Are forgiveness and "karma" operating simultaneously?

Question: The Course seems to imply a karmic law of cause and effect, in which everything that happens to us is the inevitable effect of our own choices. Yet it also teaches forgiveness, which emphasizes that nothing really occurred. So, are forgiveness and "karma" operating simultaneously?

Short answer: Forgiveness and karma do not operate simultaneously because, from the Course's standpoint, there is no karma. The theory of karma says that our choices in the past are the cause of our present situation. But the Course's theory of cause and effect says that the past cannot cause anything, and so our choices in the present are the only cause of our present situation. Forgiveness undoes the negative effects of our present ego-based choices by showing us that the cause is in our own mind, and that the cause in our own mind is an illusion that has produced no real effects. This restores our awareness that God is the only true Cause, and the Sonship is His pure, innocent, and forever limitless Effect.


The theory of karma says that our choices in the past are the cause of our present situation.

Karma, of course, is a basic principle of Eastern religions such as Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism. What is karma? According to the Perennial Dictionary of World Religions, the term "karma" refers to "a person's acts and their ethical or physical consequences" (the Sanskrit word "karma" means "action" or "deed"). While there are various schools of thought concerning the exact nature of karma, the basic idea has become very familiar to many of us in the West. The theory of karma teaches that things I thought, said, or did in the past — particularly in an earlier incarnation — are causing effects in my present life, or will cause effects in a future life. Whatever happens to me is a result of the "karma" I inherited from my past lives, or from earlier in my current life. In short, my choices in the past determine my present and future.

But the Course's theory of cause and effect says that the past cannot cause anything, and so our choices in the present are the only cause of our present situation.

In contrast to the idea that my present situation is caused by karma from the past, the Course asserts that "the past is gone, and what has truly gone has no effects" (T-28.I.1:8). In fact, Jesus directly pointed out the major pitfall of the theory of karma in guidance he gave privately to Helen and Bill:

One of the main dangers of karmic theories is the tendency it induces to engage in the genetic fallacy, overlooking the truly religious fact that now is the only time. (Absence from Felicity, by Ken Wapnick, p. 295)

The "genetic fallacy" referred to here is the belief that our past — our genes, our childhood experiences, our past lives, etc. — determines our present and future. This cannot be true, because time is an illusion. There is no past or future. Therefore, if we are experiencing an effect in the present, then the cause of that effect must be in the present too, not the past. And this, in a nutshell, is what distinguishes the Course's theory of cause and effect from karma. According to the Course, the cause of everything that happens in our present life is never in the past; rather, the cause is a present decision in our mind. The Course even makes the point that if the cause of the present were really the past, then it would be impossible to change the present, because its cause is gone:

You make strange use of [time], as if the past had caused the present, which is but a consequence in which no change can be made possible because its cause has gone….No change can be made in the present if its cause is past. (T-28.I.6:4,6)

Only if the cause of what happens to us is present now can we change its effects in the present. Fortunately, the cause is present now, and we can change it.

How can it be that the past doesn't really cause anything? This can be an incredibly difficult idea to swallow, for it certainly seems to us as if present situations are caused by decisions and actions of the past. To make this go down a little easier, perhaps it would be helpful to point out that this idea doesn't deny the fact that many of our present decisions may have originally been made in the past. So, for instance, a current fear of snakes may well reflect a decision originally made in the midst of a past childhood trauma involving snakes. In fact, Jesus did tell Helen and Bill that some of their current relationship issues were a continuation of issues that originally stemmed from past-life interactions.

The key, however, is that even if a decision was originally made in the past, the only reason it has effects now is because that decision is still in force — it is still present in the mind. As Jesus once said to Helen concerning Bill's blaming his parents for his feelings of unworthiness, "It [parental influence] does not last unless it is held onto" (Absence from Felicity, p. 269). No past influence lasts unless it is held onto, and if it is held onto, it is really a present influence. Whatever effects we are experiencing, "there is a present cause" (T-26.VIII.4:7), a present decision in the mind that is producing those effects. If we want to undo the painful effects that the past seemed to cause, we must change our minds in the present. And this change of mind is what the Course calls forgiveness.

Forgiveness undoes the negative effects of our present ego-based choices by showing us that the cause is in our own mind, and that the cause in our own mind is an illusion that has produced no real effects.

The following Course passage tells us how both the painful effects of our present ego-based choices and the ego itself are undone:

The miracle returns the cause of fear [the fearful dream in your own mind, which seems to be in the outside world] to you who made it. But it also shows that, having no effects, it is not cause, because the function of causation is to have effects. And where effects are gone, there is no cause. (T-28.II.11:1-3)

According to this passage, the miracle — the means by which we extend forgiveness in this world — does two things. First, it re-establishes our awareness that we — not the past, not our brothers, not anything external to our own mind — are the cause of every fearful thing that seems to happen to us. The ego has us blame external things for our problems precisely to avoid this recognition. It wants us to believe that the world is cause and we are its powerless effect. But the miracle of forgiveness re-establishes our mind as cause and the world as effect. It is the decision to withdraw our projection of blame from the world and acknowledge that "this is not done to me, but I am doing this" (T-28.II.12:5). This acknowledgment affirms that the world is innocent — it did no harm to us — and empowers us make a new choice which will produce happier effects.

Second, the miracle of forgiveness affirms that because the negative effects of our ego-based choices are not real effects (this must be so, for the miracle has dispelled them), the cause in our mind — the ego — cannot be a real cause. If the effects are illusions, then the cause must be as well. This recognition is crucial, because if all we do is shift blame for those negative effects from the world to ourselves without also seeing that those effects are unreal, all we will do is reinforce the reality of their cause, the ego: "Self-blame is as much an ego defense as blaming others" (T-11.IV.5:5). Forgiveness looks beyond the ego's blame game to the truth. It demonstrates that "the separation never occurred" (T-6.II.10:7), and therefore demonstrates that "the ego never occurred" (T-6.II.10:8). There was only an illusion of a cause in our mind which produced an illusion of painful effects in the world. If this is so, then just as the world did no harm to us, so we did no harm to the world. Just as the world is innocent, so are we. We have let go of our choice to hold onto the "sins" of the past, and all the "karmic debt" they seemed to carry with them. We have made a present choice to see our eternal, present innocence.

Conclusion

Forgiveness and karma, therefore, do not operate simultaneously. There is no karma, for karma is of the past, and the past does not exist. Forgiveness undoes the ego thoughts that are the present cause of all the negative effects in our life. In so doing, it shows us that the ego itself is causeless, for being an illusion, it can have no real cause. Thus forgiveness restores our recognition that God is the only Cause, and His Son His wholly pure, innocent, and forever limitless Effect:

The miracle reminds you of a Cause forever present, perfectly untouched by time and interference. Never changed from what It is. And you are Its Effect, as changeless and as perfect as Itself." (T-28.I.9:4-6)

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