Our earlier digression into Yoda and the chain of causation may have seemed like a pop-culture-inspired distraction from the Reasonings on the Lotus Sutra, but it perhaps serves as a good prelude to the subject of karma. As you may have noted in the previous blogs on the sutra and on Mahayana Buddhism, one of my goals here has been to think about these matters in light of the Epicurean Canon, which is to say in an empirical and scientific manner, in order to illuminate the essence of these teachings and to distill from them a science of wellbeing, of happiness, and of spirituality in a manner that is useful and relevant to a contemporary mind. It’s essentially the same thing that I did with ancient Epicurean tradition in my book.
One of the most challenging tasks here is to come to an accurate, naturalistic (that is, non superstitious) view of the laws of karma. This is a complex subject. From the onset, we must clarify that there is nothing in nature that indicates that a person, a soul, or a mind-stream in any way can persist after death and become embodied in another living entity. This theory of reincarnation has obfuscated our understanding of karma in such a way as to make it useless.
Let us step back in our investigation and start from the beginning. Karma, in its original Sanskrit context and sense, simply means action. When we speak of the laws of karma, we are merely speaking of the laws of action and reaction, and ergo we are speaking of the laws of causes and effects. In fact, if we read the chapter of the Bhagavad Gita in which Lord Krishna speaks of karma yoga, we will find a wisdom tradition that concerns itself with the yoga of action, with the philosophy of action. It teaches that we should perform actions according to our nature, and also incorporates some cultural corruption, some ideas related to the caste system and a deontological moral theory based on our innate tendencies being irresistible and necessary.
In one of my last blogs, I mentioned that the central upaya of the Lotus Sutra
encourages people to consider themselves not as the effects of their past lives, but as the CAUSE of their future self, and to therefore take their own destiny and happiness in their own hands through diligent and dynamic practice.
The Lotus Sutra turns the logic of enlightenment, of karma, and reincarnation upside down by instead of seeing our lives as the passive results of past action, forcing us to see ourselves as active and dynamic causes of our future emancipation and happiness. It speaks frequently about the “cause-awakened ones”, about what happens “if people have planted many good roots”, and how awakening requires causes. This also takes the form of parable when the sutra narrates the many great deeds that were performed in “previous lives” by some of the known Buddhas who are in attendance at the discourse.
The goal of the votary of the sutra then becomes to plant new seeds carefully, to cultivate his own Buddha nature via generating new causes as a favor and as a service to his present and future self, thereby producing hope and confident expectation of future emancipation from all the causes of suffering. This is how Buddhists believe that they become their own saviors.
In Epicurus, we have multi-valent logic, or the logic of multiple explanations. We are warned not to think in simple terms about complex matters, and since all complex phenomena and compound bodies are composed of smaller, simpler phenomena and particles, we are therefore led to reason that there are multiple causes and components for all things. In this manner, we are led to consider multiple natural explanations. The most relevant portion on this is in Section 9 of Epicurus’ Letter to Herodotus. Notice that, as we also see in the Lotus Sutra, it is stressed here time and again that the investigation of the laws concerning causes has happiness and ataraxia as the final goal.
The function of the science of Nature is to discover the properties and causes of those things that are essential to us, for our happiness depends on knowledge of essential matters, such as the fact that heavenly bodies are not divinities …
… We have reached a level of accuracy sufficient to secure our happiness once we have confirmed that these events are not produced by gods …
Keep firmly in mind that you will encounter people who will refuse to admit that there is more than one way in which a thing may occur, even in matters where the evidence can only be observed at a distance, and the evidence is necessarily incomplete. People who take this position are ignorant of the conditions that render peace of mind possible, and attitudes such as this you should hold in contempt.
As for us, if we are able to determine that there are several possible ways in which a phenomena may occur, and all of those ways are natural and undisturbing to our peace of mind, then we are just as well off as if we knew with certainty the exact way it occurs.
But peace of mind requires that we deliver ourselves from all this confusion, by keeping constantly in our minds a summary of the essential principles of Nature.
For the reasons I have stated, we must always pay close attention to our perceptions from the senses, to our feelings of pain and pleasure, and to our mental apprehensions from the anticipations, both those we receive ourselves, and those received by other men. For we must conform our judgments to the clear evidence that is available to us through each of the standards of truth. If we always remain true to these, we can rightly trace the causes of our disturbances and fears. By seeking out the true causes of incidental qualities, such as those we observe from time to time in the sky, we shall free ourselves from that doubt which produces the worst fears in other men …
And even those who are not far advanced in their knowledge of Nature can use this summary, and survey in their own minds, in silent fashion and quick as thought, the doctrines most important to their happiness.
In the Letter to Herodotus, Epicurus focuses on the important task of dismissing the fear-inducing fables (avoidance of suffering) and other psychological tasks which concern our happiness. But this same approach to the study of the multiple causes of our happiness must not be limited to banishing the demons of superstition. By judging our actions (the causes we produce) in light of their auspicious or sorrowful effects, we can gain strong conviction about the best ways to act and to generate new causes, and we can also seek out stable, external causes of steady pleasure that generate little to no annoyance. These causes may be as simple and enjoyable as the steady cultivation of certain great friends, sports, hobbies, dietary habits, or contemplative practices proven to create healthy long-term changes in the brain.
In other words, just as the authors of the Lotus Sutra did, we can also turn the logic of the Letter to Herodotus towards the future, and think of this science of happiness in terms of how we can best generate multiple causes for our future emancipation and abiding pleasure and that of our peers. In this way, we can steer the vehicle of our progress in a much more dynamic, directed, and efficient manner than other, more passive students of philosophy or religion.
I hope you have enjoyed and profited from these Reasonings of the Lotus Sutra. Please share them with others of like mind so that you too can become the causes of your own present and future happiness and that of others.
Erik Anderson’s Insights on the Epicurean Canon at epicurus.info
Allan Marquand’s The Logic of the Epicureans