Rat Race II: The Karma Edition

Jul 30, 2005

Spiritual volunteers are a rather curious bunch. I recently asked one of them why he serves; he noted, "Well, Buddha said that the greatest gift is the gift of dharma. And this is dharma, so I come here to give that service." Extending a helping hand to a slum child or lending an ear to a lonely elder or reaching out to an absue victim isn't as interesting for him.

No arguments with Buddha's quote; after all, to give someone the gift of dharma, the gift of happiness, is indeed an ultimate offering. But my problem comes with the "And this is dharma" part. What is dharma? This concept, this meditation, this establishment, this teacher? Can you grab dharma in your hand and show it to me?

The real problem, yet again, is the ego. Instead of giving the gift of dharma, people subtly play games with the concept of Karma. In theory, Karma says that for every action, there's a consequence; whatever intention you sow, those fruits you will reap. Simple and elegant. Unfortunately, in practice, people start counting what can't be counted: 1 good-merit point to smile at a stranger, 3 points to give a meal to the homeless, 5 points to give eye sight to the blind, 11 points to go to a temple, 15 points to meditate at a monastery, 50 points to serve monks and nuns, 100 points to help give the gift of dharma. The more points I gather, the merrier my after-life. Rat-Race, the sequel.

As the famous story goes, a leaf falls down and a monk becomes enlightened. Is the leaf keeping track of its karma points, is it trying to give dharma, does it have a grandiose plan of personal enlightenment? Or is it simply an instrument along its own journey?

Dharma, of course, is neither here nor there; it's hidden at the bosom of each of your actions, it's latent underneath the materials of our mundane life, it's in constant motion to the ocean of our collective consciousness. Dharma can't be captured nor can it be given; it has to be experienced. Lao Tzu eloquently says what all sages have endlessly repeated, "The Tao which is spoken is not the eternal Tao."

If we keep score while doing an action, even subconsciously, it's simply a waste of an action. Far from the eternal Tao.

My definition of dharma is a rather simple one: that which puts an end to all suffering. Actually even just one word captures it: happiness. Being alive as human beings, pain and pleasure will exist, but those with dharma won't suffer. Religions, then, are simply interpretations of that same dharma to lead us to a place of satisfaction within ourselves.

To give someone the gift of no-suffering is, clearly, the ultimate gift. It's the gift of happiness that surpasses all material, emotional and even spiritual offerings. Sure, someone might think that chocolates make them happy or meditation makes them ecstatic, but eventually they will see that it's unsatisfying and keeping seeking elsewhere until they stumble into something truly enduring. And in that way, our shared human experience, is one of going towards happiness.

From that view, every individual is in the path of "dharma"; some take u-turns after u-turns, some stop for extended period at a vista point, and some are unrelenting in their commitment to driving. Whether you drive fast or slow, whether you stop for a flat-tire or a putting on your snow-chains, whether you're into zig-zaggedy-zen or one-lane-wonder, it's all on the same road. Eventually, we all get to the same place. It is the nature of the ego to think, "Ah, this path that I (capital I) am on, is the best path." Maybe it is, maybe it isn't, but who really cares? If you're happy, good. If you're not, find something else. We're bound to meet at the end of the road.

So, if we are all on this highway to happiness, what gets the most karma points? What is the best help?

It's impossible to say one kind of help is better than another and it's equally foolish to give all credit to the "last straw that broke the camel's back."

You can be the dirty fertilizer for a seed, you can be the flowing water for the shrub, you can the mighty sun for the plant, you can be the free-roaming oxygen to nurture the tree, you can be the masked scare-crow to protect the fruits. Each is a part in an inconceivable matrix of inter-connectedness. The help doesn't start in the garden nor does it end in the garden; it's simply an open-handed gift to whoever receives it.

There are no karma points.

Ego is suffering, selflessness is dharma. Granted that some things are more expedient in achieving real happiness but in this infinite continuum of our shared experiences, it's impossible (and pointless) to maintain a ledger for help-credits and hurt-debits. When asked if he believes in "karma", Nisargadatta Maharaj once said, "If it helps you quiet your mind, it's good. Otherwise not."

The reward for our action is the action itself. Right now. That's it. It is only the ego that wants to project the fruit of its action into the future.

Playing the karma-game to minimize this or maximize that, to go to a monastery to serve while ignoring a family member in your own home, to write large checks for a temple but walking past a beggar on the streets ... that's just rotating in our own illusions.

Instead, the world belongs to those who radiate a genuine wish for others' happiness from the center of their being, for theirs is not a gift for their ego's security but an unconditional offering to the present moment.

One of my monk friends was once stopped by a homeless person for some food. Not having anything, the monk kindly replied, "My friend, I can't offer you food, but can I give you a prayer." The homeless man sat still as the monk stood on the sidewalk and sang a silent prayer from his heart.

Perhaps real dharma is simpler than what our ego makes it out to be -- be real, wherever you are.

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