Discovering My Ancient Twisted Karma
All my ancient twisted karma,
From beginningless greed, hate and delusion,
Born through body speech and mind,
I now fully avow. – Zen verse of repentance
Is my karma older than me? Will its results outlive me? Or is karmic history limited to a fathom-long body and a few decades of life? Since in this essay I take an experiential stance I will begin with a personal account.
In the early stages of my Buddhist practice, I came to understand that I was on a path of purification, purification of character for the benefit both of me and of those around me, purification from the unskillful habit patterns, conceits and views, the habituated ruts and grooves etched into the landscape of my life that defined who I, often to my dismay, had become. Practice was karma. It was a matter of making skillful choices of body, speech and mind, moment by moment, with the awareness that such choices in the past had shaped what I had become, and that present choices would shape what I would become. With skill, I could shape a character that I and the rest of humanity could live with more comfortably.
Skillful choices were those that avoided the behavioral and mental ruts and well-worn routes that led into the ooze of greed, through the brambles of hatred and down the crevices of delusion that constellated my karmic landscape. As I developed a greater awareness of my own accustomed habit patterns, aided by the practice of mindfulness, I almost never liked what I found there, and so I understood increasingly with time the urgency of purification. Nonetheless, I seemed to be gaining some skill in stepping aside when coming upon certain well worn routes that I had identified as leading to ooze, bramble or crevice. For instance, I seemed to have become slower to anger and less needy of the approval of others. Once scrupulously avoided, a particular route in my karmic landscape seemed gradually to erode, fade and then eventually disappear. I was reshaping my karmic landscape. Cool.
There were many non-Buddhist ways in which I might have improved my prospects in life, such as ballroom dancing, or working out to improve my manly physique even more, or earning big money in derivatives investment, but I had already experienced enough of the broken promises of life to see that these would probably be among them. Moreover, the Buddhist practice I had committed to carried the promise of Awakening, in which all of my problems would end irreversibly for the rest of my days. This would be a seismic event that would obliterate in one big shake all the routes and ruts that defined my karmic landscape. How long could it take, five or ten years?
As a particular example of the satisfaction that I had already realized in Buddhist practice, I had discovered early on how remorselessly judgmental I had been all my life. I had had only to look at someone, a complete stranger, and a judgment was set off, “n’er-do-well nerd,” “misguided moron,” “confused cad,” almost always derogatory, unless that someone happened to be a “bonny babe.” As I stepped repeatedly into this same accustomed rut, often a hundred times in a single day, it occasionally occurred to me to ask, “How can I possibly know so much about this person?” And the answer would come back, “It’s the shoes,” or, “He talks too much.” My judgmental mind embarrassed me, and that embarrassment brought with it a little sidestep at the critical moment of judgment. As promised, this particular mental rut began to change, then to fade.
In short, I looked forward to an increasingly favorable life, a few decades of greater happiness, kindness and wisdom, the life promised to the assiduous Buddhist practitioner by the law of karma. I looked forward to a more benign reshaping of my once unskillfully trodden karmic landscape. Although it was difficult for me to assess the full scope of my tainted and deeply rutted habit patterns, conceits and views, I was quite settled in my life of Buddhist practice, with a quiet determination that entailed daily meditation, reading Dharma, acts of generosity and virtue, and an occasional Zen meditation retreat (sesshin), blended into an otherwise busy workaday life. I was convinced my life would one day be a shining example of ease in a mixed-up world.
Buddhist practice often entails, as many readers can attest, an occasional distinct moment of insight, a small epiphany, often sparked by happenstance, in which some truth, previous unnoticed, is suddenly laid bare. I experienced one of these moments during a sesshin at Green Gulch Farm in California in the spring of 1998. Each early morning during this sesshin, we sat a couple of periods of meditation, then we stood up for a bowing and chanting service which began with the quote at the beginning of this section, which I had not heard before:
All my ancient twisted karma,
From beginningless greed, hate and delusion,
Born through body speech and mind,
I now fully avow.
My first suspicious thought on hearing this was,
“Oh, someone is trying to push the rebirth thing,”
which I had decided by this point that I’d believe if I could ever remember a previous life, but until then I’d be unconvinced about, not that it mattered much, because practice is in the present and rebirth in the past and future. However, the next morning while once again intoning this verse, I discovered that my eyes had unaccountably teared up and that I had such a lump in my throat that it was difficult for me to croak along with the words, and every morning thereafter I had the same response. It had nothing to do with accepting a speculative theory about rebirth, and everything to do with standing nose-to-nose with a previously unnoticed aspect of my experiential world.
In fact, it felt as if my whole bungled karmic past, the mistakes I had made, the people I had hurt, the opportunities and energy I had squandered, were suddenly revealed extending back in time, past the bounds of this one life into periods beyond memory, to produce the cumulative karmic results that now loomed menacingly and inescapably behind me, around me, and in me. The task I had undertaken with Buddhist practice suddenly become huge and daunting. I saw my karmic landscape, shaped by accustomed habit patterns, conceits and views as an enormous and intricate etching of deep and twisted ruts and channels, many leading straight to marshes of muck, thickets of thorns and complexes of chasms. I realized that feet of unskillful volition had been treading and shaping this landscape for millennia, actions of body speech and mind from beginningless greed, hatred and delusion. Most astonishingly I discovered that well-worn tracks of ancient feet criss-crossed even distant fields and obscure corners of my mental landscape that I could in this life scarce remember having ever visited, yet even there, as soon as mindfulness slipped, I fell effortlessly into seemingly well accustomed though completely unfamiliar habit patterns.
Just to take one example, from earliest childhood anger had for me followed this accustomed pattern: I would initially tolerate a great amount of vexation passively without outward expression, until a certain threshhold was reached, after which rage would erupt quite unexpectedly. The source of the vexation, generally an otherwise dear family member, would morph into something demonic. Since he or she looked deserving of any mishap that might befall him or her, retribution was in order. Violent thoughts would often lead to acts of property damage if not personal attack. This would always turn immediately around into a sense of remorse and shame for my lack of control. In the end the short-lived anger would dissipate and to my relief the former source of my wrath would shrink back to his or her former less threatening self.
I must have staged this little soap opera hundreds of times on different stages. But who had written this script and how had I learned it so thoroughly? Certainly this script had been acted out since long before I was born, many many times over and over; I was, as far as I could see, just following the well-worn ruts.
In contrast, my older brother Arthur followed, I recall, a totally different script from me. When vexed he would express his anger from the beginning grumpily in direct proportion to his vexation. But once his vexation had attained a certain threshhold he would simply sit in a corner to mope. For Arthur vexation collapsed, for me it exploded. Although he was widely recognized as a relatively grumpy child, and I as rather placid and agreeable, he rarely had to deal with the shame of rage turning to external expression that I experienced. Other children I knew also reached the rage stage, but many were much more adept at fabricating justifications and convincing themselves that they were in the right all along, which seemed to enable them to avoid shame, but which rang hollow for me.
Response to vexation is one part of any karmic landscape. It would serve as well to explore the fields and valleys of intellectual or artistic talents or skills, forms of social interaction (reticence, loyalty), personal neediness or acquisitiveness, particular patterns of sexual arousal (which I recall as absurdly evident before I knew what they could possibly mean), and on and on. Any of the more problematic features of the karmic landscape could, through practice, be unlearned, but how were they learned in the first place? I would not have been clever enough to have invented these behaviors and then habituated them.
Indeed, the quality of my Buddhist practice changed quickly and markedly after avowing my ancient twisted karma. Before, it was like a new office job in which my task is to take documents, let’s say, insurance claims, mindfully one by one from the “in” box, process them and place the results in the “out” box. Not so difficult and able to pay the bills. The sense that emerged with a developing sense of karmic continuity was like learning from a colleague that the person who had had my job before me had gotten so woefully behind in his work that he had been known to take documents from the “in” box and to store them in the adjacent room for eventual processing. Looking in the adjacent room I discover boxes of unprocessed documents, along with bundles of still more documents tied together with twine, stacked up high, bundle on bundle, box on box and bundle on box.
I recognize that there is suffering, an unpaid debt, in each of those pending documents. Dismay toward a bungled past brings with it an urgent sense of responsibility toward a still untainted future. I could, in the interests of my own convenience, ignore my responsibility thereby to free up time for tango or working out at the gym, but that would not resolve the underlying urgency, only leave it for whoever would have my job after me.
I relate this account of my exploration because I would like to offer this contemplation as an exercise to the reader of this essay as an experiential alternative to theoretical speculation about rebirth as a means to encourage a proper sense of karmic continuity.
In this exercise I consider it fair to draw on early childhood memories, as I have done, as well as to include observation of others you may be intimate with, as I have also done. Any parent knows that children manifest well-articulated little characters from the earliest age. One is terrified of thunder storms, another of dark places. Paradoxically infants seem in other respects to perfectly exemplify the fabled tabula rasa, having to discover, for instance, basic laws of physics and the nature of their own bodies on their own. But this is misleading, because right behind that comes a remarkably firmly established karmic landscape, a recognizable little character. One child seems particularly stingy, another freely generous at a very young age.
A close family member of mine could not, by about the age of two or three, sit through any kind of even marginally smoochy romantic scene during family video nights; she would become visibly agitated and have to leave the room to return a few minutes later. Where did that come from? She also refused to wear a dress almost from the time of owning her first. When she went on to announce, as a young teen, that she was a lesbian, nobody was at all surprised.
It is also not misplaced to extend this investigation to anecdotes about others’ experiences, as long as they are reliably documented. Worth considering is the occasional prodigy, like Mozart, who possesses some remarkable talent, almost as soon as he or she can speak, that an adult would generally have to spend decades trying to master. Particularly intriguing are reported cases of early childhood memories of past lives, some of which are astonishingly well documented, most notably by the late Prof. Ian Stevenson and his colleagues particularly at the University of Virginia. Although among these are virtually irrefutable isolated cases of remarkably detailed past-life memories that defy conventional explanation, such cases are rare and they fall short of establishing the conclusion that one might wish for, that your or my karmic landscape has been trampled by a long string of previous inhabitants living out non-overlapping previous lives.
At some point you are likely to ask, whose footprints are these that have been trampling your personal karmic landscape from ancient times? You alone are the heir of your deeds, but if you came into existence mere decades ago, then you seem also to be heir to somebody else’s deeds. By the same token, somebody some day will be the heir of your deeds after you have breathed your last. Who are all these people?
With these questions we begin to slip into theory, the kind of speculation I suggested we avoid from the outset. Perhaps all the ruts and channels of one’s early karmic landscape were intricately encoded in a pattern of ancestral genes that descend into the mother’s womb. Perhaps an intact karmic landscape took flight with the last breath of some unknown life to descend into the mother’s womb. Perhaps a newly vacant karmic landscape was somehow assigned to a newly born infant at birth to occupy and to reshape until it is ready to vacate it in turn. Perhaps the infant or toddler taps into and absorbs the karmically sustained memes rampant in its cultural context to select and construct the intricacies of the karmic landscape it will occupy. More than likely it is a combination of such factors. None of these mechanisms seems to be excluded by Buddhist metaphysics as long as it is expressed in terms of cause and effect, certainly not for not being soul-like enough.
Nonetheless, I don’t think the answer to these questions is critical to suffering and the ending of suffering; the bare experiential sense of karmic continuity suffices. For the more skeptical, understanding its mechanisms might dispel doubts about the reality of karmic continuity, but I am not sure this is the case: I am still trying to comprehend how there can be a moon. The scientific explanations, seem to underdetermine the experience; golly, look at it! For the more credulous, one runs the risk of attaching to a particular theoretical view only to find it later to be demonstrably false. For instance, a prominent Western monk once asserted that if rebirth were ever disproven, then he would disrobe. To make one’s commitment to Buddhist practice contingent in this way on theory seems a bit ill considered: Buddhism emerged from personal experience and it is verified there.
The main point is to avow our ancient twisted karma, to recognize that our present lives are woven at the most intimate level into a rich and immense tapestry of ancient history and future potential, inextricably into something far grander in scope than this fathom-long body and few decades of life. A karmic landscape is something far more enduring, a panoramic context for practice that reveals the profound significance of the goal toward which practice points and that instills the proper sense of dismay toward the past and responsibility toward the future to propel our pursuit of the path.
In the third post in this series, we will turn from our personal experience, yours and mine, to learn what the Buddha himself had to say about all this.