Karma

Good Morning all. Today, I am going to give a Dharma Talk on Karma. Before I begin, I would like to read a parable called the "The Farmer's son"

The Farmer's Son:

One day in late summer, an old farmer was working in his field with his old sick horse. The farmer felt compassion for the horse and desired to lift its burden. So he left his horse loose to go the mountains and live out the rest of its life.

Soon after, neighbors from the nearby village visited, offering their condolences and said, "What a shame. Now your only horse is gone. How unfortunate you are!. You must be very sad. How will you live, work the land, and prosper?" The farmer replied: "Who knows? We shall see".

Two days later the old horse came back now rejuvenated after meandering in the mountainsides while eating the wild grasses. He came back with twelve new younger and healthy horses which followed the old horse into the corral.

Word got out in the village of the old farmer's good fortune and it wasn't long before people stopped by to congratulate the farmer on his good luck. "How fortunate you are!" they exclaimed. You must be very happy!" Again, the farmer softly said, "Who knows? We shall see."

At daybreak on the next morning, the farmer's only son set off to attempt to train the new wild horses, but the farmer's son was thrown to the ground and broke his leg. One by one villagers arrived during the day to bemoan the farmer's latest misfortune. "Oh, what a tragedy! Your son won't be able to help you farm with a broken leg. You'll have to do all the work yourself, How will you survive? You must be very sad", they said. Calmly going about his usual business the farmer answered, "Who knows? We shall see."

Several days later a war broke out. The Emperor's men arrived in the village demanding that young men come with them to be conscripted into the Emperor's army. As it happened the farmer's son was deemed unfit because of his broken leg. "What very good fortune you have!!" the villagers exclaimed as their own young sons were marched away. "You must be very happy." "Who knows? We shall see!", replied the old farmer as he headed off to work his field alone.

As time went on the broken leg healed but the son was left with a slight limp. Again the neighbors came to pay their condolences. "Oh what bad luck. Too bad for you"! But the old farmer simply replied; "Who knows? We shall see."

As it turned out the other young village boys had died in the war and the old farmer and his son were the only able bodied men capable of working the village lands. The old farmer became wealthy and was very generous to the villagers. They said: "Oh how fortunate we are, you must be very happy", to which the old farmer replied, "Who knows? We shall see!"

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So, Karma, right. It's a concept that has worked its way into popular culture as a way of indicating that because someone has done something bad then something bad is going to happen to them. I often hear Karma invoked as a kind of invective: “Karma is a bitch”. Ever heard the phrase? Ever used it? Lord knows I have. When I look back, it's always when I believe someone has done me some perceived grave harm and that they, therefore, deserve some grave harm to happen to them. To be honest, i sometimes find myself fantasizing about the way Karma is going to get them. It's really very satisfying. Kind of a Buddhist version of "an eye for an eye". It conjures up a feeling that the world is just. That bad things happen to bad people. That there are consequences for doing bad things, for hurting people. For hurting this thing that is me.

In this sense, Karma becomes an existential judge, jury, and executioner. Karma is a force in the universe that holds everyone accountable and we can count on it to punish those that harm US. We can also count on it to punish those that hurt others. Did Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, Mussolini etc, suffer enough for the atrocities they committed. Surely not, but don’t worry, Karma will get them. Reborn in the hell realm, a hungry ghost, or some animal that will only serve to suffer for the sins of its previous incarnation. To be honest, I need this kind of theology. I need to know that in the end, the world is just, and bad things happen when bad people do bad things. I need something like Karma. I also need to know that good consequences arise from good actions. More on this later.

But can we KNOW how Karma works? I call on the parable read earlier. Our farmer friend repeats the phrase “Who knows, we shall see” over and over when people come to him presuming to understand when something good or bad has happened to him. This parable points to our often myopic, short term understanding of action and consequence. We assume that since someone has hurt us that it must be bad and generate bad consequences for the person who caused us to feel bad.

This is problematic for a number of reasons. Often times the long term consequences of an action are not immediately apparent. Our short term perception clouds our perception of how things might or could unfold overtime. In the parable, the farmer’s son breaks his leg. In the short term this is bad. Then it keeps him from being conscripted and consequently dying. That seems good in the long term. Too often, we want to dole out karmic retribution without understanding what the TOTAL consequences of an action are. To be honest, we aren’t really capable of understanding the TOTAL. We want Karma to depend on how actions and consequences affect US, the singular unit of our own ego. Can we really understand that? Can we then understand how an action affects things on a community level, a cultural lever, or even a global level? I cannot. Maybe your ability to forecast the future is exceptional. Good luck with that.

A second issues that arises when we think about Karma is we often assume what the intentions of another are. We assume that the action was “meant” to cause harm or hurt us. Sometimes we are correct in this assumption but more often than not, we ascribe intentions to actions that fit the narrative we wish to tell. We are hurt and we begin to tell a story about how that came to be. The other person is mean. They obviously intended to hurt and so they should obviously be punished in kind. We give ourselves permission to be mind readers because thoughts of revenge and punishment are much easier than being hurt. Can we ever really be right though? Do we ever even stop to ask what someones intentions were before we throw them at the mercy of “Karma”?

So, to sum up a bit before moving on, when we think about Karma, we should be careful about our ability distinguish the short term from the long term (the totality of a consequence of an action, and we should be even more careful about the stories we tell ourselves about the motivations of others. So what good is Karma then if it is more of an unfolding unknowable mystery than an accurate way of interpreting our day to day lives or forecasting the future of others?

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Perhaps Karma is just another tool with which to understand ourselves and propel ourselves into taking responsibility for our actions. Like so many other things, our thoughts about Karma tell us more about how we view the world then how the world actually works. What do you think generates good karma or bad karma. Why? Does it vary if the person is known to you or unknown? If a stranger cuts you off in traffic or your friend cuts you off in traffic? What if YOU cut someone off in traffic? This is important! How easy is it to justify our own actions when, and yet, if someone else were to do the same thing to us, we are willing to dole out and relish the coming of their karmic consequence? Does it matter if the transgression was intentional or unintentional? Can you even know that? Also, we all have triggers. Our beliefs about Karma can point us to the roots of these triggers? You find yourself wishing Karma on someone, WHY? Where does your hurt come from? Why is it worth clinging to? Can you let it go? Would it matter if you did? I encourage you to sit with your perceptions of Karma for a bit and see what it tells you about yourself and what you believe about others and the world at large.

Also, even though the workings of Karma may ultimately be unknowable to us, that may actually be the thing that frees us. We cannot know the totality of the consequences of actions. We cannot know the things essential to understanding what kind of Karma is being generated. This is a blessing This allows us to let go of pretending we know what the outcomes of actions are. It also frees us to let go of thinking we control the consequences of our actions (or the perceptions of the consequences) and embrace the one thing we do control, our intentions. We can try. We can try to do no harm. We can try to do good. We can try to do good for others. Our intentions are something we can discover, refine, contemplate, and, eventually, trust as a way of entering into actions honestly and with integrity. To do this we have to let go of believing we can know the intentions of others or that we fully understand the consequences of any action. We have to let go of the way we tell narratives and the way we pretend to read minds and predict the future. Karma is an essential concept that allows us to examine what we believe, what we know, what we don’t, what we control, what we don’t. It allows us to then let go into the only thing we can really control if we want to, our intentions.

So, in the end, I ask you, the next time you feel yourself to look at someone and think “Karma is a bitch”. Remind yourself. “Who knows? We shall see”

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