I can track my college career by tragedies. A few weeks after the start of my freshman, a violent earthquake collapsed a section of the Bay Bridge and part of the freeway in Oakland. It flattened houses and set businesses ablaze. I was walking to class when it hit; I tripped and blamed the uneven sidewalk.

My sophomore year began with a fire in a fraternity house that killed three students. Just a couple weeks later, and within a few short blocks, a terrifying situation took place in a popular bar. A psychotic gunman held hostage 33 people, most students. After seven hours of terror, police managed to bust in and the deranged man was shot dead—as was a student who took a bullet to the chest.

How does that kind of fear and destruction affect us? Some are touched directly. The victims whose time was cut short, their family and friends—those lives are obviously altered to some degree or another. What about everyone else? The quake killed 63 people, injured almost 4,000, and left many homeless (some estimates of those needing shelter were as high as 12,000). But in ways difficult to fathom, none of us was left unscathed. Aftershocks of that and the other tragedies rippled out.

Fall semester of my junior year, another fire tore through the Oakland and Berkeley hills. I watched its progression from the window of my second-story apartment south of campus on Telegraph Avenue. The tenets of my building were asked to prepare for evacuation. We waited for further word, our radios dialed to pick up what our eyes couldn’t. I saw the fire come around the bend from Oakland toward the houses on the hills above like some hungry dragon laying waste to everything in its path. It was sneaking up on a house I had always admired, a Victorian painted crisp white against the dark hillside. I told myself the fire would stop before it got there; that house was special, it deserved to survive. Then the trees around the house ignited as easily as birthday candles and a few seconds later the roof was smoking. Too soon, it was nothing but the outline of a house, everything but its frame consumed by an inferno within, leaving a skeleton against a bright white light. The only other time I can remember feeling as helpless, horrified, and heartbroken as that moment was watching live footage of the twin towers collapse on September 11, 2001.

I still recall the pieces of burned things that rained down for days after the fire was contained. Even after the sky began to clear, slowly turning from dark grey to hazy orange, bits of blackened stuff floated through the air. I snatched one of these items as it fluttered past me on campus. It was part of a page from a book, charred illegible and so delicate it crumbled in my hand.

Had we somehow brought these events upon ourselves? Related to Buddha’s theory of causation, is the concept of “karma.” It’s the application of Buddha’s theory on a personal level: an individual’s actions and thoughts affect the events that occur in that person’s life. According to this idea, the students and the people of this community, area, and region were responsible in some way for the misfortunes that were befalling us. Had the 25 people killed in the fire done something awful to deserve their fates? What about the thousands whose homes were destroyed? Taken too literally, the concept of karma can seem to blame those who suffer tragedy. Cancer patients grow their own tumors. Jews caused the Holocaust. Thankfully, I’m told that’s far too simplistic a take on karma. There’s personal karma, but there’s also collective karma, which are social and historical forces too broad and complex for sorting through and allotting culpability. Personal and collective karmas crash and mix in unpredictable and mysterious ways.

9 thoughts on “Karma

  1. “… all things arise in dependence upon multiple causes and conditions.”

    It’s impossible to trace karmic origins unless one is omniscient.

    One condition of the earthquake is simply driving. I am not an expert on Karma, but I’d say karma isn’t always connected to a past action from a former existence.

    This idea goes contrary to many teachings I’ve received, but I’m a None when it comes to predicting events based on past life actions.

    • Hi Okiebuddhist, It seems like the concept of karma is very complicated. I think it’s most useful when thinking about the present and future. It helps to keep in mind that intentions and actions have consequences, so it’s best to go forward being aware of what you are doing and saying, etc. I think when looking at the past, karma is less helpful and has the potential to become a “blame game.”

  2. Hi Corinna. What you are saying is, I think, very true. And in that context, I believe what Jesus said about human action and what Buddha said about karma are exactly the same. “As ye sow, so shall ye reap.”

    If you want to know why I am a Christian, karma is pretty much it. For me, the flaw in the Buddhist concept of karma is that it is hopelessly never ending. As humans, no sooner do we think a good thought than we immediately think a bad one. We cannot help ourselves.

    And in that last statement, is the crux of the whole matter. Karma makes it never-ending and mostly, I don’t think many of us wind up Buddhas. That is a pretty grim concept of life and eternity. If you do not have the power of Grace to intercede for you, it is eternity spent running around a wheel.

    I am not trying to be disrespectful of Buddhism. The mirror image reflections of Buddhism and Christianity are too great for me to do that, even if I were disposed to, which I am not. If you read the 1894 book by Paul Carus, “The Gospel of Buddha”, the analogies are amazing. Yet without the concept of Grace it seems to me hopeless and deeply depressing. That is my take on it.

    As always, I continue to enjoy your journey.

    Yours in Christ,

    • Hi, Pattie. I’m Buddhist and find your comments very respectful.

      We might think about Karma extending through beginningless time. If God made the heavens and earth, he did so with a cause in mind. Causation is an important concept in life in general.

      How did I arrive in Oklahoma? My mother is Native American, and her ancestors came through the Trail of Tears. Everything in this life is interdependent connected, and sometimes we don’t even notice the subtleties.

      Christianity has grace, a beautiful concept, but I would also argue that grace exists in the Mahayana traditions with the concept of the Bodhisattvas helping us along our pathway to perfection. We also have Heavens called Pure Realms or Pure Lands when, after death, we may go to in order to purify our Karma and return or emanate to the earth or other places until all beings have perfected themselves.

      • Thank you, Patti and Okiebuddhist, for this fascinating exchange. I might also add that it seems many Buddhists find grace in the “present moment,” and I can see how coming back to the now or the present moment is a practice that can help us find grace. I don’t know…just a thought. Thank you both!

  3. For some reason I got lost in this conversation about Karma so have little to say. Perhaps my karma ran over my dogma.

  4. Now THAT is funny, Frank. Good one.

    Nice to meet you okiebuddhist. My father claimed one quarter Choctaw blood, although all records were destroyed in a Court house fire in the early 1900’s. So you and I may share a tie somewhere along the way! I understand what you are saying, and the similarities are quite strong. I just must say that I do not feel confident of my ability to perfect myself. I know me too well.

    Corinna, I see what you are saying in the practice of repentance and forgiveness. When you repent, you turn from the past, accept the present moment and hope for doing right in future. All in one action. That, at least, is my take on it.

    As always, conversations here are an interesting place to be.

    Yours in Christ

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