I had meant to come back and finish the fourth thought last night but I ended up doing something else. what was it? oh. I shaved and showered. wo0t!
I need to finish The Buddha at War because I think it might have some more interesting things to tell me. I just looked at the Third Thought, though, and I realized that there was not a lot in Robert Sachs’ account to explain my reaction to how he explains karma and responsibility, as he does so in a fairly simple manner: one reaps what one sows. I think, though, that reading a few pages later that he views Craving as an attachment to bias, or truth–that provisional “immutable” truth that we construct to protect us against the predations of impermanence–caused a chain reaction even before I got to that part. It may be that his apparently simplistic rendering of karmic responsibility is at odds with his more subtle analyses of loving one’s life and the nature of desire/craving, and that if one reads along with those analyses, one comes to karmic responsibility with all sorts of unruly notions flying about, ready to challenge this principle of Buddhist thought.
Or maybe I’ve just reached a point where I want to kill the Buddha of karma and responsibility because the Nietzsche in my head is quick to point out that here is an “immutable truth” rising in the middle of a system of thought whose central tenet of impermanence implies that the number and variety of “truths” are infinite and thus any single truth is provisional and transient. That and I cannot bring myself to take a reincarnation confined to individuals on Earth seriously in a time when it seems fairly certain that there is, was or will be life elsewhere in the universe and that it might be so different from the life we know here as to be unrecognizable.
That is, life itself may be infinite in variety and individuals themselves infinite in number. Even life “itself” contains no “self” for life: it emerges as already heterogeneous and multivariant to a degree of complexity so high we cannot compute it, and may never be able to, if that degree is an infinite one. But so what I’m meaning to say here is that I don’t believe that individuals are reincarnated: I think that the events that are habitually recognized as an individual, the intersection of energy and matter that results in a compartmentalized, relatively discrete being or creature, do not recur in such a way as to produce the “same” individual “within” a different body. Even with infinity in front and behind us, there is no reason not to suppose that individuating events are also numberless. Who “I” am now is a highly improbable and yet quite singularly determined sequence of events. Any relationship between future individuating events and the individual who currently speaks itself as the “I” of this body is non-essential–and by that I mean that the essence, the unity of being supposed of the “I,” is not only illusory, but the illusion itself is fleeting and non-continuous with any other “I,” past, present or future.
On the other hand, for there are always at least three hands to anything worth thinking about, karmic responsibility underscores the interconnectedness of all beings, which, though it may also be a contingent truth, makes more sense to me in the here and now, so I’m going to take my metaphor and run with it. The short version of all of this is that for me, karma is not about regretting the past or trying to figure out what “bad” actions in a past life or even a past phase of this life are responsible for the mess I am in now; with Nietzsche, I do not want to leave my actions in the lurch. Whether they were always wise or not, they were always the best I could do with the knowledge I had and the circumstances I found myself in. Especially having been brought up under the sign of Original Sin, in which humans, especially young humans living in my house, were responsible for every evil in the universe, I find that responsibility is generally overplayed in Western culture.
At the same time–the third hand if you will–what karmic responsibility is good for, in my opinion, is keeping us watchful over our present actions. As mentioned in the first post regarding reincarnation, the past is the past and unchangeable. We can only mourn it, suffer it, regret it, or let it go. What we do have right now is the responsibility to act in the present in a responsible way: a way which, given all that we know and to the best of our ability, will result in circumstances that reduce suffering. All suffering–not just “mine,” or especially not “mine”–the eternity in which a decisive act reverberates will surely be visited by so many beings that “I” will no longer matter, except to the extent that my actions contribute to the overall web of circumstances that inevitably affect one another and will continue to affect one another long after “I” am a faint memory of the shadow of an anonymous speck of dust.
This is how impermanence and the abandonment of immutable Truth is amoral yet deeply ethical: the fragility with which the universe is invested as a literally inconceivably complex causal mechanism, the fleetingness of all that might be thought of as good, should, if one thinks as a Buddhist, lead one to extreme care over one’s actions in the present, even though one, and one’s present, is finite and relatively insignificant in comparison with the infinitude with which one interacts. I will disappear, completely and irreversably and forever, but what I do will have effects which cascade outwards from my current time and place for as long as there are times and places. My acts will work in concert with a host of other acts to determine the future–and although the vastness of the whole (which is not a whole but a whole broken open where infinity shoots through it–see Emmanuel Levinas for an ethics that arises in response to infinity rather than to the unity of being) is so great as to make my estimations of those effects abjectly inaccurate, I am still responsible for them.
I’m beginning to venture outside of strictly Buddhist territory here, but I just want to mention that I am at one and the same time abjectly unable to predict the effects of my actions and abjectly responsible for them: that this is paradoxical is reflected in the tension between irresponsibilty and responsibility, a dualistic conception that, in Buddhism as in postmodern ethics, would be reinterpreted so as to cause the two terms no longer to be mutually exclusive, but to be in intimate and intermingled communication with each other.
Now, the edict to act so as to prevent suffering in the future (or whatever dimension might stretch out from one’s current coordinates) can certainly be seen as arbitrarily chosen. That may be Buddhism’s particular aesthetic choice in constructing ideal relations between beings. Once one removes the inevitability of reincarnation from the equation, self-interest won’t even assure that one acts to prevent suffering. And yet there is something deeply compelling in the coincidence of self-abnegation and working to end suffering in Buddhist thought: that if the ego is no longer the arbiter of ethical thought, then it is not a huge leap to consider that preventing the suffering of other beings would become almost an instinctual imperative, if one considers suffering to be the result of egoistic attachment to Truth, and if one takes seriously the application of non-dualistic thought to the very “opposition” between “self” and other.
I’m going to leave that as is, for I could go further into the paradoxical relations between self and other in a situation where the distinction between self and other has been called into question, but I’m not trying to rewrite my dissertation. Or, that’s not what I’m trying to do here. For now, I think that might be enough food for thought simply to consider what would happen if egoistic acquisitiveness were abandoned as a motive for action.
Are we There yet? If you’re still listening I’d be most appreciative of a wink or a cough. I’m saving this file and taking a short break. Go get yourself some coffee or some nice cold sparkling water. Oh dear. OK I’m going to the store. Hold on.