Dramatis personae, dramatis spirituum, and Buddhist karma

Dramatis personae are actors in a drama, characters in a play, novel, or movie. Jung used the word persona to indicate our subjective and objective sense of our roles in life, how we behave in various situations. He defined personality (persona-ality) rather flamboyantly:

Personality is the supreme realization of the innate idiosyncrasy of a living being. It is an act of courage flung in the face of life, the absolute affirmation of all that constitutes the individual, the most successful adaptation to the universal conditions of existence, coupled with the greatest possible freedom of self-determination. [C.G. Jung, “The Development of Personality,” 1932]

For my purpose today, Jung’s description of personality, though delightful, is a bit mundane. I want to introduce the idea that in addition to our mundane dramatis personae of this world, we also possess dramatis spirituum or spiritual personae.

This mundane world, in Buddhist terms is the relative world of transitory phenomena and suffering. In contrast, ultimate reality is the realm of enlightened Buddhas where all suffering is ended.

In Buddhism, the word karma can mean many things in English. It can mean action, habit, tendency, a type of attachment, entanglement, the movement of the mind-stream. In a basic sense, it may be helpful think of karma as often meaning habit. Good habits lead to good outcomes and bad habits lead to bad outcomes, though there are many mysterious exceptions to this simple rule as there are to all simple rules.

Karma can be seen as a burden and yet even the worst karma can end in the space of “a single thought.” If in a single thought you are able to see the fullness of your karmic habit, it can end in that very instant. See in a single thought how your anger makes everything worse and you may never have to control it again because it will never arise again. See in a single thought how alcohol is ruining everything and you may refrain from using it ever again.

Our dramatis spirituum are the ultimate actors that we most deeply are, the actors who remember our mind-streams, who are the forces that draw us toward enlightenment, who end bad karmic habits in the space of a single thought.

When we feel connected to someone, often that is a connection between our dramatis spirituum. It may be just beginning or it may have begun many lifetimes ago. A good simple illustration of this might be the way you remember some people from childhood with a pang of unrequited beauty, unrequited spiritual love. You may have known them only briefly but still think of them and have a strong sense that they may be thinking of you in a similar way. What you are sensing is a karmic connection of dramatis spirituum. This is the deep level many of us sense is where life really lives.

The dramatis spirituum connection you have with your parents or primary caregiver is more complex and filled with far more mundane connections. You may struggle with this connection for many lifetimes before it is resolved on the plane of conscious dramatis spirituum.

I tend to see a current of drama ever present in all things. This is their actions, habit, tendencies, karma, entanglements, desires, realizations, personae, spirituum, mind-stream, enlightenment.

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