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The Issue at Hand

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Chapter 7: Karma

All we experience is preceded by mind,
Led by mind, made by mind.
Speak or act with a corrupted mind
And suffering follows
As the wagon wheel follows the hoof of the ox.
All we experience is preceded by mind,
Led by mind, made by mind.
Speak or act with a peaceful mind
And happiness follows
Like a shadow that never leaves. 

– Dhammapada 1-2

 

Central to Buddhist spiritual practice is a deep appreciation of the present moment and the possibilities that exist in the present for waking up and being free of suffering. The present is the only place our creativity exists. The Buddhist notion of karma is closely tied to that creativity.

The concept of karma is not some idea about past lives; nor is it a law of predetermination. If you believe that your happiness is predetermined, it leaves no space for you to affect your happiness and your suffering. Spiritual practice includes choice. The Buddha stressed that if you have too strict an idea of karma there is no room for choice.

The Buddha said, “What I call karma is intention.” In other words, the teaching of karma is about the intentional choices we make in the present. The present moment is to be appreciated mindfully and relaxed into, as we do in meditation. But it is also where we choose how to step forward into the next moment. The more clearly we see the choice, the greater the freedom and creativity we have in making it.

The present moment is partly the result of our choices in the past and partly the result of our choices unfolding in the present. Our experience of the next moment, the next day, the next decade, is shaped by the choices we make in relationship to where we find ourselves right now. Intended acts of body, speech and mind have consequences; taking these consequences into account offers important guidance in our choices for action.

But these consequences are not fixed or mechanical. Intended actions tend toward certain consequences. After all, the interactive field of causality is immense. Sometimes the consequences of our intended actions are submerged in the wide ocean of cause and effect. But, even so, the world tends to respond in a certain way if we act with intentions of greed, hatred or delusion. It tends to respond very differently if we act with motivations of friendliness, generosity, and kindness.

While consequences in the external world may be varied, the inner consequences of our actions are often much clearer, offering us reliable feedback on our choices. For example, we can experience the results of our intentions – karmic consequences – in our bodies. Cumulative habits of greed, hatred or fear affect our muscles one way, while generosity, compassion and reconciliation affect them very differently. Fear can be felt as tightness and tension as the body pulls together in protection. Protecting oneself is an intention, sometimes unnoticed when it becomes chronic. But even unnoticed, the tightness can eventually create physical difficulties.

In meditation, we cease responding to the world habitually. Instead we watch the momentum of the
mind: our desires, feelings, thoughts and intentions. Instead of acting on or reacting to them, we give them careful attention. When we don’t reinforce them, they quiet down and no longer direct our lives.

The world of suffering and freedom has a lot to do with how we choose to respond to what is given to us, to the present moment itself. What is given may not be to our liking. But, even so, through mindfulness practice we can awaken to the creative potential of choice in how we respond. To choose to respond with aversion, anger, fear, or clinging continues the creation of suffering. To respond with more attention, or without reference to our egoistic attachments, interrupts the cycles of suffering. Creative freedom is not possible if choice is rooted in egoism.

So the world of karma is the world of intention, and the world of intention belongs to the world of right now. Nowhere else. With what intention do you meet this moment? What is your intention for how you do your work, or drive, carry on a conversation, or do someone a favor? If you tend to your intentions with love and care, as you would a garden, your intentions will flower beautifully and bear fruit in your life.

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