militants, some dead dictators, and even lots of people that can’t even find Somalia on a map.

If you choose to turn left instead of right, then a whole series of consequences unfold. If a soldier decides to kill an enemy, a web of suffering unfolds for his victim’s family, community, country, and for the world. That soldier’s web of karma has direct consequences for himself as well. Even though he may have been doing “the right thing,” he may suffer from nightmares, from PTSD, or he might even just harden up and suffer with a cold heart for many years. The costs of treating his PTSD may burden his country’s economy, his children may grow up in a home haunted by violence, etc. 

To paraphrase an important point by one of my teachers, the teachings on karma are not about morality. Studying karma is simply about seeing how things work. It is mechanical in a sense.     

While it is super tempting to look at karma and want to get into the metaphysics of what happens after we die, the teachings on karmic causation teach us that we need to be as awake as possible in order to avoid unlocking more interdependent webs of suffering that affect not only ourselves, but other people too. These causes and effects may or may not affect what happens to “us” after we die, but karma definitely affects the way we and others exist in the next living moment. 

Since the causes of our present circumstances depend on karma generated by multitudes of other people, the only way to break the web of inter-related suffering is for us to work toward a society that is more aware of the causes of suffering and the actions that create those causes. That doesn’t mean preaching to people, but if you want the world to be a better place it all starts with figuring out how your own actions are affecting the world around you.

If you want an inspiring example of someone's actions changing the course of the future, check out this quick story about a guy that befriended and helped the kid that mugged him:

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