contemplativeinquiry

This blog is about contemplative inquiry

Month: January, 2015

CONSIDERING KARMA

I’ve been wondering about the traditional doctrine of karma and rebirth, and what place it now has. Both Paganism and the New Age inherit a nineteenth century Theosophical version of this doctrine, positing a personal soul journey, a movement through time in successive incarnations, depending on track record and learning needs. It is somewhat different from the Buddhist view (and also the one attributed by classical writers to the ancient Druids) but my sense is that it still has considerable authority. It was treated as a given by my mentors at the London Centre of Transpersonal Psychology, when I studied with them in the late 80s and early 90s.

But it’s never been universal and as part of my own inquiry I present two other perspectives from within the Asian traditions themselves. One is from the late Tantric Master Osho and the other from the Buddhist scholar Stephen Batchelor. I particularly like Steven Batchelor’s statement that “shifting concern away from a future life and back to the present … demands an ethics of empathy rather than a metaphysics of fear and hope.” This to him is more important than the truth or otherwise of the doctrine itself. However I start with Osho, in an iconoclastic mood.

OSHO

“You live encapsulated inside your buffers, philosophies, consolations. Life ends one day – you can console yourself. … You can start believing in the theory of reincarnation: that you will be reborn and the soul is eternal … Or you can think that it is only the body that dies. And what is a body? Nothing but bones, marrow, flesh, blood; it is nothing of worth, it is useless, a dirty bag – so let it die. But your pure soul is going to be forever and ever – a buffer is created. These buffers don’t allow you to see what reality is; they are the way to console yourself.

“Yes. There is misery, but one can protect oneself from misery by creating conceptions, rationalizations. … For example in the East … they say … if you are miserable, you must have done something wrong in the previous life. Something has gone wrong in your past, you have done some wrong karma; hence you are miserable. Now things are explained, so no one has to suffer. … The whole philosophy of karma is that you have sown already, now you are reaping; you have done, so it is a natural consequence. It consoles you. So nobody is doing anything unjust to you. God is not unjust, fate is not unjust, the world is not unjust, the society is not unjust, it is your own karma.

So what to do? One has to pass through it, and one has to keep one’s equanimity, one’s equilibrium. And don’t do such a thing again, otherwise in the next life you will suffer again. So that is the only thing that can be done: you cannot change the past, but you can still manage the future … a beautiful consolation”.

Osho (1990) Tao: the pathless path New York: St. Martin’s Griffin

 

STEPHEN BATCHELOR

“It is often claimed that you cannot be a Buddhist if you do not accept the doctrine of rebirth. From a traditional point of view, it is indeed problematic to suspend belief in the idea of rebirth, since many basic notions then have to be rethought. But if we follow the Buddha’s injunction not to accept things blindly, then orthodoxy should not stand in the way of forming an understanding.

“A difficulty that has beset Buddhism from the beginning is the question of what it is to be reborn. Religions that posit an eternal self distinct from the body-mind complex escape this dilemma – the body and mind may die but the self continues. A central Buddhist idea, however, is that no such intrinsic self can be found through analysis or realized in meditation. Such a deep-seated sense of personal identity is a fiction, a tragic habit that lies at the root of craving and anguish. How do we square this with rebirth, which necessarily entails the existence of something that not only survives the death of the body and brain but somehow traverses the space between a corpse and a fertilized ovum?

“Different Buddhist schools have come up with different answers to this question, which in itself suggests their views are based on speculation. Some claim that the force of habit-driven craving immediately reappears in another form of life; others posit various kinds of non-physically based mental consciousness that may spend several weeks before locating a suitable womb.

“The idea of rebirth is meaningful in religious Buddhism only insofar as it provides a vehicle for the key Indian metaphysical doctrine of actions and their results known as ‘karma’. While the Buddha accepted the idea of karma as he accepted the idea of rebirth, when questioned on the issue he tended to emphasize its psychological rather than its cosmological implications. “Karma”, he often said, “is intention” i.e. a movement of the mind that occurs each time we think, speak or act. By being mindful of the process, we come to understand how intentions lead to habitual patterns of behaviour, which in turn affects the quality of our experience. In contrast to the view often taught by religious Buddhists, he denied that karma alone was sufficient to explain the origin of individual experience.

“Where does this leave us? It may seem that there are two options: either to believe in rebirth or not. But there is a third alternative: to acknowledge in all honesty that I do not know. … Regardless of what we believe, our actions will reverberate beyond our deaths. Irrespective of our personal survival, the legacy of our thoughts, words and deeds will continue through the impressions we leave behind in the lives of those we have influenced or touched in any way.

“If our actions in the world are to stem from what is central in life, they must be unclouded by either dogma or prevarication. Agnosticism is no excuse for indecision. If anything, it is a catalyst for action; for in shifting concern away from a future life and back to the present, it demands an ethics of empathy rather than a metaphysics of fear and hope.”

Stephen Batchelor (1997) Buddhism without beliefs: a contemporary guide to awakening London: Bloomsbury

 

 

POEM: WINTER IS …

Beverley Price is my fifth poet from the collection ‘Moon Poets: Six Pagan poets’ published by Moon Books and edited by Trevor Greenfield, and she continues a northern winter theme.   Beverley “is a weaver of dark prose and poetry, dreamer of Gothic imagery, cat lover and nature worshipper. Her work deals with the bitter fact that love is not always chocolate boxes and roses mixed in with the imagery of her pagan roots and love of mythology”. The collection as a whole also includes work by Martin Pallot, Tiffany Chaney, Lorna Smithers, Robin Herne and Romany Rivers.

Winter Is …

Winter, the trees stand bare.

Snow covers the ground.

A secret message, just for me to share.

It died on the breeze, not making a sound.

Blunted by the whitewash.

Reinforcing my desire.

Whisper leaves, the story told.

The urge to feel and enquire.

The winter wolves are coming.

I would love to be there.

And round about, the waste of time.

This winter is usual and rare.

Now, winter time is full of light.

Winter had become my lover.

Hot with your love, and summer to discover.

FAIRY TALES, ANIMAL HELPERS AND ‘THE PROBLEM OF GOOD’

Recently I came across an article about fairy tales, which included brief reviews of several books and some general observations. The author was Rowan Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury and head of the Anglican Communion. Below, and without further comment from me, I include an extract which caught my attention.

“There is a clear strand of social resistance running through much of the old material, a strand repeatedly weakened, in not denied, by nervous rewriting. But this depends on the conviction underlying all this sort of storytelling: that the world is irrationally generous as well as unfairly hurtful. There is no justice but there is a potentially hopeful side to anarchy, and we cannot tell in advance where we will find solidarity. Or, to put it in more theological terms, there is certainly a problem of evil in the way the world goes. Yet there is also a ‘problem of good’ – utterly unexpected and unscripted resources in unlikely places. And at the very least this suggests to the audience for the tale a more speculatively hopeful attitude to the non-human environment as well as to other people. Just be careful how you treat a passing fox, hedgehog or thrush.”

See also http://www.newstatesman.com/culture/2014/12/rowan-williams-why-we-need-fairy-tales-now-more-ever

 

POEM: WOLF VOICE

Happy New Year to all readers of this post! My very best wishes for 2015. I offer a poem by Martin Pallot, a wolf’s life-world in the northern winter.

Martin is my fourth poet from the collection ‘Moon Poets: Six Pagan poets’ published by Moon Books and edited by Trevor Greenfield. Martin has been writing poetry since the early 1980s, mainly inspired by Nature and his pagan beliefs. He admires the early poets and story tellers and the way they engaged the ear, as well as the mind of their audience, and encourages people to say his poetry as well as just reading it. The collection as a whole also includes work by Tiffany Chaney, Lorna Smithers, Robin Herne, Romany Rivers and Beverley Price.

Wolf Voice

Wolf, howling to the moon,

The wind hears your words,

The earth feels your voice,

Sending out your spirit sound,

Calling to the great She wolf

Who shakes the stars from her fur.

Loping in the light of her one great eye,

Silver, shadowing the pack path,

Snow, scented by the passing prey,

Guides you on your killing way.

The trackless whiteness,

Sculpted by spirits of the air,

Into shape of deer and bison.

These insubstantial ghosts,

A pulsating presence in your

Preternatural eye.

When the kill is made,

The pack song rises,

To thank the She Wolf

For her gift of life,

To the den of generations.

And the moon,

Resting on a bed

Of winter branches,

Smiles, to hear

The voice of Wolf.

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