I’ve been a Buddhist for most of my adult life but I almost never talk about it publicly, and only very rarely around my friends and family. I worry it will make me sound like a sanctimonious granola. I’m running that risk today because apparently people are throwing around the term “karma” to describe what’s been going on in Fort Mac — and brothers and sisters, karma ain’t what you think it is.
I’ve especially been thinking about this National Post column by Jen Gerson which (correctly) takes aim at those who call what’s going on in Fort McMurray “karma.” Alas, she’s also using the term karma without understanding it.
In light of the disaster continuing to unfold in Fort McMurray, we need to have a talk about the word “karma.” … The word is steeped in supernaturalism and superstition. It suggests there is a great universal law of cause and effect; that the energies put out into the world are returned via some invisible etheric channel we can neither measure nor see. This is nonsense. If there is one universal constant, it’s that almost nobody gets what they deserve.
Yes, we do need to have a talk about the word karma. This word does not mean what most people in Canada think it means and you should probably consider not saying it.
First off, it bothers me, too, that people are using the term karma when what they really feel is schadenfreude, and I’ll get to that in a sec. But it also bothers me to see karma, a key concept in my faith, dismissed as mumbo-jumbo “steeped in supernaturalism and superstition.” Gerson is relying on received Western ideas about karma, which badly misapprehend the term.
Karma is a complex concept and a simple one at the same time. I’m not really qualified to explain it (neither is Wikipedia, by the way; its definition will only confuse you). I’m not ordained to teach, and I’m such a bad Buddhist, too — I seldom go to my local Zen centre, I sometimes distract people with jokes when I do, and I’ve been known to dabble with the alcohol from time to time. But what I do understand is that karma isn’t a superstitious concept.
Gerson pooh-poohs the idea of great universal rule of causes and effects. But in our universe cause and effect do go together as a rule, when you think about it.
These aren’t the workings of some mysterious force. The channels through which karma works are ordinary and visible, not etheric and invisible. “Karma” literally just means “action,” and we talk about it because the Buddha observed that our positive (and negative) actions have knock-on effects: If I do good things today, it will enable and encourage others to also do good things, and tomorrow better circumstances might land on my doorstep — and my neighbour’s. That will facilitate us both doing even more good things, and life gets a little easier to deal with. When Buddhist teachers talk about good karma, they focus on dealing responsibly with the circumstances you’re handed. For example, in Buddhism it would considered a smart idea to be generous to Fort McMurray residents, regardless of what you think of the oil sands.
Come to think of it, given the ordinary rules of our universe, it takes superstition and irrational faith to imagine effects without causes (babies born to first-century Judaean virgins, for example), or causes without effects (like expecting to pump greenhouse gases into the atmosphere and somehow miraculously escape the scientific consequences).
Anyway, yes, it’s true that it’s hard to predict which individuals are actually going to catch the effects of the positive or negative actions today or tomorrow. This is where karma gets a little confusing, and where I tread carefully (because again, lousy Buddhist), but: Buddhism as a faith is designed to evolve, and in my experience most contemporary believers don’t hold that karma has much to do with individual people getting what they deserve. Often they do, but often they don’t. We all see bad things happen to good people; Buddhism doesn’t deny it. It’s not that hardly anyone gets what they deserve, it’s that we never know whose desserts we’ll get and when.
The important point about karma is that actions have consequences, and that means we all face a collective responsibility — and a shared incentive — to be good. We’re all in this together, we’re all linked. That’s how our universe works. Nothing cosmically superstitious there.
I might quibble with Gerson’s use of the term karma but I can get behind her main thrust, which is about responsibility (i.e. karma proper): All Canadians are responsible for oil production and its consequences, since we all use oil. As a citizen (and a Buddhist) I think that’s absolutely true.
Especially because the activities of oil patch workers are taken on our collective behalf and to our mutual benefit, I’m begging you not to use the term karma to smugly take pleasure in their current misfortunes. It’s an un-Buddhist, un-karmic way to think. The Buddha would have called these thoughts akusala — “unwholesome.” I call them shitty, and I’ll thank you not to drag my faith into them on social media.
Buddhists don’t believe in simplistic karmic punishment à la internet**, as in something bad happens to someone perceived to be bad, and presto! It’s #karma. The heavens raining fire down on Fort McMurray as payment for CO2 emissions frankly sounds more Old Testament to me than anything in the sutras. Monotheists, it’s your God who does all the smiting.
Tell you what: If you’re really dying to use the word “karma,” I suggest running it through this check first. See if your sentence/tweet/column would still make sense if you used the phrase “collective responsibility” instead. I know, that’s going to break Twitter’s character limit, but try.
For example: “Fort Mac is getting what it deserves. #Karma.” Does that make sense if you do the swap? “Fort Mac is getting what it deserves. #CollectiveResponsibility.” See, your tweet is nonsense now: If responsibility is collective — and again it is, because consequences are shared — then it’s not Fort McMurray that deserves the flames, it’s all of us. Or none of us. Or maybe when flames happen, dealing with it responsibly is more important than assigning blame.
All right now, how about: “We should all donate to Fort Mac residents thru the Red Cross. #Karma.” I’m sure you’d baffle a lot of people if you tweeted that, but it’s sound Buddhism — well, at least according to this terrible Buddhist.
But really, if you want to discuss the contemporary issues of oil sands and climate change, I suggest using the contemporary language of science, which is equipped for the task. If you can get your head around the ancient spiritual philosophies and their difficult terminology, they’re better for answering the simpler question: What’s the responsible way to react to all this?
(**Some very traditional Buddhists may believe that misfortune will befall evildoers, but this is not part of the contemporary experience of Buddhism in developed countries any more than you’d expect a Catholic priest in Canada to give a sermon about the torments of Hell. In 16 years of being a Buddhist no one has ever tried to persuade me that bad things happen to those who deserve it. The subject simply hasn’t come up. Not once. There are more important things to focus on, like who’s writing what in the next temple newsletter.)