The karma of busy-ness

The Tibetan Wheel of Life.

Most people think of Karma as cause and effect, but the concept is not that simple. The phenomenon of Karma is tremendously detailed and very complex, as explained in various Buddhist logic and philosophical systems.
This is because Karma is viewed and discussed in so many topics: reincarnation, life-force, collective experience of a group of sentient beings, individual perceptions, emotional afflictions, causation and exhaustion of Karma, ethics and virtue, etc.
Here, I focus on Karma and modern day busy-ness.
Nowadays, we feel a strange kind of pride when we are busy. When someone asks, “How are you?” We answer “busy” or “very busy.” It seems like, if we were left idle, we feel something is wrong or is awry.
The first time I encountered such a response was around 15 years ago, when the pace of daily living seemed much slower.
I remember an aunt who would reach retirement age in a year’s time, and she said that she would keep on working past her retirement. She dreaded doing nothing at home. At that time, I thought it was only limited to busy business people.
In fact, it is no longer limited to them alone. These days, more and more children’s schedules are packed with non-stop meaningful activities – sports, music, advanced review lessons for college entrance exams… the parents of these children are already writing the resumés of their children’s futures.
Even so-called spiritual people, like Buddhists who frequent temples, are also becoming busier with meditating at specific hours, conducting events, organizing study sessions and ultimately, busy “reaching Enlightenment.”
I may sound controversial by saying this, but I admire those old women selling sampaguita on the street. Also worth mentioning are those taong grasa who sit on sidewalks in the middle of the day, doing nothing.
From my own perspective, these people exude the two things that I absolutely envy. They don’t care about their social reputation (hint: resumés, achievements and failures), and they are the epitomés of non-busy-ness.
Even for us temple-goers, we feel the need to fit in and maintain a huge social reputation. According to society, Buddhists should be compassionate, non-violent and always smiling.
The poor Buddhists who want to fit into these criteria, like me, impose our own personal standards to conform to. Eventually, we fail badly, and this in turn further contributes to the pressure and the need to do better. Hence, another thing to be busy about.
In Buddhist cosmology, rooted in Buddhist philosophy, we humans share the Desire Realm with five other groups of sentient beings. These five groups are the gods, the semi-gods, animals, hungry ghosts and the hell beings.
The word sentient implies possessing a mind. Mind is defined as a product of a congregation of emotions and thoughts.
Among these six groups living inside the Desire Realm, it is believed that the human sub-realm is controlled predominantly by the affliction of desire (the other realms being dominated by pride, jealousy, anger and so on). The word affliction connotes an emotional predisposition that automatically induces disturbance and suffering.
So, we humans are predominated by the affliction of desire within the Desire Realm. That is “Double Desire Realm” for us!
Because the Buddhist texts are peppered with the word “desire,” a lot of Buddhists and non-Buddhists think that as Buddhists, we should have lesser desires – example, the desire to eat ice cream on a hot day.
The word “desire” in the context of the Desire Realm means so much more than that.
Using a more “modern” example, the 1943 theory of Abraham Maslow called “A Theory of Human Motivation” comes closest towards the tip of this “Double Desire Realm” iceberg. The levels of his pyramid – Physical, Social, Emotional, Psychological and Self-actualization – are all needs. I doubt that Maslow studied Buddhism. Nevertheless, his formulated theory is quite telling – humans are smothered with needs.
One Buddhist nun teacher summarized it very well. She said, “As humans, we face never-ending problems and sufferings, gladly.”
What does she mean? In autobiographies of successful personalities like business people and celebrities, we always read about how they endured incredible setbacks and challenges. We cringe and sympathize at their troubles, then feel inspired and motivated.
A separate, but not wholly different, instance goes: What is the greatest happiness of a yacht-man? Owning a yacht. And his second greatest happiness? Getting rid of it.
Being born in the Desire Realm, our very sources of pain, those we try so hard to avoid are, unfortunately, also the same basis of our hope, inspiration and solution.
In another example, I found it amusing that female classmates from Singapore repeatedly advised me to get tanned, like them, to look better. Then, a lot of female classmates from England want to look darker, to look better. Finally, many women from the Philippines want to look fairer… to look better.
Similarly, busy-ness in the Double Desire Realm is seriously baffling. We complain and feel drained due to busy-ness. Yet, we also feel a sense of pride when we are busy and productive!
Moreover, our so-called solutions – more efficient procedures, technology, systems or a holiday getaway – rarely liberate us from busy-ness. In most cases, they are just variants of the busy-ness we loath and avoid, but at the same time, love and cherish.
That is how deeply ingrained the concept of desire is within us humans. Busy-ness, our strange source of hope, oftentimes also becomes our self-proclaimed problem. We are like tempuras being fried in Japanese oil, thoroughly fried in the affliction of desire. In the Double Desire Realm, the thing we avoid is almost the same thing that we excitedly pursue.
According to Buddhist epistemology, the cause of being a member of the Desire Realm is afflictions, and the cause of afflictions is Karma. Karma, in this respect, is called “formations” (Tibetan: du je), or “the tendency to come together to form.” The concept of “formations” gives rise to “mind.”
Most of us cannot prove what mind is. So the classic Buddhist “symptom of mind” is that if we leave ourselves in an empty room, chances are, we will soon crave to move and do something. That is a symptom of mind. That is the start of busy-ness.
Long-term meditators may be able to sit still for hours doing nothing – but they will feel hunger and thirst. Science may call these “normal bodily functions,” but in Buddhist jargon, these are also symptoms of “formations” – the need to sustain the body or to keep the body together.
This is because the physical body is but a formation of water, nutrients, minerals, air, sugars, amino acids and so on that will naturally fall apart. The need to form and reform an entity made up of separate matters is due to the mind, which in turn, is produced by karma, or formations.
The obsession of that mind to form a single entity from separate things is not only limited to the physical body. It is also observable in one’s identities, emotions and experiences. Our identities and experiences are very hollow. They naturally dissipate, so they need to be reaffirmed and verified again and again.
That is why we have this instinctive need to post regularly on our Facebook Timelines. That is why, the “I love you” we heard in our last date felt euphoric, but only for a while. Soon, the lover in us needs to hear it again – thus, the need to book another date in our calendar. That is why, when we successfully accomplish a challenging project – organizing a product launch or completing a degree – the success eventually dissolves, like tissue paper in water… And we need to prove ourselves again and again.
The human conundrum of living in the Double Desire Realm is that we get ever busier as we solve never-ending problems or try to find new sources of excitement. The so-called solutions we provide are just variants of the problems we wish to solve. Hence, the never-ending busy-ness.
Even my idols, the sampaguita lola and the taong grasa, are sadly part of this realm too. Even if they have lesser desires and needs than busy people like us, they still suffer hunger, thirst and all sorts of psychological and emotional insecurities.
As the years pass, busy-ness might increase our pace of life even further, or switch to a different direction altogether – like the budding meditation and yoga movements, social enterprises and organic-fair trade phenomena.
However, for those of us living in the Double Desire Realm, a love-hate relationship with busy-ness will always remain.