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The Universe in a Pool Parlor

Among all the words used around Buddhism that make understanding Buddhism difficult, two of the worst are “karma” and “illusion”. I’m going to talk first about karma, and yes, I’m going to use the same pool game metaphor I used in the essay I had on Pajamas Media.

Think about playing pool, and just for precision, let’s think about playing pool in a dive bar in Apex, North Carolina. It’s a quarter a game table, and it’s probably been there since the 60’s, so the table surface and the balls have seen some mileage. You find the rack, and rack the balls, and break. The balls scatter; where they go is determined not just by the power of the cue shot and the point of impact, but by the whole history of the balls, the table, and the bar, which means it’s not just the cue shot, but the exact way the balls were tightened against one another, the particular way the eight ball was oriented in that rack, and the tiny scratches on the cue ball from the time Lloyd hit the scratch that wasn’t so much a scratch as a chip shot into the middle booth. All of them affect the eventual outcome.

That’s karma. It’s cause and effect; karma is “action”, causes, and the playing out of karma the effects. When the balls come to rest — or “rest”, because the table isn’t perfectly level and the new highway has eighteen-wheelers thundering past the back wall not a hundred feet from the table — the exact place they came to rest and the way they react on the next shot will be established by all those influences, the trucks and the chip shot, the mining and manufacturing, the deposition of ores and the formation of metals in a supernova, all of it, back to the beginning of the universe.

When Gautama saw through to the nature of the whole problem of dukkha[1], this was one of the things he saw. The whole universe that he was looking at, from the pretty little Untouchable girl who gave him her rice pudding to the massive statue of Shiva, to the fish in the water and the bugs they were eating, to the Sun and stars and all, all of them came from somewhere, and they were all going somewhere. Things change: as little as we like it, they aren’t the same. (A few thousand miles away, at about the same time, a Greek called Heraclitus in Ephesus would say “everything flows; all created things go, and remain not at all”.) Everything we see now has an antecedent, something that came before; everything we see now will have succedents, things that come after, and none of them will stay the same. This is karma, this is what karma really is. You don’t need “lords of karma” to judge and issue decrees; the universe doesn’t “obey”; it’s just what the universe is.

Gautama had some trouble explaining this. In fact, he comes back to is over and over again, making new analogies, telling new parables, from the day he first explained the Four Great Truths to the last few words he gave his followers as he lay dying. Everything, even the most solid of objects, even the World Honored One, is just a pattern, a temporary eddy in the flow.

It’s an illusion. (“Maya”. There’s the other word that gets horribly translated.) It’s an illusion — the whole world around us is an illusion — not because it’s not “real” in some mystical sense — strike the stone Buddha, it certainly seems real enough — but because all the things we see as “real” are just temporary arrangements, under the control of karma, that will pass, change, dissolve. As solid as the stone Buddha may seem, it was once a raw unfigured stone, and it will be a trail of sand some day in the future.

This, this impermanence, is the real source of dukkha: at the bottom of it all, things that change are unsatisfactory. They cause us dis-ease. They cause us to suffer.

  1. Just in passing, this is the Pali spelling, not the Sanskrit, which is duhkha; sorry, my mistake. Since I started using this spelling though, I’m going to continue with it. []

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