“Is karma real?” I asked the Sun Hermit.
The Sun Hermit turned around to look at me. The sun shone around his robes in a glorious halo, his bald head gleamed mischievously.
“For you, maybe!” he laughed, and began to run down the hill in his sandles, rocks and pebbles sliding out under his every step.
I had no choice but to follow him, wanting to embody his care-free abandon but also worried that I would fall and tumble down the hill, breaking bones and potentially hitting my head on a rock into untimely death. But I had to put such thoughts from my mind. Negative thinking is the enemy, right?
He sat waiting for me at the bottom of the hill, rubbing his feet, still smiling, still immersed in the aura of an other-worldly sage although just a moment ago he had behaved like a little child.
“What about God,” I asked, “Is there a God? Is there right and wrong?”
“Why do you care?” he asked me, peering deep into my eyes. “Do you care because someone has told you you are supposed to care? Or do you genuinely care, from that place you would call your heart or your soul?”
The intensity of his gaze left me no choice but to seriously consider the question. “I guess,” I said, “I don’t know. It seems important, right? How do we decide how to live our lives? How do we know what to do and what not to do? Isn’t there a right and wrong?”
“If I stub my foot on a rock, it hurts my foot. Does that mean I have done something wrong? I might not like it, because I do not like pain. But is the pain wrong? Or is that just an idea that I have projected onto the pain?”
“I see what you’re saying,” I replied, “but what if I consciously do something to hurt another person? Wouldn’t that be wrong?”
“Why would you do such a thing,” asked the Sun Hermit, “when you can sit under the trees and breathe the air, listen to the song of birds, contemplate the mysteries of life and be free? Just wait… listen…”
I listened. It was a beautiful day, late afternoon, and the sun was beginning to set. The air was cool and comfortable. Birds chirped happily in the trees, and fluttered from branch to branch. The wind added some light ambiance, and the colors in the sky brought out pink and orange hues from the trees. It was a magical scene, and it felt as though the whole world were collaborating to paint a beautiful moment of contemplative serenity. Nevertheless, there was a nagging in my mind, and it would not be so easily abated.
“Yes, but what if another person hurt you, and caused you a great deal of pain and anger? What if they did something terrible to you or your family, and you had no choice but to get revenge? Would that be wrong, or would it be justice? Would it be better to just do nothing and let their crimes go unpunished?”
The Sun Hermit seemed to take my bait. “Have you understood the doctrine of karma?” he asked. “Do you understand what the ancient sages meant by the word?”
“As I understand it, karma is a law of the universe that if you commit a bad deed, you are punished, and if you commit a good deed, you are rewarded.”
The Sun Hermit laughed. “This is a very childish way to understand things. Humans reward and punish. These are vagaries of the human mind. A parent might punish or reward a child, because they have an emotional investment in the child’s behavior. The way of the world is quite different. Does Winter punish the trees by making them wither and die? Does Spring reward the squirrels by bringing them a bountiful harvest? Then perhaps the seasons keep turning because the trees and squirrels do the same thing, year after year!”
I was perplexed. “So then, life has no meaning? Joy and pain simply follow one another, in endless succession, without rhyme or reason?”
“When the ancients spoke of karma, they were speaking from a deep insight into the mind, and how it perpetuates suffering through attachment and identification. If you believe you are the leaf that falls from the tree in Winter, you may very well believe you are being punished for some crime. But if you see that life and death are simply cycles of renewal and rebirth, a new vision will open for you. But this means investigating your true nature, your true self.”
“What is my true self?”
Again, the Sun Hermit laughed. Not a mocking laugh, but a laugh of understanding, a cosmic laugh at the absurdity of it all. I had heard this laugh before, and it was infectious. I too began to laugh, my questions melting into the beautiful day as something inside me was released. I felt an inexplicable sense of freedom and expansion, a joy unlike any other, that perhaps only infants know…
As the laughter abated, I looked at the Sun Hermit with a new love. I could not understand how one moment he seemed so human and the next so divine. When I asked my question again, I asked it with love… the love of a young son for his father.
“How can I find my true self?”
“Just listen,” said the Sun Hermit. “When all else falls silent, what is left?”
I listened. There were my thoughts. How can I fall silent? How do I do this? How can I shut down my mind? Is this my true self? Who am I? Why am I here? This is stupid. This is pointless. I don’t see how this can work. But it will work! I have to believe, right? Or maybe I’m not supposed to believe… I don’t know, I’m so confused! And what does any of this have to do with karma? Maybe I’m just not intelligent enough to understand…
And with the thoughts was this sort of seeking, something searching for a correct thought, or an answer, or something. Something judging the thoughts, a sort of push and pull. And there was a feeling of agitation, a pressure to find something or get somewhere, and a feeling of frustration or resignation.
“What do you hear?” asked the Sun Hermit.
“A lot of noise and confusion.”
“Very good!” he said. “At least you see it for what it is! Most people will allow this noise and confusion to dictate their entire lives. Keep listening.”
It took a while, but gradually the noise died down. In his presence it was easier, simpler, because he was inviting the silence. He showed me, in a man, what it looked like. I could trust it. There was an aura of peace around him.
“What do you hear?” he asked.
“Nothing.” I said.
“So what is your true self?”
“I don’t know, there’s nothing there.”
“Well, isn’t that wonderful?” he asked.
“Yeah… it is… just this emptiness that has always been there.”
“Is it changing?” he asked.
“No, it’s not. The thoughts and feelings go on changing, but it stays the same.”
“Yes, don’t mind the thoughts and feelings. They need their own time to settle and unwind. Years of conditioning have left you quite a mess. But at least you see what’s behind it, the true reality.”
“Yes, I see. When I see this, the question of right or wrong doesn’t really matter too much. I guess… it’s just how the mind navigates in the world. It just doesn’t make sense to harm others when you can simply share this peace with them…”
“Is there any conflict in your true self?”
“No, there is no conflict here. There is only peace. There is not even the space for conflict.”
“This is what the ancients called the wheel of dharma. As the mind lets go of its addiction to conflict, it becomes liberated from the world of forms.”
“So karma means attachment to conflict, which keeps us locked in suffering? Karma is just identifying with the ego instead of the true self?”
“Yes! But you have just seen through this illusion. And you must remember… you must remember the treasure you have just found, because the tendency of the mind is to keep seeking. The mind can have its freedom, can have its play, but the true self is your center–don’t put it on the periphery!”
“Teacher, can I ask you something?”
“Of course, Tom.”
“What is it like to be you?”
Again, the Sun Hermit laughed, and he kissed me on my forehead. “I am you, my son! All things are revealed in time.” And he smiled, wide, and his eyes shone with a brilliant angelic light. “Just have faith, and keep moving forward. You are ready, you are strong. You have nothing to fear. All fear is but a veil draped over your awakening. Enter into fear with faith, and the phantoms that haunt you will vanish forever. The path is wide open, so wide, so wide…”
And we turned and looked at the landscape before us. The sun was finally setting, like a brilliant fire burning beneath the heavenly dome. The mountains in the distance looked like a fanastic purple kingdom of clouds. The world felt like home, so familiar, so close to my heart. “Lord, bless this creation,” I said, not knowing where the words came from. Love was just pouring out.
“Thank you Teacher,” I said.
“Tom, I am your friend,” replied the Sun Hermit. “And it is my pleasure to walk with you.”
And so, together we walked home.