Uposatha Teaching: Full Moon, December 21, 2010.
Index to Current Series
“Thought – Act – Habit – Character – Destiny”
“Sow a thought,
and you reap an act;
Sow an act,
and you reap a habit;
Sow a habit,
and you reap a character;
Sow a character, and you reap a destiny.”
We now conclude this series of Uposatha (Quarter Moon) Day teachings on Karma.
We humans are thinking acting creatures potentially with a broad array of free will options in every conscious moment. This enables new karma whereby thoughts give rise to acts, or just remain thoughts. Our acts play out in the world and their consequences run deep, in fact continue indefinitely into the future, where they mingle with all the other chains of cause and effect to make the world what it is. At the same time each new karmic thought or act leaves a residue in the mind, and the accumulation of this residue make us who we are. We are what we do. The karmic residue, the old karma, begins to harden into walls and byways that tend to fix our future acts and thoughts into habit patterns, into mounds then mountains that become our world view, fixed opinions, values and aspirations. This landscape, whether pleasant or craggy, becomes the world we inhabit and the best predictor of our future thoughts and acts, the future new karma that will then leave further karmic residue. Our inner world thus formed can become heaven or hell, a human realm of both pain and pleasure, a place of limitless craving and fear, a ghostly realm of perpetual dissatisfaction or a world of rage and competition. Our outer influences can be for harm or benefit, and the outer world we help create around us as we produce new karma in turn produces conditions that trigger our responses in the form of more new karma, just as our acts trigger karmic responses in others.
Unfortunately left to our own devices, with neither skillful reflection nor wise guidance, we rarely achieve the control over our own karma necessary to shape either our outer or our inner world in a healthy direction. We most naturally fall into service of impulses to seek personal advantage, to exploit for ourselves what we think the world might offer and to protect ourselves from the dangers we think the world might harbor. Alongside these is a desire to be of benefit to others, to treat others with kindness, especially those closest to us. But we struggle with an incessant feeling of lack and a sense of dissatisfaction when we actually manage to acquire what we seek, which then just becomes another need. One need leads to another and our behaviors rather than benefiting begin to harm, for which we fashion clever justifications, even as they harm ourselves. The reactions of those we harm create new needs. We wonder why happiness is so elusive as our karma accumulates. We end up inhabiting, disappointed and confused, an unsatisfactory or even frightening world of our own making, with no better notion of what went so dreadfully askew than to try harder at whatever we were doing before, no longer even considering alternatives to the well-worn byways and walls and the rest of the craggy landscape we’ve formed.
With wise guidance and skillful reflection we are able to take control of our karma. First, we see how our impulses that seek personal advantage lead us astray in increasing lack not decreasing it, in leading to more dissatisfaction not less, in leading to harm for others and unhappiness for ourselves, in enmeshing us further and further in our struggles with the world. Second, with sufficient discipline, energy and sense of urgency, we sort out what is skillful and unskillful in our our thoughts and actions. Immediately we become a force for benefit in the world and gradually we begin, by choosing our thoughts and actions with due deliberation and in spite of established patterns of habit and view, to break through the old karmic walls to create new byways, to create a new more habitable and pleasing karmic landscape. Thereby we begin to loosen the compelling hold of greed, aversion and fixed views, and develop in their stead renunciation, kindness and compassion. We are on our way to the attainment of Nirvana.
Unfortunately we tend to have a small view of the scope of the Buddhist project, we tend to think all the benefit of practice as confined to this one solitary life, limited in time and space, where it competes with all the other temporal attractions that promise happiness, such as physical workouts, dieting, the ideal hair style, wind surfing, executive moving and shaking, and opera tickets. The problem with the limited temporal view is that, since all accomplishment on the Buddhist path will be dissipated at the death of the physical body anyway, the reserve of discipline, energy and sense of urgency otherwise available will be dissipated right now, in favor of potentially more pleasant paths to happiness. The fact is, however, that our unskillful karma propagates and perpetuates itself, if not serially projecting into subsequent lives, then at least laterally through imitation, through the responses of others as consequences of our actions, through adoption into the popular culture. Our karma slops over and spills on others so that large parts of our pleasing or craggy karmic landscape are replicated over and over in the lives of others, in our children, in our colleagues and friends and in all who bear the consequences of our deeds. They carry aspects of ourself, we at the minimum are reborn in bits and pieces. And their potential for attaining Nirvana will, to that extent, look like ours.
Our entire Buddhist practice consists in how we meet this moment, and the next, and the next, …, in Thought and Act. We can meet it skillfully or unskillfully. The teachings on karma tell us how important that Thought and that Act are. While profoundly and eternally conditioning the outer world for harm or benefit, they add their imprint on our Habits, on our Character and in the end on our Destiny. Practice is forever.