Farewell to karma
© Michael Clark 2013
Can you hear me (can you hear me)
Through the spaces (through the spaces)
Wondering in this wonderland…
Reincarnation is an ancient idea that some folks love and others find dangerous. Hindus, Jains, Buddhists, Taoists and many New Age enthusiasts from around the world believe in reincarnation.
Theories about reincarnation take several forms but, generally speaking, the idea can be summed up as follows: The soul enters creation like a spark from a fire, beginning a long journey through life with only a rudimentary level of awareness. As the soul passes through repeated cycles of bodily death and rebirth, it gradually increases in knowledge and goodness until it eventually achieves perfection. Once perfected, the soul is liberated from worldly suffering and desire as it breaks free from the chain of death and rebirth. At this point, the soul is no longer unique nor bound by time–instead, it merges with the eternal godhead.
But again, it’s not as if there’s only one school of reincarnation. Some Indian schools of philosophy differ on its finer points. Ramanuja (1017-1137 CE), for instance, forwarded the notion of ‘qualified monism’ where the soul retains a sense of individuality and rests – as opposed to merges – within the godhead. And most schools of Buddhism say there never was any reincarnating soul in the first place, only the illusion of one. Buddhists believe that enlightenment means ridding oneself of a panoply of false beliefs, including those of self, soul, God and individuality.¹
Karma is a Sanskrit term that means “deed.” Essentially, karma is the accumulated merit and demerit of one’s past life actions. Morally good and bad deeds add up on a kind of cosmic balance sheet. Good deeds bring future benefits. Bad deeds bring misfortune and suffering.
But it’s not quite that simple because in theistic religions (religions that believe in a deity or deities) God’s grace can mitigate the negative effects of bad karma. And even though Buddhists see God as a mere conceptual construct instead of an all-powerful being, some Buddhist schools claim that the compassionate gaze of the bodhisattva is similar to the idea of God’s grace. Not unlike an all-powerful creator God, the bodhisattva may lessen the negative impact of bad karma.
Many Indian gurus claim that negative karma can transfer from a disciple to a teacher. Karma mystically “flies,” they say, from less to more pure souls. This transfer of bad karma may be experienced by the pure soul in various ways. Spiritual “pollution” is a term many gurus use to describe these impure spiritual elements that they’ve reportedly picked up from their disciples.
One of the more well-known examples of an Indian holy man who claims to have picked up bad karma from his disciples is found in the figure of Sri Ramakrishna (1836-86). Ramakrishna claimed that his subtle body became festered with sores after receiving spiritually impure visitors. In essence, Ramakrishna believes he took others’ karma onto himself.²
Some people are convinced that they have had past lives and it is conceivable that they have. But it’s also possible that they interpret unusual experiences so as to believe in reincarnation when in actual fact they haven’t had any past lives at all.
In addition to alleged ‘flashbacks’ and ‘past life regressions,’ we hear stories about individuals claiming to have located objects in distant countries they’ve never visited. And some speak of esoteric but seemingly rational connections from a past to a present life, as if there’s a great mystical thread weaving everything together, time after time.
But none of this proves a belief in past lives. Another explanation is that these believers are being deceived by a demonic influence. The idea of demonic deception probably sounds a bit less weird today with the success of TV shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Supernatural. And if it does sound weird, it’s arguably no more so than the idea of reincarnation, which so many seem to readily accept.
One of the most valuable ideas found in theology is that of discernment. In one sense discernment is described as a gift and developed ability where one learns to differentiate among
- Evil spiritual influences
- Divine spiritual influences
- One’s true self
Father Edward Malatesta, S. J. writes on the deeper, fuller meaning of discernment.
By the discernment of spirits is meant the process by which we examine, in the light of faith and in the connaturality of love, the nature of the spiritual states we experience in ourselves and in others. The purpose of such examination is to decide, as far as possible, which of the movements we experience lead us to the Lord and to a more perfect service of Him and our brothers, and which deflect us from this goal.³
However, a very real problem arises. Many people claim to discern but their alleged messages from the Divine often prove to be false or at odds with others also claiming to discern the true light and will of God. In fact, ‘discernment’ may degenerate into nothing more than taking an alarmist view of issues one doesn’t understand, projecting bad habits and transferring unsavory psychological contents onto scapegoats. Needless to say, this has little, if anything, to do with mature discernment and is arguably the dynamic of an overzealous, hypocritical or underdeveloped personality.4
But to return to the idea of reincarnation, many believers say that destructive personality traits carry over from past to present lives. Within Catholic mystical theology, however, bad things experienced in one’s present life could be taken as evidence of demonic obsession or possession. In the Catholic sense, obsession is the unhealthy and significant influence of evil spiritual powers or beings, whereas possession is a permanent, temporary or sporadic loss of self-control due to spiritual attack.
Catholicism has no need to postulate past lives when obsession and possession explain just as well, if not better, what reincarnationalists attribute to bad karma.
Another way to explain the unusual experiences often taken as evidence for reincarnation involves recent theories in subatomic physics. Instead of falling prey to demonic deception, it’s possible that sensitive individuals might be piercing through the veil of space-time and wrongly interpreting this as proof for reincarnation.
According to recent subatomic cosmologies, past, present and future don’t necessarily follow a one-way vector nor do we experience linear time at a consistent rate. Instead, past, present and future apparently exist in an interactive field. That is, space-time is regarded as a continuum.
In his book Deep Time the physicist and astronomer David Darling says that questions about the origins of the universe are misleading because past, present and future exist in a unified loop.
Surely there had to have been some special point of origin? But no. What was needed was a more panoramic view in which the universe, past, present, and future, was seen as having always been there–a permanent, all-encompassing, space-time eternity. Of course, it was natural for man, whose left-brain consciousness produced the illusion of “passing” time to think of past and future as somehow different in status. To dwell, moreover, on that elusive moment called now which transformed the potentiality of future events into the actuality of the past. But “now” was, in truth, only a chimera. Every point in space and time coexisted with equal importance. The future was there from the beginning as surely as was the past.5
Like Darling, many theologians, mystics, philosophers and artists speak to the possibility of intimate connections among space, time and eternity. The German mystic Meister Eckhart (1260-1327) wrote:
The now wherein God made the first man, and the now wherein the last man disappears, and the now I am speaking in, all are the same in God, where this is but the now.
But to say, as Darling does, that the past still exists and the future is already ‘out there’ doesn’t sit well with most theologians. For them it’s more sagacious to say that God simply knows the past (which no longer exists) and the future (which does not yet exist). And we can only wonder if these theologians are merely regimented and afraid of change or whether their caution is merited.
Part of the problem here relates to how one defines God. Natural pantheists say that God’s mind is the universe, while theistic schools maintain that the mind and creation of God are very different.
Reason to Believe
Roderick Main, a leading scholar on Carl Jung, says Jung “concludes that under certain psychic conditions time and space can both become relative and can even appear to be transcended altogether.”6 We can’t know for sure if the past and the future exist right now, but we can at least consider the possibility that they do, and moreover, that they influence or even interact with our lives as experienced in the present.
Individuals perhaps genetically predisposed for a different kind of sensitivity could be more attuned to other time periods and souls living therein.7 If all events potentially interact within space-time and eternity, this would mean that, along a horizontal axis, the present influences the future and the past.
But another axis is needed to account for the moral dimension. Choices made in the present could also impact not just the past and future (horizontal axis), but those choices involving ethics could perhaps influence various heavens and hells, which could be represented as a vertical axis. For instance, when we do bad things Satan and his demons are devilishly delighted while the angels and saints in heaven are struck with sorrow. Traditional, maybe. But possible.
This notion of horizontal (time) and vertical axes (ethics) helps to conceptualize things but shouldn’t be taken as an absolute or complete schema. We could, in fact, simplify this model by hypothesizing that each aspect of space-time-eternity has a potential influence on all other points.8
An interactive, multidimensional model no doubt challenges conventional assumptions about life, the afterlife, past and future.9 It cannot be proved through conventional forms of experimentation10 but those experiencing unusual psychological phenomena could interpret their experiences according to this model. Along these lines, the Protestant theologian Paul Tillich distinguishes experiential from experimental verification.
In experiential verification we cannot quantify data and construct repeatable experiments, but we can make observation, accumulate knowledge, and learn from our experience.11
Of course, there’s a problem here that might never be fully overcome but only improved upon. This is the problem of extricating oneself from one’s current beliefs and related theoretical constructions.
In such a reflection on the ultimate in hermeneutics of the subject matter, the writer will be undoubtedly influenced by his/her own hermeneutics and idea of ultimate reality and meaning. This may lead to an unwarranted conclusion specially if one’s own hermeneutic of ultimate reality and meaning is not consciously differentiated from that of the other. But one-sidedness can be remedied in certain degree by inviting more than one specialist to study the same topic.12
Taking this into consideration, the multidimensional model still seems more current and flexible than the ancient belief in reincarnation. Although some people try to justify their religious beliefs by saying they’re ancient and predate other religions, this argument doesn’t make much sense. Just because something is ancient doesn’t make it true. And from the standpoint of ethics, the current schema doesn’t allow for the avoidance of personal responsibility on the basis of hypothesized karma from equally hypothesized past lives.13
One of the most striking features this author has noticed when trying to have intelligent conversations with some believers in karma is their complete unwillingness to step away from their belief structures and consider alternatives. Some believers in reincarnation seem just as dogmatic and intransigent as extremists of any kind, be they materialists, environmentalists, fundamentalists, liberals or conservatives. However, the history of science demonstrates time and again that this kind of clannish unthinking and following the crowd rarely paves the way for better theory.
The above may seem to focus on esoteric points of little or no practical value. But considering human evolution and our existence within the extended universe, can we really afford, morally and economically, to stop developing cosmology? Old, outmoded models usually hurt innocent people and waste collective resources. Perhaps the only way to change this sorry state of affairs is to change our deeply ingrained ways of looking at things.
Instead of clinging to the past, multidimensional theory combines science, religion and philosophy in a new kind of holism more appropriate to 21st-century challenges. This new approach could have a tremendous impact on education, psychiatry and religion, to name a few areas. But first, the keepers of the keys must be willing to see that change is needed.
1. Buddhists speak of becoming ensnared in cycles of rebirth but anatman theory says that the very notion of the soul is illusory. Therefore reincarnation doesn’t really occur. It only seems to occur until one is liberated from a false belief in individuality.
2. The subtle body is described as an inner spiritual body. For more about Ramakrishna see http://earthpages.wordpress.com/2011/02/10/karma-transfer. In Christianity we find a similar idea to karma transfer. Saint Kowalska (1905-38) writes that she received the sins of others, suffering dearly to prevent their ending up in hell. In Catholicism this brings to mind the idea of “victim souls” who suffer mostly for the benefit of others, an idea popular in certain Catholic circles. The main difference between the ideas of victim souls and karma transfer is that most Christians don’t believe in reincarnation.
3. Thomas H. Green S. J., Weeds Among the Wheat - Discernment: Where Prayer and Action Meet, Notre Dame, IN: Ave Maria Press, 1984, p. 41). If we’re all imperfect, the development of true discernment is probably a lifelong process. Some believe that the Holy Spirit can override personal biases–i.e. an imperfect person makes a perfect discernment. We can also differentiate between (a) the initial discernment and (b) one’s reaction to and interpretation of that discernment.
4. Those political and religious figures behind the Inquisitions and the cruel torture of so-called witches in the Middle Ages would fall into this juvenile and horrific personality type.
5. (a) David Darling, Deep Time (New York: Delacorte Press, 1989), pp. 187-188.
6. Roderick Main. Jung on Synchroncity and the Paranormal (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1997), p. 18.
7. Subjects whose brainwaves are measured during meditative states reportedly feel as if they travel though time. However, it’s possible (if one is willing to consider that departed souls could influence the living) that one could confuse the presence of a departed person for the presence of a person living in another historical time period, and vice versa.
8. By way of contrast, the Cambridge biochemist Rupert Sheldrake says in Dog’s That Know When Their Owners Are Coming Home that past habits, not the future, influence the present (New York: Crown Publishers, 1999: 305).
9. The idea of multidimensionality was forwarded by Jane Roberts with some interesting differences, most notably Roberts’ advocacy of interactive parallel universes and correspondingly rainbow-like variations of the self.
10. (a) This would not upset the Austrian philosopher of science Karl Popper. Popper says that scientific statements cannot be proved, only disproved. Of course, Popper’s assertion is open to various avenues of debate, beyond the scope of this article.
(b) George P. Hansen recounts a lab experiment that could be taken as support for the idea of the future influencing the present. See George P. Hansen, The Trickster and the Paranormal (Xlibris, 2001: 328-336, 342).
11. Tillich cited in Andrew J. Peck, Tibor Horvarth et. al., eds. American Philosophers’ Ideas of Ultimate Reality and Meaning. URAM Monographs, No. 1. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1994, p. 7. Several branches of Western philosophy challenge the distinction between experimental and experiential verification–for instance, Solipsism, Berkeley’s Idealism and, to some extent, John Locke’s critique of “secondary qualities.”
12. Ibid., p. 10.
13. It should be noted that conscientious believers in the idea of reincarnation say we must make positive choices to overcome bad karma. And, again, most believe that God’s grace can lessen the negative effects of bad karma. But still, the idea of karma is often abused around the world in a unforgivable attempt to legitimize disparity and other social problems.
Benford, Gregory, Timescape (Bantam, 1992). A sci-fi novel informed by scientists.
Flood, Raymond and Michael Lockwood (eds.), The Nature of Time (Blackwell, 1988).
Hawking, Stephen, A Brief History of Time: From the Big Bang to Black Holes (Bantam, 1990).
Paige, Huw, Time’s Arrow and Archimedes’ Point: New Directions for the Physics of Time (Oxford, 1996).
Farewell to karma © Michael Clark, 2013.
- Light Between the Eyes (theosophywatch.com)
- Light Between the Eyes (freelancesalesconsultantsuk.wordpress.com)
- Karma and the 6 Realms of Existence in Buddhism (liefortruth.wordpress.com)
- Extremely interesting investigation on Reincarnation (tsemtulku.com)
- How it Works? (karmareiki.wordpress.com)
- Collect Some Thought Karma (berryberryhappy.wordpress.com)
- A Chat with God on A Global Update, Karma and and the Ending of Suffering on Earth; A TAUK message by Suzanne Spooner (tauksuzanne.com)