r m p







The Dharma Path


Reading: Dhammapada 1:1-6


Buddhism, as you know, teaches the doctrine of reincarnation, transmigration of souls. And yet here is a saying, verse 6, which appears to invoke an abrupt Heideggerian reminder of death to help us get our priorities in order. Do you really want to waste your time reliving old grudges? Look at your watch! How much time have you got left? Do you really want to use it that way? Let the past be the past, not the present, because there isn't going to be any future. 

The belief in life after death can be a temptation never to get serious. Buddhism says this in a striking mythic way: it says that even the gods cannot help you to see through the delusions of worldly existence because they are even more deluded than you! Living for hundreds of thousands of years, the gods come to believe they have all the time in the world! And they don't! They, too, are mortal! They pass away with every cosmic cycle. And when death takes them, they are unprepared! Like us! Caught up short! Seemingly everlasting life is a snare and a delusions. 

So, strangely enough, the broad vista of eternal life does not provide the big picture. Rather, it makes it impossible to see the forest for the limitless number of trees! You can't get any perspective on your life if it is limitless. You can't define something that has no finiteness, no finish line! A life with no ending has no meaning! 

But doesn't Buddhism make the same mistake? Doesn't it expand life out to infinite vagueness with its doctrine of reincarnation?  Not necessarily? Because the point Buddhism is trying to make about life can be seen even within this single life, whether or not one believes there will be a subsequent life. And since I do not believe there will be one, I would judge it a good thing if Buddhism made sense for this life by itself. 

Think again of our text from the Dhammapada. You are result, the accumulation of all the decisions you make, the thoughts you occupy yourself with. In the framework of reincarnation, this is to say that your thoughts and choices are accumulating good or bad karma, which will set the stage of your next life. You are deciding right now by eating meat that you will return as a livestock animal. By spurning the cries of the maimed and the poor for help, you are insuring that you will return as one of them next time. You get the idea. 

But suppose, as seems likely, there is no afterlife. Is the doctrine true? You bet it is! 

First, it is true that the more negatively you think, the more sour you are going to become! You need to extricate yourself from that poison atmosphere, whether it means changing your circle of friends, shutting off the news, no longer wallowing in TV talk shows. There are changes you can make. Don't tell me you aren't influenced by your environment! Don't tell me you aren't conditioned by those around you! 

And similarly the more you live in the past, the more you are making sure the present and the future will only be more of the same. And that's what we call neurosis. Let the past be the past. Do you think that by refusing to leave it you will be able to go back and undo it? By burying your head in the pain of the past, you are becoming a spectre. 

Even in the present, it seems that karma is true in the sense that people do treat you as you treat them. At least they tend to. You know that. You will find people more likely to help you if you have helped them --or others. It's pretty much like Its a Wonderful Life. When the gospel says "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you," Walter Kaufman was right! It's unabashed "enlightened self-interest." Sure it is, why not? This is a hypothetical imperative, though it sounds grander to think of Jesus speaking in categorical imperatives. Absolute rights and wrongs. 

What does reincarnation add to this picture? It is a piece of theodicy. It is an attempt to supply an answer to the inequities of life. As Marx saw, the real theodicy would be not to explain injustice but rather to get rid of injustice. But that prospect doesn't seem all that likely. And we want an answer, because the seeming lack of justice threatens to give the lie to our moral sense. Is justice a joke? If the world doesn't actually work that way, then why live as if it does, when there's no guarantee that nice guys will finish first? 

As Clifford Geertz says, to answer questions like this we posit an invisible realm outside the visible one and we imagine that somehow all the absurdities and inequities are rectified there. All the questions outstanding here are answered there. Thus reincarnation assures us that the innocent child who suffers here is not really so innocent: in a past life he had done something to deserve or at least to invite his dire fate this time around. The person suffering now without cause will be recompensed in the sweet bye and bye. Sure. 

But if that land, that future, when all will be made right is a fantasy, and I think it is, then is responsible behavior a delusion and a waste of time? No, of course not! It seems clear to me that our task in moral living is analogous to that of the pioneers who had to tame the wilderness to make it livable, to clear forests and keep wild animals at bay. Or think of the frontiersmen who had to impose law on the savage anarchy of the Wild West. The universe is a void with no basis for morality, where our moral coordinates will be arbitrary, where moral dilemmas will not always be resolvable, where many choices are not clear cut. But we choose to make this universe  habitable for human life by whelming the tide of chaos, creating a moral structure and living by it. Tidying up the mess. Carving out the moral universe that our myths project onto the world. Freud characterized religion as the imposition of the wish-world of fantasy onto the real world of experience. That is what we must do: impose the wish-world of justice and equity on a world in which these things are by no means inherent. 

Morality and value are creations not of nature but of history. There are the choices we make, and they will accumulate to make a world. It is an imaginary world, a world of Samsara, but what other kind could there be? 

Some people imagine the karma doctrine to be fatalistic. You are crushed by the weight of deeds done in the past. You have made your bed, and there is now no way you're not going to have to lie in it. 

But again, forget the big picture. Look at the little picture. Your life is already the result of choices you have made, though not completely. A lot of it is arbitrary. It isn't all deserved. There isn't perfect justice, remember. 

The important thing to remember is this: at any given point, the choice is always yours. The future will still be the outcome of your choices, at least to some extent. I'm not trying to be Pollyanna, much less Mahayana, but the point is: there are still choices open to you. 

To say that your life is the product of your choices, and that is the central idea of karma, is anything but fatalism! It is the opposite. It is to say that you have no destiny other than the one you decide to have. It is to say, with Sartre, that you have no nature other than the one you decide to have. Human being, your identity, is a matter of history, of a series of choices, not of nature. At least not completely of nature. You still have a say. 

And to say that you do not have  a destiny or a nature is also to say, as Buddhists do say, that you do not have a self, an atman. You are still in flux, you will be different in the future, or you can be, than you have been in the past. What Buddhism rejects in the atman doctrine is that you bear about within yourself a stable core of identity that remains immune to conditioning by what happens around you. There is no reason to believe in any such thing. But this does not leave you helpless, purely passive. Because you are no less conditioned by yourself! By your own choices.

That is the Dharma Path.


Robert M. Price

August 30, 1997




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