In this koan, Punyamitra asks Prajnatara, “Do you remember events of the past?” This question of remembering past events is very important. Buddha saw into his past existences, into all the lives he had lived. How many lives have we lived? Innumerable. Within how many realms have we lived? How many personalities? How many vocations? How many paths have we taken? How many outcomes have been realized? Yet the question is, where is that past? We speak of dwelling in the past. Where is it? It doesn’t exist anywhere in time and place. It clearly exists in our consciousness, yet where is it? Memory is thought and associated images and feelings. Yet when we’re “living in the past” aren’t we actually just dwelling in our minds? When we dwell in the past, we are not in the past because that doesn’t exist. We’re not in the present either because we’re self-absorbed in our memories. We’re not truly experiencing real life at all.
The past in which we think we are dwelling is actually our remembrance of it. And we all know how untrustworthy our memories are. We tend to remember things very selectively, based on our desires, and every time we relive that event, it changes subtly. Not only does it change in our mind—what we remember actually happening—but it becomes more and more fixed, reified. The memory becomes infused with a separate self, a life of and on its own.
A couple of years ago, I was talking to my elder brother. We were always very close growing up. I remember there was a particular point in our high school years when he started to beat me up fairly regularly. In my mind at that time, I thought I knew exactly what was happening. We were at a certain point in high school, I was playing a lot of sports, and I went through a growth spurt, and I got a little bigger than him. I didn’t really hold a grudge because I felt that I understood it. When I mentioned this to him recently, he looked at me and said, “What are you talking about?” To me it had all seemed so clear and obvious, but he saw it all differently. So memory is a very unreliable thing, and when we dwell in it as reality, it causes a lot of problems.
“Do you remember events of the past?” When we begin to practice, we face our karma. What we have lived, what we have created, what we have done, good and bad, loving and hateful, generous and stingy. And we can see the effects of that. It needs to become very clear to ourselves. We need to not see it through a self-protective posture, but just see what actually was, so we can take responsibility. This is where we begin to learn how to assume ownership for this life. It’s where we begin to see into what the Buddha saw so clearly—the nature of causal existence. Everything that arises—because there is no independently existing self—arises in dependence on everything else. Nothing stands alone. Nothing just happens. There are no random events. There are events that are not understood, but there are no random events. To understand that without self-clinging becomes crucial.
Bodhidharma said, “When those who search for the path encounter adversity, they should think to themselves, ‘In countless ages gone by, I have turned from the essential to the trivial and have wandered through all manner of existence, often angry without cause and guilty of numberless transgressions. Now though I seem to do no wrong, I am punished by my past. Neither gods not humans can foresee when an evil action will bear its fruit. I accept it with an open heart and without complaint of justice.’ The sutras say, ‘When you meet with adversity don’t be upset because it makes sense.’” This may be very difficult to hear and to understand. When we encounter adversity, he says to reflect on the fact that in countless ages gone by, in the multitudes of these past existences, there have been moments where we have turned from what is true to what is not true and in that have wondered through all manner of existence—the hell realms, the realms of the hungry ghosts, the animal realm tethered to instinct, to desire, to routine. We have been “… often angry and guilty of numberless transgressions” because when we’re angry we act from within that anger. When we’re feeling greedy we act from that greed. When we’re confused we act out of our confusion. Causation is action. So an angry action gives rise to an angry effect. What is created creates in kind.
Bodhidharma continues, “Though I seem to do no wrong, I am punished by my past.” Punished here is a little tricky, because we tend to hear that in a Western context as being punished by someone—God, natural forces, the universe? There is nothing outside of this body and mind which is separate from the universe. So then to speak of punishment only makes sense if we just see it as the result of our actions. Punishment also has the sense of getting back or getting even. Karma doesn’t have an opinion, it is not consciousness. Karma is action and it’s precisely this that makes it so powerful.
When we do something hurtful we should feel regret. The Buddha said this is healthy because it means our moral compass is intact. But if we hold on to the regret, it will turn into shame, self-hatred, and more suffering and very likely, because of that confused state, we will perpetuate more harm.
“Neither gods nor humans can foresee when an evil deed will bear its fruit.” This is one of the teachings that the Buddha was very persistent about, because he said if we ignore karma we are bound to repeat its cycles. Don’t be upset because it makes sense. He doesn’t say don’t do anything—he says just don’t get upset. Rather, we need to take responsibility for our actions, address the harm we’ve created and vow to liberate ourselves and others from suffering.
Like all dharmas, the Buddhist teachings on causation describe the way our world is and how human beings interact. Look deeply. When you look, you’ll understand. When you understand, you can then live in accord with your understanding. What the Buddha said was that some people ignore karma, because they just don’t see it clearly. Karma bears fruit in different ways. Sometimes it bears fruit immediately. I hug you and you hug me back. A positive action leads to a positive, perceptible effect. Other actions take time—a week, a year, ten years. And other actions aren’t seen, not because they don’t bear fruit but because they bear fruit outside our time or experience, or do so in ways so subtle that they’re not recognized. There is nothing that exists outside of a causal relationship and isn’t in turn continuing that causal stream.
Bodhidharma said, “… to accept with an open heart.” We are naturally healing creatures. Everything in nature has its own restorative intelligence. You slash a tree, and it will immediately start to heal itself. When an animal gets cut, it immediately begins licking its wound. Our own bodies have an incredible wisdom for healing physical ailments. And our own consciousness has an inner wisdom for healing spiritual, mental and physical anguish. Acceptance is a primary aspect of that healing, because if we’re not accepting, we’re fighting. What comes from fighting is illness.
Acceptance with an open heart means complete acceptance. We tend to think of acceptance as giving up: “If I accept this then it means I’m defeated by this.” That’s not accepting. That’s having an opinion. That’s rejecting, holding on. Acceptance is completely open-handed. To accept with an open heart is without condition, qualification or excuse. To accept doesn’t mean to be self-recriminating, to be self-hating, or shameful. It means no opposition or hindrance. But we just fight like hell against that. We think that when we’re sitting, and we’re up against something difficult, that to accept it means that we’re then sentenced to that thing forever—that only by our fighting are we going to get rid of it. It’s that whole belief structure that ensures that it will persist, because we see it as something that can be gotten rid of, as a thing that has its own existence. We think that we can put it somewhere where it won’t affect us and that we’re not the same thing as it.
That’s why the Buddha said we must understand causation. All of practice is based in the law of causation. If we don’t understand it, it’s going to be very difficult to practice according to it. We’ll re-create the same cycles over and over again, just as we see happening in our history, as well as in our own personal lives.