Wednesday, April 06, 2011

The Karmic Fallacy Part 3

By James Curcio
Part 1 || Part 2

In part 1 and 2 of this series, I looked at many of the repurcussions of a belief in karma as an ethical dimension. However, this is not the only perspective on karma, and as some commenters on these posts recognized, I was doing a bit of baiting. Because there is a coherent psychological basis for the idea of karma, but it has little to do with reincarnation.

Instead we must look back to my post on the sacred in our profane holidays, and continue this exploration a step further.

If we are in doubt of the sacred origins of holidays, we might consider some of the ideas put forth in Eliade’s The Sacred and the Profane:
“The New Year coincides with the first day of Creation. The year is the temporal dimension of the cosmos. ‘The world has passed!’ expresses that a year has run its course. At each New Year the cosmogony is reiterated, the world re-created, and to do this is also to create time- that is, to regenerate it by beginning it anew. This is why the cosmogony myth serves as paradigmatic model for every creation or construction; it is even used as a ritual means of healing.”
Thus, the role served by this entity which rewards and punishes, is to cut what we might call the karmic ties with the previous year. This seems an unusual attribution for the seemingly benevolent Santa Claus, but this is only because the holiday has become so desacralized that he has merely become a stand-in, a cardboard cutout, signifying nothing.

This connection between karma and the eternal return of the holiday cycle is not without precedent. Again we can turn to The Sacred and the Profane,
“ Indian thought, this eternal return implied eternal return to existence by force of karma, the law of universal causality. Then, too, time was homologized to the cosmic illusion (maya), and the eternal return to existence signified indefinite prolongation of suffering and slavery.” 
These karmic ties don’t require an actual belief in karma within the Buddhist or Hindu framework of reincarnation. What it refers to is an element of our memory. Consider something that you own that has a great deal of “sentimental value.” Pick it up. Hold it in your hand. Think about the people you associate with it. Grab hold of those emotions, and travel back to the time that the object brings you to.

That’s your karmic tie. You are bound to those things. The same is true of the memories and emotions we hold onto of those we love, who are now gone, and of the life we lived which is also gone. Of course, outside a framework that espouses transcendence, these are neither positive nor negative in themselves, but they are attachments. From this, we can see that a mythic symbol serving some kind of ethical function would arise, when it comes to recapitulation and renewing. To renew, the soil must be tilled. Some attachments can be maintained but others must be severed.

Or, if they are not, they maintain a hold over us. Which is not to say, again, that this is good or bad. But there comes a time where all attachments will be stripped from us, if we give the Bardo any weight. Do you want to do it now, or then?

Pre-order a copy of The Immanence of Myth, published by Weaponized in July 2011.


  1. Anonymous1:21 PM

    The thing to remember about the reincarnatory aspect of karma is that the cultures from which the word arose took reincarnation more or less as a given; you can find texts arguing for the essential permanence of the atman by saying that if it were not a stable and continuing phenomenon, then you would be receiving the karmic debt of another's actions, which would be impossible. Whether you agree with this logic is irrelevant to the point I'm trying to make: these peoples regarded reincarnation, and the primacy of Consciousness as the substratum of existence, as a fundamental axiom, something on which to base all further logic.

    And if you subscribe to the view that Mind comes first, that your physical existence is an expression of your mental existence, then it makes perfect sense that your karmic attachments influence the circumstances of your manifestation. I think a lot of Westerners get hung up on the notion that karma represents something analogous to the Christian notion of reward and punishment for virtues and sins, but this is not the idea at all. The karmic viewpoint is that your attachments to certain emotions, phenomena, and experiences are what draw you back from the unmanifest One into the complex and often unpleasant world of reality. So of course your subsequent material existence tends to revolve around whatever desires brought you there in the first place. It's not that some external entity or force of destiny is punishing you--you yourself are responsible, your reincarnation is something that you are doing. And it's not finished at the moment of your birth, either; it's constantly happening, throughout the whole of your life you are holding yourself in the world out of your desire for it. This is true even on a basic physical level: beneath all the more complex attachments to family, addictive substances, wealth, whatever, there are your basic physical needs of food, water, oxygen, warmth. If you cease to feel these desires you will waste away and become unmanifest once more.

    This is where I part philosophical company with many orthodox interpretations of Buddhism and Hinduism, because I don't view the material world as a vale of pointless unmitigated suffering, and I don't view escape as an ultimate goal. I think we should respect the decision of the Ultimate to give birth to this beautiful and multifaceted creation. However, I think it is still important to manage our karma, deciding which desires are really vital to us and conducive to further growth, rather than getting bogged down in a debilitating attachment to fatty foods or prescription tranquilizers or whatever. Nor do I subscribe to the view that we shouldn't help those who are suffering because "it's their karma"--instead we should do as the bhodisattvas advise, and act from compassion, seeking to help them break the chains of attachment which bind them to their pain.

  2. I generally agree with this. Boy, though, what a long comment from an Anonymous poster. Who are you?

    Anyhow- my thing is- what kind of mental or karmic attachment does an ant have that allows it to reincarnate as a "higher" being? And who or what determines what is "higher" and "lower"?

  3. Anonymous10:46 AM

    Well, here again I have to part company with strict Hindu/Buddhist thought because I actually don't believe in "higher" or "lower" in any ultimate, cosmic sense. Our perception of up-and-down is actually an illusion created by our inability to perceive the spherical nature of our planet. In the universe there are "inner" and "outer", but no up or down. And even these are somewhat relative, for there are multiple centers--one can be closer to the heart of the earth, a cthonic way of being, or to the heart of the sun, which seems more ouranic. Do we identify the wellspring of existence with the center of the planet or the center of the solar system? Or do we acknowledge Einstein's relativistic insight that the center of the Universe can be located anywhere that an observer establishes a frame of reference? This last is the closest to my personal perspective--the ultimate center is everywhere, and our task is to find it in all things.

    However, that doesn't really answer your question about the ant, which is a very good one. For me the difference between a human and an ant is not one of "higher vs. lower" but of more or less complex system/beings. So your question becomes: how does a simple consciousness acquire the necessary patterns to reincarnate as a more complex being? It's a question I've struggled with myself. The reverse is much easier to understand: a human allows himself to fall into rigid patterns of behavior based on physical appetites and social conformity, neglects to exercise the full spectrum of his consciousness, becomes more comfortable taking orders and following a strictly defined routine than exploring and thinking for himself—and then he dies and his fleeing soul takes life in a body better suited to its own antlike proclivities. But how does an ant transcend itself?

    Any answer I give is going to be speculative—I’m just at the beginning of my exploration into magic and I haven’t visited the Bardos or had any experiences of that type that might allow me to weigh in with more certainty. But speculation is fun, so here goes:

  4. Anonymous10:46 AM

    Maybe the ants that go on to become more complex creatures are those that wander a little—straying off the previously mapped pheromone trails and experiencing unfamiliar sensations that cause their brains to form new connections, and coming back as a beetle or something. Maybe they are eaten by a bird and their matter/awareness/essence is incorporated into the avian structure. Maybe the entire colony merges into a single consciousness after death and goes on to bigger and better things.

    Or maybe all of these speculations are imprecise ways of stabbing at something much more numinous and hard to define. The entire question is predicated on the one creature/one soul hypothesis, which may be a radical oversimplification. After all, every complex life-form is actually a system composed of trillions of interacting cells, each of which is in some sense a distinct unit of biology. Do they each possess their own little fields of selfhood which somehow merge into a larger gestalt? The universe is full of these kinds of interacting systems-within-systems, and my suspicion is that every level of structure has its own consciousness that integrates and mediates the smaller selves that compose it. When the integrity of a pattern is breached, what happens to all the subcomponents? Some, at least, must survive. The atoms of my body will go on to become parts of other patterns—will they carry little fragments of me with them? My bones will lie in the earth for decades if not centuries to come—will they contain the rigid structural scaffolding aspects of my personality, waiting for a witch doctor to dig them up and put them to new use? Do I have a subtle anatomy which can exist independently of physiology, a body of light which will journey across vast deep rivers to some waiting extradimensional Valhalla? Or is my Self utterly lost when the life-process which sustains it bleeds away into entropy?

    I haven’t settled on an answer yet, partly because I’m waiting till I get the hang of astral travel and can start to explore some of the myth-spaces out there, and partly because I’m holding out hope that the truth will be even more mysterious and beautiful than what I’ve already imagined. The one thing I am certain of is that consciousness is woven into the Universe at a basic level, and that whatever essence I may have is ultimately eternal. I can’t necessarily say the same for all the shapes and costumes that essence wears. Either way, death will be an adventure. As Peter Carroll says “Fear not! You have been, and will be, millions of things. All you will suffer is amnesia.”

  5. Anonymous10:47 AM

    PS, in answer to your other question, I’m a college student with a lifelong fascination with myth and a recently stoked interest in magic. I’ve been lurking on various blogs related to these topics for a while—yours is one of my favorites, along with Jack Faust, Patrick Dunn, the Valentines, and Inominandum. I think I originally found my way here through the Disinformation page. I post as Anonymous because it’s simpler, I don’t have a blog of my own or a livejournal or any of that nonsense so this is just the quickest way. I would love to talk with you about the possibility of contributing to the site in some way, though. I write fiction, poetry, and essays as well as long rambling blog comments, much of it with a strong mythic influence. I think I could find a thing or two to say to your readers. If you’re interested let me know who I can email or whatever.

  6. See

    (One of the top bar menu items.)



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