Evidence for karma

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Evidence for karma

Postby JamesNewell » Mon May 26, 2014 3:54 pm

First, I follow the guidelines of science in what I am reporting here, and by those guidelines, I must always think that I could have made a mistake. Therefore, everyone is encouraged to look for possible mistakes I might have made in the following:

While meditating and so forth over the years, I have also done some theoretical work on the nature of consciousness because that was part of my earlier education.

One discovery I made was that the Western psychological process "conation" will act like karma, for conation memories, when they activate, will cause actions towards oneself similar to the original action one originally did. In psychological processes like generalization, events are often not exactly the same, but rather are similar. This in no way contradicts the frequent definition that karma is cause and effect. It merely gives some additional details.

However, I recently discovered that my discovery isn't really new, but was anticipated before the writing of the Visuddhimagga, since that work is based on earlier Buddhist material. In that work, the word used is "volition", which is the same as "conation". Interestingly, there have been other anticipations in early Buddhist literature. For example, the existence of other planets was talked about. Then, the Buddhist thought-moment idea anticipates a modern idea that perhaps time is quantized, though this isn't a settled idea yet.

I will quote from Buddhaghosa, Bhadantacariya, Bhikkhu Nyanmoli, trns. (1964) VISUDDHIMAGGA, Colombo: A. Semage

XVII, 251, "firstly, kamma-process becoming in brief is both volition also and the states of covetousness, etc. associated with volition and reckoned as kamma too ..."

The other states associated with volition are a step beyond my analysis, which is more limited. They seem to be involved with WHEN a volition memory activates. This is something for further research by anyone who has an interest in the idea. I am elderly and ill, so probably don't have time to do that additional research myself.

XVII, 253, "Rebirth-process becoming briefly is aggregates generated by kamma..."

Now, replacing the word "conation" with "volition", the limited analysis is as follows:

Volition is what triggers or activates an action. For example, if we lift a hand and arm to drink a glass of water, the lifting and drinking by themselves are not volition. The volition is that which sets the lifting and drinking into motion.

The nature of volition is to set actions into motion.

Every psychological process sets down memories, or habits when the process is repeated often enough. Habits are strong and extended memories. Therefore, volition sets down volition memories.

Since these are memories of volition itself, when the volition memories activate, they cause actions to happen, just as the original volition did.

Here, a complexity enters into the process.

When the volition memory is formed, it is associated with memories of what was happening at the time related with the volition. Therefore, the volition memory will be associated with memories of the original self which did the action, and of the self of the other mind that the actions were done to.

However, when the volition memory activates and the other mind is no longer there, an adjustment is necessary. The volition is directed directed towards a self, but that self is no longer there. The only remaining memory of an associated self is the self which did the original act, and that memory of a self is still very much there. Thus, the volition causes actions towards the original self similar to the original actions towards the other self. The volition has to cause the actions to be towards the original self because that is the only self within reach.

Therefore, the observations in Western science and elsewhere that people have volitions and memory functions, is evidence for the existence of karma.
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Re: Evidence for karma

Postby Andrew108 » Mon May 26, 2014 4:09 pm

Do you understand volition to be brain-based (in whatever way) or do you think the consciousness that holds karma is not brain-based?
The Blessed One said:

"What is the All? Simply the eye & forms, ear & sounds, nose & aromas, tongue & flavors, body & tactile sensations, intellect & ideas. This, monks, is called the All. Anyone who would say, 'Repudiating this All, I will describe another,' if questioned on what exactly might be the grounds for his statement, would be unable to explain, and furthermore, would be put to grief. Why? Because it lies beyond range." Sabba Sutta.
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Re: Evidence for karma

Postby JamesNewell » Mon May 26, 2014 10:05 pm

A very good question, and remember that there is much I don't know.

It appears that the brain is an important part of thinking, but it isn't adequate for the more integrated varieties of thought. We still have a major amount to learn about the relationship of consciousness and the brain.

So far, various material indicates that the brain does much information processing, but then consciousness decodes the patterns of nerve impulses in the brain to produce things like subjective images, subjective sounds, subjective feelings, and so forth. To be able to decode the very massive and complex nerve impulse patterns in the brain requires much skill, which indicates that consciousness has a memory process because those skills couldn't be built up in a single lifetime. They would have required many lifetimes to build up, which means that consciousness has a memory function that survives death of the body. The brain also has a form of memory, as far as scientists know, and a brain memory would die with the death of the body. So we have two forms of memory, one of which carries over to future lifetimes and the other of which dies with the body. Both would relate to volition.

The above would hold for many different theories of what consciousness and the physical brain exactly are, so the ideas above are fairly universal, but may not be entirely universal.

Remember that the karma analysis is limited, and we have much to learn about additional details, and also about exactly how consciousness and the physical are related to one another.

I will be very tentative and not present the following as in any way an ultimate theory. However, I suspect that both consciousness and the physical emerge from the same ground and are both forms of the same basic energy. That is congruent with some ideas in the Buddhist literature. However, in physical structures, that energy is much more rigid than the energy in consciousness form, is in a sense more coagulated. But this tentative guess can only be the beginning of some new research.
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Re: Evidence for karma

Postby Andrew108 » Mon May 26, 2014 10:36 pm

Hi James, nice reply. The last paragraph has echos of Dzogchen.
The Blessed One said:

"What is the All? Simply the eye & forms, ear & sounds, nose & aromas, tongue & flavors, body & tactile sensations, intellect & ideas. This, monks, is called the All. Anyone who would say, 'Repudiating this All, I will describe another,' if questioned on what exactly might be the grounds for his statement, would be unable to explain, and furthermore, would be put to grief. Why? Because it lies beyond range." Sabba Sutta.
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Re: Evidence for karma

Postby JamesNewell » Tue May 27, 2014 5:53 am

Yes it is influenced by Dzogchen. However, I don't really understand Dzogchen yet. Intellectually, I can see how the abstract ideas work in books such as Rabjam, Longchen, Richard Barron, trns., (2001) THE PRECIOUS TREASURY OF TH BASIC SPACE OF PHENOMENA, Junction City: Padma Publishing, and those ideas make sense.

However, I don't understand exactly how this works in full concrete detail. For example, why is this in front of me emerging at this particular time, and not something else? A reply that this is karma still doesn't say why at this particular time and place.

This ties in with the Bodhisattva question which itself keeps emerging: "Could the universe be better for whatever beings are, and if so, how?"

Or again. the fourth immaterial state in the Visuddhimagga is the state of neither perception nor nonperception. What kind of deepest ground can produce something like neither perception nor nonperception? What is neither perception nor nonperception emerging from.

It's really a working knowledge rather than an intellectual knowledge that I am searching for. I could use a working knowledge much better than an intellectual knowledge to save beings. The saving of beings of course also emerges, which is its own puzzle. Why and how does the Bodhisattva Path emerge?
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Re: Evidence for karma

Postby smcj » Tue May 27, 2014 5:58 am

There's a dedicated Dzogchen forum here. You might want to click on a couple threads.
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Re: Evidence for karma

Postby Wayfarer » Tue May 27, 2014 9:01 am

JamesNewell wrote: the observations in Western science and elsewhere that people have volitions and memory functions, is evidence for the existence of karma.


I agree. The teaching on 'karma' is really saying is that 'volitional actions have consequences'. I think there is considerable basis for the understanding of karma along the lines of 'as you think, so you become'. That could be a paraphrase of the first lines of the Dhammapada:

Mind precedes all mental states. Mind is their chief; they are all mind-wrought. If with an impure mind a person speaks or acts suffering follows him like the wheel that follows the foot of the ox.


[trs Buddharakkhita Bikkhu]

So the idea is, thoughts lead to actions, which have consequences; actions performed 'unskillfully', i.e driven by the 'three poisions' invariably result in suffering; skillful or wholesome (kusala) actions are motivated by wisdom, compassion and renunciation have good consequences.

The complexities arise, of course, because we are complex beings, with long histories, interacting with many others who are also have their own histories and motives and so on. As well there is the element of chaos, i.e. unpredictable events, misfortune, and so on.

But overall, I agree with your conclusion.
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Re: Evidence for karma

Postby JamesNewell » Tue May 27, 2014 4:42 pm

An excellent post, which has helpfully stimulated me to ask some questions I haven't thought to ask before.

"So the idea is, thoughts lead to actions, which have consequences; actions performed 'unskillfully', i.e driven by the 'three poisions' invariably result in suffering; skillful or wholesome (kusala) actions are motivated by wisdom, compassion and renunciation have good consequences."

One of those questions is whether all thoughts lead to actions, or just one kind of thoughts? One thing I am now pondering is whether or not all thoughts have some kind of a volition aspect to them, or if some thoughts have a volitional element while others don't? If so, how would thoughts with a volitional element FEEL DIFFERENT from thoughts without a volitional element? I especially like your "motivated by wisdom, compassion and renunciation". It wouldn't be quite as good as wisdom, compassion and renunciation, but what about thoughts motivated by attempted wisdom, attempted compassion, and attempted renunciation? Do you think that just the attempts would eventually lead to the real thing, or is something more than just the attempts needed?

"The complexities arise, of course, because we are complex beings, with long histories, interacting with many others who are also have their own histories and motives and so on. As well there is the element of chaos, i.e. unpredictable events, misfortune, and so on."

Your bringing up chaos/randomness might be very important. That would produce some things happening that did not come from karma. I've wondered why all beings didn't become enlightened with the first Buddha, many kalpas ago. (Perhaps a kalpa is the period between one big bang and the next.) The path should be easy for a Buddha to teach and would be self-reinforcing. One possible answer might be that chaos/randomness is the problem. The chaos/randomness perhaps disrupts the progress of beings on the path by causing them to drift. So a Buddha gets beings on the path, and then chaos/randomness pushes them off the path again.

However, I don't know whether those thoughts on chaos/randomness are true or false. The ideas make logical sense, but making logical sense doesn't guarantee that an idea is correct.
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Re: Evidence for karma

Postby Jesse » Tue May 27, 2014 6:44 pm

JamesNewell wrote:An excellent post, which has helpfully stimulated me to ask some questions I haven't thought to ask before.

"So the idea is, thoughts lead to actions, which have consequences; actions performed 'unskillfully', i.e driven by the 'three poisions' invariably result in suffering; skillful or wholesome (kusala) actions are motivated by wisdom, compassion and renunciation have good consequences."

One of those questions is whether all thoughts lead to actions, or just one kind of thoughts? One thing I am now pondering is whether or not all thoughts have some kind of a volition aspect to them, or if some thoughts have a volitional element while others don't? If so, how would thoughts with a volitional element FEEL DIFFERENT from thoughts without a volitional element? I especially like your "motivated by wisdom, compassion and renunciation". It wouldn't be quite as good as wisdom, compassion and renunciation, but what about thoughts motivated by attempted wisdom, attempted compassion, and attempted renunciation? Do you think that just the attempts would eventually lead to the real thing, or is something more than just the attempts needed?

"The complexities arise, of course, because we are complex beings, with long histories, interacting with many others who are also have their own histories and motives and so on. As well there is the element of chaos, i.e. unpredictable events, misfortune, and so on."

Your bringing up chaos/randomness might be very important. That would produce some things happening that did not come from karma. I've wondered why all beings didn't become enlightened with the first Buddha, many kalpas ago. (Perhaps a kalpa is the period between one big bang and the next.) The path should be easy for a Buddha to teach and would be self-reinforcing. One possible answer might be that chaos/randomness is the problem. The chaos/randomness perhaps disrupts the progress of beings on the path by causing them to drift. So a Buddha gets beings on the path, and then chaos/randomness pushes them off the path again.

However, I don't know whether those thoughts on chaos/randomness are true or false. The ideas make logical sense, but making logical sense doesn't guarantee that an idea is correct.


One of those questions is whether all thoughts lead to actions, or just one kind of thoughts? One thing I am now pondering is whether or not all thoughts have some kind of a volition aspect to them, or if some thoughts have a volitional element while others don't? If so, how would thoughts with a volitional element FEEL DIFFERENT from thoughts without a volitional element? I especially like your "motivated by wisdom, compassion and renunciation". It wouldn't be quite as good as wisdom, compassion and renunciation, but what about thoughts motivated by attempted wisdom, attempted compassion, and attempted renunciation? Do you think that just the attempts would eventually lead to the real thing, or is something more than just the attempts needed?


Not all thoughts directly lead to actions, but all thoughts probably generate karma, which later can influence your acts and decisions obviously. I don't believe all thoughts are the result of volition, 90% of thoughts are mostly what is refereed to as 'monkey-mind'. It's fairly easily to tell when thoughts are volitional directed and which aren't. When your actively engaged in thinking, following a very specific line of thought or reasoning that is volition. The rest of thoughts randomly arise, like a pattern matching algorithm sorting through a database, it constantly searches for patterns in your senses, and matches them against your memory. (At least that's the closest thing I can compare to being a programmer. lol)

I don't think there's much of a difference between attempted and actuality. Karma will arise, and you have either the choice to follow it or not, and by doing so solidifying those engrained habits or changing them. This is where mindful awareness is important.

So a Buddha gets beings on the path, and then chaos/randomness pushes them off the path again.


Unfortunately, we do. Though even the best of intentions is marred by ignorance, and bad enough karma.

My main questions regarding karma is how it is stored between lives, if it is at all. One possibility is a shared consciousness. Even that, I'd like to understand how it is stored, what type of energy, the medium, how/if it can even be measured.

Hope any of that helps.
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Re: Evidence for karma

Postby Wayfarer » Tue May 27, 2014 11:38 pm

JamesNewell wrote:
Wayfarer wrote: So the idea is, thoughts lead to actions, which have consequences; actions performed 'unskillfully', i.e driven by the 'three poisions' invariably result in suffering; skillful or wholesome (kusala) actions are motivated by wisdom, compassion and renunciation have good consequences.


One of those questions is whether all thoughts lead to actions, or just one kind of thoughts? One thing I am now pondering is whether or not all thoughts have some kind of a volition aspect to them, or if some thoughts have a volitional element while others don't? If so, how would thoughts with a volitional element FEEL DIFFERENT from thoughts without a volitional element? I especially like your "motivated by wisdom, compassion and renunciation". It wouldn't be quite as good as wisdom, compassion and renunciation, but what about thoughts motivated by attempted wisdom, attempted compassion, and attempted renunciation? Do you think that just the attempts would eventually lead to the real thing, or is something more than just the attempts needed?


It is worth considering the original intent behind this teaching. In the Buddha's day, 'karma' was of course understood by the Brahmins. However they tended to portray it in terms of 'correct performance of rituals' and the like. In the Vedic religion (and note I am not criticizing that, this is simply for historical understanding), there was a lot of emphasis on rites and rituals which had to be performed by the appropriately-qualified priest in exactly the right way. This would generate beneficial karma.

Where the Buddha changed that was to say that any intentional action generates karma, either positive or negative. So he separated the idea from its purely ritual context and instead spoke of it in relation to any intentional action. (This is discussed in Richard Gombrich What the Buddha Thought.)

So the emphasis in Buddhist teaching is always on intention and motivation. But there are also many kinds of thoughts which are 'neutral', that is, neither wholesome nor unwholesome, such as things that we simply have to do as living beings in the world. It is when the intentions are motivated by desire, will, and related factors, that the idea of karma becomes important. Analysis of motivations and kinds of thoughts is analysed in minute detail in the abhidhamma which is the Buddhist system of psychology. It is still taught widely in Buddhist cultures.

JamesNewell wrote:
Wayfarer wrote:The complexities arise, of course, because we are complex beings, with long histories, interacting with many others who are also have their own histories and motives and so on. As well there is the element of chaos, i.e. unpredictable events, misfortune, and so on."


Your bringing up chaos/randomness might be very important. That would produce some things happening that did not come from karma. I've wondered why all beings didn't become enlightened with the first Buddha, many kalpas ago. (Perhaps a kalpa is the period between one big bang and the next.) The path should be easy for a Buddha to teach and would be self-reinforcing. One possible answer might be that chaos/randomness is the problem. The chaos/randomness perhaps disrupts the progress of beings on the path by causing them to drift. So a Buddha gets beings on the path, and then chaos/randomness pushes them off the path again.


Contrary to popular belief, Buddha never taught that everything was the result of karma. (See here for instance). I don't think Buddhism has ever been strictly determinist, i.e. 'everything is determined by karma'. Karma is obviously a powerful factor in but it if were all-powerful, then liberation would not even be possible.

As to 'why beings aren't enlightened' - perhaps it is because they dont' want to be!
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Re: Evidence for karma

Postby JamesNewell » Wed May 28, 2014 1:18 am

Good. You might develop your idea that thoughts without volition can cause karma too. That would indicate a mistake in my thinking so your idea is important to follow up on.

Traditionally, karma is supposed to be stored in the storehouse consciousness, as well as those of the 84,000 kinds of meditation practices which don't exist on earth at the present time.

I might be able to contribute a small detail, but only a small detail to that.

The fact of reincarnation means that when one body dies, the consciousness must migrate to another brain at a distance. That means that consciousness has to travel through something. My current opinion, which might be right or wrong, is that what the mind travels through would be a field of consciousness which is everywhere. Therefore, memories would be stored in the general field of consciousness.

On the question of the Brahmans, they had different schools of thought and thus different beliefs even before the Buddha. There may also have been some additional schools of thought we have no record of. In addition, just as now, there were Brahmans and Yogis, and their beliefs, at least now, tend to be somewhat different.

Thus, we don't know exactly what all the ways of viewing karma were.

For that reason, I think we should just discount that period in history, and try to understand independently from the past what processes in consciousness produce karma. That is a question we can address in the present.
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Re: Evidence for karma

Postby Wayfarer » Wed May 28, 2014 1:27 am

Those are very difficult and controversial questions.

The fact of reincarnation means that when one body dies, the consciousness must migrate to another brain at a distance.


I don't think that is the Buddhist view. The idea that 'something travels' is very much like the idea of a 'soul, a person, an individual being', which is not how Buddhists see things. It is more that, because everything arises dependent on conditions, then whilst the conditions persist, the same kinds of consequences will arise. In other words, that which gives rise to one life, also gives rise to another. But it isn't because it has 'travelled' or 'migrated' even though that is what it seems like. In some ways, you might say that this is an analogy for what happens.

The 'storehouse consciousness' (Ālayavijñāna) is associated with the Yogacara school, but is not universally accepted in Buddhism. In fact, interestingly, one of the reasons it is controversial, is that, according to its critics, it is too much like the Hindu idea of 'transmigrating souls' (so, the criticism goes, not really Buddhist.) That is why I say it is a controversial question - it is controversial even within Buddhism, even more so in the context of a culture that doesn't accept the idea of re-birth in the first place (and there are constant controversies on the Forum about that topic.)

Generally I think it is not a good idea to try and analyse and understand all the ins and outs of karma from a theoretical viewpoint. How it works, and what it produces, is almost impossible to understand from a theoretical viewpoint. That is why I think the best approach is to concentrate on zazen.
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Re: Evidence for karma

Postby asunthatneversets » Wed May 28, 2014 1:43 am

Wayfarer wrote:
JamesNewell wrote:The fact of reincarnation means that when one body dies, the consciousness must migrate to another brain at a distance.

I don't think that is the Buddhist view.

Definitely not.
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Re: Evidence for karma

Postby dzogchungpa » Wed May 28, 2014 1:58 am

http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/mn/mn.038.than.html
This sutta concerns a monk — Sāti, the Fisherman's Son — who refuses to heed the Buddha's care in treating all the elements of the process of wandering on from birth to birth as processes. Sāti states that, in his understanding of the Buddha's teachings, consciousness is the "what" that does the wandering on.
ཨོཾ་ཏཱ་རེ་ཏུཏྟ་རེ་ཏུ་རེ་སྭཱཧཱ༔
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Re: Evidence for karma

Postby Wayfarer » Wed May 28, 2014 6:38 am

The monks try, unsuccessfully, to dissuade Sāti from his view, after which they report the case to the Buddha. The Buddha calls Sāti into his presence, and after ascertaining that Sāti will not abandon his view even when reprimanded by the Buddha himself, he abandons Sāti as too recalcitrant to teach...


Important lesson in that, too.
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Re: Evidence for karma

Postby Mkoll » Wed May 28, 2014 8:12 am

Wayfarer wrote:Generally I think it is not a good idea to try and analyse and understand all the ins and outs of karma from a theoretical viewpoint. How it works, and what it produces, is almost impossible to understand from a theoretical viewpoint.


A sutta in the Pali Canon echoes this sentiment (my emphasis added):

"There are these four unconjecturables that are not to be conjectured about, that would bring madness & vexation to anyone who conjectured about them. Which four?

"The Buddha-range of the Buddhas[1] is an unconjecturable that is not to be conjectured about, that would bring madness & vexation to anyone who conjectured about it.

"The jhana-range of a person in jhana...[2]

"The [precise working out of the] results of kamma...

"Conjecture about [the origin, etc., of] the world is an unconjecturable that is not to be conjectured about, that would bring madness & vexation to anyone who conjectured about it.

"These are the four unconjecturables that are not to be conjectured about, that would bring madness & vexation to anyone who conjectured about them."

-AN 4.77
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Re: Evidence for karma

Postby JamesNewell » Wed May 28, 2014 4:27 pm

Excellent comments about traveling. The information does change location in space-time. You are right in warning that this should not be mistaken for a soul.

So saying that the information travels from one location to another isn't a good use of the word "travel". I'm not even sure there is a good word in English.

In parallel with other words used at times in the literature, perhaps one might say that the information we falsely think of as a self does something which is neither traveling nor non-traveling when it relinquishes attachment to a dead brain to become attached to a new brain at a distance.

As I first noted, there are many more details to discover about all this. I've only come up with a few details. Perhaps neither traveling nor non-traveling might lead to some new knowledge if it is followed up on.

Questioning the wisdom of a scientific approach is also excellent in keeping a good perspective.

There are Bodhisattva reasons for a scientific approach however. Perhaps the worst poison of all is ignorance, because it is a special property of ignorance not to be aware that one is ignorant. If one is angry, one knows one is angry. If one has a desire for something, one knows one has a desire. But more often than not, if one is ignorant, one doesn't realize that one is ignorant.

One of the problems is that beings don't try to become enlightened because they are ignorant of what enlightenment is. By definition, enlightenment is the best mental condition possible, and that is something all beings would want if they knew.

The most important thing about karma is not that it exists, but that it is a good guide, and the most important part of this guiding is the use of karma to reduce and then eliminate ignorance. So one can deliberately try to increase the understanding of others, and avoid being dishonest or trying to prevent other people from learning. The karma from that will help one reduce one's ignorance. Of course, the better the quality of what one tries to teach others, the better the karma.

Therefore, it is important for the spiritual health of other beings that they understand that karma exists. The reasons to think that karma exists must of course be honest and of good quality.

Now there are at least two things, and might well be more, which prevent people from making good use of karma.

One is the idea that one can do anything negative, and then just escape the consequences by a religious donation. Religious donations produce good karma on their own so are positive, but they don't automatically wipe away memories, and karma involves memory. If one kills someone, and then the next day gives a few hundred dollars to a religious organization, that won't cause the volition memory in ones mind to just disappear. So karma is something serious. One can't manipulate it.

The other problem is that science is denying everything religious, without evidence, and that is causing many people to not know about karma or not take karma seriously. That puts those people in difficulty due to the ignorance that is produced or strengthened in them. Science is sincere and not trying to do anything harmful with this. Due to some events in past history, science is afraid of religion, and afraid that if religion continues, they might be burned at a stake, or have their heads chopped off, or lose their jobs, or something else which is painful. Scientists are trying to gain knowledge so are very lovable in that. It is just that they are scared.

In any case, to help those particular beings, we therefore need to come up with scientific reasons that karma in fact exists.

Avalokitesvara has a thousand hands and arms, which means really more than a thousand because in the Asian languages involved, the word "thousand" is often used to mean a very large number. Those hands and arms are not physical hands and arms. They are different ways of helping other beings, because it is necessary to approach beings where they are at.

Many of you may have started to grow a thousand arms and hands yourselves, but not noticed enough to remember it. It happens when one looks out and see-feels the suffering of a vast number of beings. Ones desire to help stretches in all directions and begins to divide up, as if to become many hands and arms.

Science comprises some of the hands and arms.
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