The previous essay in this series ended with the question, “If we are not a solid, impervious, ‘shell’ of self with an eternal soul, then what are we?” This essay takes up that question in terms of the cleansing and conversion of karma. (To view a PDF file with both parts combined, click here.)
Great Master Dogen says that “the kingdom of death must be entered by oneself alone with nothing for company but our own good and bad karma,”1 and that is what we bring with us into this life from past lives. This life of ours is an ongoing process of interacting with the world, driven by our inherited karma and the making of new karma based on our volitional actions of body, speech and mind.2 The karma is “bad” when our actions arise from the three poisons of greed, anger, and ignorance-delusion, and “good” when we act from compassion, love, and wisdom. (Instead of “bad” and “good,” I tend to think of the qualities of karma as “negative” and “positive.”)
Rendered graphically, this admixture of karma in our experience of life might look something like this:
In this graphic the “membrane” of the self is shown as an irregular outline to evoke, as in the amoeba in the previous essay, the nonrigid and constantly shifting, constantly changing boundaries of the self. It is also shown as porous and not impermeable and self-limited. This represents the phenomenon that the karmic energies of different selves can affect each other when they come in contact and interact with each other. The dark-blue background of the cell of self—the “medium” it exists in—represents the compassion, love, and wisdom of the Eternal Buddha Nature; it has no border to indicate that it is infinite in space and eternal in time. Although it cannot be shown in a two-dimensional graphic, it should be understood that this is not static and passive, but is a dynamic, flowing, unlimited, unconditioned “energy” that is always available to us to “plug into” through meditation and acting onthe Precepts.
Since red in our culture is often used to represent danger or warning, and heat or burning, negative karma is shown in red “bubbles” recalling the amoeba’s organelles. Positive karmic “bubbles” are shown lighter blue, since they partake of the qualities of the Eternal and yet are filtered through our humanity. However, both the negative and positive karmic bubbles exist in the medium of the Eternal. I am told that Rev. Master Jiyu-Kennett used to often say, using western terminology, “I am not God, and there is nothing in me that is not of God.”3 Even our negative karma is not separate from the Eternal, it is just that we give it temporary relative reality by indulging aspects of greed, anger, and ignorance-delusion.
We are each unique only in our particular collection of karma, not the essence of Buddha Nature it exists in. If we reflect on ourselves we can each fill in the karmic bubbles with our own specific karmic proclivities, and specific regretful episodes of indulging them. Within the broad parameters of greed, anger, and ignorance-delusion, one may be dominant over the others in an individual. And some people have an apparent preponderance of negative karma, while others manifest more positive karma. Most people in the “normal” range seem to have a balance.
How does this relate to our Buddhist training? As shown in the graphic the opacity of the karma obscures the background of the Eternal, and the more karmic bubbles we have the more obscure the background. When we train in meditation and the Precepts, the karmic bubbles begin to dissolve back into medium of the Eternal and our actions of body, speech and thought begin to more manifest the compassion, love and wisdom that is our essential Self.
Being mindful of the Precepts and manifesting them in our daily lives moderates the effects of existing negative karma and prevents new bubbles from arising. Pure meditation works at diminishing the bubbles’ karmic energy and dissolving them into the Buddha Nature:
In this version of the graphic the effects of pure meditation on the karma is reflected by showing the bubbles diminished with more space between them, revealing more of the Buddha Nature behind the self.4 The bubbles are also shown in varying degrees of transparency to indicate that while some of them resolve fairly quickly with training, others take more time and work to resolve. And, it is prudent to remember that at any time we can generate more karmic bubbles, which is why the Precepts are so important.
When we meditate we let the thoughts and memories and emotions of our karmic bubbles simply arise and pass away: we deny them the energy to affect us and we begin to see their essential unreality. Our perception of the Eternal clarifies as the karmic obscurities shrink and dissolve, and our mistaken sense of the karmic bubbles being who we are also diminishes. As we engage an ongoing meditation practice our entire orientation towards the world begins to change as the influence of the karma lessens and the Buddha Nature begins to show through in our lives.
It is also important to note that, paradoxically, even the positive karma must be released and dissolved, because it is also generated by the self. As that great classic of western spirituality, The Cloud of Unknowing, puts it: “Hide all created things, material and spiritual, good and bad, under the cloud of forgetting.”5 And that “forgetting”— letting go—of all created things reveals the Eternal. This is what happens in deep meditation, when it is as if our spiritual “eye” can see through the gaps between karmic bubbles–both negative and positive–to perceive that True Reality behind them.
As mentioned above, the letting-go process of meditation unblocks the energy of the Eternal and allows It to flow into the self and counter the energy of the karmic bubbles. The Precepts describe actions that give negative karma energy and influence and so are to be avoided. Taken together they work to dissolve these karmic bubbles and reveal the wonderful purity and clarity of the essence underneath. At death, the karmic bubbles that have not been resolved are released back into the Eternal to be reabsorbed by another being at their time of birth.
An essay about no-self would not be complete without reference to The Scripture of Great Wisdom (the Heart Sutra). This scripture is the most beloved of all the Mahayana schools of Buddhism because from beginning to end it is saying, “Don’t worry…don’t worry…don’t worry: in essence you are not the limited self you think you are and there is no-thing to protect and no-thing to lose.” Virtually every Zen temple around the world begins its day by reciting this scripture, and what more uplifting and encouraging way could there be to step off into a new day of training?
1“Shushogi: What is Truly Meant by Training and Enlightenment,” Great Master Dogen, translated by Rev. Master P.T.N.H. Jiyu-Kennett, M.O.B.C., in Zen is Eternal Life (Mount Shasta, CA: Shasta Abbey Press, Fourth Edition, 1999), p. 95.
2 “The Pali term Kamma, literally, means action or doing. Any kind of intentional action whether mental, verbal, or physical is regarded as Kamma. It covers all that is included in the phrase: ‘Thought, word and deed’. Generally speaking, all good and bad actions constitute Kamma. In its ultimate sense Kamma means all moral and immoral volition.” Narada Thera,The Buddha and His Teachings, p. 265
3“There is a great difference, you know, between thinking you are God and knowing that what is in you is of God. ‘I am not God, and there is nothing in me that is not of God’ is the way in which one has to think about it. The reason for Zen practice is to find the Eternal.” Rev. Master P.T.N.H. Jiyu-Kennett, M.O.B.C., Roar of the Tigress, Volume One (Mount Shasta, CA: Shasta Abbey Press, 2000), p. 22.
4 “In Buddhism, since there is no separate soul, the persons concerned cleanse themselves of all past karma to such an extent that that which belongs to the Eternal may be seen in them and it is not theirs….” “Having cleansed one’s karma one merely exhibits the Eternal without being conscious of exhibiting the Eternal and without caring whether one exhibits it or not since it is the natural and right thing to do.” Zen is Eternal Life, op. cit., pp. 64 & 65.
The monastery was closed from May 1-6 while the monastic community held the traditional semi-annual Searching of the Heart retreat. Rev. Master Basil and Rev. Master Bennet joined the monastic community from their temples in Seattle and Minnesota, respectively. The monastery also hosted a well-attended lay retreat from late May to early June.