Q. I have read statements attributed to some Buddhist teachers suggesting that various contemporary and historical examples of human suffering are the result of the Karma of those who endure that suffering. Does this mean that people who endure great suffering were deeply unskilful in previous lives and that those who lead otherwise pleasant lives were skilful people, and if so how is Karma different from the ideas that underpin Caste structures?
A. It is believed as the general rule of the law of karma that we are bearing the fruit of our actions, whether the result of actions that bring fruit instantly, or actions at any time in the past, or actions in past lives. But always bear in mind that karmic law is not the simplistic two-dimensional principle that we often think it is. Karmic law is more often than not the expression of multi-dimensional forces that mysteriously interpenetrate and is way beyond the mind's ability to comprehend. Caste systems are man made, whilst the law of karma is an innate law of nature.
Q.I attempt to sincerely practice the Dharma but have never been able to accept the idea of re-birth either in principle or as a matter of faith. I accept that the nature of reality is not limited by my capacity to comprehend, but I cannot make sense of the idea that we are reborn or experience re-becoming. Do you think this is likely to undermine my efforts to practice and my spiritual progress? Should I just 'sit with it and see'?
A. I don't think you have to make a problem out of it and feel that you are not practising properly. Practice is about dealing with where your feet are at this very moment, and therefore you could say that is all that is necessary. From my own experience of getting to know myself over the years of practice, it became obvious that, with all goes that to make me up, with my strong habits and powerful attachments, it would be quite absurd to imagine that they just materialised out of nothing at birth. You could argue these days that genetics may be an answer, but there is a lot in me that cannot be applied to that simple idea. And besides, what creates the genetic map in the first place? In my own personal practice the idea of being born over and over again in the lottery of rebirth and suffering has always been a prime motivation to practice because of the consequences of my actions taught by Buddhism if I chose to ignore them. To believe that life is a one off seems to me to negate the whole motivation for Dharma cultivation. Yes, we could be motivated to do good for others and humanise our own conduct, but if it all comes to nothing in the end why should we put the extra effort into changing ourselves that Dharma practice demands? Definitely 'sit with it ', and if you are still enough you may well get to see the principle of becoming being created and acted out inside your own mind and body, and the continuous accumulation of karma which demands becoming sooner or later. In the time that you have to wait for this understanding to show, take the leap and make room within yourself for the indispensable act of faith. Faith in the Buddha, the teachings, and all the great sages that have arisen throughout the ages, who have continually reaffirmed this law. Allow this to support you in your practice.
Q. How important is meditation in the spiritual life? The ground of my practice is to be found in ethics, and, given the emphasis on meditation, this sometimes has the effect of making me feel like a second-class Buddhist.
A. People who have this idea that practice is all about sitting merely display their lack of understanding of the complete process that needs to be put in place for the changes that practice brings about. Yes, you can say that of all the parts that go toward making a complete practice, sitting meditation would be the most important part, but sitting will not reach its full potential without the support of the rest of the eightfold path. So it is wrong to think that if you can't sit you can't practice. There are many people dedicated to Dharma practice who have difficulty with sitting meditation. So rather than get disheartened learn to focus on the rest of the path. Ethical practice is the obvious one to focus on, for it is the gateway into the Dharma. Come to realise that while you are refining this aspect of the path you are cultivating the mind in the same way as sitting practice. Restraining and containing actions, whether they are your thoughts, words or deeds, is possible only by self-awareness. Putting new thoughts, words and deeds into action is only possible with that same self-awareness. To do this you need application born of concentration and the understanding that your unskilfulness needs to change. Is this not working with the eightfold path of sila, samadhi, and prajna? What meditation practice will bring to this is a deepening of what you are already doing, but fundamentally there is no difference. If you wish to come to meditation sometime in the future, then adding a devotional practice to an ethical one will help bring you more speedily to that roundedness. Devotional practice helps to soften the heart and introduces us to the side of ourselves that we need to learn to get in contact with in order for the deeper Dharma to arise. Devotional practice usually starts by projecting outwards to Buddhas and Bodhisattvas, but you should soon realise your relationship with this form of external practice is very much conditioned by the inner relationship you have with yourself, and therefore should make you reflect more and more internally. Change that takes place in practice does not come from the head but rather from a part of us that we are for the most part cut off from, that deep emotional seat buried within our body. It is this that we need to become familiar with, and make friends with all that is contained there. There is little 'logic' here. It takes faith and trust, becoming familiar with the reality of Dharma practice – which is the willingness to surrender our profound attachment to the self that imprisons us in our head and creates the restlessness that prevents quiet meditation being possible.Devotional practice allows us to start that process of becoming whole. By combining this with your developing ethical stability and skilful means born of self-awareness, you will be transforming the emotional and mental restlessness that prevents you from sitting now. You will be laying the foundation for a fruitful sitting practice in the near future.
Q. Would you agree with the view that buying meat and fish are the same as eating something that has been killed for you – meat and fish are made available for consumers. If you buy it and eat it then all that you have done is avoided the messy business of killing by paying an anonymous person to do the work for you. So, doesn't buying meat and fish amount in practice to the killing?
A. The Buddha wasn't a vegetarian, nor were his vast sangha, including countless arhants who, like the Buddha, had finished their training and gone beyond the creation of karma, reaching the pureness of thought, word and action. The numerous traditions that sprang up in the East over more than two thousand years since the Buddha have never been vegetarian, and I don't recall any of the prominent saints and sages of Buddhism saying that to follow the Dharma you must be vegetarian. To suggest, as many do, in the West that the first precept is violated by eating meat is to suggest that all those who have practised traditional Buddhism, including the Buddha and the arhants, have been in violation of the first precept. I can best suggest you read the recent post concerning vegetarianism for my general view on the subject. If you wish to create a 'moral' view for vegetarianism (or anything else), then it should be based first on the cultural background, and always be a personal view for you alone. Do remember, there will be many sincere spiritual people, and many fine human beings that don't have a spiritual path, who will disagree with whatever new ideas you come up with. That's why if you really seek guidance as to what is right and wrong it is best to stay with 'rules' that are part of the natural laws that govern nature, which are always conditioned by the laws of karma. If we decide to set up new ideas and propagate them in the name of Buddhist morality, we will be setting up a duality, which will always create problems. This will inevitably bring conflict with those who disagree, thus violating the basic spirit of Buddhism, which is to accept things the way they are. Remember, never has there been a conflict in the name of Buddhism in 2500 years; do you think that fine record is in place through mere luck?