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The Great Karma Debate

A few years ago I read some St. Augustine, and he said something quite similar. Rather than the normal Cosmic Judge story about how God looks at his holy checklist to see if you've been more nice or naughty and then sends you to heaven or hell, Augustine said something much like Vasubandhu, and I remembered and looked up Richard's post.

Augustine's story was that sin makes your soul heavier (in some spooky way), and being compassionate and loving makes your soul lighter. So that instead of God making a judgment, when you die, if your soul is light, you float up to heaven, and if heavy, you sink down to hell. I read that and was like, "Cool! That's just like Vasubandhu!"

Now I liked the Vasubandhu story originally because it stays with the real, and doesn't posit any magic or beasties or astral planes, and talks about the heart becoming harder or more flexible (which could easily translate into brain neural pathways). I like the Augustine story because rather than a Cosmic Ego Judge, it involves a natural process that determines your destiny.

I take both 'rebirth' and 'soul going to heaven or hell' though to be metaphors for the same thing, which is how we get heavier and harden, or lighten up and get softer, right here and now in Reality on Planet Earth, depending on our actions and which good patterns and bad addictions we reinforce and which we don't.

By the way, Vipassana teachers who also teach mettaa meditation often point out that while metta means 'loving-kindness', an alternative translation is 'to soften'.

--My Divine Grace Yabba Dabba Dukkha Dharmakaya Trollpa

"I have argued flying saucers with lots of people. I was interested in this: they keep arguing that it is possible. And that's true. It is possible. They do not appreciate that the problem is *not* to demonstrate whether it's possible or not but whether it's going on or not."

-- Prof. Richard Feynman


Punnadhammo wrote:
If volition is merely a construction, a karmic product, then there would be no way to overcome karmic effects. Therefore, there must be something fundamental about free will that goes beyond its limitation as a skandhic construct. I don't pretend to have an answer to this on a metaphysical level and am interested in what others may say. But from a practical point of view, I think it is best to see the present moment as totally determined by past causes and the future free to be shaped by the volitions made in this very present moment.

Richard replied:
I do not find it at all helpful to see the present moment as totally determined by anything. Can you elaborate on what you find helpful by this? What sorts of things do you do differently than you might do them if you held some other belief?

What I find most helpful is to see the very idea of causality as a rough approximation of how events appear to a limited intellect. (And I would add that I think every intellect is limited and therefore incapable of getting at the way things "really" are. The only thing that any of us, including the buddhas, can ever arrive at is more or less inadequate approximations.) The notion of causality can be helpful, but if one thinks about it too deeply, it becomes a horrible tangle of contradictions and unanswerable questions that just get in the way. One can then spend all one's time thinking about theoretical issues instead of working on oneself and improving one's mentality.

Clearly, if one does not have some notion that it is possible to make a decision that will have some bearing on the course of future events, then one cannot find much sense in such metaphors as that of the path. One of the groups of people against whom the Buddha defined himself was the Aajivikas, who held that it is utterly impossible to make any decision that will effect the course of future events. Everything is absolutely determined, and there is nothing that anyone can do to change the preordained course of events. The Buddha ridiculed such thinking. He emphasised that at every moment, one is free to assess which actions are beneficial and which are harmful and to pursue the former and avoid the latter. Indeed, without some such notion of deliberate choice, the Buddhist notion of karma makes no sense at all.

Most Buddhist philosophers who tried to work out a more or less comprehensible theory of karma rejected the route suggested by Punnadhammo. It simply makes no sense to say that the present is utterly determined but that one is nevertheless free to break the patterns of the past. If the emphasis is on freedom to change, then one must have the slack of a certain amount of randomness, unpredictability and uncertainty.

Traditional Buddhists usually talked in terms of habituation. They observed that ninety percent of the effect of every karma is spent in simply reinforcing a habit to act in a similar way again, usually with similar results. The more one does something, such as allow oneself to act out on angry impulses, the more likely one is to do that again in the future. The more often one acts in a particular way, the more difficult it is to choose to act in different ways.

But it is perhaps never impossible. (This was actually one of the raging controversies in Buddhism about 2000 years ago. Some Buddhists said it was possible to become so depraved that it was impossible even to aspire to be good, and for people such as that, no enlightenment would ever be possible. Others took the view that the potential to become enlightened can never be snuffed out entirely. It is, of course, impossible to resolve such a controversy, and so eventually people stopped arguing about it and moved on to thinking about other insoluble problems.)

The view of karma I like best is that of Vasubandhu as explained in great detail in chapters four and five of the Abhidharmakosha. To make a very long story short, his theory was that every decision one makes actually changes the physical structure of the heart. (We would now say the central nervous system.) As tiny changes are made in the structure of the heart, one becomes increasingly disposed to be sensitive to various things. For example, if one constantly gives way to angry impulses, then one's heart actually changes structure.

It acquires a structure that is particularly numb to pleasure and joy and refinement and acutely sensitive to pain. But if one spends a great deal of time thinking very carefully about things, the heart acquires a different structure, and it becomes very sensitive to refined sources of joy and more impervious to pain. At any given time, then, the odds may be very strongly in favour of a heart experiencing joy or pain, but the odds never reach 100%. If they reached 100%, you would be speaking the language of strict determinism. Buddhists tended to avoid that in favour of the language of probability. It follows from rejecting 100% probability that even Buddhas might get the blues sometimes. (If you find that idea intolerable, you may seek comfort in determinism.)

If you have never seen David Suzuki's four-part video series on the human brain, do yourself a favour and take a look at it. Suzuki shows electron microscopic pictures of nerve cells growing and forming complex nodes. What neuroscientists have discovered is that the more one uses the brain to think, solve problems, pay attention to the stimuli of the senses, talk, sing, dance and so forth, the more complex the neural pathways become. And the more complex those pathways become, the better one is at using the brain. The better one is at using the brain, the better one is at being a living human being. The less one thinks, attends to stimuli and so forth, the less these pathways grow, and the less adept one becomes.

As with all other things in the physical organism, the principle seems to be "Use it or lose it." People who do a lot of reading, thinking, writing, painting, sculpting, singing, dancing, interacting with other people and so forth tend to have much slower loss of brain mass as they age than do people who are relatively inactive intellectually. (Monks' brains often become so small that they slip unobserved down the throat.) Findings such as these, I think, are interestingly consistent with Vasubandhu's theory of karma, although of course he had not anticipated anything like the detail with which neuroscientists can now discuss these issues.

One very interesting question that is worth exploring is what effect various kinds of Buddhist practice have on the brain and the rest of the central nervous system. They surely have some effect, and those effects surely have implications for the practitioner's capacity to be sensitive to various kinds of stimuli in the future. The human organism is probably far too complex to enable anyone to arrive at definitive answers to any of these questions. It may be, however, that someday people will be in a better position to say "If your goal is to make yourself increasingly dull-witted and insensitive, then spend a lot of time in fourth jhana. If you wish to make yourself much more alert, bright, sensitive and vibrant, then choose practices that stimulate your neural pathways, such as visualisation exercises. If you wish to be much more alert and responsive to the situations of others, regularly practice mettaa-bhavanaa."

If you wish to develop the ability to slam your hands over your ears every time someone shows an interest in some finding to which Buddhaghosa did not have a pat answer, read the postings of Punnadhammo. (Click mouse here to see picture of a coyote with a mischievous grin.)

Yours in the dhamma (but not necessarily the Full Dhamma of my bhikkhunic amigo),

El Coyote Gris de Monte Real


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