Archive for July 2009
Everyone who has studied the religious philosophies of India is likely to be familiar with the concept of the kaliyuga (the age of strife), described in vivid detail the epic literature as a time when general public morality has broken down to such an extent that violence and corruption is the norm. Buddhist literature also describes a time when morality will be so rare that not only will people not aspire to be good, but the very idea of goodness will be forgotten.
It would be an exaggeration to say that the twenty-first century could be described in the same terms as the kaliyuga delineated in the Hindu epics or the age of degeneration described by the Buddhists. The eras described in the Indian literature is much worse than anything we are experiencing today. On the other hand, it does feel as though societies around the world are slowly drifting in the direction of the sort of moral breakdown described in such graphic terms in ancient Indian literature. Greed, hatred and delusion seem to be waxing rather than waning. Perhaps it always seems that way, no matter when one lives.
Perhaps the descriptions of degenerate times in ancient literature are descriptions of what is fairly constant in human condition. Perhaps, as such religious teachers of various traditions have taught, there will never be liberation from the effects of greed, hatred and delusion this side of the grave.
What, aside from wringing one’s hands, can one do? These days I find myself thinking about those religious philosophies that promote the idea that the world we experience is mostly a product of our own thinking. Those who see the world mostly in terms of sin and its punishment or of a struggle between cosmic forces of Good and Evil do seem to live in a cramped and uncomfortable world that threatens them. Those who see the world mostly in terms of opportunities to grow and heal seem to live in a more spacious and congenial world that nourishes them.
If those appearances are at all accurate, they raise the question: to what extent are any of us able to choose the way we see the world? Can one simply decide not to see the world in terms of sin and its punishment and opt instead for a less disturbing way of seeing the world? The answer, I think, is a carefully qualified Yes.
The doctrine of karma has always made sense to me; at least, one of the many ways of looking at karma has made sense to me ever since I first read about it. The view that appeals to me is one that says our every deliberate action reinforces a tendency to act in a similar way again. In other words, every action reinforces a habit. The collection of all of our habits is known as character. And the kind of character one has exerts a strong influence on how comfortable one is in the world. Habit can be broken, but the longer one acts in a particular habitual pattern, the more difficult it is to break the pattern. If one has the habit of passing negative judgment on others, and if one makes no efforts to break the habit, one is much more likely to perceive oneself as belonging in a dangerous and evil world than if one made successful efforts to cultivate alternative habits of thinking. One the other hand, if one consciously cultivates the habit of being kind and friendly, the likelihood of acting cruelly or passing negative judgments on others is reduced. That is how many Buddhists discuss karma. It makes sense to me. I have developed the habit of thinking of human experience in those terms.
The Buddhist view of karma described above does not leave much room for grace. It does not leave much room for the view that human beings are vitiated by negative tendencies that they are powerless to overcome through their own efforts and that they must therefore hope for an undeserved gift of grace from a higher power. On the other hand, it does seem as though some people do acquire such destructive and counterproductive ways of thinking that they lose the capacity to reverse the direction of their habits. The idea of the kaliyuga is that the human race could collectively fall into such negative and counterproductive habits that hardly any individuals would have the wherewithal to turn those habits around. It is a sobering reminder of the momentum of habit and character.
When offered a sobering reminder, it is not a bad idea to reflect on it soberly.