Karma and the sublime states

Continuing on from the last post, from Head and Heart Together by Thanissaro Bikkhu

All too often, meditators believe that if they can simply add a little more heart juice, a little more emotional oomph, to their brahma-vihara practice, their attitudes can become limitless. But if something inside you keeps churning up reasons for liking this person or hating that one, your practice starts feeling hypocritical. You wonder who you’re trying to fool. Or, after a month devoted to the practice, you still find yourself thinking black thoughts about people who cut you off in traffic — to say nothing of people who’ve done the world serious harm.

This is where the head comes in. If we think of the heart as the side of the mind that wants happiness, the head is the side that understands how cause and effect actually work. If your head and heart can learn to cooperate — that is, if your head can give priority to finding the causes for true happiness, and your heart can learn to embrace those causes — then the training of the mind can go far.

This is why the Buddha taught the brahma-viharas in a context of head teachings: the principle of causality as it plays out in (1) karma and (2) the process of fabrication* that shapes emotions within the body and mind. The more we can get our heads around these teachings, the easier it will be to put our whole heart into developing attitudes that truly are sublime. An understanding of karma helps to explain what we’re doing as we develop the brahma-viharas and why we might want to do so in the first place. An understanding of fabrication helps to explain how we can take our human heart and convert it into a place where brahmas could dwell.

The teaching on karma starts with the principle that people experience happiness and sorrow based on a combination of their past and present intentions. If we act with unskillful intentions either for ourselves or for others, we’re going to suffer. If we act with skillful intentions, we’ll experience happiness. So if we want to be happy, we have to train our intentions to always be skillful. This is the first reason for developing the brahma-viharas: so that we can make our intentions more trustworthy.

What Thanissaro Bhikkhu is saying, in the last paragraph quoted, is that if we want to be entirely happy, we can’t give up training our intentions in a wholesome direction until we succeed. It is we who must develop trust in the fact that our intentions have been cleared of blindness and selfishness. As we will see, this is not an automatic process, but one that requires attention and effort.

More on the connection between an understanding of karma and developing the sublime mind states next time…

*states of our body, speech and mind that we create/construct, consciously or unconsciously

About lynnjkelly

Australian/American. Practicing Buddhist.
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