Thursday, July 06, 2006

Notes on karma

I think the self is best thought of as a locus of active relationships between beliefs, desires, memories and sensations, the delineation of which is dependent on a particular purpose. Furthermore, each active relationship is dependent on another without exception. In principle, therefore, the delineation of these relationships can extend to the whole interdependent network which constitutes the universe or, at the other extreme, contract into a single point. In this framework, looking for the 'real self' becomes problematic if not futile. This is not to state that there is no stability to the self. Rather, it is to state that such stability comes from the recurrent focus on certain relationships and that this focus is neither inherent nor immutable.

In the Buddhist tradition this process of recurrence is described by the concept of karma. Peter Hershok, in the Journal Of Buddhist Ethics, Volume 10, 2003, states that, "The teaching of karma invites attending to the consonance between the topography of our ongoing experience and the pattern of our own values and intentions. A basic insight resulting from this practice is that patterns of value and intention are in complex feedback with patterns of experience—a sort of chicken-and-egg relationship in which neither can be claimed fully foundational or original in the strict sense."* So the stability of the self, and of the states of affairs, both of which are inextricably and mutually co-dependent, is subject to the karmic process of evaluative contextualisation. Indeed, neither the self nor states of affairs stand apart from this evaluative context. Put another way, the self and states of affairs just emerge from and consist of this recurring yet changing evaluative context.

Thus the upaya of which I have recently written is perhaps found in a sensitivity to values and their 'karmic efficacy'. Its means is perhaps the ability to approach a troubled situation with the skill to redraw its 'value topography' in a way which redefines the boundaries of the self, the state of affairs, or both, in a new and better way such that the situation can proceed in a better direction. In a sense, this has always been what philosophy, science and religion do, when they are at their best. This is what I obliquely referred to when discussing alterity a couple of months ago.

What philosophy, science and religion do at their worst is take a particular value topography as final and in need of no further revision until it hardens and resists progression and new relation. This is what I have been roughly describing as essentialism. This 'error' isn't limited to these spheres of activity, however. Karma permeates everything, and so must the upaya by which it is approached.

*Pirsig readers will certainly be struck by the consonance between this concept of karma and the 'value-centered experience' at the heart of the Metaphysics of Quality.

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