‘Empty’ Words

Posted in Buddhism, Figuratively Speaking, Kerouac at 8:59 am by Marion


If you’ve ever spent more than 10 seconds with Buddhist teachings you’ve come across them.

The words.

Buddhism has a complex language and dense vocabulary that work together in a rich interplay to create a world of concepts that has no toehold in the seen world. For that reason, it rivals philosophy for complicated concepts that require page after page of descriptions. Yet many of these words aim to describe not meaning, but lack of precise meaning: that is, emptiness.

It’s not for the feint of heart. For that reason, Jack Kerouac, with his trademark verve and energy, put together a compendium of ideas, definitions and examples from his Buddhist studies. It was published in 1997 as Some of the Dharma, and at more than 400 pages, it’s a dense book … and as Kerouac says, only “some.”

Let’s start with the term karma. It’s part of our ordinary language, but what does it really mean — and how is it commonly used?

In the Buddhist sense, karma has to do with the sum of actions taken by a person, not just in this lifetime, but over several lifetimes — forever. That explains why bad things happen to good people — and vice versa — there are ghosts in our closets.

In popular usage, karma usually refers to performing acts of kindness, doing right by other people, helping out dogs and defenseless animals, with the hoped for possibility that something good will come back to you. Not a bad way to live.

Call me a true believer of karma. Once in the early 90s, in a new job, new town, not a lot of money, I accidentally walked out of a store without paying for my chocolate-covered raisins. Ka-ching! I thought. I win!!

That night, my car was broken into. Ka-I-ching!! Karma. I pay for everything now, and if I find a dime on the street, usually I’ll either leave it or give it to someone else.

Karma brings up the idea of reincarnation, which to the Buddhists is an integral part of the relative, or physical, world and the authentic, or unseen, one.

There is the concept that at death, a person’s soul or consciousness passes into another life form. To have human form is a supreme achievement, showing that a person’s past live has been noble and good. That’s why His Holiness the Dalai Lama is so greatly respectful of any other human being, even the Chinese leaders who torment him and his fellow Tibetans.

Yet even for those of us who don’t ascribe precisely to this idea can find meaning in the concept of rebirth and reincarnation. In my nearly half a century, I have been many people — school teacher, graduate student, 4-year-old, 14-year-old drama queen, moody 20-year-old, preppy (sorry, it was the ’80s) and waitress.

These incarnations are episodes and experiences that are long gone, not to return (especially the waitress days, but out of karma-awareness, I always leave big tips!)

There are other terms, for other Figuratively Speaking posts — paramita, tathagata, buddhadharma, ahimsa, parinama, samadhi ….


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