Karma: Sanskrit, act, action, deed; that which leads to the cycle of cause and effect.
Kelp: a type of giant brown alga; on the California coast, a keystone species for the Kelp Forest ecosystem.
Perhaps it's because I'm uncomfortable with a word I didn't grow up with, I hesitate to use the word "karma" very freely.
Even though I've been "studying" karma and having the effects of karma explode up my nose times too numerous to grasp--- it's still a leap to assume someone will hear me or read me and not be put off if I use the word. Wikipedia lists it, though I don't find their meaning too helpful.
My first impression of what karma meant was that it described the universe getting back at me for all the mistakes made in all my previous incarnations (if any), sort of like endless purgatory and punishments. Bad things, or good things even, were the result of stuff this soul was involved with in previous incarnations, which "I" in this life would never be able to remember. That just seemed to suck, and I rebelled at a philosophy that enshrined such inescapability of blameful pain. Also, I'm a scientist, and wonder how seriously I can take these qualities I can't verify or test.
One of the most reassuring teachings I've been given about karma is that this word describes something we all have, unavoidably, from beginningless time, because we are all conditional beings. Our very existence depends on so many accidental conditions, conditions from unimaginably deep time. We'll never know what they are, or understand them. Contingencies beyond contingencies. Just relax and admit, everything I call "me" depends on so many conditions I'll never know or understand. And all those conditions are intertwined and interdependent. Twisted. Tangled.
Once a month, on the Saturday closest to the full moon, the gathered people at the Berkeley Zen Center recite Bodhisattva vows. These begin with the verse:
All my ancient, tangled karma
From beginningless greed, hate and delusion,
Born through body, speech and mind,
I now fully avow.
This verse sprang into my heart-mind on a recent trip to the ocean, as I entered the presence of numberless tangled, twisted clumps of kelp washed up on the beach, dying, going back to earth.
THIS feels like karma, said a voice inside.
These tangled bunches were gently swaying fronds in the kelp-beds just a short while ago.
They were part of the jungle-forest of the cold California Current and the rich nutrient upwelling and the sunlight and the stilling of the winter storms and the pruning of the furry sea otters and the munching of the sea urchins and the grasping of the abalone. These were part of the wilderness explored by wet-suited divers and white sharks, who have to learn how to navigate through the fronds without getting tangled themselves. All are conditional, all dependent, all impermanent.
Something tore these fronds away from their anchors. Conditions. Karma. Here are their roots, their hold-fasts.
They floated away on the ocean swells. The intertwined with others like themselves. The currents carried them far, or near. The crashing surf tumbled them around. They became more and more tangled and twisted. All conditional, and yet, once tangled, never to be untangled in this body.
The rising tide floated the tangled kelp-karma up onto the beach. The bouyant floats weren't above being caught in the sand.
Sometimes birds or other beings became caught in the tangles.
The tides come and go.
The sun and the fog and the air are at work.
Soon the bodies will release into other forms and be part of the ocean and earth and air again.
From beginningless time.
We are not different from this. Our lives have tangles less easy to see, perhaps, but the energies around us entangle and entwine us just as surely as they do the kelp.
There is no other life.