Monday, July 28, 2008

Karma: Did They Deserve It?

Sharon Stone provoked a storm of criticism and condemnation in China by suggesting at the Cannes Film Festival that the devastating 5/12/08 earthquake, which killed over 68,000 people, was “bad karma” because of China’s Tibet policy.
Ven. Santikaro Bhikkhu

Many Buddhists treat karma teachings as if they were some sort of absolute truth. Various notions and beliefs concerned with karma are taken as givens, without much questioning. Elaborations are made on the basis of such beliefs and confusion about karma's place in Buddha-Dharma. At times, this involves a deleterious error.

In the case of the 9/11 tragedy, such errors become harmful. Thus, I would like to consider karma teachings in the light of this situation. This essay is addressed to Buddhists. If I were speaking to an audience of non-Buddhists, such as the general public, I would not explicitly use the word "karma." Popular culture is already confused about what this term means. Neo-Buddhists toss it around without knowing the tradition, increasing the confusion. Using it in the current context creates too many possibilities for misunderstanding.

The Dharma offers important perspectives on the current situation. Clumsy use of language and thoughtless repetition of Buddhist terms will not meaningfully get across those perspectives.

The basic message of Buddhist karma teachings is that:

Our actions have consequences (vipaka).
We choose our actions due to motivation (cetana).
The character of the motivation determines
the character of the results or consequences.
We are responsible for our actions and their consequences.
Our choices subjectively determine our world.

These karma principles raise questions concerning recent events. What are the motivations of the hijackers, their supporters and leaders, our governments, the media, ordinary citizens, and so on? What consequences will follow for those involved? What will be the character of such consequences -- good, bad, or mixed? Were the people in the WTC towers and other victims of hideous crimes responsible for those crimes and their own victimhood? How are the rest of us responsible, if at all, for what happened on September 11th and the ensuing events?

Before consider-ing such questions let's revisit the traditional view. This perspective holds that we are reborn into this Samsara due to past karma (not that the Buddha ever used the term "past karma" in this traditional sense). Through choices, we con-stantly reinvent ourselves within a system governed by ignorance, craving, and clinging.

Ignorance means we see no alternative or don't know how to actualize it when we have glimmers of the possibility.

Craving means the self-interested seeking of what I like and the avoidance of what I don't. Clinging is the grasping at a sense of "somebody," the "agent," the "I" who moves through all this. This creates conditions for the "flow of consciousness" to carry on after the death of a particular body and seek a new physical structure through which to work out its desires and ego projects until ignorance ends.

Applied to the 9/11 crimes, we might observe that through very ordinary human pursuits, many tens of thousands of people chose to be in the WTC on September 11th.
Why? Motivations such as earning a living to support one's family, pursuit of stimulating careers, seeking afflu-ence and maybe power, meeting a friend for sightseeing, attraction to the prestige of the location, wanting to be at the heart of the world's economic systems and close to the hum and buzz of America's economic might, and finally the desire to help others (e.g., firemen). Some mix of these motivations and others brought people to the WTC that day.

Over five thousand of those souls died there. Did they choose to do so? I don't think so. The traditional Buddhist view does not get so specific. "Karmic formations" are cumulative, not one-to-one causation, let alone simplistic determinism.
The classic perspective is that we choose to be born into this world which means that we must eventually die. This doesn't mean that karma determines how we will die, where, and when. Such details are complex and involve more than our personal "karmic accumulations."

For example, to use a traditional formulation, the causality of the physical world, such as weather; the causality of the botanical world; the causality of mental processes; and the causality of Dharma. Karma is just one form of causality among these five natural orders (niyama).

People were in the WTC due to their choices and this put them in harm's way, as well as providing certain opportunities and benefits. Some of the dangers that their career and other choices brought them to are: The dangers of living, working, and traveling in a big city; the dangers of working in big skyscrapers; the dangers of being enmeshed in the economic system; the dangers of being close to the heart of that system (one which many people, rightly or wrongly, blame for their suffering).

Life is dangerous and some places and modes of living are more dangerous than others. Right now, Kabul is very dangerous. It seems to me that Manhattan is more dangerous than where I have been living. But no place on this planet -- within this entire Samsara -- is not dangerous.
In short, the Buddhist perspective asserts that people have some responsibility for what we encounter, be it dangerous or happy. This does not mean that we "caused" those dangers or are to blame for them. After all, there is danger everywhere (even in love), though illusions, denial, and repression often veil them. Nonetheless, are involvement with them usually tends to help perpetuate them.

Things in this world have their causal lineages and we may be connected with them somehow, more or less. We need not, however, assume close connections. Sometimes the connection has just happened and is not necessarily due to previous direct connections.
Beware the pop-karma thinking that simplistically assumes that every happy happening comes from some prior karmic connections, for example, that meeting a particularly suitable mate must be a result of relationships in previous lives.
Please think through such ideas carefully. It leads to an endless regression into the deep timeless past. Before you know it, you have selves locked into some cosmic square dance since beginningless time.

Here, it might be wise to recall that the Buddha included karma-vipaka among the four imponderables (acinteyya) that transcends the power of thinking and therefore should not be pondered. Given the other three in the set, the range of the Buddha's mind, wisdom, and powers; the range of the jhanas; and brooding over the world -- I take this to mean one may think about these things profitably only with the understanding that they can never be fathomed by thought.
A bit of thinking about them may inspire and guide spiritual practice, but speculating about them too much will get one into trouble. The historical Buddha was not interested in metaphysics and speculation. Traditionally, it is held that only the profound wisdom of a fully awakened Buddha can penetrate the complexity and subtlety of such things. The rest of us should be mindful of our limitations.

Who Crashed the Planes Into the WTC Towers?
Did the collective karma of the people who died in the WTC suck those airliners into the towers? I phrase the question so baldly to caution Buddhists to look very carefully at the implications of their karmic mouthings. Too often, karma statements seem to go much further than what I have ventured above. Read more
PHOTOS: Sharon Stone (Reuters); Cornered cartoon (by Mike Baldwin); WTC;

No comments: