Sunday, 18 September 2016

The Law of Karma: A Practitioner's Perspective

The concept of karma is central to Buddhism. However, while growing up in India, I became so
disillusioned with this idea, as well as with the ancillary concept of reincarnation, that I would reacting violently to such terms. In this blog, I explain how I developed such antipathy, and how I overcame it on my path to becoming a Buddhist.


Though people often use the word “karma” to mean fate, it means action. The concept of Dependent Origination in Buddhism teaches that everything that happens to us — good or bad — is a result of our karma from the past. Understanding how karma works and having faith in the workings of it are important for Buddhists.

The concept is problematic when it is misunderstood and consequently applied incorrectly. In India, the ideas of karma and rebirth have been used to justify persecution of the weaker segments of society —lower caste people, women, children, and animals among others. Karma is understood to mean that those who are born into higher caste families and with good health are blessed in the present life because they engaged in noble karma in their previous birth. People born in lower castes are suffering in this birth because they engaged in bad karma in their previous life. This justifies suffering due to poverty, congenital problems, and gender, and discourages helping people in such situations, as it would be tantamount to interfering with the law of karma. One of the most horrific arguments I encountered went like this: If person A is privileged, he is entitled to punish person B who is poor or weak because the good karma of person A qualified him to torment person B, who obviously had bad karma. By victimizing poor people, person A is merely enforcing the law. I saw that such a belief in karma thus led to the commission of more bad karma.


Disgusted with that, I declared that I did not believe in karma or reincarnation. I instead insisted that good fortunes and bad fortunes were all matters of random acts of nature. I held this belief until I
met my mentor and friend, Dr. B. Alan Wallace, who patiently answered all of my questions about karma. I am grateful to him for making me realize that I was upset at the wrong interpretation of the law of karma and not the law itself.

We need to remember that the chief goal of Buddhism is to alleviate human suffering. If a person is suffering and her friends tell her that she is in that state because of her bad karma, it would make that
person's the suffering worse. Buddhism is not supposed to do that! It is should make us feel better!

Here are some suggestions I have about the law of karma:

1. If a person who is in a position to help someone who is suffering and does not help, that person earns bad karma.

2. The karma described above becomes even worse if the individual, in addition to not helping, tells the victim that it is because of victim's bad karma. Lord Buddha related the parable of a person who
has been injured by an arrow. The injured person wants the arrow out of his body: telling the suffering person who fired the arrow or what the arrow was made out of does not help him. Telling such a suffering person that he deserved it because of his past bad karma is like rotating the arrow while it is sticking in his body. In April 2008, senior Sacramento Bee reporter Stephen Magagnini and I shared a ride to attend a rally in San Francisco in support of Tibet ahead of the Olympics in China. Steve, who was there to cover the event for his paper, had heard a statement by some Buddhist monks that the people of New Orleans were suffering from the catastrophic Hurricane Katrina in
2005 because they had previously engaged in bad karma. I explained to Steve that the monks had themselves engaged in bad karma by saying that.

3. When someone is suffering, the understanding of the law of karma can bring solace to that person, but is up to that person to have the conversation with himself about karma.

4. Karma is not a static thing. It is like a bank account; you make deposits to it and withdrawals from it. We cannot go back in the past, but we have a lot of control over our karma, or actions, from this
moment on. We can act with compassion and help others in order to increase our balance of karma.

5. There is absolutely no room for regret. Even our worst actions of the past are in the past. Our previous acts of bad karma have value only if we can learn from them. Otherwise, there is no point in
pondering over them or feeling guilty about them. You may think of yourself as the worst specimen of humanity on Earth. Still, it does not help to have guilt or regret. What matters is how you conduct
yourself from this point on in life. Of course, that is easier said than done, and it is even more difficult to apply this reasoning to others who have committed bad karma in the past. But we need to watch great beings like Jesus, Nelson Mandela, and His Holiness the Dalai Lama. Jesus forgave people who were about to assassinate him. Nelson Mandela did not have a single word of malice against the individuals who had wrongly incarcerated him for so long. Why can’t we have similar compassion for ourselves and for others?

After the tragedy of 9/11, His Holiness the Dalai Lama wrote a letter to then-President George Bush. Here is an excerpt from the letter:
"It may seem presumptuous on my part, but I believe we need to think seriously whether a violent action is the right thing to do and in the greater interest of the nation and people in the long run. I believe violence will only increase the cycle of violence. But how do we deal with hatred and anger, which are often the root causes of such senseless violence."

His Holiness was clearly worried about America's violent response to the tragedy.  Of course, the US not only invaded Afghanistan, but also Iraq, on the pretense of the imaginary weapons of mass destruction that Saddam Hussain was allegedly hoarding.

Many who had protested against the Iraq War were dismayed when His Holiness met with then President George Bush. But for those who understand the law of karma correctly, such instances of forgiveness or compassion do not come as a surprise. George Bush may have committed a massive error in ordering the invasion of Iraq. But, for someone like His Holiness, Bush is a person who can make a fresh start any time. It does not mean that he would not have to reap the consequences of his karma of starting an unjust war. But, because Bush cannot go back in time and reverse his decision, it would be useless for him to crush himself under a load of guilt. Instead, if he understood the law of karma, Bush would dedicate his life to alleviating the suffering of victims of war.

In the light of the arguments above, let us address one of the most vexing problems in trying to explain the law of karma: how could we justify Nazi atrocities against Jews, Gypsies, homosexuals, and Russian prisoners of war during World War II? Can we ascribe the atrocities to the bad karma of all those who perished in the Holocaust?

This is how I will explain the working of karma in the situation above.

1. Before we talk about the karma of those who perished in the concentration camps, we need to discuss the karma of the those who perpetrated the crime and those who — despite being in the position to do something to stop it — watched it happen silently. These two groups of people earned bad karma at such an astronomical scale that it would be stupid to talk about the karma of those perished.

2. Whether the victims of World War II had bad karma or not would be best left to the victims. If thinking about the law of karma gave some modicum of peace to those who were being marched towards the gas chambers, the law has done some good. But if the onlookers then and now attempt to justify what happened in those times, they earn bad karma. His Holiness, the Dalai Lama has said on occasions that the atrocities China has perpetrated in Tibet could be the result of past bad karma of the Tibetans. His Holiness, being a Tibetan and the spiritual leader of the people of Tibet, can make a statement like that. This thinking gives him peace. But for non-Tibetans, making such a statement, instead of helping the Tibetan cause, is a sure ticket to earning bad karma. The goal of Buddhism is to make us feel better now and in the future; the goal is not to make us feel bad or get paralyzed about what we or others might have done in the past, and it is certainly not to condemn those who are already suffering.

Now the million dollar question: How should we view, in the context of the law of karma, the Nazi perpetrators of the Holocaust, their collaborators, and the current Chinese regime?

According to my understanding of the law of karma, those who were present at the time of World War II ought to have adopted all means — including violent ones — to stop the persecution of the Jews. It's hard, but it is possible to use force to stop a crime without being malicious. However, when the offense has already taken place, there is no room for any ill will towards the perpetrators or collaborators. In fact, it is possible to generate compassion for those people, knowing
that the consequences of karma await them. The concept of justice in Buddhism is to prevent further harm rather than extracting retribution. This view stands in sharp contrast with the common
understanding of justice in the West, where victims are considered to be entitled to a sense of revenge against those who have harmed them. I think the desire for revenge or retribution has an evolutionary
root: A person who hurt us once was likely to harm us again in the future. Revenge was a means to neutralize that threat. Revenge does make sense thought of like that. However, in most situations in our time, that sort of thinking is not valid. There is no need to kill a person as a punishment for murder. There are other methods to ensure that a convicted killer does not repeat the act. Gandhi once said,"I do not want to be the enforcer of the law of karma." Likewise, the law of karma helps us develop compassion for those who have engaged in bad karma before. It does not encourage us

to ourselves engage in bad karma towards those who are suffering.

I end this blog with an excerpt from the book The Way of the Bodhisattva: (Bodhicaryavatara).

"Superficial similarity, however, masks a radical difference. According to Buddhist teachings, the definition of moral good or evil is made exclusively in terms of cause and effect. An act is considered evil, negative, non-virtuous, not because it is a transgression of a divinely ordained principle laid down by the creator of the universe, but because it is productive of suffering in this for future existence. Virtue, on the other hand, is that which brings about happiness and tends to spiritual development. The experiences of the infernal states are the ineluctable result of evil attitudes and actions. Whether or not the modern Westerner wishes to believe in the existence of infernal realms is in a sense beside the point. Every evil and unwholesome action simply bring forth suffering, and it hardly matters whether one conceives of this in the picturesque terms of Dante’s Inferno or shares the view of Jean-Paul Sartre that "hell is other people.” Nevertheless, it is important to grasp that the idea of eternal damnation as a punishment for sin is foreign to Buddhist understanding.

Suffering is a consequence of one's own action, not a retribution inflicted by an external power. Infernal torments, moreover, though they may last for eons, belong to samsara and are not exempt from the law of impermanence. And even if the notion of a divine vengeance regarded as an approximation, in mythological terms, to the concept of karmic consequences, it is perhaps worth suggesting that the impersonal view proposed by Buddhism should have the advantage of exorcizing the paralyzing sense of guilt, or revolt, that can be so often be the outcome of a too, anthropomorphic theism.  The doctrine of karma has only one message: the experience of states of being follows upon the perpetration of acts.  We are the author of our destiny; and being the authors, we are ultimately, perhaps frighteningly free."