Is there such a thing as Karmic law? What goes around comes around, huh? Or does it? Everybody gets what they deserve in the end. Or do they? Or how about this one: Does being a good person ultimately count for more than being powerful and successful? Is the world a fair place, a cosmic order of morality? Are there rewards inherent in kindness and morality – and are our sins and evils really pregnant with punishment? Or is the world fundamentally devoid of moral meaning; a perfectly dead, pristine multidimensional, self-organizing hypercomplexity of indifference?
“I offer you spiritual reason. If reason’s your game.”
The answers to these questions are, in order of appearance: yes, there is a such a thing as Karmic law; no, nobody gets what they deserve because we always deserve something infinitely better; no, power precedes morality, so being powerful and successful counts for more than being good (and this is so by mathematical necessity); yes, kindness and morality have inherent rewards (and sins have automatic punishments); yes, the world is a cosmic order of morality; no the world is not indifferent – its fundamental principle is love which is the same as non-indifference, which means that the universe itself cares.
But let’s not rush things. All of these answers are part-time poison; they need to be qualified and put into context in order to be meaningful and correct. We’ll get around to answering all of it. Or rather, we’ll cut right through this knot and dissolve the questions. We will, if you like, reveal how stupid these inquires really are. We’ll catch our left hand in the cookie jar, take a deep breath, look up at the sky and let out a dry philosophical chuckle at ourselves.
I here propose a fully, thoroughly, uncompromisingly and unapologetically secular and rational understanding of Karma; that is, our purpose here is to propose an understanding of the moral nature of the universe, life and existence. This understanding is that, yes, Karma is as real and universal as light, matter and space. A rational understanding of Karma is fundamentally incompatible with traditional religious beliefs East and West – as well as it is incompatible with the idea of an indifferent universe; the ‘indifferent universe’ being an irrational belief system of today’s confused atheists. I offer you spiritual reason. If reason’s your game.
A Karmic Stage Model
First of all we need to understand a simple stage model in relation to the understanding of Karma. It can be described in more detail, but let’s keep it simple. The four stages would be 1. pre-Karma, 2. traditional religious Karma, 3. secular nihilism, and 4. secular Karma.
The first stage has no real conception of universal morality and simply confounds might with right. It also does not differentiate between self-interest and common or universal interest. Thereby the question of Karma doesn’t arise.
The second stage is to believe in Karma as a religious belief system. This is what the vast majority of today’s Buddhists and Hindus do – as well as Christians, Jews and Muslims, who have personalized theistic conceptions of punishment and reward. The traditional belief structure is just that: a belief. People think that there is actually a huge cosmic piece of machinery out there that, in the light of universal truth, judges each action of each person and then sums up the score, and then dishes out punishments and rewards, in this life or the next. They believe that this is a mechanism separate from the normal workings of the universe, that is has its own explanatory power, and that it frankly gives a damn about who did what, with whom, to whom and when.
“People think that there is actually a huge cosmic piece of machinery out there that, in the light of universal truth, judges each action of each person and then sums up the score, and then dishes out punishments and rewards, in this life or the next.”
I should stop here, before we go along, to point out that this traditional conception of Karma – in all its irrationality and harmful consequences – is also what is currently being taught at most modern Western yoga studios. Such teachings are generally expressed in vaguer (and cuter sounding) terms than say teachings of traditional Tibetan Buddhism, but the general idea is still basically the same: there is a huge machine out there counting every step you take, and it wants you to be a good boy/girl, and it will give you candy if you are, and kick you in the face with high heels if you are naughty. And remember, he sees you when you’re sleeping.
The third stage is to go beyond Karma and simply not believe in it. There is no reason to think that any such huge cosmic machinery would be out there, let alone care what we are up to, or have a universal measure of the respective “moral” merits of each of our doings, or have the means of dishing out punishments and rewards in proportion, or identify us as individual souls based on our DNA in the first place. The universe is out there blaming us for being scared, having needs, having limited perspectives, or just for being born with inherent limitations? And you want us to believe in this without any shred of evidence? Naaahh… Come on! This is quite obviously an anthropomorphization of the universe, as if the natural world would follow the conceptions of right and wrong present in this particular human society in this particular time.
At this third stage Karma is not real, and there is only a secular, indifferent natural order. You can rape and kill children in torturous ways and still have soft ice cream in the sun the next carefree, beautiful morning. Or you can be a good, empathetic person and still get cancer and have your mother creamed by a bus. There is no Karmic law. There is no fairness. Sorry. Human beings, our society and morality are just fluctuations upon the surface of a deeper physical reality of nature, and this reality is fundamentally amoral. It doesn’t care. Thus, all there is to it is that humans have ideals, social contracts, norms and opinions, but these are contingent, relative and not really real.
Where the first order simply justifies itself arbitrarily, and the second order justifies itself by reference to an absolute order of the universe, the third order must wrestle with the question of morality in a much more fundamental way. The third order still has morality, but has difficulties when it comes to justifying that morality. I shouldn’t make other people suffer unnecessarily. Really? Why not? You’ll hear all kinds of outrageous excuses from secular people, justifying their moral sentiments in an amoral universe: Because that is how our species is programmed. Because I feel like it. It’s not that I don’t think I shouldn’t murder children; it’s just not my style. We must help the poor because human dignity demands it.
The third stage can ridicule the second stage all they want. But their neck is exposed: You still have morality, and you cannot justify it as universal. I mean, “because human dignity demands it”? How irrational and magical isn’t that? You deserve a big rational slap in your face for excuses like that, as far as Karma goes. In the stage three position your own morality cannot be superior to anyone else’s – including the guy who wants to steal your car.
“I mean, ‘because human dignity demands it’? How irrational and magical isn’t that?”
The fourth stage, secular Karma, addresses this issue. It agrees with the secularists that there is no universal moral computer out there, keeping scrupulous track of each individual soul over the years and eons; indeed it agrees that there is probably no such thing as an individual soul in the first place.
But it adds a few things that make Karma meaningful in a rational and secular setting, showing a deeper, contemplative meaning to the term and to the Buddhist and Christian wisdom traditions. The fourth stage basically says that Karma is, just as the root of the word suggests, simply the net effects of each action or agency. This net effect should be viewed with collapsed time and space dimensions, meaning that even suffering caused to creatures at great distance in time and space – or across long causal chains of events – has the same value. Same goes for bliss caused.
This means that good actions are good because they have favorable or desirable consequences for sentient beings, and bad actions are bad because they have unfavorable or undesirable consequences for sentient beings. That’s it. That is the meaning of Karma. It is so by perfect logical necessity, by definition. It is universal and all-pervading. It has always been true and it will always be true. To know and act according to this truth is good, always has been and always will be. To ignore or neglect this truth is bad, always has been, and always will be.
It is hard, scientific, logical, secular Karmic law. There is no escape from it. There never has been and there never will be.
“It is hard, scientific, logical, secular Karmic law. There is no escape from it. There never has been and there never will be.”
But a few things need to be clarified.
It is important to understand that we just made a few great leaps that part with some of our individualistic, atomic intuitions of the modern era. These need to be explicated.
The first part is that we must consider “consciousness” in general. Secular Karma only makes sense if we consider the world as non-indifferent, as entailing consciousness, experience, perception and feeling. If nothing were alive to sense bliss, beauty or pain, then of course nothing would matter. The universe would really be amoral.
But the universe is not indifferent. It seems to be full with life and/or at least the potential for life, which also gives it a moral nature even at the level of birthing stars and space dust. Life in turn seems to be ordered into increasingly sensing and feeling entities such as animals of different kinds. These self-organizing entities both have subjectivity and the potential for giving birth to new life forms and new forms of lived experience. It is easy to imagine cultural development and biological evolution – now advancing more rapidly through the use of science – bringing forth genuinely new forms of life with novel non-indifferent experiences of the universe.
But what is the specific place of consciousness in the world, the locus conscientae, to use a fancy term? If you turn your mental gaze inside and try to find the source of your own consciousness, you never seem to really hit home. Are my thoughts my consciousness? Who then is hearing the thoughts? Who is speaking them? To whom is that voice speaking? And who has a stomach ache? Who reacts to it? Just answering “Hanzi” seems unsatisfactory. The Eastern traditions have pointed out this simple fact at least since the Axial age some 2500 years ago.
So if I cannot seem to find a delineated individual consciousness within my own experience – can I really be said to have an individual consciousness at all? I can’t find a stable category that I call “myself” anywhere in the world… My body is made out of matter I digested just the other day, my words were taught to me by you guys, the thoughts just seem to be flowing out of me from some void, beyond “my” control, my DNA seems to be changing epigenetically, my looks, my needs, my values and opinions, habits… They all have origins beyond my individual “self”.
Nevertheless I am conscious. If I am conscious, but not separate from the rest of the universe, the conclusion should be clear: My real self, in a deeper sense, is consciousness itself, which is the consciousness of the universe itself. This means that my own consciousness is basically and fundamentally the same as yours and everyone else’s. We may not be able to see with each other’s eyes or hear each other’s thoughts, but we seem to be conscious by virtue of the same functions of the universe. We seem, in a very real sense, to be part of the same conscious self-organizing process.
It appears that you guys also have brains and bodies and that you are conscious. Most probably you cannot be clearly delineated as individuals either. You must be conscious in the same non-individual way that I am.
If this is understood, the principle of secular Karma should not be surprising. If my real self is consciousness itself, anything that I do that harms anyone or anything, in any time, at any distance, is fundamentally harming myself. This is so by necessity.
Again. Precisely because we do not have individual souls, Karma makes sense. This is the exact opposite of believing that we have individual souls which persist over time and that Big Brother is watching (oh, with love of course). Precisely because there is no individual soul, but only a commonly created consciousness, Karma makes sense.
Karma showed up as a contemplative insight by people who disidentified with their individual sense of self. They said that, since the individual self has no substance and consciousness seems to be a fundamental quality of the universe, my real self must be consciousness itself – in all beings, in all ages, in all places, from all perspectives. Thereby, it doesn’t matter more if Hanzi is happy than if John or Mary are happy. That Hanzi’s experience should matter more is merely an optical illusion of the senses. If John in 10000 years suffers, it is as relevant as if Hanzi suffers today, or as if Mary suffered a thousand years ago.
This contemplative insight was simplified into the mythical teaching of traditional religions, be it as Karma or heaven and hell. The simplification was that, if Hanzi is a bad boy (and yes, I admit to being just that) then Hanzi himself will be punished at a later time. Not so. Karma doesn’t care if Hanzi is a good boy. It just cares about all sentient beings, in all times. And Hanzi is part of that. If Hanzi causes harm, he may still be happy. But at a more fundamental level, I will still have harmed myself.
The scientific revolution and the Enlightenment were right to dismember that mythic, simplified construct. But they largely failed to understand that at the core, the religions were right, that spiritual insight is real, and that Karma is the law of the universe. Moral cause and effect.
The Impure, Guiltless Universe
What Jesus, the contemplative Jesus, taught (if he was a historical person or the result of the writings of other historical persons) was a vital paradox of existence: that we are free from sin, that there is no such thing as individual guilt and no reason for blame – and that we are always sinners, in that our agency unavoidably is imperfect and always causes both harm and does good.
His solution to this paradox was a certain mental quality or attitude: that of universal love, which is the same as radical acceptance of all things as they are. Which is the same as surrendering to God. Which is the same as identifying with God-in-the-world (the Holy Ghost or Godhead).
The contemplative insight of secular Karma is that we are always without guilt, and that there is no reason for blame towards ourselves or one another, or the world itself. This is a transpersonal perspective. It appears that people who reach spiritual insight all come down with this same transpersonal perspective: don’t cast the first stone, because you are really throwing it at yourself. Just identify with everything, accept it, love it, and give it your best smack-down, all the while accepting that you will both fail and succeed.
So we can never be perfect, never “free from sin” (where “sin” simply means making mistakes and causing harm). And yet, we are always perfect or pure in the sense that no guilt or metaphysical notion of evil can ever be attached to our individual souls (because they are not there). We can always, in full love and acceptance of all things as they are, be forgiven and redeemed. There is no nasty Karma machine keeping count. That is the real essence of Eastern acceptance and Christian forgiveness. These insights are good news, which is the meaning of the word “evangel“.
Secular Karma, then, is the reasoned belief that this universe is a moral one. It is the insight that I am not the “good guy” or the “chosen one”, but that all I do matters immensely for all sentient beings. This is carried not as a burden, not as a duty, but as play – a play with tragedy, beauty and mystery; and yes, a play with the messy business we call politics.
Welcome to the impure, guiltless universe.
I’ll leave the final word with that old rascal you know:
‘To see the universal and all-pervading spirit of Truth face to face one must be able to love the meanest of creation as oneself. And a man who aspires after that cannot afford to keep out of any field of life. This is why my devotion of Truth has drawn me to into the field of politics; and I can say without the slightest hesitation, and yet in all humility, that those who say that religion has nothing to do with politics do not know what religion means.’
– Mahatma Gandhi, Autobiography, 1948, p 615 (quoted in ‘Truth is God’, p 5, compiled by R. K. Prabhu)
New Tide Orchestra, ‘The Buffalo Stance’