Emptiness, Karma, and President Obama
How can we understand our collective karma and the path of our Bodhisattva Vow?
Emptiness, Karma, and President Obama
Dharma talk 8/27/17
Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about karma, both individual and collective, and how we understand this concept so fundamental to Buddhist teachings. I think science might offer some light and help us understand it more deeply.
I am not a scientist. I have always loved reading about science, and I’ve used scientific principles and theories in my academic work. I admire the dedication to knowledge and truth in most scientists, the willingness to seek the truth wherever it might lead, and a kind of intelligent curiosity coupled with great care in cultivating their craft of scientific research. Even though I am not a scientist, I have found in science a rich set of metaphors, models, and explanations that can open new insights into our world and ourselves. However, real scientists probably would be aghast at my clumsy use of their work. Please forgive me. Best to think of it as a kind of poetic view of science. It offers us a fresh perspective on this perplexing concept of karma.
Scientists have theorized that so-called “empty” space around us and within us—or rather, constituting us—is actually teeming with energies and particles invisible to our senses and our instruments. Finding the Higgs boson was a validation of these theories. Some of this invisible array we are immersed in is dark energy, known only by its effects on light and gravity.
It seems to me that our collective karma—the residue of a beginningless history of racism, genocide, misogyny, exploitation, and oppression— is like dark matter in physics. It permeates everything, yet is invisible to us except through its effects. It did not originate with us, and we cannot destroy it; we are swimming in it. It is beginningless, stretching back through time and space to…how far? Yet it is ever present, even today. It fills the spaces between and inside people, between actions, between events, between words. We all bear an underlying sadness, anxiety, fear, remorse, and overwhelm that are its hallmarks. It bends light and gravity around it. Sometimes it converges into dark holes which suck everything into deconstruction and chaos. Not even light can emerge from black holes because of the concentrated gravity. So it is with the black holes of karma.
Dark energy of karma is not only manifest in huge events that rent the fabric of reality—the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., or the riots in Detroit, or the slaughter of Native Americans, or the 9/11 catastrophe of the attack on the Twin Towers. It converges in dark eddies on hate-filled websites, rallies, speeches, in the unwarranted police stop that spirals into violence, in a child left hungry, in a casual bit of unkind gossip. The dark matter of physics is uncharted and unmeasured, just like this bitter karma that permeates our common lives together. It is completely woven into the fabric of our shared reality.
Here’s a thought experiment on what scientists call the event horizon. This experiment depends on close observation and fearless honesty. Just get mindful and close your eyes…..Imagine that you are walking alone at night on a city street. It’s raining lightly—lightly!— and the streetlights are hazy… The buildings around you are deserted… Through the mist you see a figure coming toward you. It’s still too far away to see anything but a vague shape… What do you feel? Stop and notice if there is any contraction anywhere in your body. What thoughts or feelings automatically arose? Do you imagine it would feel different if you were a different gender? A different race? Elderly? Disabled?
Now we’ll do a little experimenting… As the figure grows closer, you see more features… You realize it is a man… What happens inside? As the figure comes even closer, you realize it is a tall burly man who is staggering a bit, waving his hands, and talking angrily to himself… What do you feel as he comes closer and passes you? How do you feel toward him? Study this.
Now stop, reset. Go back to the first impression, a vague figure coming toward you… As the figure grows closer, you begin to realize it is a young teenaged man who is black, dressed in a hoodie and baggy jeans, with a bit of a swagger… What do you feel as he comes near and passes? How do you feel toward him? Study this.
Now reset again, go back to the first impression, the vague figure coming toward you… As the figure grows closer, you see that it is a young girl, soaked by the rain, clutching a violin case to her chest… What happens inside you? How do you feel toward her?
What happened for you? What did you notice? Physical sensations, emotions, thoughts, stories?
Here is a true-life story. It begins in rush hour traffic, on a backed-up up expressway. Traffic is barely crawling. A social worker is on her way to work, when a man jumps into her car, brandishing a knife, a carjacker. What would you think? What would you do? She told about her thought process: “He looks desperate. He doesn’t really want to hurt me. He is trying to get thrown in jail. Cold weather is coming, and he doesn’t want to be alone, cold and hungry on the streets at Christmas time.” What did she do? She rolled down her window, threw her car keys into the traffic, and stepped out of the car.
Just as the bending of light around it reveals the presence of a black hole, your own automatic, unbidden physical and psychological reaction in each situation we explored above can reveal the presence of the dark matter of karma, invisible yet potent enough to evoke a visceral response. It is independent of any beliefs you might have about yourself and your world. It is independent of your wishes and hopes. It is independent of all that you think you know.
But there is one important difference between our collective karma and dark matter described by the formulas and theories of physicists, and that difference is the influence of our intentions and our aspirations. While we cannot erase the dark karma of our beginningless history of greed, hatred, and delusion, or even our unskillful missteps, we can awaken to the potential for our own thoughts, words, and actions in this very moment to manifest wisdom, compassion, clarity, and connection and in this way, to cultivate the causes and conditions leading to greater peace, harmony, and mutual care for all beings on this planet. I mean this in the broadest sense: an ocean is a being, a redwood forest is a being, a fawn is a being, a clam is a being, a city is a being, and even a sangha, like Appamada, is a being. We can generate light and heat that counters the cold dark energy of past karma.
There are implications here for Buddhist conceptions of reincarnation. Perhaps our consciousness, our very being is not so much the solid substance we take our bodies to be, nor the “emptiness” of space, nor our thoughts, hopes, memories, and dreams, but rather like a fingerprint, a unique whorl in the field of energies and information that make up the fabric of reality. Perhaps that whorl is not a fixed, permanent pattern, but it does have some consistency and some persistence even while adapting to and responding to emergent circumstances. It leaves an imprint in time and space, in the world and in the lives of others, like a fingerprint on a mirror. And in the same way we receive these imprints too, from people we love, people we hate, from a sunset, from a book we’ve read, a conversation we’ve had—we are covered with the fingerprints of our encounters and experiences. So it is possible that this imprint can persist beyond the body mind it represents. Consider Gandhi, MLK, Hitler, and every being you have ever loved, hated, learned from or bumped into in the supermarket checkout line. Their fingerprints are all over you and they persist far beyond the immediate physical impression itself. Can that pattern reappear somewhere in the world as a new life form? Well, why not? Can you definitively prove that it cannot?
Through our intentions we can actually alter the physics of our shared reality. We have been doing that for thousands and thousands of years. The primitive principle of “Tit for tat" still exists in the doctrine of “mutually assured destruction.” But we have fundamentally altered the human physics laws through the teachings of wisdom and compassion, teachings such as "turn the other cheek" "you are your brother's keeper," and the Mahayana teachings of the bodhisattva vow.
Now just as physics has expanded beyond Newton’s laws to include the mysteries of quantum physics; expanded human physics laws include wisdom, compassion, clarity, care, reverence, and devotion, for example. These principles evolved; they were not part of our original equipment in cave clan days.
The usual understanding of karma, that it is the good or bad result of something we did or said, is not wrong, as far as it goes. But it is incomplete and a bit childlike. A child may believe the earth is flat, for example, because it looks that way from where she is standing. That is understandable but incomplete. It is based on a limited view and a lack of knowledge, even though it is clearly based on personal sensory experience. But we feel there is something wrong with an educated adult holding such a belief. A more complex and complete understanding of the actual shape of the world is possible even when it contradicts our immediate sensory perceptions. The same is true for karma.
When new physics laws are discovered, the old laws may not disappear, they may be recast or put into a different frame, as for example “useful under some circumstances,” or “applying at human scale.” When the new laws of relating were discovered, the old ways did not disappear, but they became “primitive,” or “unskillful.” “Tit for tat” is still around, ingrained in our consciousness, and it can still manifest in our behaviors, but we are operating more and more from other principles and precepts, of mutual responsibility and care, of compassionate curiosity, of vow. Our view of the universe changes from an “I-centric” view to a “life-centric” view. This is a larger, clearer, more inclusive, and boundless view. To imagine that we can change the world, with all of its complexity and interdependencies, is delusional. To imagine that we cannot change the world, in all its complexity and interdependencies is also delusional. So which is it?
As a species we have evolved many means of altering our relational and operational laws of physics: the arts, the political sphere, religion, commerce, the sciences, psychology, sports, law. Nearly every human endeavor is about the discovery and development of new principles for relating.
And this in turn evolves even more collective understanding, not only about mundane social interaction, but about the larger forces of karma, so poorly understood. The algorithms of karma are patterns that create and shape flows of energy and information. These algorithms are not fixed; they are actually “genetic algorithms,” which means they can evolve and change in response to conditions.
Cathy O'Neil, in her excellent TED talk, says, Everyone uses algorithms. They just don't write them in code. Let me give you an example. I use an algorithm every day to make a meal for my family. The data I use is the ingredients in my kitchen, the time I have, the ambition I have. My definition of success is: a meal is successful if my kids eat vegetables. It's very different from if my youngest son were in charge. He'd say success is if he gets to eat lots of Nutella. But I get to choose success. I am in charge. My opinion matters. That's the first rule of algorithms. Algorithms are opinions embedded in code.
One way to think about karma is as the output of the algorithms we are using to live our lives. A life based on an algorithm of cultivating wisdom and compassion produces very different effects in ourselves and in the world compared with a life based on an algorithm of “survival,” say, or greed and ambition, or hatred of others. Fortunately, in humans, the algorithms are as I mentioned, genetic algorithms, so we are able to evolve and adapt. In this way we may continue to learn, choose, and evolve, despite whatever environments and circumstances have shaped our past.
We face circumstances now that the world has never known before. Our ways of being, interacting, speaking, and thinking are changing in response to these conditions. This in turn sets new patterns in the energy fields we are immersed in. Dependent on our aspiration and intention, we create more dark matter or more light energy. This element of choice is the primary difference between what has been understood about the physical world and our human sphere. Still, even scientists have had to deal with the puzzling data that reflect the influence of observation and intention on the actual physics of supposedly insentient matter and energy that they are observing.
What we observe and follow matters. What we do and say matters. Not from a childlike “all-powerful self” view that looks for immediate or tangible results, but immersed in the vast cosmic view in which every gesture of unbidden kindness, every wise action, every perfectly chosen word emits light that can be seen, like stars, for millions of light-years, if we only know how to look. We are weak and fallible instruments, riddled with greed, aversion, and delusion, but we have been given this remarkable dharma, a brilliant perspective and a new system of human principles, that fundamentally alters our universe. It is an inexhaustible golden fountain that refreshes, restores, and nourishes us, together with all beings. We are entrusted with it, to radiate it and to convey it across the miles and generations for the benefit of all beings. We can at least try.
It can be hard: the news is filled with terrible stories that portray a world filled with danger, threat, and catastrophe. Thupten Linpa, translator for the Dalai Lama, was interviewed by Krista Tippett for On Being a few years ago. In the interview, he said that the Dalai Lama feels most people have a mistaken understanding of the world from the news. In their daily lives, they generally trust the goodwill and decent intentions of the people around them; that is kind of normal. We expect it. So the news picks up the violent, sensational, or shocking, because that is not normal. That is what makes it newsworthy: it is not usual. So although from reading or hearing the news we might come to believe that the world is filled with terrifying events, monumental stupidity, cruelty and divisiveness, that is a big mistake. Generally speaking, our experience is fairly benign and ordinary, and this, of course, is not newsworthy because it is so common. Most people, generally speaking, have goodwill and at least a modicum of trust toward each other. Otherwise, we would not even be able to drive on the same highways. Of course there are exceptions, painful ones, but they are actually rare, as you will realize if you consider your own life so far.
So I want to talk about our expression of aspiration and intention in the world, and how something that is gone can continue to live on, not through reincarnation but through vow.
I want to talk about the legacy of President Obama
There are many perspectives on the Presidency of Barack Obama, some expressing dissatisfaction or disappointment with his accomplishments. I am not going to speak to the complexities of politics or the historical account of his eight years. Instead, I want to speak a bit about the man himself, and the personal qualities he embodies that have illuminated the world. Even a partial list would have to include:
Respect for all living beings
He set an example for an entirely new physics of political relationships as human care; no matter how unready parts of the world are for these principles, we cannot now unknow them. These qualities cast a brilliant light onto our public consciousness, countering the dark karmic forces that would consume us. But, no single person can carry the whole world forever.
Our responsibility is to take up this legacy, this new politics and physics of unconditional care, and continue to unfold it. Even in an environment fostering hatred, mistrust, greed, terror, and confusion, as it has ever been, the way is clear. We must be both brave and kind.
We must be undaunted in the face of great challenges, because this is what we have been entrusted. It is in his final Presidential speech to us, a masterpiece of encouragement and transmission.
It falls to each of us to be those anxious jealous guardians of democracy; to embrace the joyous task we’ve been given to continually try to improve this great nation of ours. Because for all our outward differences, we, in fact, all share the same second title, the most important office in a democracy: Citizen. Citizen.
So you see that’s what our democracy demands. It needs you not just when there’s an election, not just when your own narrow interest is at stake, but over the full span of a lifetime. If you’re tired of arguing with strangers on the internet, try talking with one of them in real life. If something needs fixing, then lace up your shoes and do some organizing. If you’re disappointed by your elected officials, grab a clipboard, get some signatures, and run for office yourself. Show up. Dive in. Stay at it.
Sometimes you’ll win. Sometimes you’ll lose. Presuming a reservoir of goodness in other people, that can be a risk, and there will be times when the process will disappoint you. But for those of us fortunate to have been part of this work, and to see it up close, let me tell you, it can energize and inspire.
We have mourned the end of Obama’s term as President, but that is not the end of his influence and example in our lives, nor is it the end of our responsibility for continuing, with unflagging cheerful optimism, to expand and cultivate this remarkable legacy. We will need to be bodhisattvas not only in the safety and comforts of our home and our Zendo, but in the public sphere of trouble, struggle, hostility and strife. We must not be afraid to speak and act from the place of clarity, wisdom, and compassion. We can do this, because we have each other, we have this heartfelt sangha of spiritual friends, because we have the great teachings from the Buddhas and ancestors that have been handed down to us, and because we realize the light of the Buddha in every living being. This is what we have been training for.
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