By Kellie Schorr
“The Buddha in the Corner” is a six-part series based on the six realms of existence in the Buddhist Wheel of Life as they are found in everyday experience. In the Bhavachakra (Wheel of Life) there is a Buddha in the upper right hand corner pointing to the way out of the cycle of suffering.
I once fell off a recumbent bicycle.
Yes, you read that correctly. I lost my balance and fell off of a bicycle with no wheels that was bracketed to the gym floor in front of three million people (okay, it was eight people). I was using music to distract my brain from the obvious insanity of peddling a non-wheeled bicycle that hadn’t moved an inch in 30 minutes of heart pounding labor. Looking up to the looming TV in front of me I saw Emma Thompson on the big screen.
Cathy: Is this one of your “It’s all Emma Thompson’s fault” stories?
Me: Yes. Yes, it is.
So, I looked up to see Emma pushing her new movie and I wanted to hear what she was saying because she was laughing with the interviewer and he was obviously intoxicated by her charm. Sadly, before I could change the headphone channel from pop trauma to the TV feed, she grabbed me by the eyes and pulled me toward the television. I leaned over to figure out what she was saying, focused on her perfect smile as she drew me closer and closer and….BAM. I hit the floor.
Two things bothered me about that day:
- No one was alarmed.
- No one was impressed when I got back on that bike and rode for at least 10 more minutes before hobbling to the locker room to shower off my shame. Personally, I thought I was a real trooper.
I wasn’t wise enough to wait for the incident to cross that magical line between humiliating event to funny story. I called a friend and told her what happened while my face was still red. That’s never skillful.
“It’s karma,” she said, offhandedly.
“What is the universe holding against me? I’m gym innocent.”
“I was thinking of that day last week.”
“The day you laughed at the guy who got tossed off the treadmill while ogling those young girls on the music video.”
“But he deserved it!”
So that was it. The biter gets bitten. The thief gets robbed. The laughter on a bike gets a one-way ticket to the floor. The old “Karma Café: you get served what you deserve” meme come to life.
That’s all well and good, except—that’s not karma.
There are a number of Buddhist ideas about karma depending on tradition and teachings (ask three Buddhists, get five opinions) but in terms of the wheel of life, karma is the distinguishing feature between the realm of human birth and the other five realms.
The Human Realm is considered the highest birth because it is the only one where you have choices and can take actions to change your situation. It is the realm where you don’t just deal with the karma of other decisions, but you have the power to make new ones. The problem is, culturally we have nurtured a very wrong, and punitive view of karma.
We’ve been trained, particularly by popular media, to think karma is the splash back (usually straight out of the “ironic punishment department”)—the snap of the rubber band, the payback, the “just desserts” for our petty unskillful ways. And yet, none of that in any way describes or defines the true essence of karma.
Karma isn’t a cosmic paddle dredged up by grouchy gurus and fed up babysitters to spank us for our wrongs. Karma is natural, inevitable and kinder than we imagine. The word karma means “action” and it is simply the natural development of our investment (happy or harsh) in the world. Karma doesn’t set out to “punish” us or “reward” us. Karma just does what it does as an action started by what we do.
If you plant tomatoes, you get tomatoes. Sometimes a tomato springs up so fast it seems to bloom before you have a chance to water it. Other times, you might discover a sprout you planted several summers ago that’s just been waiting to grow. Sometimes the sun is bright and the soil is good and you get bigger, juicer tomatoes than you imagined. Other times the air is cold and the hornworms show up and your tomatoes are small, sour little wretches.
Still, when you plant tomatoes, you won’t be getting watermelon. Unless you planted them in the same hole you planted the watermelon. Then you get a watermato. Or in my garden, carrots. I always find random carrots.
We are all the gardeners of our life. We plant seeds with every thought, every action (or lack of action), every moment. We’d like to think we plant in nice even rows with labels at the end so we know what is coming. Then the wind blows, the rain mixes the seeds, or we fall and spill diverse plants in large piles all over the place.
Just when we think we have the garden well under way, it gets accidentally fertilized by disappointment, everyday disasters, and decisions we really didn’t think about carefully. Let’s face it—manure happens. And, weirdly, it makes us grow. We create stronger crops, better planting methods, and gain gentle wisdom with every harvest. That’s karma, too.
Spirituality based on punishment and fear is a garden filled with rancid soil, producing little but anxiety.
Our actions create actions—and they are infinite in possibility. Stop worrying about “good karma” or “bad karma” coming from what you did yesterday. Spend your energy planting the best seeds today. If an old plant pops up, accept it, pull it, nurture it, eat it, or feed it, then let it be because you’ve got more seeds in your pocket ready to be sown.
Once you meet karma—the real karma—you’ll know her. She’s that stranger who talks to you and suddenly you feel like you’ve known her your whole life. She knows everything about you, and yet, she’s surprised by what you tell her next.
She has a good memory and a bag filled with gifts of wisdom to give to you. She doesn’t laugh at you, but she might get you to chuckle at yourself.
Don’t blame her.
Don’t fear her.
Don’t forget her.
Just be with her and realize that while you’ve been watching out for her, she’s been waiting to grow along with you.
The Buddha in the corner points to possibility.
Editor: Dana Gornall