Sunday Sermon (February 17, 2008)

¡Hola! Everybody,
I had quite an eventful day yesterday. My first driver flaked out and the second took forever. In the end, I was able to get only the things I had in storage into my room.

I still have some boxes in a friend’s basement and most of my clothes divided between two places (my sister’s and a “friend’s”). At least I have most of all my books in one place. One of the ladies (two sisters are my roommates) asked me if I was a professor. LOL

I gave away furniture, an antique bedroom set made of solid mahogany.

I’m hoping to get a friend to help me today so I can move the rest of my things

I hate moving!

* * *

“Contrary to popular misconception, karma has nothing to do with punishment and reward. It exists as part of our holographic universe’s binary or dualistic operating system only to teach us responsibility for our creations — and all things we experience are our creations.”
Sol Luckman

In the allegorical novella, The Mountain, a man climbing a mountain kills a diseased old rat thinking he’s done something beneficial. What he didn’t realize was that the old rat, because it was too old and toothless, fed exclusively on certain insects. Once the rat was gone, these insects, who borrowed into the soil, multiplied causing soil erosion which eventually led to landslides and the destruction of an ecology.

Take a spiritual concept developed in one culture and transplant it to another and it will often be mangled beyond recognition. Nowhere is this truer than in Eastern spiritual practices adopted by Westerners raised mostly in Old Testament ideology. And nowhere is this more true than the law of karma.

Karma, in its simplest form, means action. But karma is more than cause and effect. It’s not merely “reaping what you sow.” In fact, as I mentioned yesterday, The Buddha called the workings of karma one of the “four unconjecturables.” We could drive ourselves crazy speculating on how it will play out, he said (Anguttara Nikaya 4.77).

Most questions and difficulties about karma and rebirth come from an understanding of karma in which people who suffer in this life probably caused some wrong in a previous life. Yet I can’t imagine that the millions of victims of slavery, for example, that occurred throughout history suffer because of karmic law. Or, for another example, recently here in NYC a little girl was brutalized by her stepfather. She suffered in ways most adults will never understand and died sitting in cat litter, punishment for daring to eat some yogurt. I have a huge problem justifying that as “karma.”

In the earliest Buddhist writings, including the Pali Canon, it is clear that while karma has a significant bearing on the course of one’s life, other factors also influence one’s situation (see, for instance, Samyutta Nikaya, 36.21); not least of these is the karma of other people, which we cannot control. However, traditions such as Tibetan Buddhism emphasize individual karma as the sole cause of one’s happiness/sorrow. The implication of this, as stated by some Tibetan lamas, is troubling: that those in Rwanda etc., are reaping the consequences of karma sown in previous lives.

I view this understanding of karma as flawed and not very convincing nor helpful. It’s ridiculous to look at the suffering of others and speculate that these must result from their karma in former lives, especially when we cannot know the connections between their present condition and their former conduct. The factors that create the circumstances of an individual’s life are many and complex. Viewing the misfortunes of others purely in terms of their previous karma may encourage us to think that they must deserve them, which is not a skilful attitude.

On the other hand, it may be helpful for us to reflect that when misfortune befalls us we may have contributed to the situation; not so that we will feel self-loathing and blame, but because it may encourage us to be more vigilant on our patterns of behavior. I can tell you without qualification that in terms of Buddhism, the appropriate response to the sufferings of others is compassion.

Finally, there is the seemingly widespread belief (or, more correctly, desire) that those who put us down or gloat over our misfortunes, or do things to us that hurt and are unjustified receive some form of karmic payback. I see the blasts here on 360 and it’s usually framed as “negative people” who we need to get rid of and who will suffer because of karma.

Frankly put, this is immaturity. To me this is a childish notion, grounded in negative feelings that do not come from other so-called “negative” people, but from our own hurt and insecurity. This has nothing to do with karma. Believe me, I understand that these painful experiences and that maybe you would feel justified knowing that they will suffer as a consequence. But isn’t this hypocritical at best? After all, which is worse: gloating over the misfortunes of others or enjoying the later humiliation of the one who gloats? Wishing suffering on others is not a virtue. Perhaps rather than thinking of what punishment those who harm us will receive, you could consider how unsatisfying their life must be for them to act in such a petty way. In terms of “punishment” for their conduct, well, at the very least, they would seem to have lost the benefit of your friendship.

Wishing or desiring suffering for others, even those who have harmed us, is bad karma.




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