A Short Take on Karma

Paul Krugman and Karen Allendoerfer got me thinking today. Paul is, of course, the Nobel Prize-winning economist and New York Times columnist. Karen is my blogging buddy and honorary niece — a neuroscientist, musician and fellow Unitarian Universalist. This may be the first time their two names have been published in the same sentence, and a lead sentence at that.

This morning I read Paul’s op-ed Is Vast Inequality Necessary? in the Times. In my idealistic college-age days in the 1960s I was a socialist who believed that everyone should be paid equally. Of course, I understand now that’s not feasible, although I’m still not sure whether it’s undesirable. So, at least for the foreseeable future, some degree of economic inequality is inevitable. But the degree of inequality in the United States and throughout most of the world in intolerable and far beyond any rational explanation.

Yin-yang symbol, ice and fireKaren and I have had an ongoing dialogue in the blogosphere and on Facebook about a higher power and about evil. It’s always risky to represent anyone else’s beliefs, but I think I’m safe in saying that Karen has a hard time in believing that a benevolent higher power could exist in a world with so much evil — genocide, forced starvation, human trafficking.

I believe in karma, but not the way many Buddhists do. In my Buddhism, no child would ever suffer because he or she was reincarnated from a being who had done something terrible in a previous life. In my Buddhism, though, there are causes and effects globally that necessitate some degree of evil. There can be no this without a that. How would we know what good is if we never saw bad? So I see karma as a sort of moral balance and wrote about that two days ago in Perfection and Evil.

Here’s most of Karen’s comment on that post:

I can get on board with a definition of perfect that means something like “in balance” or “complete,” like the laws of physics. Every action begets an equal and opposite reaction. I can see it as descriptive rather than proscriptive. This is how it is, not how it should be, but how it is, and it can’t be any other way, so the best path forward for me is acceptance….

Still, though, perhaps I lack imagination, but I can’t envision anything good enough to balance out the Holocaust. I can’t envision something good enough to make it worth the suffering of abused, innocent children, or chattel slavery. Nothing seems good enough to provide the appropriate karmic balance for those things.

Karen has a point there, and I’ve been mulling it. The light bulb (neuroscientific term) went off when I saw Paul’s column. Just as economic inequality can get way out of balance, so too can global karma. And we can carry the analogy a step further.

Economic inequality can’t be fixed by rich people throwing hundred-dollar bills onto the streets where poor people live, or even going door-to-door with the cash. It requires what Buddhists call upaya (skillful means). Similarly, good people praying in churches, meditating in temples and dancing in ashrams won’t be enough to bring evil and good into a closer balance.

May we find the upaya to reduce the world’s evils.

— Mel Pine (Fearless Lotus)

Copyright 2016 © Mel Harkrader Pine

12 Comments Add yours

  1. I like the analogy between economic inequality and evil. The vast global scale is appropriate and it helps me wrap my head around the concept of karma on such a scale.

    I think there are going to be issues with interpretation when one tries to draw the line at “enough” inequality, or “enough” evil. I’ve never believed as you did, that everyone should be paid the same, but the idea has a certain clarity and justice to it. It’s a concept that most people can at least grasp.

    Once you get away from absolutes into shades of gray, it gets very murky. I am horrified by the extent of economic inequality currently in this country and worldwide. Unfortunately it took the problem coming closer to home, to my own country, to people I know, before I really thought about it much on a daily basis or used it as a criteria for voting for political candidates, as I do now. And even now, living where I do in Silicon Valley, I’m shielded from the worst of its effects. It’s hard for me to measure at all, and certainly hard to know how bad it really is, let alone define how much is enough. It seems like hubris for me to even try to take that on.

    So in the absence of any other coherent way to conceptualize the problem, I tend to use MLK’s point that “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” There’s so much injustice, that there are multiple entry points. You can jump in almost anywhere.

    And what are the “skillful means” to better the situation? I tend to think that these means would involve progressive politics, ingenuity, and technology, but not everyone does. Many people seem to be willing to accept the degree of inequality we have, and the degree of evil they experience, even when it impacts them immediately and directly. I think this acceptance is what underlies the “What’s the Matter with Kansas?” phenomenon of poor voters voting against their own economic self-interest.

    Liked by 3 people

  2. amiezor says:

    This whole post (and Karen’s comment as quoted from one of your previous posts) is very meaty, and I have been thinking about it at the back of my mind for a while now. I tend to sway to a little bit of an extreme on this, and my friends are quick to point out that the way I see this is a bit “out there” but here it is: things are not inherently “evil” until we – as free, creative agents – label them as so. The only reason we have evil is because we label things as “Good,” so the other side of the swing is always going to be evil, or seen as bad.

    I tried to make a case to a friend that the word ‘Enemy’ only creates a label that something is bad, and that it is not useful to use such a term when one is to focus more on unconditional love. She disagreed, citing that in using the word, it helps identify that which we might deem as an enemy, so we can focus more on loving that thing we might despise. I disagree; I think it still carries some unconscious weight when we use the word. It still sticks to the “bad” side of things, even if we aren’t consciously aware of it.

    I know that unfortunate and tragic things happen everywhere, and that we will never lose the labels of “bad” or “good” completely, but somehow, deep inside, I know it is all a farce, and wonder how to fix it. How to push more love out there.

    I don’t believe in an omnipotent creator God that deems things good or bad; it just is. However, I do believe that the way in which we as individuals interact with the Cosmic Soup (infinite God) affects the state of things. That our intentions beget the fruit. And indeed, this does translate to karma in a way.

    I do think that there is some kind of economic karma happening. We have focused for so long on capitalistic profit above people, and cut-throat tactics, squeezing more and more out of the average worker. I have witnessed it before my eyes in two companies now, bragging that they can get more and more done with less and less people. And due to fear or what have you, wages for workers have not kept pace and raises and bonuses have been omitted for years. I very much hope that we can find a solution to this through those “skillful means,” like ingenuity, technology, and yes – even social policy.

    Good topic. Sorry for the long comment – should’ve just blogged it!

    Liked by 3 people

    1. melhpine says:

      Thank you for that, Amie. I agree that the world is neutral and that good and bad exist in our minds. That’s a very Buddhist concept. It’s hard to explain in words, because words also live only in our minds. Hmmm. There’s a story about Abraham I’ll either email to you or make into a blog post.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. melhpine says:

        Meant to say Moses, not Abraham.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Well, this may be why I’m not ever going to be a “good” (ha!) Buddhist. To me evil is linked to that which causes pain, suffering, and/or premature death. And I think pain and suffering are (or at least can be) objectively real, and I don’t think that all suffering is caused by inappropriate attachments and could all be eliminated if individuals changed their attitudes towards situations that caused them suffering. I think that “natural” evil (the consequences of natural disasters, diseases, etc.–i.e. “Acts of God”) is an example of this. I think about the earthquake in Japan several years ago, or even Hurricane Katrina. Yes, the human response to these situations left a lot to be desired, and in the case of Katrina, human failures and human evil made an already bad situation much worse. But I still don’t think that without the contribution of the human element, everything would have been “okay.” There would have been fewer deaths, less suffering, without the human element. But it still wouldn’t have been zero. And I still don’t think if I’d been one of the people who drowned/lost everything I owned/lost my family I would be able to think that it was neutral. The same with cancer or other horrible diseases, especially those that affect young children, or with the pain and suffering experienced by animals. Our attitude may make it worse, but the worst aspect of these things is not our attitude towards them and is not just in human labels. That’s how I feel anyway . . .

    Liked by 2 people

    1. melhpine says:

      Hmmm. The tsunami in Japan spewed pain and suffering, but was it evil? Absent the human malfeasance, was Katrina evil? They were natural events, and it’s our mind that labels them “bad.” I didn’t say there was anything wrong with labeling them bad, but that happens in our minds. I haven’t studied Pali and Sanscrit, so I have to depend on translations by others. The word “duka” is usually translated as “suffering,” so people think the Buddha taught that suffering is all in our minds. But I’m told that the word is closer to “dissatisfaction” — that duka is really closer to the existential angst, the fact that so many consider their lived unsatisfactory. The pain we feel from losses, sickness, injuries, etc. is real, and we do suffer, but we make it worse by believing that these things should not be happening. “Why do bad thing happen to me? I’m a good person.” “Why do bad things happen to her? She’s a good person.” When humans perpetrate the bad things, it gets harder. But people do bad things because of their own backgrounds (karma?). We can work to lessen the probability of people doing bad things, but I don’t see it as combating a force I’d call “evil.”

      I’ve written of the story of Marpa, a great Tibetan Buddhist teacher who lost his son and cried for three days. I recently heard a slightly different translation of the story. After he cried for three days with his head covered, the townspeople asked why he was so distraught, since he taught them that it’s all a dream. “Yes, it’s all a dream,” he replied, “but losing a son is a nightmare.” And he cried for three more days.

      Buddhism is not “The Power of Positive Thinking.” It doesn’t blame us for feeling pain and suffering. It does say, though, that if we start from a base of understanding on a deep level that shit happens — that we will experience nightmares — then we won’t feel betrayed by life. We’ll be better able to enjoy the good.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. I can’t disagree with any of this. “The pain we feel from losses, sickness, injuries, etc. is real, and we do suffer, but we make it worse by believing that these things should not be happening.” Yes, yes, I totally agree.

        But it nonetheless seems a little bit like quibbling over semantics to say that the suffering caused by human malfeasance is evil whereas the suffering caused by natural events is neutral. They feel the same to the one in pain. I suppose, yes, the labeling happens in the human mind, but pain can still be felt by beings that don’t have language, beings that can’t label. And it’s still real whether it’s labeled or not.

        And while I agree completely with you and what you’ve written here, sometimes I think this idea gets misused and over-applied (not by you–this is my own “stuff”) to justify the actions of the powerful. Sometimes the shit that happens really shouldn’t be happening. Should, say, the residents of Flint Michigan just accept that “shit happens,” or should someone in the government be held accountable for shit that shouldn’t have happened? It’s hard, sometimes impossible, for me to tell the difference, depending on my vantage point. The old Serenity prayer seems applicable even here: the serenity to accept what cannot be changed, the courage to change what can be, and the wisdom to know the difference.

        Liked by 2 people

      2. melhpine says:

        Yes, Let It Be doesn’t mean we have to let it be.

        Liked by 2 people

      3. amiezor says:

        This is a great explanation to me. I remember reading your post on Marpa, I really loved it. We are in a dream of great feeling. The sadness and the joy, they are all our children, and they all have a right to exist and be loved.

        Liked by 1 person

      4. amiezor says:

        And I very much agree with the serenity prayer in situations like Flint! That was not just a case of “shit happens.” I would not call it evil though; it is more of a misconduct that now needs to be corrected, and we have the power to correct the change.

        Liked by 1 person

  4. I guess evil may or may not be a useful word, depending on the situation. I can see where it could bog a conversation down, or just confuse the issue, or scare people into inaction. In many of these cases it doesn’t really matter what the label is, what matters most is the response to the situation.

    Liked by 2 people

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