Feb 2, 2022
Martin Goodson

On Hearing the Dharma 


Despite all the best intentions, making big changes to longtime habits can feel like a battle with ourselves. This ‘battle’ however, can bring us closer to understanding how Karma works in our day to day lives.


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There is a story that takes place when the Buddha and Ananda are on their daily alms round.  Ananda sees an old woman and suggests to the Buddha that they go to her for alms.  However, the Buddha replies that her disposition is such that she is incapable of seeing a Buddha.  Ananda is incredulous but the Buddha insists that it is true and sets out to prove it.

The old woman is sweeping in front of her house and the Buddha walks toward her.  Just as he draws close, she turns and begins to sweep behind her.  So the Buddha walks round, but again she turns away from him quite unaware of his presence.  Using his supernormal powers, he rises up into the air and swoops down to pass into her field of vision when just at that moment she looks up into the sky.  When he now rises above she looks down at the ground again.  After a few more passes, when it becomes clear that she will not see him, the Buddha retires and joins Ananda saying that her karma is such that in this life she is incapable of seeing him.

This might seem an odd story but it proves a point and illustrates some important points of Buddhist doctrine.  In Buddhism, all things come about because of causes and conditions. In fact it takes many causes and even more auxiliary conditions to bring even simple states into being.  We take our psychological states for granted, that it is ‘I’ who directs and if I set my mind to do something then I can do it.  However, our experience shows us time and again that we often fail to carry out ‘my will’.  Even apparently straightforward things like ‘deciding to go on a diet to lose a few pounds for the summer holiday’ is not that simple.  To begin with I buy all the latest dieting books and read them with enthusiasm.  I get the scales out from the back of the cupboard, empty the larder of all the high calorie foodstuffs, buy in lots of fruit and vegetables and set about constructing a new weekly menu.  All goes well and for the first couple of weeks I am really enjoying being back in the kitchen trying out new recipes.  But it does not last.  Gradually the novelty wears off; I begin to miss ‘my treats’ and one day a packet of my favourite chocolate biscuits ends up in my supermarket trolley and following a bad day at work I wolf the lot down.  Now, full of recriminations, I realise I am hopeless and had just better get used to being overweight because ‘I’ lack the will power.  All this would be bearable if I could make my peace with my body shape.  Except that next year I suddenly get a pang of guilt looking at myself in the mirror and firmly decide that ‘this time I really must do something about it.’ The whole thing repeats itself once again.  

The mistake I make is that I believe I just have to will something into being and it will be done.  In fact, all the desires expressed in the above example have a long history with deep roots.  Buddhism takes a different view; it says all these wishes and obstacles have been cultivated over a long period of time.  They are habits that have resulted from past actions whether of body, speech or mind.  It would be nearer the truth to see ourselves as more of a ‘community’ of often conflicting wishes and views sometimes pushing one way and sometimes another.  What is it that decides which view will take the ascendancy?

A few years ago, on TV there was an interesting series on the latest discoveries in neurology.  One particular programme set out to discover in which part of the brain lies this thing we call ‘I’ ,which it defined as the decision-maker or coordinator.  The first experiment was to place a man into a machine that would scan his brain whist he was given an anaesthetic.  The idea behind this was that when asleep there is no sense of ‘I’ so whichever part of the brain ‘switched off’ when given the anaesthetic would be the part where this ‘I’ lived.  The result of the experiment was that no part of the brain switches off when asleep.  The brain waves change and the metabolic rate change but otherwise the brain looks the same asleep or awake.

The second experiment saw the man sitting in front of a computer watching a clock face with a fast-moving hand.  The man was linked up with electrodes to his head and body.  He was given the instruction to watch the moving hand on the clock face and, whenever he wished, to press the button that would stop the hand moving.  All they asked in addition was that he notes at what point he mentally decided to switch off the clock.

As was expected there was a time delay between him deciding to switch off the clock and his hand pressing the button.  But what surprised them was that the muscles in his arm and shoulder began initiating movement before he had made any mental decision to switch off the clock.  This meant that the ‘decision’ was not made consciously by ‘I’ but was made somewhere else and then consciousness was informed.  At first the researching scientists were so surprised they did not believe their own results.  However subsequent trials proved their first findings.

Although it puts it in different language the doctrine of karma arrives at a similar conclusion.  It is not ‘I’ who can will, hear and understand; these things are processes that have a much deeper foundation.  All these states, like those on the Wheel of Life, are conditioned and the states that are conducive to hearing and practicing the Dharma need cultivation.  A number of times long standing members of the Zen group have said to me after a talk that a story I told really resonated with them.  However, I know that  I know they have heard these stories many times before.  Why that time did it go in? 

Perhaps in light of the above we can see that hearing and understanding the Dharma is as much dependent on the inner state as it is upon the correct functioning of the ears.  So that brings us back to our practice.  Because rather than be-moaning my progress or feeling smug about ‘my understanding,’ we can appreciate that all this arises from a much deeper place than ‘me’.  All states must be cultivated over time and it is our practice, just on-going, which shifts the whole, little by little to where understanding of the Dharma can take place. 

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