Western philosophy, from Socrates to Sartre, tends to deal in abstractions. It's about relatively complex conceptual structures, with relatively well-defined concepts that have relatively well-understood logical relationships. The Platonic idealists and their successors seem almost obsessive about these abstractions -- "What is Virtue? What is Justice? What are the forces driving History? What is the Mind? What are Language, Truth, and Logic, and how do they relate to each other?" -- and so on and so forth. Even Popper's magnificent work dismantling the Platonists' cathedrals in the sky is concerned with definitions and how to arrive at them, and it, itself, is as beautifully constructed a conceptual cathedral as any.
Coming from this background, it's only natural that I treat concepts from Eastern philosophy the same way. I try to understand what's meant by things like ki, samadhi, dukkha, enlightenment, nirvana, karma, and so on, through their definitions, and then try to see how these things relate to each other in the thought-construct that is the philosophy.
I just realized that this may be entirely the wrong approach.
Years ago, I practiced aikido, in the ki no kenkyukai tradition, which teaches the techniques through the concept of ki, and includes a quite a few exercises intended specifically to train you in "extending ki," as the term goes. It's dead simple to demonstrate to someone what "extending ki" means (although a lot harder to explain in words), and once you've got it, it's relatively simple to explain how to do a technique in terms of ki. In a way, this technique explains the purpose of a technique, rather than the form. It's a different way of teaching, say, ikkyo, than the way they do it in aikikai or ju-jutsu, and after enough practice, you end up learning it either way -- but in my limited experience, the "ki way" of teaching these techniques was quicker, at least as measured by effectiveness rather than purity of form.
Thing is, at no point during any of my aikido lessons did anyone bother explaining what ki is. Instead, we just practiced extending ki, learned techniques to test whether someone is extending ki or not (example: give 'em a shove; if it feels like you're shoving a tree, they're extending ki; if they fall over, they're not), and then practiced techniques in terms of it. I still have no real idea of what it is, although I'm pretty damn certain that no supernatural woo-woo was involved -- it's simply a matter of getting everything pulling in the same direction, as it were. However, I have read and heard any number of such explanations, and they all sound terribly new-agey, abstract, and flaky.
In other words, ki is a term used to describe a simple, observable phenomenon -- albeit one that is difficult to explain.
This experience came to my mind a few days ago, as I was pondering the meaning of another common term in Eastern philosophy -- karma. The usual explanation of karma has it meaning something like collecting brownie points or demerits which get tallied up when you die, determining whether you're reincarnated as a cockroach or a lama, or something in between.
This has always struck me as somewhat ridiculous.
The Dhammapada starts with a few verses that did not strike me as ridiculous at all:
All that we are is the result of what we have thought: it is founded on our thoughts, it is made up of our thoughts. If a man speaks or acts with an evil thought, pain follows him, as the wheel follows the foot of the ox that draws the carriage.
All that we are is the result of what we have thought: it is founded on our thoughts, it is made up of our thoughts. If a man speaks or acts with a pure thought, happiness follows him, like a shadow that never leaves him.When I'm sitting, I can actually experience something very much like this. If I've "acted with an evil thought," that pops up and nags at me. If I've "acted with a pure thought," it doesn't. Sometimes I can feel these even when I'm not sitting. I believe the term for this is "conscience," although it's understood rather differently in Judeo-Christian culture. (Interestingly, mere thoughts don't have this effect, or at most, they have it to a very minor degree -- actions are needed for it to happen.)
I have no way of knowing if this is what the Tathagata (or whoever actually wrote those verses) had in mind, but it fit.
A couple of weeks back, one of the senior students at the sangha where I practice described people as "karma vortices," which struck me as a bit too cutesy at the time. I think the idea he was attempting to articulate was the unity of cause and effect -- that the two are ineluctably entwined, and the thoughts, actions, and outcomes that we have and do "are" us at some fairly deep level. Still, the description remained, filed away under "doesn't make much sense but may eventually."
The final piece of this little karma puzzle of mine are a couple of lines from Hakuin's ode to zazen (Zazen wasan), which go something like:
Even those who have practiced zazen just for one sittingIf you approach all this -- as I did -- with the idea that karma is an abstract concept, none of it makes much sense. It's all so much new-agey pseudo-spiritual woo-woo, or just a lot of blather. I certainly thought that bit of Hakuin's ode a bit embarrassing when I first got to chant it.
Will see all their karma wiped clean
So, the insight?
Karma isn't an abstraction. It's a label for an observable phenomenon, just like ki. Namely, it's that witch's cauldron of stuff that bubbles up to the surface when sitting -- the internal monologues, the sensory inputs and the way they're experienced, the aches, pains, and discomforts, the snatches of music playing through the mind, the emotional affects, the memories, and the feeble will that attempts to sit in the middle of all that and tries to keep the mind on the practice anyway.
These other woo-woo-ey concepts in Eastern philosophy -- dukkha, samadhi, nirvana, and so on -- aren't abstractions either. Instead, they're concrete phenomena grounded in experiential observation. Understanding "what they are" in the same way that Marx attempts to explain what history is, or Keynes to explain what an economic depression is, is almost irrelevant; what counts is recognizing what the words point to. As concepts go, they have much more in common with "chair," "table," "roof," and "internal combustion engine" than with "truth," "justice," "dialectical materialism," or "comparative advantage." I'm going to have to redo a lot of my reading through this new lens, to see if it works as well as I think it might.
And that witch's cauldron that is uncovered during zazen -- "karma vortex" isn't a bad description for it at all? It is me, much more than any of the individual threads or leaves or pieces of dust churning away in it. A really good sitting does wipe it clean(er), although I do think that Hakuin-zenji is overpromising a wee bitty bit there. The cause and the effect, the "merit" and the "demerit" is all in there, churning away. Reincarnation or tallying up points doesn't enter into it at all. It's just there, and it's me.