Karma: when the past catches up with you

So you’re doing well. You’ve got this “illusion of self” idea worked out. You have moments of clarity in which the hard edges of your own sense of self become transparent and it seems that everything is perfect exactly as it is.

Then something happens. Maybe you get sick. Maybe a problem from your past returns. Maybe you meet up with friends or relatives. Or maybe you have some successes or failures in your career. All of a sudden the unassailable tranquility you felt just days earlier is nowhere to be found.

Comprehending illusion from within enlightenment is like the moon stamping a thousand peaks; wishing for enlightenment from within illusion is like clouds dotting the endless sky

P’u-an – 普願 translated by Thomas Cleary

We’ve talked about enlightenment as “untying knots“, and although the knots in our life are finite, there are bound to be many more than we expect.

We can think of it in terms of karma – not the popular idea of moral retribution, but as the more basic principle of cause and effect. In the West it is known as the principle of sufficient reason: every effect has a cause and every cause has an effect.

Understanding the illusory nature of the self goes hand-in-hand with a recognition of karma – cause and effect – unfolding in us and around us.

If you take away our illusion of self-control or agency then our whole existence, whether deluded or enlightened, is nothing more than this unfolding of causes and effects.

There are varying interpretations of karma in different traditions, but it’s helpful to recognise that even if you are making progress on the path…in fact, because you are making progress on the path, your past will come back to haunt you.

Imagine your life is an immense length of rope, or better yet, a long extension-cord (power cable). Most of the time you only use about a third of its length, and two-thirds of it sit in a tangled heap closest to the outlet. If you ever want to wind it up and put it away, or use the entire length, you’re eventually going to have to untangle the whole thing.

In fact it’s not really up to you, because as we’ve been seeing, “you” are a tangle in the cord, a knot in the rope.

So don’t be surprised when difficulties arise. Don’t be abashed or lose hope when all your progress seems to be lost in an instant, thanks to some complication from the past – a mess you thought you’d left on the peripheries of your life.

The clarity you’ve experienced will work its way through the whole of your existence. You can’t be entirely free from the illusion of self, free from pride in only a narrow slice of your life, when the rest of your existence is heaving with causes and effects – the bonds of karma.

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2 thoughts on “Karma: when the past catches up with you

  1. “All of a sudden the unassailable tranquility you felt just days earlier is nowhere to be found.”

    Determinism (what I call karma, cause-effect, illusion of control) is not generally known to be a mood lifter, and choosing to use it as one is kind of … contradictory.

    “…because you are making progress on the path, your past will come back to haunt you.”

    Don’t really understand this. Perhaps you mean that determinism is a small frame through which you can only view bits of your life at a time.

    It also sounds like ‘law of attraction’ talk. But perhaps karma is not universally applicable because we have an imperfect understanding of cause and effect. In the same way that we cannot pridefully advance to total control. So we can’t really say that it’s our change in attitude that causes our past to come back and haunt us.

    • It’s only contradictory if you still feel like there’s a “self” to now feel hopeless or powerless or coerced by deterministic forces. If recognition of cause and effect cuts through the illusion of control, then the effort of maintaining this illusion might come to an end, and along with it the suffering and struggle that usually accompanies the desire for control.

      Of course, if you feel like you are *successfully* in control, then you may not want to hear that this control is illusory. I think in Buddhism this corresponds to being reborn as a god or divine being. It’s more enjoyable than being human, but for that reason it make it harder to achieve enlightenment.

      It’s true we don’t really understand cause and effect, because of the complexity of the universe. Regarding the past coming back and haunting us, this can indeed happen regardless of what we do. What I was saying was that “following the path” will bring up challenges from the past, not that challenges from the past only come from following the path.

      I’m saying “if A, then B”. It doesn’t follow that “B, therefore A”, because there could also be “if B, then B”, or “if C, then B.”

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