“Why do we like being Irish?” asks the Irish poet Louis MacNeice (1907-1963) in his poem Autumn Journal (1939). In subsequent lines, he answers his own question:
It gives us a hold on the sentimental English
As members of a world that never was,
Baptized with fairy water;
And partly because Ireland is small enough
To be still thought of with a family feeling,
And because the waves are rough
That split her from a more commercial culture;
And because one feels that here at least one can
Do local work which is not at the world’s mercy
And that on this tiny stage with luck a man
Might see the end of one particular action.
Because Ireland is a relatively small country, and because in MacNeice’s time families tended to stay put for as long as economic conditions allowed, Irish people could reasonably hope to see the “end”–the consequences as well as the completion–of any particular action.
In Zen teachings the relationship of actions and their consequences is known as karma. The word karma means “action,” and it is often paired with vipaka, which means “result.” “The simplest formulation of karma,” writes the Zen teacher Zoketsu Norman Fischer, “is actually quite straightforward: if this, then that. In other words, actions have consequences.” Those actions include acts of the body, speech, and mind, and all have a moral dimension. The so-called law of karma, as Fischer sees it, is “a kind of moral physics.” Actions have “moral power.” By following Zen precepts, and by ever increasing our awareness of our bodies, speech, and thoughts, we endeavor to “do good action” and “avoid bad action.” In this way we generate what Zen calls “wholesome” rather than “unwholesome” karma.
In popular usage karma is often regarded as an individual matter. People speak of “my karma” as though it were theirs alone. But, as MacNeice well understood, and the poet W.B. Yeats before him, entire cultures also have their karma, whether wholesome or unwholesome or some mixture of the two. “Great hatred, little room,” wrote Yeats in 1931, eight years after the end of the Irish Civil War. And MacNeice, likening the abstract, feminine idea of “Ireland” to a transitory “patch of sun on the rainy hill,” complains that “we love her for ever and hate our neighbor / And each one in his will / Binds his heirs to continuance of hatred.”
Yet change is possible. Karmic patterns can be interrupted. And for the Zen practitioner the primary agent of change is a full and continuous awareness of what is occurring within and around us. In popular culture karma is often equated with preordained fate: we are wedded to our karma. But according to classical Buddhist teachings, just the opposite is the case. In any given moment we are not only experiencing the results of our past actions but also creating new karma. Results are becoming causes. Whether our present actions will help to break ingrained, destructive habits of thought and feeling, or merely deepen their grooves in our psyches, will depend on whether we are living at that moment in full awareness. Having just been subjected to a subtle or not-so-subtle slight, or having heard an opinion we don’t agree with, can we fully recognize, in real time, what is occurring? Can we align our response with our best intentions, rather than react from a place of fear or anger? According to the oft-cited findings of the neurosurgeon Benjamin Libet, we have only a quarter-second in which to choose how to respond, but choose we often can. Among other possibilities, we can elect to listen rather than speak. And if we persist in the practice, our capacity to respond wisely rather than react reflexively can be strengthened.
In the late 1990s Norman Fischer conducted “sitting-talking-listening” retreats in various venues, among them a peace conference in Belfast, Northern Ireland. Participants in the Belfast retreat, he reported, “remarked that it was no wonder that the Protestants and Catholics of Northern Ireland could not get along. How could they even begin to make peace if they literally couldn’t hear what the other side was saying?” Conversely, participants also discovered, in Fischer’s words, “how wonderful it was to listen, and to be able to speak when someone else was actually listening.” To be sure, the significance of this one particular action, occurring against an historical backdrop of grief and grievance, should not be exaggerated. But by such means and through such actions, what Zen calls “karmic seeds” are sewn, and over time they can generate new and constructive results, whether in Northern Ireland or here at home, in our own, deeply divided polity.
Louis MacNeice, “Autumn Journal,” The Collected Poems of Louis MacNeice (Faber, 1966), 132-133.
Norman Fischer and Susan Moon, What is Zen? (Shambhala, 2016), 63.
Benjamin Libet, “Unconscious cerebral initiative and the role of conscious will in voluntary action,” Behavioral and Brain Sciences, vol. 8, 1985, 529-566.
Norman Fischer, Taking Our Places (HarperSanFrancisco, 2003), 58-59.
Photo by Laura Trippi