Karma: It’s Not A Thing
The idea of “past lives” from yogic philosophy is fundamentally flawed in an age of self-determination. Yet, insight from a Taoist perspective into related notions of consequence could provide a unique epistemological benefit in a meta-modern era.
As much as I have found great wisdom from the ideas of the Hindu tradition, the notion of karma has always not sat well with me.
We’re all familiar with this idea: that the circumstances of my (current) life is due in great part as the consequences of my deeds in a previous life.
As much as I’m open to many different theories and philosophies, the notion of a ‘past life’ has never truly resonated with me. I always cringe when I hear someone claim they were a King or a Priestess or some great figure of history in a previous incarnation; I never hear anyone claim they were a pauper or a beggar or a thief. Of course, it then begs the question what karma did they have coming into this life, working as a waitress or a desk clerk living in suburbia!? Surely to have down-graded so significantly from Queen of Egypt would suggest some seriously bad choices in a past life?
More importantly, it feels like it removes all agency in this life. It doesn’t feel to me to honour the choices we’ve made in this life (good or bad). For me, this denies us our self-determination and personal sovereignty.
Indeed, one of my attractions to Taoist philosophy was that I have yet to come across any explicit mention of anything close to karma and the notion of a ‘past life’. Mostly, Taoism is incredibly down-to-earth and pragmatic; it lacks the influence of a caste-system, which unfortunately dominates much of Hindu thinking. The ideas that evolved within the alchemical schools are interesting from a personal evolution perspective. Particularly, the notion that our Self is constantly evolving and learning as a result of the consequences of our actions.
Alchemy in China began in the early middles ages as the Han Dynasty dwindled (around the 2nd Century CE). At first, Taoist Alchemists were employed by aristocrats and royals to find elixirs which would bestow longevity and immortality.
After a couple of centuries of experimentation, realising that consuming substances such as Mercury and other toxic heavy metals was going to do the opposite, Taoists began to turn their alchemical investigations inwards — meaning they began to apply the processes and principles of alchemy to their meditation and Qigong practices.
The idea evolved to the understanding that there is a part of us that must live on after death. This idea wasn’t new — the Chinese were still big on Ancestor-worship, which had been around since the Bronze Age. However the process of how one became an Ancestor-spirit wasn’t articulated until the late Middle Ages.
The idea was that whilst the flesh-body would eventually return to the soil, the unique, animating spirit which entered corporeal form at the moment of conception would continue to exist and continue to contribute to the Tao in some way.
Drawing on the wisdom of the I Ching (the Classic of Changes), the Tao Te Ching (the Classic of the Way and Its Power), and the Book of Zhuang-Zi, they began to explore metaphorical and existential spaces which is evidenced in texts such as:
- the Zhou Yi Can Tong Qi (the Kinship of the Three According to the Book of Changes, 2nd Century) by Wei Boyang;
- the Bao Pu Zi (Book of the Master Who Embraces Simplicity, 3rd Century) by Ge Hong;
- the Wu Zhen Pian (Folios on Awakening to Reality, 11th Century) by Zhang Boduan.
Internal Alchemists (nèi dān) became concerned with the unique spirit that existed in the body in the here and now! How could this unique personality bring forth their gift to everyday life today? If perfection could be achieved in during life on Earth, imagine how marvellous this life would be? Longevity became synonymous with quality of life, rather than quantity of it.
So Alchemy became a practice of personal evolution that needed to occur in the crucible of normal, everyday life. Yes, become ‘enlightened’; yes, attain the buddha-state; and then remain on Earth and live your normal, everyday life with full awakened consciousness about every thought, every word, every deed, and every ommission. This was also the beginning of Chán (Zen) Buddhism — the influence of Mahayana Boddhisattva principles are obvious here.
Pre-Heaven & Post-Heaven
Another idea that stemmed from very early in Chinese culture was the notion of pre-Heaven and post-Heaven states. This idea can be found in the I Ching and its numerous commentaries over the centuries.
The influence of this inter-related duality (Heaven/Earth — later referred to as Yáng/Yīn) is also familiar, and being the foundation of the Chinese epistemological paradigm influenced all ideas somehow.
Essentially, it refers to states before and after something comes into existence. For example, in Chinese Medicine the Pre-Heaven Essence defines your constitution inherited genetically from your parents; the Post-Heaven Essence is what you derive durng your life from the air you breathe and the food/drink you consume.
In the context of Alchemy, the Pre-Heaven state (yáng) represents who you really are — your true nature, your unique personality that you and only you will ever bring into the Tao.
After birth, familial, social, and educational conditioning covers that true nature with many layers. So life becomes difficult and challenging because these layers of who you have been told to be prevent your true nature from emerging and governing how you think, speak, and act. The Taoist goal — wú-wéi, effortless action — can only be achieved when those layers of conditioning are removed and you live your life authentically!!
The state you exist in where acquired conditioning rules your actions is referred to as Post-Heaven (yīn).
The goal of Alchemy was to utilise the alchemical processes to burn away the layers of conditioning and allow the true nature to emerge — something akin to notions of an ‘enlightened’ or even ‘divine’ Self. Living in this state would would always lead you to make the perfect (for you) choices in normal, everyday life. Life would truly flow (wú-wéi).
Wisdom as Consequence
The Perfecting Being was the alchemical practitioner who addressed their layers of acquired conditioning and lived effortlessly (notice that the word implies a continuing process). Their virtues would shine forth and influence their capacity to think and act in alignment with their true nature.
Wisdom (zhì) is one of the 5 Heavenly Virtues as defined by early Confucianists. Whilst Taoists and Confucianists didnt necessarily see eye-to-eye, during the Middle Ages the Alchemical schools were quite happy to borrow ideas and terminology from Confucian and Buddhist schools of thought (they were ‘alchemists’ after all — combing different elements to make something new!)
Wisdom was said to reside in the Kidneys by those alchemical philosophers who drew on medical knowledge also. It corresponded to the Water element, and was linked to the notion of one’s original creative force. On one level, this creative force gives us the power of procreation, but also is the drive to create anything new, be it technological, biological, or even creating a new life or state-of-being.
In the conditioned state, this creative force manifests as desire, as defined by Buddhists — that which we attach to and cause endless suffering. When we are attached to that which we don’t have, the ensuing suffering drives us to make choices that don’t serve our true nature, and pull us out of the effortless existence.
The Taoists saw wisdom as being the result of our experiences. Essentially, we learn from our mistakes and achievements. Conscious or not, we only can draw on understanding if the data has already been inputted.
The idea of the Kidneys in Chinese Medicine was that they were the storehouse of our Pre-Heaven Essence, which forms the substance of the bones, spinal cord/fluid, and the brain (collectively called ‘marrow’) — one could liken this to the entire Central Nervous System.
Experiences were also stored in the Kidneys. Essentially, our experiences get anchored into our embodied consciousness, stored as a pattern in our neurology. Wisdom (the virtue) is like intuition — it is a direct, non-rational response to a situation or circumstance by our nervous sytem.
Multiple lives converging
Here’s where the traditional Hindu notion of karma gets interesting from a Taoist perspective.
Remember: ‘Post-Heaven’ refers to the state of being influenced by acquired conditioning. ‘Pre-Heaven’ refers to the authentic state that is the fullest expression of your true nature, before the influence of conditioning.
We know in cases of trauma that the nervous system gets locked into patterned expression, where survivors of trauma react in similar ways in certain contexts, whether they are conscious of it or not, and whether they want to or not. This is clearly a case of where the conditioned response overtakes the response of the authentic person within. I am fascinated with how scholars and physicians in China from over 1000 years ago had already articulated what we’ve only recently come to realise in modern times.
From the Taoist perspective the idea of a past life then takes on new meaning. Because the person I was last year was the result of my experiences up to that point.
Perhaps I decided I need to change my normal patterns of behaviour. I may start reading different books or articles. I may start socialising around different people, or attending different types of events. I may even change my job, or my diet, or my exercise routines, or even my relationship!
After a period of time, my experiences are going to start feeding back different information to my embodied neurology. In this new context, my posture may change, my physical health and strength may differ, and my entire perception of the world could be different. Anyone that has experienced this will also attest to how others often will make statements along the lines of “you’ve changed” or “your not the person I knew”.
Because indeed, we have become a new person in every respect. The consequences of our choices in the past have influenced the present life. We are now living a ‘new life’, different from that ‘past life’: karma.
The Taoist perspective however remains pragmatic. We still hold all the information on the experiences in our past life, stored safely in the kidneys. And the cultivation of our wisdom as one of the psychic virtues allows us to draw information when necessary to serve us in this present life; wisdom is the memories that serve.
Alchemy’s goal is to remember the pure, true nature of the Self that can get lost in the continual re-invention of the (conditioned) present-Self. The true nature is the anchor that keeps us sane and ‘centred’. It’s the part that never really changes, but paradoxically is always adapting to the changes that buffet it.
It is this Self which can then navigate the waters of chaos, of constant flux, and remain focussed on their purpose (ming), like a sailor steering their ship to the Pole Star.
Far from it being the fantastical notion that promotes the status quo of a caste system, karma as interpreted through the lens of Taoist Alchemy provides us with a way to gain a sense of our true nature, the unchanging kernel of personal truth that can guide us to making empowered, conscious choices.
We all have the resources to hold to our personal sovereignty; this is what life coaches and psychics both talk about as “having the answers within”. The trick is being able to access these resources. Taoist and Buddhist philosophers also referred to this idea, and much of their practices centre around learning to access these inner resources. These practices — which include the Alchemy schools in Taoism as well as the Chan/Zen schools of Buddhism — made the point that these inner resources are buried under layers of familial, social, and cultural conditioning. Hence, the practices were often also referred to as “un-learning”, or “un-minding”, or “emptying the mind”. What we understand today to be mindfulness practices.
So our true nature — and the choices we would make from such a vantage point — are hard to distinguish at first from the ‘noise’ of conditioning. For example:
Do I really believe in this stuff?
Or is it because my education in philosophy and comparative theology has conditioned me to think this way?
So how am I meant to make choices that truly reflect my personal sovereignty? How do I ensure that I am operating on a daily basis through free-will and self-determination?
One such answer (and I do believe there are probably many) is presupposing that the continually changing nature of my conditioned-self is anchored and centred in my authentic-Self, and that I can access it through any practice that allows for the emergence of my true nature. This requires the ability to be able to discern the difference between ‘my’ will, and the will of others: know thyself.
In our fast-paced, meta-modern world we are being bombarded by continual noise from social media and smart technology. There is always something or someone who wants our attention. Whether it be Facebook, Twitter, or Medium, there is no shortage of ‘experts’ telling us what to do, how to eat, who to love, and where to go for our holidays.
The idea of that we are constantly becoming a different person, and that choices in one moment help to determine the choices in another moment causes us to momentarily pause and check in with our authentic-Self first.
Do I really want this meal?
Is this course really going to benefit me?
Do I really need these new clothes?
Who is it that wants to have sex with this person?
This Taoist-inspired understanding of the wisdom of consequences (karma) can help us make choices that are appropriate for us, and to be able to trust our choices and what we feel to be true — as opposed to what others may tell us to be true or not.