The Text of the Month No 7

By Jos Slabbert

Do you understand?

In this endless and merciless
cycle of suffering,
the law of cause and effect
reigns supreme
and without respite
over everything;
Karma towers over all,
blocking out the sun,
yet its shadow does not fall
on the person walking with Tao.

(The Tao is Tao, 90)

Explanation and comment

Many religions promise their adherents that somehow, if they follow specific rituals, or act in certain ways, they will escape the effects of their deeds. Some religions claim that they have found a way of beating karma - that inescapable law of cause and effect, which operates not only on a physical level, as all scientists agree, but also on a spiritual level, as most religions believe.

In many Buddhist schools, certain virtuous acts are designed to create "merit", which is a way of "working off" the effects of karma. In Buddhism, there really is no shortcut. You do not have a Christ who died for you to relieve you of the effects of your sins. In Mahayana Buddhism, the ideal of Bodhisattvahood has vague similarities with Christianity. Bodhisattvas, who have reached perfection and need not return to life, will nevertheless return to create merit for everyone else. In a way, they are working off the karmic effects for everyone else.

Many followers of Zen find the idea of performing good deeds to acquire merit repugnant. They argue that performing good deeds for selfish reasons is in itself bad. You quite simply perform good deeds because they are good. In Buddhism you alone remain responsible for your own deeds, and will have to face the consequences of your deeds. Only when you serve without caring about merit or your own karma, will you be truly free. Only then will the "shadow" of karma not fall over you.

Is the poem claiming that you can come to a point where you can escape the effects of karma, when it says the "shadow" of karma "does not fall / on the person walking with Tao"? No, it does not.

You cannot escape karma, no matter how much you are in harmony with the Tao. Of course, living in harmony with the Tao will reduce your chances of creating even more negative karma against you.

What the poem is explaining is a different kind of liberation from karma. When you live in harmony with the Tao, you live in the full realization that no matter what your karma may have in store for you because of your past deeds, it cannot touch your true self - the emptiness in you, which is absolute and part of Tao. You are in a way indestructible, because there is nothing in you that can be destroyed. You realize that karma has no power over your true self. The "shadow" of karma does not really fall over you.

Karma is not some object, something outside you. You are your own karma. Its "shadow" cannot fall over you. Realizing this is true liberation, for you know that you alone are responsible for your own well-being.

That karma does not touch your true self is of course true for everyone, no matter whether they are enlightened or not. The difference is that the unenlightened and ignorant do not know this, and they therefore live in fear of karma. They also create more karma for themselves through their ignorance.

The person in harmony with the Tao has no fear of karma, and lives as a truly free person. Rules and laws have ceased to matter for him, for wisdom and compassion have become his guides, and they have liberated him from creating more negative karma.

The ignorant
live in fear and anger of
the inescapable laws
of cause and effect.
They try to ward off Karma
as if it were some beast that could be slain.
They grovel before the gods
as if their favour
could render Karma ineffective.
the wheel of birth, life, suffering and death,
runs over them,
leaving them in tatters.

The Taoist sage
Karma is inescapable,
yet he lives free from dread,
for he knows
he is Samsara,
and the wheel cannot run over itself.

The person in close harmony with the Tao
lives without anger,
for he understands
Karma is but himself:
there is nothing to be angry with.

The Taoist sage lives
as if
the inexorable justice of Karma
and the relentless inevitability of Samsara
do not touch him,
he is liberated from himself.

(The Tao is Tao, 39)