Commentary by Gendo
TEXT: “Your present thoughts and actions are the product of you past thoughts and actions. Likewise, your present thoughts and actions will produce your future karma. What can give a new direction to the mind and its karma is your present thoughts and actions. Through the repeated practice of samadhi, the old trend of the mind is slowly changed. This is “redeeming your karmic debt.” (Katsuki Sekida)
“Karma” is a word vaguely associated with such ideas as ‘reincarnation,’ past and future lives, ideas rational Western minds struggle with or joke about (“your kama hit my dogma!”). But maybe it helps to recognize that we have stories equally mysterious in our Westeern culture, as in “A Christmas Carol” where Scrooge contends with “the ghost of Christmas past.” Then there are such phantasms as the overweight Santa who presumably squeezes down our chimneys, not to mention the the “God” mystery worshipped in churches everywhere.
I suggest that God, Ghosts and Karma personify an aspect of human experience beyond our default assumptions of reality as material presence. Like the stone that sits on my dresser, the reincarnation of a memorable walk on a beach.
My Zen teacher spoke of Karma as “the activity of impermanence.” The image that comes to mind is a river. A river flows on in a constant state of impermanence, which is not an issue until you try to plant your feet midstream. Then you end up fighting against the current. Then Karma becomes an issue. People speak (as in our text today) of creating or producing karma. But impermanence is already here. It is our standing in opposition to impermanence that creates conflict, that creates karma as a matter of awareness.
In other words, to make an object of some thing, to seize on some situation or thought, to fixate what is, fundamentally, impermanent, is to plant our feet in opposition to the rushing tide of karma, of impermanence Then past action leads to present and future conflict; what we might call “karmic debt.”
I suggest “repentance” begins with paying attention to “karmic debt,” noticing the stance taken, the feet planted in the past, that has led to conflict. And, of course, it is this noticing that is the first step to doing something about it, noticing that is the discipline of a Zen practice.
And what can be done about “karmic debt,” about those fixations. Sekida says, “What can give new direction to the mind and its karma is your present thoughts and actions…This is redeeming your karmic debt.”
The notion of doing something about fixations of mind, about “karma,” rises up quite naturally. Not because of something you have read or what someone has said. Something inside us greets fixation with the question: “How do I quiet my mind?” In other words, we already have an inkling of something different. Otherwise the question wouldn’t rise up in the first place!
Isn’t it often the case that we try to change the fixations of our minds by trying to force them away, by supressing them, only to discover that our minds just get busier than before? What have we done? And who is trying to do what to whom? I’m trying to quiet my mind? The same one that fixated the situation in the first place is trying a new fixation? Isn’t this just replacing one “karmic debt” with a new one?
So what are those “present thoughts and actions” that “redeem your karmic debt?” Sekida suggests that “doing something” about kamic debt involves what he refers to as “the repeated practice of samadhi.” What does this mean?
Samadhi is an ancient Sanskrit word for that rapt attention in which distinctions of “self” and “other” have disappeared. Like that instant before you have separated from and objectified the experience with words: “Oh, what a beautiful sunset.” Samadhi is a return to that source from which the problem of fixation arises in the first place, the source where impermanence is just happening, before we have stood up against it.
As Joko Beck says in her book, “Everyday Zen”: “…what we have to do in Zen is … to pay attention to this very moment, the totality of what is happening right now.”
The totality of now includes both our likes and our dislikes, both the singing bird and the silence, both day and night, like in-breath and out-breath, each happening in relation to the other. It is a moment of gratitude, gratitude owed to dualism, to the parents, who give birth to this consciousness, this self; a self, which, despite our fears, is not alone.
The conclusion of a year is a moment of samadhi, a moment reckoning the entirety of the earth’s journey around the sun, both Winter darkness and Summer sun; reckoning the self aggrandizing of our past, the temptation to return there in the future, redeeming “karmic debt,” in the oneness of this present moment, in generosity and compassion.