Saturday, October 03, 2015

Karma and Rebirth Revisited - Part Two

Continued from Part One.
As Buddhism comes to the West, it cannot be stated emphatically enough, that a paradigm shift is necessary to understand karma and rebirth, because from the modern materialistic perspective of secular scientism karma and rebirth seem like supernatural mysticism or superstition and from the modern materialistic perspective of the Abrahamic religions karma and rebirth seem like amoral ungodly atheism. On the one hand, we have to give up our attachment to the idea that only what is tangible is real; and on the other hand we have to give up our attachment to the idea that what is revealed by God written in a sacred text is literally real.  The core problem with the so-called secular Buddhist movement is that the participants do not want to acknowledge the necessity for this paradigm shift, of needing to change their perspective about what is real, and to inquire deeply with determination and vigor into the foundations and the fountainhead of our own mind.

Here are some commonly asked questions by people trying to understand karma and rebirth from within the secular modernist perspective.

Question: By virtue of what feature(s), attribute(s) or quality(s) is karma to be distinguished from ordinary, goal-directed behavior?
Reply:  Karma basically (most simply, directly) means action, activity, acts, i.e., the shared meaning element of actions, deeds, behavior, conduct, etc.   So the question should be restated as “what distinguishes karma from ordinary, goal-directed karma?  The reply is nothing, other than that ordinary goal-directed karma is a subset of the general category karma.  The two adjectives “ordinary” and “goal-directed” limit the subset and exclude the karmas that are both extraordinary and non-goal-directed karma.  In other words, the question established four categories of karma, (1) karma that is ordinary but not goal-directed, (2) goal-directed but not ordinary, (3) both ordinary and goal-directed, and (4) neither ordinary nor goal-directed.  Whatever features, attributes, or qualities that are defined for the terms “ordinary” and “goal-directed” are the features, attributes, or qualities that distinguish these categories of karma.

Q.: In what medium do the effects (fruits) of karma propagate?
R.: Mind is the medium.  From the point of view of the thinking consciousness (mano-vijnana) which fabricates and establishes the concept of medium, the propagation of waves requires a medium in which the wave formation propagates.  The Lankavatara Sutra uses the simile of the ocean and the wave.  When the karma wave is propagated, the mind is symbolized by the ocean, and it is the ocean that is reborn with the wave propagation, not an individual entity.   But while this image is a useful tool, is should not to be over-utilized or stretched too far as a metaphor.  We can also consider the wave formations of light and how they propagate through empty space with no apparent medium.  For a long time scientists assumed that there had to be a medium for light wave propagation and they came up with ideas like ether. But then living with paradox became possible in physics, so now we have the wave-particle duality, or wavicle, for understanding light wave propagation without a medium.  Sometimes light appears and acts like a wave propagating through a medium and sometimes light appears and acts like a particle traveling through empty space.   Likewise, the mind is often compared with empty space with karma appearing to act like a wave through a medium (like the ocean) or like a particle (seed, bija) propagating in space without a medium.  Either seen as the ocean medium or as space, it is mind where karma propagates.     

Q.: What is it, exactly, that connects me to particular persons no longer living and not yet born?

R.: There is no connection to someone “not yet born,” because there is no one “not yet born” except in the constructed imagination with a reality of the category of a unicorn or a rabbit with horns.   The connection to a particular karmic stream of actions of the past is what is called in the present “identity.”  This is the same as what connects us to the particular baby we were at birth when all of the cells of the body of that infant have died and been replaced by new cells, so that physically we are not the same accumulation of molecules and cells, but a stream of molecules and cells that are knit together by our “identity.”  Identity is what is called the volitional aspect of karma.  Karma is created by the identity that attaches to an action. If we have an action without any volitional identity attached to it, then the action does not create karma.  The non-karmic action may have an effect on the physical level, as when someone bumps our elbow and we spill some coffee, but the arm’s activity would not propagate karma. However, our identity-conditioned action upon experiencing the spilled coffee, such as getting angry at being bumped, would be a karma propagating activity, exactly because our identity would be conditioning our emotive action in that case.

Q.: If it is some form of mental causation that connects “lives,” how does it continue after the dissolution of the current brain?

R.:  Mind’s capacity for consciousness is conditioned by brain conditions, but mind is not identical with brain.  The brain is the main physical organ of the central nervous system, but our mind is not our central nervous system.  For example, our spectrum of hearing is limited compared to dogs, so our mind is conditioned by the sensory organ and the central nervous system differently than dogs are conditioned. But the mind still hears within that conditioned limitation.  The mind is what hears, not the brain.   

This is one of the most important points of trying to translate the law of karma into the worldview of modern science which has a basis of materialism.  Much of modern physics, because of the integrity of the adventurous minority of genuine scientists. has slowly chipped away at the bias and prejudicial idea of matter.  Matter was first seen as composed of the four primary elements of earth, water, fire, air. Then the elements were seen as molecular compounds. Then the compounds were seen again as chemical elements. But then the elemental structure was reviewed and revisioned, and in a way re-simplified, into just three primary elements: electrons, protons, and neutrons. And then the world broke open again to reveal the confusing plethora of sub-atomic particles.  Se now we have a view of “matter” in which there is mostly space with tiny swirls and whirlpools of energy force-fields strung together to create the illusion of stuff and matter.

As the Wikipedia article says, “Wave–particle duality is the fact that every elementary particle or quantic entity exhibits the properties of not only particles, but also waves. It addresses the inability of the classical concepts "particle" or "wave" to fully describe the behavior of quantum-scale objects.” 

Trying to understand karma from what is a “classical” concept of matter and materialism is bound to fail, just like trying to understand physical matter using classical concepts is bound to fail.  We have to acknowledge that while karma may be discussed by analogy to physical processes, such as “seeds” in the storehouse-consciousness (alaya-vijnana) or waves in the ocean, karma is not a physical process, it is a mind activity.  In Western parlance we would say that karma is a “psychic activity” using the psychological sophistication of Carl G. Jung.  But due to the extreme prejudices and unrelenting oppression of the physical view of reality, psychic activity has been given a bad name, Jung has been defamed as a mystic, the study of the mind and psychology itself has had all the mind and psyche driven out of it by the false views of physical neurology that equates the mind and psyche with the physical brain, etc. 

Buddha’s enlightenment is not a physical event, it is a psychological event, i.e., a psychic activity.  Buddhist sages and bodhisattva-caryas have used physical analogies as skillful means to try to teach and communicate what awakening is, but it remains essentially a psychic event, not a physical event subject to direct objective measurement with a ruler.  There is the modern attempt by so-called self-described secular Buddhists to remove all psychic activity from Buddhism, just has scientific modernity has attempted to remove all psychic activity from the world. But in the end, this is just a denial of the unconscious mind which buries certain psychic actions (karmas) which only come back to haunt us with the fruits of that denial.

The modern secular Buddhist, such as Robert Scharf and Stephen Batchelor, wants us to believe that only the perceptions of the five senses are real and that there is no point to speaking of "experience" in the context of karma and rebirth since we can't see it, hear it, touch it, etc.  The basic problem with this approach is that it is not Buddhist, it is secular, because Buddha Dharma accepts reality of the 6th sense of thinking, the 7th level of consciousness and the unconscious level of the 8th consciousness.  Or in the framework of the Five Skandhas, Buddha Dharma accepts the un-conscious levels of the first four skandhas in relation to the 5th skandha of consciousness.
The best Western bridge that I have found to understanding the required paradigm shift from the materialistic secular frame of reference limited by the 5 sense perceptions to the Buddhist frame of reference is the work of Carl Jung.  In the quote that follows, Jung uses the term “sense perception” to indicate the frame of reference of the 5 senses.  Jung’s psychology is based on the view that there is more to heaven and earth than what is perceived by the 5 senses.  For this Jung has been called a mystic.  But from this truly psychological view, that is, a view of the reality of mind, it is the idea that only the 5 senses show us what is real that is the "vulgar notion" and belief. 

Here is the opening paragraph (par. 206) of section 2 “The Psychology of Rebirth” of Carl Jung’s paper “Concerning Rebirth” found in Volume 9, Part I, of The Collected Works titled The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious 
“Rebirth is not a process that we can in any way observe.  We can neither measure nor weigh not photograph it.  It is entirely beyond sense perception.  We have to do here with a purely psychic reality, which is transmitted to us only indirectly through personal statements.  One speaks of rebirth, one professes rebirth; one is filled with rebirth.  This we accept as sufficiently real.  We are not concerned here with the question: is rebirth a tangible process of some sort?  We have to be content with its psychic reality. I hasten to add that I am not alluding to the vulgar notion that anything ‘psychic’ is either nothing at all or at best even more tenuous than a gas.  Quite the contrary; I am of the opinion that the psyche is the most tremendous fact of human life.  Indeed, it is the mother of all human facts; of civilization and of its destroyer, war.  All this is at first psychic and indivisible.  So long as it is ‘merely’ psychic it cannot be experienced by the senses, but is nonetheless indisputably real.  The mere fact that people talk about rebirth, and that there is such a concept at all, means that a store of psychic experiences designated by that term must actually exist.  What these experiences are like we can only infer from the statements that have been made about them.  So, if we want to find out what rebirth really is, we must turn to history in order to ascertain what ‘rebirth’ has been understood to mean.”

We can see here that Jung discovered the paradigm shift needed to understand Buddha Dharma and called it "psychology."  The statement "the psyche is the mother of all human facts" calls forth the mind-only (citta-matra) perspective of the Lankavatara Suta's view that all things are "only the manifestations of one's own mind" (自心現量).   Jung's "store of psychic experiences" directly calls forth the storehouse-consciousness (alayavijnana).  Because Jung dared to challenge the paradigm of secular science's prejudice for the tangible he was tarred as a mystic, and the discoveries of his analytical psychology, as well as the psyche itself, have been pushed aside by the materialist secularism of the physical sciences masquerading as psychology.  But when Jung was on his deathbed, he was reading Zen master Hsu Yun's talks on the Eight Consciousnesses in Charles Luk's Chan and Zen Teachings: First Series, and he asked his secretary to write Luk and report "He was enthusiastic... When he read what Hsu Yun said, he sometimes felt as if he himself could have said exactly this! It was just it." (From a letter dated September 12, 1961.)

Jung was still a man of his time, so to maintain his empirical objectivity, he recommended the study of history to learn what has been understood about rebirth.  In turning to history, Jung's methodology was a cross-cultural and cross-historical approach to determine and identify the shared meaning elements among the plethora of manifestations of myth, folklore, legends, fairy tales, prophetic visions, dreams, etc. that have gripped the imaginations of people throughout history.  In this way he could arrive at an empirical conclusion (as a scientific hypothesis) of the unobservable intangible aspects of psychic reality.  However, this is only half of the story, the half that is available for the researcher from the "outside."  The other half is what is available to the researcher from the "inside," that is by direct experience through the practice of meditation or other psychic practices such as what Jung called "active imagination" or even hypnotherapy. 

However, we have to be forewarned and aware that what is a directly experienced psychic reality must still be analyzed and subjected to evaluation.  That is, we don't always come to the correct conclusions about our own experiences and need to understand how we can delude ourselves. The primary example of this in relation to rebirth is the concept of a self.  We have direct experience of our own life and come to the erroneous conclusion that we are an individual self, a separate soul. Rather than being seen through for the illusion that it is by a direct experience of rebirth, this mistaken notion of a soul actually can be reinforced by past life memories that may be accessed through meditation or trance states such as hypnosis.  Thus, the Buddha's great discovery of the reality of the non-soul, no-self, perspective was applied to the then current ideas about karma and rebirth, not to say that the psychic reality of karma and rebirth was false, but to clarify that the psychic reality of karma and rebirth does occur, but not within the context of our mistaken notions of a self or soul.
To be continued...

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