Thoughts on Karma

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In October of 2005 I started reading Gampopa's 'The Jewel Ornament of Liberation', one of several books I have read. It is one of the foundation books for thinking in Tibetan Buddhism. One of the sections I found troubling was the descriptions of the eighteen hell realms and the general theme of karma with people being punished for their past misdeeds. If you accept that the universe is infused with the loving and compassionate nature of Buddha (as I do), how can you also accept the existence such brutal hells as are described there.

For me, there was a hint in the statement of one Buddhist that these hells were created in the mind of man. As a thought exercise I have concluded that you can not create consciousness from any combination of automatons (or something which is completely and exactly predictable, a classical machine) which can only produce successively more complex automatons, nothing that is truly aware or conscious. So, since consciousness clearly exists, it must be a pre-existing property. As such, consciousness must be as eternal as everything else in the universe (the electrons, protons, and neutrons which make up your body have all existed in one form or another since the beginning of the universe though very early on they seem to have been pure energy) and will certainly continue that existence when your body is no longer functioning as a living entity. So, the question is, what does consciousness experience when it is no longer tied to a physical body.

I imagine that consciousness would then be free to dream with greater intensity and speed (without the grounding effect a body would have) but without the option of waking up. If a person has lived a life that feeds their fears, aversions, and attachments (which refers to the desire for people, things or events), then nightmares of truly horrible dimensions are possible as the nightmares could play on all their fears, aversions and attachments (not getting what is desired). Without the constraint of time and the ability of wake up, that would certainly be the sorts of hell described in that Buddhist text.

An important point, though, is that the hells only exist in the mind of the dreamer and are not any punishment for past deeds. They are simply the universe allowing each individual to experience the consequences of the choices they make. By making self serving choices in life, one creates separation from others (it is not possible to take advantage of another person while feeling compassion, love and respect for them) and that feeds the fears, aversions, and attachments which are the true cause of all suffering. Only by acting out of compassion, love and respect can you learn the emptiness of fear, aversions, and attachments and gain the true peace of satisfaction of being close to everyone around you. By eliminating your fears, aversions, and attachments you are then immune to any form of nightmare and death can be a sweet passage to whatever follows.

By acting on their lower impulses a person simply create their own personal hell while acting on their finer impulses allows them to create their own personal heaven being surrounded by love and acceptance. The personal heaven or hell seems to extend beyond this life into other lives (as well as the transition in between). However, there is no real external entity punishing us. The suffering we feel (or don't feel) is exclusively our personal creation and isn't actually real. It is just a dream that never really harms us as our true nature is timeless and eternal consciousness, intimately connected to all other consciousness. So it is wise to live virtuous lives and not create suffering for ourselves and others, but no one is ever really harmed whatever choices we make.

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This page was last updated on December 26, 2008