contemplativeinquiry

This blog is about contemplative inquiry

Tag: Karma

HUNGRY GHOSTS

“These various spirits may live on the earth, beneath its surface, in the ocean or in the air. Although there are many different kinds, traditionally they are all pictured as one type, a kind of caricature expressing their hungry nature. They have tiny mouths, long thin necks and huge, swollen bellies, which can of course be a sign of starvation as well as greed. Their inability to satisfy their hunger manifests in different ways, according to whether they have distorted perceptions of the external world, of their own inner condition, or both.

“In the first cases, some search desperately for food and drink, but can never find any. Some imagine that they can see it in the distance, like a mirage, but when they get nearer, it turns out to be an illusion. Others can see a feast laid out for them and are just about to eat it when fearsome guards appear and chase them away.

“The second category of hungry ghosts have food available to them, but their mouths and throats are so small, and their stomach so large, that they would never be able to consume even a fraction of the amount they need. They have long, grasping fingers, with which they frantically grab and try to swallow whatever they can, but it only makes them feel more and more empty.

“Hungry ghosts in the third category are subject to various inner and outer hallucinations, so they cannot benefit from their food. For some of them, food and drink burst into flames inside them and burn them from within. For others, it turns into revolting substances like blood, pus and urine, which they eat; still others find that they are biting into their own flesh; and for some, food becomes inedible material, like iron or straw.

“The basic subjective feeling of this realm is overwhelming deprivation, a sense of poverty combined with greed. Paradoxically, the hungry ghosts are surrounded by an environment of richness and abundance; everything they want is already there, but their hunger prevents them from enjoying it. Self-preservation is very strong, so there is little sense of openness or relaxation. They are totally obsessed with trying to satisfy their own needs, so they cannot afford to feel the pain of others or arouse the slightest generous impulse. Birth in this condition of existence is the result of extreme avarice, meanness and stinginess.”

Francesca Freemantle Luminous Emptiness: Understanding the Tibetan Book of the Dead Boulder, CO: Shambhala, 2003

NOTE: In Tibetan Tantric Buddhism, there are six realms of existence in the wheel of life: two higher realms of gods and jealous gods, two intermediate realms of humans and animals, and two lower realms of hungry ghosts and hell-beings. Although not liberated from the wheel of life, the divine realms are places of reduced suffering and greater freedom. The results of positive actions outweigh the negative. In the lower realms, negative karma is very strong.

But these issues are not just something for another life. To Tantric Buddhists, nirvana and samsara are one. Every moment can be seen as a new birth. All realms are part of our lived experience, here and now. We do not have to look outside for hungry ghosts, or hell-beings (locked in a distorted logic of aggression that always puts the blame on others). They are part of us. There are times when we see them and times when we don’t.

ORPHIC HYMN TO NEMESIS

This Orphic hymn to the goddess Nemesis comes from a collection likely to have been compiled in the third century CE, and offers a glimpse of Greek-inspired pagan religion in what turned out to be its last phase.

ORPHIC HYMN TO NEMESIS

Nemesis, I call upon you,

O goddess, O great queen,

Your all-seeing eye looks upon

The lives of man’s many races.

Eternal and revered,

You alone rejoice in the just,

You change and vary,

You shift your word.

All who bear the yoke

Of mortality fear you,

You care about the thoughts of all;

The arrogant soul,

The reckless one,

Finds no escape.

You see all, you hear all,

You arbitrate all.

O sublime deity,

In whom dwells justice for men,

Come, blessed and pure one,

Ever helpful to the initiates,

Grant nobility of mind,

Put an end to repulsive thoughts,

Thoughts unholy,

Fickle and haughty.

From The Orphic Hymns: translation, introduction and notes by Apostolos N. Athanasskis and Benjamin M. Wolkow Baltimore: Maryland, USA: The John Hopkins Press, 2013.

In his introduction to this collection, Apostolos Athanassakis talks about Orphic hymns as instances of a devotional mysticism that uses “the power of clustering epithets” for the creation of “an emotional and spiritual crescendo that might raise our human spirit and help approach the divine”. They remind him of Vedic hymns, Rumi’s verses within the Islamic Sufi world, and aspects of his own Christian Orthodox upbringing. The hymns are beautiful to read – though it is worth remembering that they are designed for group practice in a charged, incense laded atmosphere, with repetition upon repetition, perhaps accompanied by swaying, movement or dance of various kinds.

In the ancient Greek and Greek-influenced world, Nemesis was primarily seen as the goddess of retribution against hubris, arrogance before the gods. She was also called Adrasteia (the inescapable) and at times attracted the epithet Erinys (implacable). In early times she was thought of as the distributor of fortune, and Aphrodite was sometimes called Aphrodite Nemesis. Later she appears as a maiden goddess of proportion and avenger of crime, equipped with measuring rod, bridle, scales, sword and scourge.

The Orphic hymns probably date from the third century CE, a time of philosophical and religious change in the Roman Empire. They were popular for as long as it was possible to maintain a syncretistic religion forged of traditional pagan elements in those parts of the world (chiefly the Eastern Roman sphere) where it was practised. The hymns name specific pagan deities, yet appeal to universal spiritual powers. In this instance Nemesis seems to be seen as a goddess, or personification, of something akin to karma. Devotees are not praying directly for a change in their fate, but in their own thoughts and feelings, in the hope that the energy of the goddess may assist them.

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

 

 

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