No Way Out

From my newsletter this week:

One of the most famous and popular images found in nearly every temple and monastery in Tibet is the Wheel of Life, depicting a detailed cosmological map of existence according to the dharma view. A great, fearsome being, representing the nature of impermanence, clasps the entire wheel as if to devour it. Within each ring of the wheel many scenes are depicted that hold layered symbolism related to attachment, aversion, indifference, the states of conditioned existence, and karma. It’s a profound image to meditate upon, as it clearly shows how intimately connected all things are, and how truly deeply the laws of cause and effect run in the cycles of time.

Implicit in this wheel is another message: that no matter what, we are all here together in this process that has no beginning and no end. It is the eternal cycle of life, death, and rebirth, in which karma, rather than the concept of punishment and reward as it is frequently misunderstood in the west, is the simple dynamic of action and reaction, more like physics than morality. The phrase, “Every being has, at one time, been your mother,” a popular teaching in Buddhism, is one way of expressing this. Another way of expressing this is found in the words of Neil deGrasse Tyson, “We are all connected; To each other, biologically. To the Earth, chemically. To the rest of the universe, atomically.” Yet another way of understanding this is to think that for all of eternity, in some form or another, we will meet one another again and again on the Wheel as we go round it.

The upshot is: we literally reap what we sow. Again and again. Our choices have consequences. Our words have echoes. Our actions have results. They are not always as we intend. We are all always learning from our own errors, lashings out, and mistakes. Because of them, we are always suffering from the errors, lashings out, and mistakes of others. It is unavoidable. In the west we are taught to think this is about the judgments and favors of fickle and bribe-able beings, but it’s not. It’s about science. Cause and effect, action and reaction, yielding a state of perpetual motion.

In this perpetual motion machine, we are creating our own need to return and atone for, correct, and experience our own actions, again and again. This goes equally for what we perceive as rewards. They are not actually rewards that have been granted because we were deemed “worthy.” They, too, are merely reverberations. Looking at it this way, rather than doing good things for the sake of feeling pious, or for some sense of personal, immediate reward, we are more motivated to do good things because if we are all stuck here in this cycle forever, it would be best if we do as much good as possible to negate or mitigate our own and others’ errors, lashings out, and mistakes. Because we begin to realize that if we do not want to suffer eternally, it is important that we help cease the sufferings of others, as these are inextricably tied. Alleviation of suffering, our own and others’, becomes paramount in importance when your timeline is eternity.

This is not something esoteric I am talking about. This is very real. I am talking about the fact that the plastic water bottle I threw away when I was 10 will be part of what makes the sea poisoned when I am 70, and will be there no matter how many times I might come back for thousands of years. Who knows how many of those lifetimes I might be a fish, a whale, a dolphin, a fisherman, or a swimmer? The sea itself is my personal responsibility, in this lifetime, and forever. Same, in a way, as with the sea of all living things.

At first, when I came to find that this way of thinking struck a chord within me, I felt trapped. I tried to avoid it, but there was no way out. Once I had seen the truth of this, it could not be unseen. I could not pretend any more that I was ignorant of the profound scientific basis of karma. I could no longer conjure the sense of glamour, fear, and piety that had once held me in religious sway. Rather, I felt humbled and tasked with an enormous mission.

I believe we are all on this mission together.