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Buddhadharma : Winter 2014
winter 2 0 1 4 buddhadharma: the Practitioner’s quarterly 29 Who’s Pulling the Stri ngs? Weseem to have a sense that something is in control of our lives, as if we are puppets and the universe is pulling our strings. But what forces actually control our lives? How does all this work? Ancient peoples held a somewhat animistic view of the world. When it was dry, they’d think the rain gods were asleep; when rain fell, they’d imagine the rain gods had woken up and were delivering water. The human perspective, from the beginning, has been to see the whole world as alive, animated with spirits living in everything and running everything. Thinking in these terms seems natural. As a result, we may also feel that the things we do, the choices we make, really have no effect in themselves. We may believe that our lives are not really under our control but rather are determined by deities or forces that actually run everything. Even if we don’t believe in a fire god or a river god, we might still have very fixed ideas about karma. Someone may think, “I have this illness because it’s my karma” or “My son failed his exams because of bad karma from a past lifetime” or even “I have horrible neighbors moving in next door—it must be my karma.” Who or what decides when karma ripens or what the results of past actions will be? People com- monly imagine there are gods of karma, a celestial committee that sorts out exactly what lessons we are due to learn or which of our debts need to be called in. Consciously or not, we may envision some kind of celestial accounting system run by invisible deities who say, “She gets fifteen points and he loses five, and this other one gets fifty because she’s doing really well. But this guy’s out of the game alto- gether.” This somewhat mechanistic and determin- istic view of kamma-vipaka, action and its result, is extremely common, particularly in Asia but also among Westerners. It can be held in a very fixed way. I’m particularly surprised that people so often assume vipaka, the result of kamma, always stems from action in a past life. I ask them, “What about things you’ve done in this life? Aren’t they going to have some effect as well?” It seems many people believe that a particular event, illness, misfortune, or difficulty is the inevi- table result of some personal action in a previous birth; there’s a sense that this process is inescapable and there’s nothing anyone can do about it. I think most people at least recognize these ideas. Maybe some of us still think that way. If you look at the Buddha’s teachings, however, you’ll see that he spent a lot of time and energy trying to counteract the view that our lives are pre- determined by past karma. Over and over again, he points out that if karma were fixed—if our actions in the present time could have absolutely no effect—then liberation would be impossible. If the flow of our lives were preordained, it would not matter whether we did good or harm. But common sense shows that the actions we choose in this life have a variety of effects; we seem able to exercise some free will. Still, what we experience in the present moment is preconditioned. It is the result of everything that has happened in the universe since at least the Big Bang. (OPPOSITE) PHOTO geoffrey hamoury Karma doesn’t explain everything—in fact, says ajahn amaro, it’s only one of the many forces at work in your life.