Free will is an important issue in Western Philosophy – usually contrasted with predestination. This gets us, unfortunately, in a very all or nothing kind of discussion if we don’t watch out.
Predestination, karma and fate are all sometimes used as ways of saying that what is, was meant to be. However, unfortunately, this is often taken to the conclusion that we have no controll over our future.
When I posed the question of free will on a theosophical forum one respondent put in that she had been used to discussing this issue in relation to alcoholism. Are some alcoholics perhaps meant to remain alcoholics?
Put like that it sounds awful. However, if you look at the facts it is pretty obvious that many alcoholics will stay alcoholic for the rest of their lives. In fact, even those who recover will continue to CALL themselves alcoholic in the realization that one drink can get them back into trouble.
Theosophists will talk about ‘working out of karma’. That is: when we go through something awful, we’re working out karma. The idea is that when the karma is done, things will get better.
In the original literature what was also implied was that one could work karma out faster (and more intensely) or more slowly (and therefore more easily).
In the case of alcoholism that means very simply that getting over the alcoholism is the same as the working out of karma. Or as I put it later in the discussion: there is the need to fight to
live our lives as purely as possible, even if we don’t always succeed. The fighting itself sets up new (more positive) karma.
If you look at karma as habit, then every opposition to the habit will make it easier to totally overcome it in future.
In (Theravada) Buddhism karma is one of the 5 niyamas. That is: one of the laws of cause and effect.
The others are:
- Utu Niyama
– physical inorganic order, e.g. seasonal phenomena of winds and rains. The unerring order of seasons, characteristic seasonal changes and events, causes of winds and rains, nature of heat, etc., all belong to this group.
- Bija Niyama
– order of germs and seeds (physical organic order), e.g. rice produced from rice-seed, sugary taste from sugar-cane or honey, peculiar characteristics of certain fruits, etc. The scientific theory of cells and genes and the physical similarity of twins may be ascribed to this order.
- Karma Niyama
– order of act and result, e.g., desirable and undesirable acts produce corresponding good and bad results. As surely as water seeks its own level so does Karma, given opportunity, produce its inevitable result, not in the form of a reward or punishment but as an innate sequence. This sequence of deed and effect is as natural and necessary as the way of the sun and the moon.
- Dhamma Niyama
– order of the norm, e.g., the natural phenomena occurring at the advent of a Bodhisattva in his last birth. Gravitation and other similar laws of nature. The natural reason for being good and so forth, may be included in this group.
- Citta Niyama
– order or mind or psychic law, e.g., processes of consciousness, arising and perishing of consciousness, constituents of consciousness, power of mind, etc., including telepathy, telaesthesia, retro-cognition, premonition, clairvoyance, clairaudience, thought-reading and such other psychic phenomena which are inexplicable to modern science.
In other words: physical laws of nature, the truth as a cause of what’s right and consciousness itself are all causes in themselves, not depending on karma.
I’m not sure it makes a lot of logical sense to split causation into these five but at least it helps establish the following reasonably clearly:
- Our consciousness is not dependent on karma, which is why we can get out of bad karma in the first place.
- Physical nature, storms, fires, earth quakes aren’t our personal responsibility.
This gets rid of two common misconceptions – one on the side of free will, the other on the side of predestination.
The first misconception is that karma is everything that happens to us. There is actually, and this makes total sense, a lot that happens to us that just happens, that we did not specifically deserve or bring on us.
If my employer is a total ***, I may be in that situation because I was a total *** myself in a previous life. OR I may be in that situation only because he decided, for whatever reason, to not be very kind in this life. Of course it’s more likely that he just isn’t very sensitive, or has troubles at home, or whatever. But still – whatever it is, it doesn’t need to have anything at all to do with me.
The second misconception is that because what happens to us is our karma, it’s impossible to get out of. However, karma isn’t only in what we caused for ourselves and others in the past, it’s also what we do right now. And that includes how we deal with situations.
Getting back to that annoying boss: how I deal with him is likely to affect how he deals with me. Whether I walk away is up to me. Whether I help the organisation grow beyond the issues is up to me. All that is karma too, and my ATTITUDE will determine which path I choose.
Looking at karma in terms of the niyama’s also helps deal with earthquakes and such: if physical nature causes the earth quack, then the people who died there did not deserve to die, and will be compensated for so dying. Also, because they did NOT deserve to die, it is a good thing to save anyone who can be saved. This ought to be pretty obvious, but somehow it never quite is.
An inaction in a good deed is bad karma – to paraphrase Blavatsky. In other words: refraining from good, for whatever reason, is going to get you in karmic trouble later on.
A version of this post appears in my book Essays on Karma.