Karma is a collective effort.
A couple of years ago, a member of the Shambhala Meditation Center of Madison (who is also a writing student of mine) asked to meet with me privately. She hinted that she had some issues with the basic teachings in our lineage, but she understood that it might be her own misunderstanding.
“What are the teachings?” I asked, so I could be prepared for our meeting.
“Karma,” she replied, and made a face.
That’s a toughie.
She was worried about an important aspect of karma teachings that is commonly misunderstood: if bad things happen to good people, then they must have done something bad in order to make them happen. Blaming the victim.
This is an awful misunderstanding, in my humble opinion, and one that turns too many people away from this very significant and complex teaching.
Before I begin explaining what I said to her, I will do what I always encourage people not to do—apologize. Moreso, I will equivocate: I am not authorized to teach on karma. It is, in terms of my lineage, way above my head. I am not giving formal instruction. I am simply hoping that what I shared with her will be as helpful for you as it is for me, and as it was for her.
“Bad” things happen to “good” people because bad things happen to everyone, and you never know where they are going to land. Ditto with “good” things happening to “bad” people, or any other possible combination of bad and good. On top of that, a “bad” thing happening to a good person may actually, on a larger scale, be a positive. I hate to say it, but that is truly not ours to know.
Karma (action) refers to the teachings in Buddhism around cause and effect. It is, as I am sure most of you know, often used in popular media and culture to refer to an idea of direct cause and effect—you hit a cat with your car, and you will be punished in some way for it. This is a misinterpretation, based on a more direct relationship between cause and effect.
Karma, in the Buddhist sense, actually needs another part of the equation: the conditions. The cause plus the condition will determine the effect. In addition, because everything is interdependent, because nothing is separate from anything else, the effect can often have seemingly nothing to do (from our limited perspective) with the cause. This is more akin to a butterfly flapping its wings on one continent and a storm starting up on another.
Only almost never at the same time, because we need many causes and many conditions to have even one effect.
We are so limited in many of our views. We think the human time span—122 ½ years at the longest—is a long time. It isn’t. We think in terms of our own life spans when we consider cause and effect. We also think our worlds—who we interact with, who we directly effect—are large. They aren’t. Six billion (and growing) others are contributing to the pooling causes and conditions.
Likely your action alone, like a drop in a puddle, will not have an effect.
Unless—unless the conditions are right on a larger scale. The tipping point tips not because one thing has become unstable, but because many have. We scream in anger not because of one situation, but because of many factors building up over time. We say people “die of _______” but of course they die of lots of other things—never just one disease.
Perhaps the best and most intimate way to think of karma is to consider it as compost. In case you don’t keep a compost bin in your kitchen or garden, I’ll let you know that one apple core does not make a stink. Add lemon juice, coffee grounds, an avocado peel and some watermelon, let sit for a week, and a special juice (called compost tea in some circles) collects. This stuff is gross, at least in the kitchen, though if you stir it around outside it should actually be smell-free. And of course, by the time everything has broken down, barring any weeds you accidentally let into the container or pile, you have a lush dirt that will grow your fruits even higher.
In the same way, bad seeds don’t always fruit bad apples, because in the case of karma (and in karma we do in fact speak of seeds) to grow a tree we need not just one seed but thousands, if not millions of seeds…plus sunshine, water: our conditions. And any one of those conditions going wrong—an early frost, not enough rain—the apple tree won’t grow.
Good karma and bad karma are tricky. It is not as simple as helping someone cross the street; that’s not enough to generate positive merit for you or for the world. It is neither as easy as killing a mosquito to send you to a hell realm in your next lifetime. Because the “next lifetime” isn’t your lifetime; it’s the lifetime of some amalgam of energies, in which you will be admixed. There will be no “you” next lifetime, but your karma will recombine—in ways you have no control over, or limited control with practice—with millions of other people’s and result in ways you cannot foresee.
So if it is out of our control, why bother doing anything good? If it not only won’t benefit a future me, much less future society (or if I can’t guarantee it will) then why even do good?
Collectively, your karma and my karma is our karma.
The karma of your family, your relationships, every place you’ve been, conversation you’ve had—and will have—could possibly affect everyone else—every being. Because you do not know for sure, it is best to do well. You can turn the tea, mix the conditions, have your drop by drop effect, both through your direct actions and through influencing others, as others do, and that is what makes the difference.
This works both ways.
Each time we think “Oh, just this once it won’t count,” we can’t know that for sure. That could be the last cause or condition to kill or blossom the seed of thousands of others. Each time we turn the habit of action (all action is karmic, whether positive or negative) in a beneficial direction, we are adding to the good compost of the universe. This is not love and light I am describing here. This is our collective potentiality, basis for the future and nourishment. A drop of poison in the well may not hurt it, but if you are the 50th person to add a drop when buckets worth have been pouring in over time, that might do it. Inversely, if you are the last person to compliment someone, even though you don’t feel like it, you resent them and wish they would go away, on a day when they are ready to go home and commit suicide, you can turn the tide. You may never know. They may never know. Not knowing is not a reason to not do it.
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Ed: Kevin Macku & Brianna Bemel
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