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Friday, September 03, 2010

Health, Disease, Karma and Past Lives.

It seems that karma is one of the least understood principles of Buddhism. Yet, at its core it is not too dissimilar to Newtons third law of motion, which says that for every action there is a reaction. Thus, in essence karma is nothing different than cause and effect, which isn't as mystical and confusing as some might think. It stands to reason that if I hit my friend in the head with a hammer that there will be a reaction--and rightly so!!

At times though we can become obsessed with our karma wondering what previous action led to any number of things we're currently obsessed about: A disease we might be living with, a state of poverty or a perceived lack of talents. Believe me I've spent way too many nights wondering what I did "wrong" in a past life to develop a severe psychiatric condition but that's just not a good use of my time.

The problem is that karma is such an all-encompassing, timeless, constant process that it's nearly impossible to isolate what previous action led to a present condition that causes us particular suffering. There is karma at work that happened thousands of years ago. Plus, not everything is caused by karma. We know that the human form is the most suitable form to understand the Dharma in but it's not without its downsides. Some things, like sickness are just apart of the human condition regardless of who we were or are now as Buddha found out early: We get sick, we age and then die. So, it quickly becomes pointless to try and figure out what came from where. It will merely cause additional stress and suffering, which will do nothing to improve our current condition that we were suffering from originally before we started a forensic investigation into our past karma.

Physical disease is particularly hard to pin down because we are all destined for disease from our first breath as an infant. The minute we take our first breath, the countdown to death begins. That might be shockingly morbid to some of you but if you contemplate upon it you might find it frees you up to enjoy the present moment rather than obsessing about death and disease. We always seem to ask "why" when we have a major disease but not when we just have a simple sickness like a cold or the flu. Why, not? Because we simply understand that the human condition is frail and sickness is inevitable.

Yet somehow when we get a severe disease we think the severity means it must be punishment for something we did. The question becomes, "What did I do to deserve this?" The ego-mind wants some serious infraction to cling to because that would make sense to its limited and deluded nature but the real answer to that question of, "What did I do to deserve this?" is simply that you were born a human. That's it. I know, it's not a particularly exciting answer but that's the point. The ego-mind is looking for some exciting, unique reason for it. So, that even though the body is sick, at least it will get to feel important because some guru said the sickness was from some mysterious past life. It's silly isn't it when you think of it that way? It's not that we are trying to sound important--we just want to know why we're sick so we can feel better but the ego is so subtle that it can control us like a puppet and we're often none the wiser. That's why paying attention to our thoughts through meditation is so important. So that we can practice on being aware of our ego more and more.

This is important to remember when it comes to one's health because it can be easy to feel discouraged if we assume a disease we live with now is because of some terrible action we committed in the past. The point of Buddhism is not to figure out what we did wrong in the past but to stay centered in the present moment, so that we add as little additional burden to our karmic backpack as possible. Why worry if something in your past caused you to get sick? That won't help heal your disease but it will cause stress, which makes any illness worse. This reminds me of a famous lesson from Buddha, which goes something like this: A man gets struck with a poisoned arrow and the doctor wants to get it out as soon as possible and reverse the spread of the poison. Instead, the man shot by the arrow says first he wants to know who shot it, what kind of arrow is it? How was it made? Where did the wood for the arrow come from? Where did the poison come from, and what kind is it? But by the time the man finds this out he'll be dead.

Worrying about the past won't change anything--what's done is done. If you feel you did something less than helpful in a past life (or just yesterday) then don't worry about it; just live now the best way you can. Because you can't heal your physical self now without letting go of having to know all those "poisoned arrow" questions. Buddhism is about the present because it is the only time we have. We can waste our entire lives living in the past and I know some old people who have been lost to the ravages of that kind of worry. They are empty shells of people who are so balled up with stress and regret that they hardly know what is going on presently. They spent so much time lost in their past memories that even they have almost become a memory. Live in the now, not the past because we aren't guaranteed a tomorrow.

~Peace to all beings~

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Samuel said...

Thank you for this post, James.

Lon Anderson said...

Thank you,

This is a wonderful post!!!

That's something I strive for too, focusing my thoughts only on the present, trying to be kind towards all, including, not even killing an insect. For I feel this is my only way . . . to true . . . freedom.

Jayarava said...

Ironically a Pāli text specifically denies that illness is a result of kamma.

"So any priests & contemplatives who are of the doctrine & view that whatever an individual feels — pleasure, pain, neither pleasure-nor-pain — is entirely caused by what was done before — slip past what they themselves know, slip past what is agreed on by the world. Therefore I say that those priests & contemplatives are wrong."

Sivaka Sutta

Though Thanissaro (in his health warning to the text) interprets the causes of illness in terms of kamma, that is an interpretation, and if one lets the sutta speak for itself it is clear that the text did not want us to see disease in terms of kamma.

charmaine said...

This post is a such a coincidence...I have been having a few health issues lately and a couple of days ago, I asked myself what could I have done in my past lives to deserve this? We are always quick to reflect on the past rather than focus on the present and just being. Thank you for the nice post James.

star said...

The Buddha was pretty specific about the suffering we have in this life *not* being a result of actions in past lives: "When one falls back on what was done in the past as being essential, monks, there is no desire, no effort [at the thought], 'This should be done. This shouldn't be done.' When one can't pin down as a truth or reality what should & shouldn't be done, one dwells bewildered & unprotected." (from AN 3.61). The most recent post on my blog is also relevant to this topic, I think, being a consideration of what the Buddha said to put an end to speculation over past lives.

Arhat Ariyashakya said...

The fact is that the religion originally established by Siddharta Gautama, the One Buddha, is:

The Buddha
The Buddha Dharma-Vinaya
The Buddha Sangha.

In other words, no Buddha Sangha, no Buddhism.

That is:

Only Buddhist Monk or Buddhist Nun sayings, writings, or teachings, is Buddhism, it is Buddha's religion being presented.

Now, if it is a true Buddhist Monk, i.e., Bhikshu, or a true Buddhist Nun, i.e., Bhikshuni, then their sayings, writings, or teachings is only about the Buddha, or the Buddha Dharma-Vinaya.

When this is the case, all well & good to Humanity and to all sentient beings.

BD said...

The suffering we endure is also relative. What is a lot for me , is nothing for you. I too have spent time spinning my wheels, my youngest has a lot of health issues and that can lead to a tendency to question why ...but as you said the past is the past, and now I endeavor to place my focus on the now

trinitystar said...

It is always past, the moment is gone ... we need to learn to forgive ourselves and move on.
Life is for living and loving.
Majority of illnesses have been contributed by the toxic stuff they put in them and on them and even more so now.

Shravasti Dhammika said...

Dear James, I would agree that karma is one of the least understood principles of Buddhism and inadvertently you might have reinforced some of the misunderstandings about it. I couldn’t help notice that you spoke of karma only in terns of the negative – disease, pain, poverty, lack of talent, suffering, severe psychiatric conditions, etc. What about positive actions and their positive effects? Is not that just as much an aspect of karma? Why is it that we Buddhists always present karma mainly in terms of the negative? Perhaps our critics have a point when they we Buddhists are pessimistic.

Sabio Lantz said...

"Karma" is either simple common sense which recognizes that "an action has an effect" or it is an atavistic remnant of Vedic rebirth theory that many Buddhists have not shaken and continue to do mental contortions to preserve.

"Karma" is used by many Buddhists the way "God's Will" is used by many Christians to explain suffering. The impulse to explain away such things is understandable yet pathetic at the same time.


"Buddhism is about the Present" -- but it is also about understanding that our habits have momentum and thus moral suggestions and contemplation methods are meant to slowly dis-empower our bad decisions of the past. Being "here-and-now" does not undo all that magically at that moment, the locomotive of habits is powerful and continues no matter how "here-and-now" we think we are. We can not ignore the past but should build insightful methods to redirect our powerful bad habits. (I am sure you agree, but I wanted to stress that).

They call him James Ure said...

You're welcome Samuel. :)

@Lon...You're very kind. Thank-you, and it sounds like you and I have much in common. I almost always try to catch and release the bugs too when they make it into the house.

@Jayavara...Thanks for adding this--it's very helpful to the discussion. I'll have to read that whole sutta now.

@Charmaine...Oh I'm so glad that you are starting not to blame yourself for your health. Guilt and shame do nothing do improve our mental states in my view.

@Star...well said.

@Arhat...I agree about the three jewels. They are the ties that bind all sects together.

@BD...I couldn't agree more. Often we compare ourselves to others--unfortunately, and we wonder, "Why does that guy never seem to have complications in life?" Well, the answer as you so deftly pointed out is that it's all relative. Great input. _/I\_

@Trinity Star...I love how you talk about life is for living and loving.

@Sabio...""Buddhism is about the Present" -- but it is also about understanding that our habits have momentum and thus moral suggestions and contemplation methods are meant to slowly dis-empower our bad decisions of the past. Being "here-and-now" does not undo all that magically at that moment, the locomotive of habits is powerful and continues no matter how "here-and-now" we think we are."

I totally agree. While the present is the only moment we have; it is also important to consider where we've been so that we (and those around us) can experience less suffering in that present moment.

As for karma; I believe that it is both the simple, "cause and effect." As well as being one determining factor in rebirth. I don't see how they are mutually exclusive necessarily.

Sabio Lantz said...

James said, "@Arhat...I agree about the three jewels. They are the ties that bind all sects together."

Why do we care about tying sects together?

James said, "As for karma; I believe that it is both the simple, "cause and effect." As well as being one determining factor in rebirth. "

The actions of people cause more people to be born -- that is a bland, simple observation. But what is being "reborn"? My actions can effect a 'birth' or several births or millions of births, but it does not cause a "RE-birth". Again, Buddhists do gymnastic contortions to try to preserve this word almost like Christian try to preserve that the word "Inspired" when talking about their scriptures.

The contortions seem obvious to me and a bit embarrassing. I understand why it happens but it seems so unnecessary. It is like the primary goal is to defend "BUDDHISM" and not to end the unsatisfactoriness of our lives. Thus my first note above also. It seems a theme.

Shakti yoga studio said...

WHAT an amazing post!How ispirational and how true!
I am not usre about Karma though. An Indian teacher I once met told me ''there is no karma, karma is just a joke.''. Until today I try to understand what he meant by those words. The iportant thing is that there is no suffering when you are present and aware...
What a beautiful thing medidtation is!
Thank you for that post.

check out and register at my blog if you wish, its about yoga

They call him James Ure said...

@Sabio...When I said that the three jewels tie the sects together I simply meant that it is one thing that most branches have in common. I don't think that the sects all have to be one big porridge of Buddhism. I was just stating the commonality of the jewels.

I am more concerned with how we as practitioners of these sects treat each other than whether the teachings of the sects agree.

As for karma, what's wrong with bland and simple sometimes? :) But seriously, I could care less about the word, "karma" or frankly what happens (if anything) after this life. Karma for me is only as important as how it effects my direct actions in this current moment.

I suspect that there is more to it that goes beyond this lifetime but I can't point to scientific proof. Yet, why does another persons' belief in karma bother you?

As for rebirth--the same is true. I am reborn a new in each moment, which is all I can concern myself with. If that sounds simple and bland then so be it. I've got enough to work on in my life than worry about whether I am reborn (or how) after this life.

I have a hunch that it has a very good chance of happening but it isn't something I stress out over. I could take it or leave it. If I die later today and that's it--no rebirth? It won't really matter at that point anyway.

I'm not interested in defending Buddhism per se. If tomorrow I'm the last Buddhist on Earth then I'll just go about practicing as usual. I think that if we boil "Buddhism" down that it is merely a tool. I don't think you and I are too far apart on this. Bowing...

@Shakti...Thank-you for your kind words.

Sabio Lantz said...

@ James:

You said:
"Yet, why does another persons' belief in karma bother you?"

This question hits a key issue I see on Buddhist blogs. Not the issue of karma, but the issue of questioning beliefs. Many Buddhist bloggers do not like debating ideas. Or at least when there develops any tension they avoid it or quote to the limits of the discursive mind.

Yet ironically, idea-debating fills Buddhist literature. The Buddha debated the main competing Indian philosophies at his time during much of his 40 years of teaching.

I think it is the Zen strain of Buddhism and a few others that idealize intuition and play down discernment.

Anyway, I debate (discuss, argue) ideas because I think they have effects. These effects either strengthen or weaken our habits of mind. And ideas have emotions attached uniquely depending on how a person holds them.

You and I agree on much: We don't care to defend Buddhism per se. We don't stress over concepts.

Yet I was discussing your leanings toward the concept of actual rebirth. We agree on the bland notion of karma meaning actions have effects. Sure, we can also agree on the bland notion on the fact that we are each reborn each minute. But these aren't what are normally meant by these terms. These bland understandings are held by practically everyone so their is no reason to make special Sanskrit or Pali terms (religious jargon -- Karma and Samsara) unless one is trying to sneak in the other connotations of those words.

It seems you kind of want to believe those too. That is fine, but I just wanted to discuss it. I get that you aren't that attached to those ideas and would not mind if reincarnation and karma (in their special senses) were wrong. That is another trait we share --- we hold our own beliefs lightly.

But just because we hold beliefs lightly does not mean that we should avoid discussing, debating and sorting them out. Such exercises can be very useful to understanding the mind. IMHO


They call him James Ure said...

@Sabio...I do believe in actual rebirth. I was trying to say in this discussion that I believe in both the two forms: The literal sense and the idea of being reborn each minute. I think either way is fine in Buddhism.

As for debating, I have nothing against debating. I like doing it too and agree that there is a tradition of it in Buddhism. I'm just saying I'm not really in the mood to debate karma right now.

I've had SO many debates with people about it that over the years on this blog. We've already debated the issue awhile in this post, and right now I'm just not in the mood to continue. Thanks for your understanding. Bowing...

Sabio Lantz said...

@ James
I can imagine it gets old to discuss things over and over. Thus, referring to an old post can be helpful if you wrote it to address a common issue. I do that on my site -- it comes in handy.

I understand your position now. You believe both in the bland form of Karma-Rebirth that almost everyone in the world believes in, and you believe in the special form of Karma-Rebirth (albeit you are not overly attached to that version).

I think it is important not to conflate those two versions. This discussion helped me. Thank you for your patience !

Salaam _/|\_

dragonflyfilly said...

Hi James,it has been awhile i know since i commented here.
it's funny, but i never thought that my now chronic condition (been almost 5 years now with this stupid disability) was a punishment. Rather i think of "what do i have to learn, what is it teaching me"? -- i also think in terms of it "grounding" me in the here and now, rather up in the fantastical imaginary world that i tended to inhabit...

just a thought...
hope you are well and happy, and as usual your posts are an inspiration to me, and i should visit more often,

Anonymous said...

G'day all, just breezing though on a random google linking. Sorry the below post should be significantly longer but time does not allow.

James thanks for your article, found it quite interesting. Will definitely pop back and check out your blog later.

Recently has a very serious medical condition. Brain tumor, lobotomy and radiotherapy. Being a "buddhist atheist" made it very easy to deal with both before and during this time.

There is was need to concern myself with past life guilt. There was only the actions of the present to deal with.

I tend to see rebirth as a belief without supporting evidence. To me all such beliefs are dangerous as they stop you from seeing the world, and your own actions as they truly are.

Birgitte Juliussen Haug said...

Thank you for sharing your insight!

Anonymous said...

what goes around, comes around

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