Saturday, January 28, 2012

Making "Merit" in Buddhism (Part 3)

UPDATED: Dharmachari Seven, Mordicia Allen, Wisdom Quarterly; (edited by Ashley Wells)

If not me, who? If not now, when?

Karma (action) is always in the present. The only time for us to act is NOW. And one experiences the results of karma (which are called phala and vipaka, fruit and mental-resultants) NOW. In this sense, there is only now. Our lives will only ever be now. We will not go to the future. The future will come to us and be experienced in the now.

Yet many of us misspend the now reflecting on the past or pondering what may come. We bring the past back into the now, or we pretend the future is in the now. Now is all there is. So the wise person lives now. BE HERE NOW. This is where the power is.

We have the power to shape the future that comes our way. It is not fixed and sure to come in some certain way. Nor should one think that "now" refers only to this instant, for it expands and contracts to be viewed however we view it. We are constantly remaking, revising, and reinterpreting the past. All of this is done now.

What we do/say/decide now conditions what comes up from the vast store of accumulated karma (past deeds). For this reason merit is a wonderful storehouse which helps everyone in ALL circumstances.

Good is good even for bad
And this is a very curious thing. Even "evil" beings -- whose habits are unskillful, unprofitable, whether ruined by greed, anger, fear, or delusion -- would be overjoyed to have merit to draw from, if only they understood the source of happiness.

Merit makes a monster stronger; unwholesome karma does not. Merit makes a thief richer; the karmic results of stealing do not. Now, of course, it may seem to the casual onlooker that it is the stealing that has made the thief rich. But one is not seeing karma and its results.

That karma of stealing has not yet born fruit. And while there may be some immediate mental-resultants (worry, delight, fear, happiness, delusion, remorse, etc.), karma has not had a chance to ripen. Even if the thief is seen suffering -- for example, having been caught and now being subjected to some direct consequence -- that is NOT the full ripening of the deed.

Beings have the habit of repeating their tendencies, as the Jatakas (rebirth stories) illustrate again and again. So it is not known why the thief now suffers, fails, and falls into ignominy. To imagine it is due to the immediately preceding deeds is a grave error, one religion teaches us again and again, taking the general illustration of the principle as the fact.

Then as a consequence of this error, we become full of doubts about karma (or the personal, all-knowing, stand-in force who works in mysterious ways meting out rewards and punishments for all behavior) because we see people doing many bad things and apparently profiting from it, living well, being happy.

We do not realize that merit is the source of their happiness in spite of how they are spending their time now, accumulating karma to be experience when the future comes into the now. This understanding of karma is the insight of Pa Auk Sayadaw, a renowned scholar-monk who not only mastered meditation but who, in a rare combination, is also a prolific writer. (See The Working of Kamma for excruciatingly exacting details on karma).

If merit benefits beings with bad habits and unskillful, unprofitable tendencies, what can be said of others with skillful, profitable, unselfish, friendly, courageous, wise habits?

Likewise, bad is bad even for bad. A "demon" (maras, asuras, rakshasas, nagas) gains in appearance, strength, range of influence, and powers based on GOOD karma, not bad. If that being chooses to use such present strength, born of merit, to further accumulate unprofitable karma, that is just what will happen. The past good will be used in the service of what is unprofitable.

A "bad" being wishing to be bad advances by past good even as this person does more and more bad. It is to a person's credit, among the bad, to be even more cruel, more tyrannical, more draconian. One gains in strength, and the bad delight in the power of what bad can accomplish, but at some time, the tyrant weakens, becomes feeble (George Bush, Moammar Gaddafi, Than Shwe, etc.), loses influences and gets his comeuppance.

Then no one says, "Oh what a surprise, taken down!" No, they say just the opposite: "He was lucky to have lasted as long as he did, now he's going to get it, this is what inevitably happens to those who live by the sword...."

But why did he last so long, where did he get the strength for wrongdoing, what fueled his success as a tyrant? It was not past debt; it was past merit. And the "bad" done now for the sake of bad was bad for him. Good now (any mercy or giving or understanding) would have benefited him in the future as bad now was only exhausting merit.

Mahayana scholars explain where nagas (shape shifters, reptilians, dragons, snakes, or any strong being such as a human tyrant or bull elephant, but particularly creatures with supernormal abilities and irritable dispositions) get their magical powers, wealth, and long life spans.

They are classified, alternately, as living underground, undersea, or in celestial spheres. And it is the celestial dragons with the power of transformation that are interesting here: They live in space/sky wielding great power. But if they are cosmologically classified as inferior to humans, How do they have superior powers?

Mahayana developed scant information on nagas and explains that merit is the cause. Nagas are unskillful beings, but in the past (as humans or in whatever form) they gave, which is a very meritorious activity. But to this profitable karma they added unprofitable karma.

For having given, they soon regretted it: "Oh, I gave too much! I wish I hadn't given to that recluse, that teacher, that person..." This mental karma undercut their profitable deed and reshaped the result. Now they gain from past giving but are joyless and stingy in receiving the fruits of their deed.

The same can be said of Ebenezer Scrooge. It is no accident that he is rich, nor is it an accident that he is so miserable. And if he had continued in that way, stingy and callous, he would have been buried by his misdeeds made possible by his merit. We have what health and wealth we have by merit, but we experience what we have by how we act now (in addition to the mental-resultants of past deeds).

An example that may be easier to grasp from a Theravadan Buddhist perspective is the curious case of Mara Devaputra, "Cupid," the "Devil," the "Tempter" in Buddhism. He does not live in hell, nor does he want people to go to any of the hells. Instead, he wants them to remain forever in the Sensual Sphere (kama loka), the lowest of the three spheres. He opposes and obstructs meditators or anyone striving to break free of this sphere.

He fought Siddhartha -- using his three deadly-beautiful daughters, Craving, Indifference, and Passion -- to impede him because he foolishly feared that if the Buddha were to find and teach a means of escape from rebirth and suffering (samsara), many might break free of his influence.

Mara Devaputra imagines he is the lord of the sphere. But he is not an all-inclusive Satan-type being. He is more like a Lucifer, an archangel living at the top of the Sensual Sphere in a celestial space plane in luxury and comfort.

He tempts beings drawing them away from renunciation, unselfishness, and restraint. (There are other forms of mara, referring to more brutal adversaries and accusers on Earth, other obstacles, and yaksha armies).

Mara Devaputra has neither knowledge nor regard for what will happen to beings (celestial, human, subhuman) who go about conducting themselves driven by craving, lust, greed, and overwhelming avarice. He is principally interested in maintaining his position atop the only sphere he knows.

To him everyone else is out of reach, particularly anyone who escapes samsara. (Within samsara there are also Fine-Material and Immaterial Spheres, comprising the three divisions of the Thirty-One Planes of Existence. Nirvana is not a plane, for it transcends samsara altogether).

How does such a being (whom the Buddha called Namuci, the "non-releaser") -- for he is not the only one but one in a line of vile adversaries and accusers such as the ancient "Corrupter" Mara Dusi -- live in a heaven or have supernormal powers?

Monotheists go into contortions to explain how God cannot make a mistake, yet he does not want the Devil (whom he created) to do what the Devil cannot help but do. It is a needless misunderstanding.

The living being we call "God" is not the great uncreated creator of all. There is no such agent, even though there are great radiant beings anyone would point to saying, "That's 'God,' that must be who monotheistic bibles were talking about!"

Likewise, the monotheist's Devil cannot make one act. (Trick, tempt, sway, influence, scare into being evil, yes, but not force). We participate and co-create our actions, or they are not our "actions."

Karma (action) refers to intentional deeds, words, thought-habits. In the past Mara accrued merit and misuses it to bury himself in miserable acts of obstruction, overwhelmed as he is by greed, hate/fear, and delusion.

The "Gods" people and books glorify also got where they got by merit (profitable karma). And they are still caught up in samsara, the wheel of life and death experiencing the results of karma.

It is thought that they are not -- because they are so much longer lived, so much more powerful, knowledgeable, radiant, and so on -- but they are. What motivates them? Greed (jealousy), anger (righteous indignation), fear (of not being all s/he/it imagines or claims to be), delusion (self-aggrandizement and pride).

Who needs merit?
The gods need merit. Maha Brahma ("Great Supremo" or the Creator, who may create but who did not create everything in the universe) needs merit. Mara needs merit. Devas (archangels) need merit. Nagas (draconians) need merit. Asuras (titans) need merit. Gandharvas (fairies, messenger angels) need merit.

HUMANS (on this planet and elsewhere) need merit. Animals (of staggering variety) need merit. Pretas (ghosts, spirits) needs merit. Even narakas (hellions) need merit, or how will they ever get out of the bowels of the most miserable planes of existence? All beings benefit from merit.

Bad karma expends one's store of merit. By willing, performing, and accumulating unskillful karma, one stores up much demerit. Like debt, it is to be met with before long. It may already weigh on us as soon as we accrue it.

It takes a lot of effort to look like you don't care how you look. Looking "ugly" (pretty by a different aesthetic) takes merit.

The example of Goths
Another example of how merit helps even those who imagine themselves to be damned, ghoulish, "evil," possessed, delighting in the dark is the case of "Goths."

Some humans act like demons, zombies, ghosts, goblins, vampires, or inhuman monsters. This may be their authentic wish or view, or it may be pure affectation.

Nevertheless even among Goths -- who aspire to look gruesome, dreadful, dead, and decomposing -- it is necessary to be beautiful.

Dark beauty, vampiric looks, pasty/alabaster complexion, acne-free skin, straight strong teeth particularly incisors, silky hair, a lusty eat-your-heart-out figure, good eyes, pretty lips, a strong constitution, supernatural abilities... are all the result of merit.

Imagine trying to be a Goth with acne, spotty or wrinkled skin, acne, asymmetrical features, big pores, excess weight, crossed eyes, glasses, yellow teeth, coarse hair, short stature, misshapen boobs, a bony butt, and so on.

When one is trying to look "bad" and dangerous, "evil" and repugnant, cool and disinterested, effortlessly charming and uber-sexual (seductive) -- merit is necessary to accomplish it.

This anti-beauty style has strict parameters about what is attractive, which one needs a great deal of merit to live up to. After all, what it finds most attractive is not the declining demon but the "fallen angel," the Lucifer not the Satan, which people typically confound as one and the same.

Goths are NOT Satanists, but practicing the Dark Arts with charisma (animal magnetism), or being a hedonist, atheist, Pagan, Wiccan, or feared are much admired -- and the road to these is not debt but misused merit. Falling angels are as beautiful as angels, maybe more so, the fallen ones not so much.

A paradox? No, even among animals the same is true. It is on account of merit that an animal, even one with a terrible disposition, has outward beauty and attractive markings, is favored, and has an easier life. Not only animals but anyone reborn among ghosts, hellions, demons, or monsters has standards against which one will be judged and deemed either well favored or ill favored.

It is not only among humans and superhumans (rulers, devas, brahmas) alone that beauty, bravery, brains, loyalty, and trustworthiness are valued. They are more valued among killers, thieves, robbers... Then subhumans demand loyalty and honor.

In fact, the worse the realm, the more valuable these things are because they are in short supply and necessary for survival and advantage.

No one appreciates being violated, particularly those in the habit of violating others. Thieves do not want to be stolen from.

Demons do not want to be tormented, disrespected, or controlled (possessed). The worse one gets, the less one wants in any way to be told what to do.

Angels may gladly obey good celestial King Sakka, but demons prefer to betray and challenge the Devil -- just as mafiaosos, wanting to be mob bosses, constantly scheme against the Godfather looking for any sign of weakness. "There is no rest for the wicked," and no demon (underworld warden), hellion, hungry ghost, or animal can rest due to the insecurity of unwholesome associates. CONTINUED

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