I mourn the death of a woman I knew. She died of lung cancer. Five years ago. I've just read her obituary.
Everyone dies. Fathers, mothers, relatives, friends, and strangers. Every day. That's not a surprising statement. The fact of it must be affirmed. And yet it's always a surprise when someone we know dies. Why is that?
What is the truth? The truth is the reality of mind. The reality of mind is formless and pervades the ten directions. It is being used presently, right before your eyes, yet people do not trust it sufficiently, so they accept terms and expressions, seeking to assess Buddhism conceptually in the written word. They are as far away as the sky is from earth.
- Lin Chi (d 867?)
For a moment let's do away with both original sin and karma.
From: St Augustine's sermon On Pastors
The straying sheep you have not recalled; the lost sheep you have not sought. In one way or another, we go on living between the hands of robbers and the teeth of raging wolves, and in light of these present dangers we ask your prayers. The sheep moreover are insolent. The shepherd seeks out the straying sheep, but because they have wandered away and are lost they say that they are not ours. “ Why do you want us? Why do you seek us?” they ask, as if their straying and being lost were not the very reason for our wanting them and seeking them out. “If I am straying”, he says, “if I am lost, why do you want me?” You are straying, that is why I wish to recall you. You have been lost, I wish to find you. “But I wish to stray”, he says: “I wish to be lost”.
So you wish to stray and be lost? How much better that I do not also wish this. Certainly, I dare say, I am unwelcome. But I listen to the Apostle who says: Preach the word; insist upon it, welcome and unwelcome. Welcome to whom? Unwelcome to whom? By all means welcome to those who desire it; unwelcome to those who do not. However unwelcome, I dare to say: “You wish to stray, you wish to be lost; but I do not want this”. For the one whom I fear does not wish this. And should I wish it, consider his words of reproach: The straying sheep you have not recalled; the lost sheep you have not sought. Shall I fear you rather than him? Remember, we must all present ourselves before the judgement seat of Christ.
I shall recall the straying; I shall seek the lost. Whether they wish it or not, I shall do it. And should the brambles of the forests tear at me when I seek them, I shall force myself through all straits; I shall put down all hedges. So far as the God whom I fear grants me the strength, I shall search everywhere. I shall recall the straying; I shall seek after those on the verge of being lost. If you do not want me to suffer, do not stray, do not become lost. It is enough that I lament your straying and loss. No, I fear that in neglecting you, I shall also kill what is strong. Consider the passage that follows: And what was strong you have destroyed. Should I neglect the straying and lost, the strong one will also take delight in straying and in being lost.
(from Office of Readings, 24Sept2007)
I prefer: No one is lost. And Christ's "judgment seat" is more likely a "welcome, sit, rest, we'll talk" kind of thing. It is a curious belief that holds everyone liable for some past mistake or infraction. I'd rather the teaching be abandoned. Matthew Fox counters with "Original Blessing." My preference is the point of view that we dwell, always, at origin. Right now -- are we present cultivating kindness, healing, and trust? Or do we cultivate separation, harm, and mistrust. (Today is not a good example for me. I'd rather have nothing to do with anyone. The saving grace, though, is that I wish none harm.)
The theory of karmic rebirth is that one’s past life determines the circumstances into which one is reborn in this present life. If you were lustful in a past life, you might be reborn as an animal for example. Or if you led an exemplary past life, you might well be reborn as a god or demi-god. The point is that you get what’s coming to you, and if you want a favorable rebirth in your next life, you better watch how you behave in this one. At its best, it’s an odd and unnecessary elaboration of simple consequence. At its worst, it’s a means of citizen control and institutional support, extracting alms from the citizenry in return for merit favorable to a fortunate rebirth. I find little distinction between this disingenuous practice and the marketing of pardons and indulgences in medieval Christian traditions. In Buddhist practice it has served primarily as a way to sustain priestly authority and exact a living out of people’s fears and hopes regarding rebirth.
What’s particularly distracting about this teaching is that one can devote one’s entire life to acquiring merit for a future life. And what’s positively ugly about this teaching is its application to the misfortunes of people born into lives of present suffering. A child who’s born crippled or blind is by this theory assumed to be suffering a consequence attributed to past life behavior. While Buddhism encourages compassion for such a child, it’s nonetheless understood that the unfortunate child is a victim of his own doing. I don’t know about others, but to assume that a child born deaf or blind or suffering from aids or a child badly burned in a fire or struck down in a crosswalk or starving to death in some poverty ridden slum somewhere is simply getting what’s coming to him is a judgment I simply can’t stomach. Those Buddhist teachers who can — and this includes not entirely teachers from devotional Buddhist traditions but many Zen teachers as well — place great emphasis on purifying past karma, a notion so reminiscent of the biblical tradition of original sin as to be almost indistinguishable. Not only that but the anxious quest for a favorable rebirth is little different from a theist’s hope for a reward in heaven. Devoting one’s efforts to cleansing karma is a notion that renders present life to the status of a mere means to an end, and not something in its own right. The hope for reward distorts and undermines the simple modesty of living one’s life as compassionately and harmlessly as possible.
(from Choice, By Lin Jensen, in Tricycle, The Buddhist Review, 8/8/07)
Karma is perhaps best seen as consequences of present actions in present life.
The difficulty with original sin and karma is unknown past determinant of current reality. In the Christian metaphor a divine being is posited as savior of all. I'm fond neither of being condemned nor saved. And with the Buddhist metaphor there's a temptation to think you have to go about doing good for some rewarding next birth -- rather than good being its own delight.
The twin motif of crime and punishment is rife in our psyche.
Mary, my friend whose obituary of five years ago I've just read, is in herself an example of someone who came to be seen in this existence, smiled and cried, then disappeared. We looked at life together twenty eight years ago, ate pasta, and ran Fairmont Park because we could.
We feel sad at some news, and something deeper than that at confirmation of news.
In the war, the never-ending reminder of what original sin and karma used to try to account for -- we bait and condemn each other.
Under a program developed by a Defense Department warfare unit, Army snipers have begun using a new method to kill Iraqis suspected of being insurgents, planting fake weapons and bomb-making material as bait and then killing anyone who picks up them up, according to testimony presented in a military court.
The existence of the classified “baiting program,” as it has come to be known, was disclosed as part of defense lawyers’ efforts to respond to murder charges the Army pressed this summer against three members of a Ranger sniper team. Each soldier is accused of killing an unarmed Iraqi in three separate incidents between April and June near Iskandariya.
(--September 24, 2007, Soldiers Describe Baiting of Insurgents in Iraq, By Paul Von Zielbauer, New York Times)
Soon anyone who even thinks wrongly in anyone else's opinion will be killed. It is, it seems, the way we are. We kill. We see death as a solution.
Today I sequester myself at the harbour room. Earlier this morning I hiked Ragged Mtn with Cesco -- a good, long hike. Then here. I watched the big schooners -- the Angelique go out, the Lewis B. French come back, the Grace Bailey go out; and the small schooners -- Lazy Jack, Surprise, and Appledore, take passengers for two hour sails. The wind is stiff. Sun and sky clear and bright. Flags flutter with resolve.
I read Don DeLillo's novel Falling Man. I'll work on students' papers and read for Wednesday's class. It's autumn. Leaves have been seen underfoot.
Luckily, the oars and life jacket are in the skiff.