Karmic Connectedness


On my wall calendar’s page for December, under the photograph of the snow covered wolf, is a quote from John Muir:

“When one tugs at a single thing in nature, one finds it attached to the rest of the world.”

Is it a surprise to find John Muir, a naturalist, giving a teaching on karma? Probably not. He, like the Buddha, was teaching from his personal discovery of the laws of nature through careful and sustained observation of direct experience. The Buddha’s Dhamma (Dharma, in Sanskrit) refers to and builds upon this realization of connection, the underlying patterns or laws of “the way things really are.” The teachings on Kamma (Karma in Sanskrit) speak about the fact of our relatedness in this conditioned world we share.

“There is a connectedness, an intentional connectedness, that comes through our actions. These are kamma connections. Now, we in the West often have problems with the teachings on kamma, which may be why we want the teachings on connectedness without the kamma. So we go looking elsewhere in the Buddha’s teachings to find a rationale or a basis for a teaching on connectedness, but the real basis for a sense of connectedness comes through kamma. When you interact with another person, a connection is made.” (Thanissaro Bhikkhu)

Wise understanding is the first factor in the 8-fold path. It has two parts: 1) what we do in this world has an effect in this world and we cannot know exactly what the effect of our action will be because 2) in the conditioned world (which is the context of our actions) everything is changing all the time; suffering (unsatisfactoriness, incompleteness, stress, anguish, loss) is a possibility always; and there is no one running the show (emptiness or no self).

So what do we do? The other seven factors of the Eight-fold path answer this question. The following reworking of the five precepts done by IMS teacher Amitra Schmidt (and brought to us by Claire Stanley at the retreat she and Jack Millet guided in November) is a simple and lovely way to present the path and to practice wise kamma.

“Knowing how deeply our lives intertwine, I vow to protect life.

“Knowing how deeply our lives intertwine, I vow to practice generosity.

“Knowing how deeply our lives intertwine, I vow to be respectful with my sexuality.

“Knowing how deeply our lives intertwine, I vow to speak what is true, useful and kind.

“Knowing how deeply our lives intertwine, I vow to practice clarity of mind and openness of heart.

Perhaps each of us in the sangha could take on the practice of reciting and living towards the above verses daily for the next few weeks as we collectively pass through the dark time and the ending of 2009 into the into the freshness of 2010 with the likely, seasonal return of light.

…And, if we do this, let’s also keep in mind this advice from the teachings: Don’t be attached to outcome! Just show up with the practice, keep paying attention and calmly know change.

Just as the world is changing, Valley Insight Meditation Society, too, is evolving. This past Sunday’s monthly Sangha gathering at AVA Gallery in Lebanon was attended by over 20 people: some from our Monday, Wednesday, and Thursday groups as well as community members from the farther reaches of VT and NH. A number of members of the Board of Directors, who so ably guide us, were there.

Somewhat inspired by being far along into the cultural season of giving and receiving, our contemplations, reflections and meditative time were framed by the working title of the gathering: The Ties that Bind Us: Generosity and the 4 Brahma Viharas. Kamma Part I.

In a wonderful article on generosity by Thanissaro Bhikkhu, the section quoted above continues:

“When you interact with another person, a connection is made. Now, it can be a positive or negative connection depending on the intention. With generosity you create a positive connection, a helpful connection, a connection where you’re glad that the boundary is down, a connection where good things can flow back and forth…

“You create the world in which you live through your actions. By being generous – not only with material things but also with your time, your energy, your forgiveness, your willingness to be fair and just with other people – you create a good world in which to live.”

Generosity creates good kamma. So do other “wholesome” mind states give birth to wise, kind actions, actions that can support our own happiness as well as that of others. Four of these states (There are way more than 5 kinds of positive interactions and you might want to reflect on what some others might be.) are called, collectively, the four Brahma Viharas. These two words can be translated as “divine abodes” or “heavenly homes”: more simply put, they are places of safe and happy refuge for the mind. The four are Metta (loving kindness or friendliness, good will), Karuna (compassion), Mudita (appreciative joy) and Uppekkha (equanimity). I will write more about them at another time. In the meantime, I refer you to Sharon Salzberg’s wonderful books on the subject: LOVINGKINDNESS – THE REVOLUTIONARY ART OF HAPPINESS and THE FORCE OF KINDNESS.

From a Buddhist point of view, our relationship with ourselves is also always an interaction. Our practice is, in a sense, a joining with and befriending of ourselves as well as the world. Here are Metta words from the Buddha to inspire us to “continue with care” in our relations with the both the internal and external experiences of the world:

“In traversing all directions with the mind, you will never find anyone more deserving of your love than yourself. It is the same for everyone. Hence, one who truly loves her or himself will never harm another.” (Udana 5.1)

In this light, perhaps the Buddha might paraphrase John Muir’s words at the beginning of this essay: “When one loves a single thing in nature, one finds oneself connected to the rest of the world.”

Peace and best wishes,



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