Saturday, December 4, 2010

Really, I Didn't Mean It

Most people, i think, worry all too much about what their actions are, ignoring to a great extent the thoughts and intentions that drive those actions. As David Loy explains however, Buddha made it very clear that intentions rule.


This points to the demythologized meaning of karma, including the revolutionary Buddhist emphasis on cetana, the primary role of one’s intentions and volitions. The Buddha transformed earlier approaches emphasizing sacrifice and other rituals into an ethical principle by focusing on our motivations. "It is cetana, monks, that I declare to be karma. Having willed, one performs an action by body, speech and mind."

What distinguishes our actions from mere behavior is that they are intended. Some such understanding of karma is implied by anatta, the denial that "I" have any unchanging, hard core of substance or svabhava, self-essence. My subjective sense of self is a construct, and the most important components of that construct are habitual tendencies (sankhara), which mold character and constitute "my" karma.

According to this interpretation, karma is not an inescapable law of the universe involving some precise calculus of cause and effect. The basic idea is simply that our actions have effects—more precisely, that our morally relevant actions have morally relevant effects that go beyond their utilitarian consequences. In the popular Buddhist understanding, the law of karma and rebirth is a way to get some control over what the world does to us, but I am suggesting that karma is better understood as a key to spiritual development: how one’s life-situation can be transformed by transforming the motivations of one’s actions right now.

Anatta means that my karma is not something I have, it is what "I" am, and what I am changes according to my conscious choices. "I" (re)construct myself by what "I" intentionally do, because "my" sense of self is a precipitate of habitual ways of thinking, feeling, and acting. Just as my body is composed of the food I eat, so my character is composed of my conscious choices, constructed by my repeated mental attitudes. This implies that we are "punished" not for our sins but by them; and happiness is not the reward for virtue but virtue itself, as Spinoza claims in the last proposition of his Ethics (V.42).

Karmically, the issue is not so much what we have done as what we have become, and what we intentionally do is what makes us what we are.

An anonymous verse sums this up quite well:

Sow a thought and reap a deed
Sow a deed and reap a habit
Sow a habit and reap a character
Sow a character and reap a destiny

David Loy
Awareness Bound And Unbound: Realizing The Nature Of Attention
(My underline)

I just can't think of anything that needs to be added. Karma isn't something you have, it's what you ARE. As you intend, so you will do. As you repeatedly do, so you become. What you become defines your life. Do good, you are good, your life is good. Do bad, you are bad, your life is bad.

No comments: