Karma: Buddhist Action Defined.

Living beings are part of a physical world.  Indeed, as a biological entity that is self-propelling and self-replicating, human beings appear as if separate from the world of matter itself.  The Buddha’s teaching upon the law of karma (Sanskrit: ‘कर्मन्’), demonstrates clearly that the mind does not exist independent of the physical world it inhabits.  More than this, however, it further explains that volitional or ‘willed’ thoughts create the kind of world that is inhabited, in as much as the type of karma generated pulls into existence a particular type of physical circumstance ‘around’ the six (Buddhist) senses, and that ‘action’ as defined as ‘thought’ (in the mind), and ‘behaviour’ (as movement in the environment), is in fact an event that recognises no real distinction between mind and matter itself.  The Buddha does not present ‘mind’ and ‘matter’ as two distinct and separate entities that either interact or integrate with one another, but rather as two distinct aspects of the same continuum event, in as much as the concept of ‘mind’ and the definition of ‘matter’ are in reality merely expedient devices designed to convey contextually differing manifestations of exactly the same phenomena.  This is not to say that ‘mind’ is reconciled into ‘matter’, and merely becomes an extension of it, or that ‘matter’ is reduced to the psychic content of ‘mind’, but that in reality the Buddha’s philosophy advocates a ‘middle way’ free from dogma that can not be fully grasped or understood by the ordinary mind residing in the state of delusion.  The undeveloped intellect attempts, in a grasping and disjointed manner, to make sense of a vague feeling of something that might exist beyond its current boundaries of awareness.  This demonstrates a certain ‘cumbersome’ nature of mind which is attempting to secure an ‘ultimate’ understanding, whilst not being in possession of all the facts required.  The two apparently separate (and mutually exclusive) theories of mind only idealism, and world only materialism, both contain kernels of truth, but each theory on its own is obviously deficient and limited in a broad sense, although significantly developed to a high degree within the logical parameters that hold each individual theory together.  To create a condition where a limited theory ‘holds together’, irregularities and contradictions to that particular theory must be ignored, suppressed or argued as irrelevant to the point being made.  Such sophistry, of course, demonstrates a situation whereby the limitation of ‘logic’ and ‘knowledge’ is exposed through the requirement to ‘work around’ deficiencies in the theory itself.  Such a limited theory is ‘limited’ because it develops what it does ‘know’, at the expense of what it does ‘not know’, thus creating an often logically pristine structure of the ‘onesided assessment’ of a phenomena.  This type of theory holds sway until a better onesided conception takes its place.  The Buddha taught that this kind of incomplete building of a theory, is the product of a clever, but unenlightened mind, and is therefore the product of delusion and that, as such has the potential to spread suffering due to its impermanent nature.

The mind, through the capacity of willed thought, controls the structure of matter so that the external physical world immediately represents the kind of mind that experiences it.  Behaviour (in the physical world) originates within the mind itself.  The deluded mind is comprised of a continuous stream of greed, hatred and delusion. These taints serve as the implicit foundation for further thoughts and emotions generated in the mind, (that is, they are the originators of ‘behaviours’ in the mind), which invariably are turned into words, deeds and thoughts, and may be considered the essence of sentient beings in the undeveloped state.  By contrast, the physical environment reciprocates this greed, hatred and delusion in its material constructs – as a matter of required karmic construct – and in so doing, adds legitimacy to these defilements in all aspects of expression.  Once the cycle of deluded thought and action is set in motion (samsara), the apparent ‘outer’ and ‘inner’ planes reinforce and condition one another, so as to produce a continuous swirl of potentially ‘suffering’ (dukkha) activity.  Biological notions of materialist thinking that presuppose that somewhere in the evolutionary development of humanity, physical matter (in the form of the brain), became ‘aware’ of its own presence – and thus created the ‘mind’ – are undermined by the Buddha’s philosophical approach, which advocates in essence, that the physical world is influenced, manipulated and ultimately guided by the mind that perceives it.  Perception, it seems, is not only the awareness of the presence of an object, but contained within this awareness is believed to be the ‘casual’ act of ‘becoming’.  This is not to be considered a ‘first cause’ or an ‘act of creation’ as such, whereby ‘something’ existing in an independent state, is created as if ‘out of nothing’, but rather an affirmation that all ‘effects’, have their exact ‘causes’.  For the Buddha, a life does not begin with a ‘blank’ and ‘innocent’ body, but is rather the effect of ‘craving’ (tanha), that is, a prior cause.  The Buddhist system advocates a continuous re-birth cycle (punarbhava), which means that a person can not be said to have a ‘first birth’ as such, but to be trapped within a cyclic of continual re-becoming.  It is the ‘will’ aspect of mind that which creates and facilitates greed, hatred and delusion, which is the basis of craving.  Inert matter, as it does not contain a ‘will’ facility or capability, can not produce the effect of conscious awareness in itself, as it lacks the causal conditions for such a development to occur.  The Buddha appears to be saying that a human being can not be born into the world without a prior cause being in operation.  This would imply that a brain – as matter – could not gives rise to consciousness if no such cause existed.  The problem here is one of terminology and language.  Although the Buddha explains from a middle perspective, it is some times the case that his philosophy appears to be bias toward the psychic fabric of the mind, and as a consequence, away from the physical matter of the outer world.  It could also be the case that the material world is operating in and of itself, and that the Buddha, although appearing to emphasis a separate ‘mind’, is in fact simply removing the apparent thoughts and feelings that prevent an enlightening experience which clearly perceives the ‘oneness’ of the world.  The mind may be explained in terms that necessitate juxtaposition with a separate material world, but this does not necessarily mean that the mind is separate from matter.  On the other hand, the physical world of matter can be presented as being the only valid view of life, one that whilst fully establishing its logical parameters and boundaries, subsumes all other theories and ideas about existence, thus rendering these other explanations null and void in the process.

Of course, from the strict materialist position, mind as a separate entity is an illusion and a product of a tradition of the lack of knowledge, formulated over the centuries before the development of the scientific method.  The Buddha, who is advocating a ‘science’ (vidya) of enlightenment, does not take either position, but appears to teach from a perspective of higher knowledge, where the enlightened mind ‘sees’ through the delusive qualities of sophistic speculation, into the heart of the ‘real’ state of existence, where idealistic terms such as ‘mind’, or materialist terms such as ‘physicality’, have no real meaning, and do not truly represent existence is it actually is.  This further implies that humanity’s greatest, noblest and constructive thoughts, regardless of the benefit such thinking has brought to the world, is nothing more than a collection of sophisticated (practical) imaginations.

The modern medical view of the beginning of a physical life begins in the womb, as a reproductive interaction between two human beings.  The conception process begins with the male sperm penetrating the female egg, and setting in motion a tremendous process of biological development that culminates in the forming of the brain and the consequential development of mind and consciousness.  In this model the cause of a new physical life is the physical interaction of two different and unique human individuals, but no matter how the process is conceived in this process, it is evident that a physical ‘cause’ directly results in a clear physical ‘effect’ – and matter is seen as being of a self-perpetuating nature, a process that like a ‘closed system’, allows for no non-physical process to either effect or influence the physical developmental process.   The mind can not, and does not affect this process in any way, as mind remains merely a by-product of the reproductive process.  The Buddhist view of physical reproduction, by way of contrast, is very different.  Although there is no permanent ‘soul’ or ‘atman’ that exists behind the mind and body in the Buddhist view, nevertheless, the Buddha himself subscribed to a re-birth theory whereby living entities may be re-born into different living bodies and circumstances.  In the Buddhist Suttas, often it is said that the aspect of a living being that undergoes the re-birth process is described as ‘habitual tendencies’ (Pali: ‘pubbe nivasa’), which are the product of ‘volitional’ (Pali: ‘cetana’) action.  Karmic entities are said to be drawn toward a copulating couple that carry the appropriate psychological and physical conditions relevant to the required re-birth circumstance.  This process is completed when the karmic entity is drawn – through desire/craving – to one or other of the couple, thus assuming the opposite gender characteristics, if drawn to the man, the karmic entity becomes a female, if drawn to the woman the karmic entity becomes a man and takes physical form at the point of conception.  A physical process of growth then unfolds which leads to birth, youth, middle and old age, culminating in eventual physical death and re-birth.  Whilst the mind is infected with craving, it can not produce any other outcome, than the continuous cycle of physical existence and demise, in a world that seems permanent, but is always changing.  The continuously moving ‘habitual tendencies’ have no underlying permanent entity such a ‘soul’ or an ‘atman’ to hold it all together, but exist strictly as the result of desire and craving.  This craving (tanha), is so powerful that it can pull physical matter into existence, and sustains the round of samsara exclusively.  The modern medical view is based upon an observation of the conception process which is purely physical in nature, albeit apparently logical and correct.  A chain of objective causes and events can be clearly observed and predicted in all women throughout the world.  Through these observations, medical science has developed.  It is a demonstration of the mastery of the physical world inhabited by humanity.  The Buddha’s system, however, attempts to explain the conception process through the ‘desire’ aspect that joins a couple together, into sexual unity.  Furthermore, this notion is extended backwards and forwards throughout time, and the idea of living before, and living again (beyond the present life) is formulated.  The desire and craving for sexual union is extended beyond the parameters of the sexual act itself, and is viewed as the foundational motivation of all physical and social existence.  Humanity appears to exist so that the physical bodies that comprise the species are replicated from one generation to another.  This requires greed in the form of desire and craving, together with hatred as a means to reject other, similar competitors, and a general lack of wise awareness which allows for an unquestioning acceptance and perpetuation of the round of existence itself.  Whereas the Buddha’s path assesses the cause as a taint existing in the mind, modern medical knowledge observes the physical biological processes without reference to the accompanying psychological attributes (thoughts and feelings) that culturally assist the performance of the physical action itself.  This means that the observation of the conception process does need to take into account such notions as ‘love’, ‘desire’ or ‘craving’, for it to be effective, and that, in this model, one physical cause leads quite clearly to one physical effect, irrespective of the state of mind of the body or bodies involved.  The Buddha says that it is exactly the state of the mind itself that dictates the entire process, and that this ‘state’ is the karmic condition of the mind itself.

Karma translates as ‘action’, or ‘performed actions’.  Its emphasis is entirely upon the ‘doing’ of actions.  The Buddha speaks often throughout the Suttas about his theory of natural action-re-action – particularly in the Nibbedhika Sutta (AN 6.63), and the Upajjhatthana Sutta (AN 5.57), as well as the Suttas of the Digha Nikaya that describe the various chains of dependent origination.  Within Buddhism it refers only to volitional actions and does not cover all causes or effects.  In this regard it can not be limited to a mere ‘cause’ and ‘effect’ mechanism prevalent in the operation of materialist science.  Not all causes are associated with karma, and not all effects are the product of karma.  Although karma as a theory can be said to contain definite ‘causes’ and definite ‘effects’, it can not, as a theory, be reduced to a closed system of cause and effect that works through a predictable (and replicatable) lineage of objectively observable, physical events.  The Buddha’s karma theory, by way of contrast, is based upon the state of the mind of the actor.  This mind will be motivated (cetana) to act in a specific manner (karma), and this action will give rise to a certain ‘result’ (Pali: ‘vipaka’), or ‘fruit’ (Pali: ‘phala’).  However, the result of a particular action can occur not only on the physical plane surrounding the individual, but also within the mind of the individual itself.  An immediate action may not necessarily illicit an immediate karmic result, but may take many years or lifetimes to come to fruition, depending upon circumstance – as certain effects need a particular set of circumstances to be manifest in the world.  According to this theory, not all experiences in life are directly related to human volitional behaviour, and therefore can not be considered within the realm of ‘karmic behaviour’.  One example of this is the illness of cancer, which although could possibly be a product of lifestyle or experience, could also simply be the product of a dysfunctional body cell, that has experienced no outside influence whatsoever.  This demonstrates that even with regard to the human body, not all experiences facilitated through it, are of a karmic consequence, even though the body itself is the product of a deluded craving.  The underlying moral quality of the act itself – together with the type of bare outward action – determines the karmic result that is experienced.  The present lifetime, as it is experienced, is not only the result of past karmic action, but also has a number of different (i.e. ‘non-karmic’) influences contributing to its experience.  In the present state, an individual is experiencing two karmic related activities.  Firstly, there is the existential experience of the ripening of past karmic deeds as present psychological and physical conditions, as well as the continuous propensity to create ‘new’ karma with every thought, word, and deed, thus ensuring that the cycle of samsara (the round of re-births), continuous without end.  Karmic results, however, may not always appear to be related to the apparent cause, as Buddhist karma does not exist as a theory, in a one dimensional vacuum of human activity.  Instead, the results of an action are as much subject to the state of mind of the doer, as they are to the actual physical dynamics of the action itself.  Karma, throughout time, has gathered many innumerable causes beyond comprehension, leading to effects that are varied and often unpredictable.  As Buddhist karma is not a closed, linear system of cause and effect, it can not be described as ‘deterministic’ in nature.  In the chain of dependent origination, the Buddha describes how one link conditions another in the cycle of death, life and re-birth.  As enlightenment is a possibility in any lifetime, the cycle of samsara has the potential to be meditatively ‘broken’ at any time, through the attainment of the state of ‘nirvana’, or the complete cessation of greed, hated and delusion, and the craving these taints support.  These taints have their origin in the ‘asrava’, or the essential, delusional outpourings that emerge from the psychic fabric of the mind itself.  Generally speaking, the fruits of action, (karmavipaka), create the conditions of physical life and the type of world that re-birth is taken into, as well as the ordinary, everyday experiences of such a life.  However, within the Buddhist exposition upon karma, a physical deed does not have to be actually committed in the outer world for a karmic seed to be sown.  If the mind envisages acting in a deluded manner, within a specific situation, even though the imagined action has not occurred, nevertheless, as ‘will’, or ‘intention’ (cetana) is considered the originating ‘driving force’ behind the theory of Buddhist karma, the karmic results can manifest at a certain time, (when conditions allows), as if the physical act itself had been actually carried-out.  This is an important aspect of Buddhist volitional theory that exhibits clearly the implicit belief that the mind is a powerful entity that is directly linked to the physical world.  In the enlightened state of he arahant no more karma is produced, and the burden of past karma all but eradicated through the abandonment of the delusive taints.  The only karma thought to be experienced by one in such a state, is that directly relating to the physical body itself, which although existent, has been heavily diluted by the experience of entering the nirvanic state of being.  In this state, the arahant, although involved in the requirements of everyday life, no longer possesses a mind driven by a will motivated by greed, hatred and delusion.  In the enlightened state, the ‘will’ (cetana) has been thoroughly cleansed, and the deluded driving force behind the Buddhist theory of karma completely uprooted.

It is interesting to note, that of the 31 planes of existence mentioned in the Pali Canon, it is only within the human realm that karma can be made and purified – all the other realms exist purely as a means to live out the positive or negative results of karma, with no potential for reform.  It is only within the human realm that actions can be controlled modified and transcended through the use of the ‘will’ (cetana), so that the effects of bad karmic results can be nullified (or greatly diminished), through the countering effects of good actions, and that a process of ‘stilling’ the mind (whilst controlling the behaviour of the body), can lead to the ending of the karmic process altogether.  A human birth is a precious commodity and serves as the only doorway through which enlightenment can be achieved within the 31 planes of existence, (these 31 planes are further divided into the sense desire sphere (kama loka), the fine material sphere (rupa loka), and the immaterial sphere (arupa loka), with the human realm of re-birth occurring within the kama loka, or realm of sensuous desire).  This schematic suggests various grades of existence of beings that are defined by the fruits (vipaka) of their past actions (karma).  The sensuous realms (kamaloka), and the fine material realms (rupa loka), involve an existence experienced through a (karmically) gross (or ‘heavy’) material body, or a fine (‘light’) material body.  Within the highest four realms of existence (i.e. ’28 – 31’) of the arupa loka (the immaterial or formless realm), beings exist within disembodied states of meditative achievement, experiencing such states as the infinity of space, the infinity of consciousness, knowledge of no-thingness, and neither perception – nor non-perception.  These represent very high stages within Buddhist meditation, (the ‘Jhana’ stages), but do not represent the state of the extinction of desire and craving that defines the attainment of nirvana – the great extinction.  These high states of attainment are their own reward in the highest of the conceived Buddhist realms, within which beings will exist continuously experiencing the fruit of their meditation, until their accumulated good karma runs out, and they are re-born elsewhere within the Buddhist cosmological model.  As there is no permanent ‘atman’, or ‘soul’ within a being, it is the habitual tendencies (pubbe nivasa) that dictate this process.  Even a very subtle attachment to the idea of an atman can cause re-birth in other realms, and the chance for release that nirvana offers on the human plane is lost.  It may take countless eons for a re-birth on the human plane and the Buddhist view is that such spiritually valuable births should not be squandered through the continuation of ignorance and desire.

The Buddha ascribes a special status to in the human realm (this realm is number 5 of the 31 – which occurs as a karmic stage within the broad category of ‘kama loka’, and is known as the ‘manussa loka’ – with ‘manussa’ meaning ‘human), and in so doing automatically elevates this karmic formation as being superior in potential to all other realms, or types of re-birth.  It is true, of course, that as long as an ordinary human remains with a mind driven by craving (tanha), no progress can be made and the individual, as a collection of habitual tendencies will bob around on the karmic seas for innumerable ages, experiencing the painful fruits (vipaka) of karma.  However, despite this immense image of futile suffering, the Buddha teaches that salvation is possible on the human plane through the understanding and practicing of the noble eightfold path – which is contained within the teachings of the four noble truths.  These instructions advocate a method of karmic reform within the mind and within the body.  Will power (cetana) is utilised to focus the energy of the mind (in meditation), and to simultaneously limit and control the physical body in its everyday behaviours and interactions with (and through) the world of sense objects.  This is the process of spiritual reform that facilitates the creation of good, positive (kusala) karma, and that turns the individual away from lesser paths of bad, or negative (akusala) karma.  This action automatically creates the conditions for more pleasurable existences, but the point of the Buddha’s path is to turn away from the sway of ‘positive’, ‘neutral’ or ‘negative’ habitual karma creation, and break free of the continuous cycle (samsara) of suffering.  From the Buddhist perspective, even a life lived with much pleasure, wealth and happiness, is nevertheless a life lived in delusion, whereby the recipient of this good karma will eventually have to experience the downside of karma accumulation, and bear witness to its negative effects.  Conversely, a person living within physical, social conditions that appear terrible, crushing and full of suffering, that person, if they have practiced the Buddha’s path and have realised the emptiness of mind, then nothing ‘grasping’ remains of the individual, to receive the suffering karmic fruits, regardless of the nature of the sensuous world around.  Freedom from suffering involves freedom from both good and bad circumstances, and in the enlightened state, no more karma is created, and the effects of past karma greatly diminished, so that the karma associated with the body is experienced as ‘empty’ by the enlightened being.

Developed Buddhism is of course the trends of philosophy contained within the early (Pali) Suttas that are expanded and built upon within the (Sanskrit) Sutras of the Mahayana school, and the commentaries (shastras) associated with them.  The developed position, in essence, reflects entirely the philosophical foundation of early Buddhism with no doctrinal disagreement.  What does often seem to occur, however, is the development of a particular Buddhist notion beyond that of the letter found in the early Suttas.  What is usually the case is that a number of disparate teachings found in the early Suttas are brought together into a coherent and singular presentation, and that this presentation is ascribed to the Buddha himself.  This suggests that the Buddha did not subscribe to philosophical dogma – as is evident in the sheer diversity of the Pali Canon – but rather taught a coherent message in a number of different ways to suit the various audiences he attracted and encountered.  The Pali Canon itself, as a distinct body of work, nevertheless is not necessarily consistent in the content of its presentation.  The chain of dependent origination, for instance, is presented throughout the Suttas as containing different numbers of links, and ascribing different places of importance to its various links.  Received Theravada Buddhist philosophy, for instance, (which has had over 2000 years to develop), presents a ‘complete’ picture of its teachings that is not present in the Suttas it draws from.  This is not to suggest that the received teachings are ‘incorrect’ or ‘fabricated’ – they most definitely are not – but rather that the Buddhist teachings contained within the Pali Canon have been subjected to a commentarial developmental process (abbidhamma), which has served to gather, clarify, categorise and make accessible the teachings of the Buddha, within the tradition of that school itself.  The Mahayana process of commentarial development is often (mistakenly) viewed as a separate process, unconnected from that undertook within the Theravada tradition, when in fact it is exactly the same unfolding of the Buddha’s teaching to ‘question everything’, and not just accept it through blind faith or authority.  The apparent separation of this single process into two schools is a matter of historical process, rather than personal experience – the two developments appear distinct due to their association with schools of thought that appear not to recognise the existence of the other.  The point is that exactly the same developmental pattern exists within the Pali Canon, as it does within the Mahayana (Sanskrit) Canon, with each school independently developing the early Buddhist philosophical premises to an enhanced, but otherwise logical conclusion that is in accordance with fundamental Buddhist theory.  Early Buddhism favoured the ‘arahant’ ideal, whereby re-birth is instantly shattered upon the cessation of craving.  Later Buddhism, developed the early concept of the ‘bodhisattva’ so that it applies to all developing beings following the Dharma, and is not just applicable as a description of the Lord Buddha himself, whilst traversing through his previous life stages, toward eventual, complete enlightenment.

This difference of definitional opinion regarding the highest possible attainment within Buddhist meditational development has implications for the doctrine of karma and its understanding.  The arahant, or ‘noble ones’, attain to a state of empty mind that stands quiet in relation to the physical world it inhabits.  The chain of dependent origination is broken, and the craving of greed, hatred and delusion has been thoroughly uprooted.  This means, within the logic of early Buddhism, that re-birth is finished, and can not occur in any manner, as the taints (asrava) that create the conditions of re-birth are completely finished.   The Mahayana Sanskrit Canon, on the other hand, ascribes the bodhisattva (i.e. ‘enlightened being’) ideal to all beings following the Buddhist path of meditational development.  This aspect of Buddhist teaching emphasises that there are ‘levels’ of enlightenment, or modes of living that are karmically beneficial for all beings to encounter and experience.  Furthermore, the bodhisattva, whilst inhabiting these various stages of relative enlightenment, can deliberately choose to be re-born as a service to the world, and as a means to relieve suffering.  This implies that a certain ‘controlled’ amount of tainted delusion is allowed to exist in the otherwise relatively enlightened mind of the bodhisattva, to facilitate this continuous re-birth process.  The vow that has developed around this interpretation allows for the bodhisattva to be continuously re-born for as long as a suffering world exists, to lead all beings out of distress and into the sanctuary of ‘Dharma’.  This includes re-births in any of the 31 Buddhist realms – even hell – as a means to lead others to a better ‘birth’ condition.  The bodhisattva, existing in an enlightened state that clearly perceives the empty nature of phenomena, is not attached to pleasure or averted from pain.  From this perspective, later Buddhism developed the theory that the enlightenment of the arahant was in fact only ‘relative’ in nature, and existed as an attachment to the state of an empty mind free of taints.  As such, the re-birth process had not been thoroughly shattered, but continued nonetheless, with arahants not entering the ‘parinirvana’ (beyond cessation) state at the death of the physical body, but being re-born in higher realms, to continue the cycle (samsara) of existence.  The bodhisattva, by contrast, understands the cycle of samsara is ultimately empty of greed, hatred and delusion, and that the nirvanic state, far from being an empty mind standing in relation to a physical world, is in fact the realisation that an empty mind is directly reflective of an empty world, and that as a consequence, the apparent (and false) dichotomy of an empty mind facing a physical world is transcended.  Mind and Matter appear two aspects of the same process, whereby phenomena appear to rise and pass away with in a great void, with the phenomena itself being of an essentially ‘empty’ nature.  As this is not a denial of the existence of phenomena, this argument does not fall into the trap of ‘nihilism’.  If the early and later Buddhist teachings are read with an open and enquiring mind, the original enlightened thread of the Buddha can be discerned clearly, and any apparent or assumed ‘differences’ between the ‘arahant’ and the ‘bodhisattva’ thoroughly reconciled beyond a mere intellectual appreciation.

Whilst breaking free of the suffering inherent within the karmic condition, the Buddha made it clear that every action has the potential for an eventual reaction, and that in the deluded state, there is no such entity as an act that has no karmic consequence.  However, it is also clear that in the enlightened state, no more karma is produced and the effects of past karma greatly diminished.  This leads to the interesting speculation that in the enlightened state, actions have no karmic consequences as they are not motivated by the taints of craving, which must be clearly distinguished from the ordinary state of delusive existence, which sees an individual suffering continuously from the effects of past karma ripening in the present, as well as creating new karmic seeds for the future.  Within the Mahayana and the Tibetan Vajrayana schools this insight has often been used to justify the physical practice of certain activities that might be thought of as delusionary in essence, such as the training in martial pursuits, or the engaging in certain rituals, (perhaps involving sexual union, meat eating and the drinking of alcohol), from the perspective of early Buddhism.  This kind of practice draws a distinction between the notion of nirvana as envisaged in the Pali Canon, and the same notion as interpreted within the Mahayana tradition.  The former posits an acquired ‘freedom’ from samsara, culminating in the eventual physical withdrawing of interaction with the world of the senses, upon the death of the physical body – which is viewed as a vehicle that carries around an enlightened mind – with the mind free of karma, and the body not.  The latter interpretation does not seek an escape from samsara, but rather eventually equates the samsaric state as being essentially of an enlightened, nirvanic nature.  Within early Buddhism, nirvana is not samsara, but is a product of a spiritually motivated escape from it, whilst in later Buddhism samsara is seen to be nirvana, when the deluded mind has been thoroughly cleansed of delusive taints.  The early form of Buddhism appears to do away with all karmic influence in its goal of the attainment of enlightenment, whilst developed Buddhism, whilst over-coming the deluded chain of habitual tendencies that create ordinary karma, nevertheless, through the compassionate inspired behaviour of the bodhisattva, karma that is considered to be of an enlightening nature to others is voluntarily generated.  This karma is highly refined, and may be considered very near to complete enlightenment.  These stages of bodhisattva enlightenment may be compared with the higher Jhana stages of the arahant.  Parinirvana – the state that is ‘beyond cessation’ – is entered into at the culmination of the last physical existence, when all karma is completely exhausted, and the enlightened being has fully performed his or her enlightening function with the regards to the liberation of countless beings.  The Lord Buddha, by way of example, turned the wheel of the dharma, and in so doing fully performed his enlightening function – a function that was so karmically powerful that his school of thought, in whatever guise, is not only still known today – some 2500 years later – but is flourishing around the world, and is still used as a path of liberation from worldly pain.  Although complete enlightenment is ‘beyond’ karma generation, it is also true that good karma generated in the service of the Dharma ripples outward through all of space and time, reaching innumerable beings and cleansing suffering as it travels.  Good karma is probably more useful than bad or neutral karma, with regard to the caring for humanity as a species, indeed, it serves as a way station until complete enlightenment can be achieved, the essence of which lies beyond all action.

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s