From Jerry Braza
In my personal experience working with inmates within the Oregon State Prison system, your question regarding karma is a common one. I have had many inmates reflect deeply on the possible impact of karma in the suffering surrounding incarceration. In my own reflection on this topic, I have gleaned some insights from several Buddhist teachers, including our teacher, Thich Nhat Hanh, who has experience with the prison population.
One of the more prominent teachers working with inmates is Bo Lozoff, the creator of both the Prison-Ashram Project and the Human Kindness Foundation. His foundations offer numerous books and resources at no charge to inmates. The beauty of Bo’s writings is that he makes complex principles more “user-friendly” for those in the prison system.
In his book We’re All Doing Time Bo shares: “One of the main rules we need to appreciate is called the Law of Karma. In the Bible, the way it is put is ‘as you sow, so shall you reap’. The way it’s said in prison is ‘what comes around goes around’. “Every thought, word, and deed is a seed which we plant in the world. All our lives, we harvest the fruits of those seeds. If we plant desire, greed, fear, anger, and doubt, then that’s what will fill our lives. Plant love, courage, understanding, good humor, and that’s what we get back. This isn’t negotiable; it’s a law of energy, just like gravity.”
Vipassana teacher Jack Kornfield in his book A Path with Heart shares: “The heart is a garden, and along with each action there is an intention that is planted like a seed. We can use a sharp knife to cut someone, and if our intention is to do harm, we will be a murderer. We can perform an almost identical action, but if we are a surgeon, the intention is to heal and save a life. The action is the same, yet depending on its purpose or intention, it can be either a terrible act or a compassionate act.”
The Buddhist teachings regarding karma are encapsulated in Thây’s teachings, and in understanding karma it may be helpful to review the concept of consciousness. According to Buddhist psychology, we all have a mind consciousness and a store consciousness. Our store consciousness includes everything that we have experienced during our life, metaphorically stored in the form of seeds (it also contains the seeds from the lives of our ancestors). Positive and negative seeds are planted through the thoughts and actions of our past. Our mind consciousness contains the present activity of the mind. Our mind and store consciousness are like gardens where we have activated, planted, and watered the seeds of our feelings and experiences.
The practice of mindfulness helps us look deeply to know which seeds to water and how to transform the negative seeds that arise in the mind consciousness. Our practice reminds us that every moment offers us an opportunity to be aware of how our thoughts, feeling, perceptions, and mental formations are constantly affecting our actions and subsequent karma.
We all have accumulated negative seeds in our consciousness. For example, if a person has been emotionally abused in the past, the seeds of anger, sadness, and grief may be buried in their consciousness. When these seeds are activated intentionally (in meditation) or unintentionally in daily interactions, we have the opportunity to transform this suffering through various gathas such as “breathing in I am aware of my anger, breathing out I embrace my anger.” Mindfulness and concentration make it easier to transform the negative seeds so they are not passed on through further actions that can contribute to negative karma.
Thây’s concept of “interbeing” helps us to understand the significance that each one of us has on the lives of others. Aware that we are connected to all beings including animals, plants, and minerals, it seems clear that every action has the potential of affecting the lives of many others. If our thoughts are negative, these seeds are watered and most likely behaviors and actions will follow and karma continues.
Finally, in a public talk in Vietnam last year, I recall Thây offered a beautiful way to personalize and realize the impact of karma in our life. To paraphrase, “Every one of our actions is like putting our signature on everything we do.” This makes every day, every moment, every thought, feeling, perception, and mental formation significant. This is so easily forgotten in the busyness of life. Our practice offers us a powerful means to live our lives in ways that have the potential to break the karmic cycle.
The Path of Transformation
So Claude, these are some insights on karma.
I hope this helps. Claude, over the past six years (has it been that long?) what I have seen in you is a sincere, good, and dedicated individual – dedicated to transforming yourself and to helping others. This is excellent karma! I know that if I let my anger take over, I feel really bad afterwards and sometimes I feel like I have done damage I cannot heal, but then I take faith in the Dharma, and I know that this is a long path we’re on, this path of transformation. We are graced with some small insight, which leads us in the right direction, and that is all we need. We don’t need to judge where we are, we just take the next step in mindfulness, the next breath in freedom, and we’re already there.
Barbara Casey, True Spiritual Communication, is the former editor of the Mindfulness Bell.
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