By Holly Herring
I’ve been hearing some things about karma lately that aren’t very cool.
Where I’m from, karma is spread out over several lifetimes and it can barely be picked up on; it’s kind of a blip on the radar. It’s a little like, “Wait. Did you feel that? Right there. Do you feel it now? I think that’s karma.”
But what I see on social media and hear thrown around casually in conversations in the grocery store checkout line sound pretty terrifying.
In an online community someone posted footage from their doorbell camera showing a woman walking into her yard, taking a potted plant, then walking off with it. I was pretty sure it would appear amongst all the hate and sure enough, there it was: “Karma will GET HER!”
Whoa, karma. What happened to you? When did you get so vindictive?
I was working doing homeless outreach at a soup kitchen one day, and a staff member brought a woman to me who wanted some resources. She sat in front of me and explained that she had been assaulted overnight. With a red face, tears and snot pouring down, sobbing and grabbing at the hem of her shirt, she said to me, “This is karma because I wasn’t a good mom to my kids when they were little. I deserve this,” and she trailed off into her cries and sorrow.
Someone with a chronic illness sat me down one day. She had been having a really bad day with her illness and didn’t know much about Buddhism, but knew I was a Buddhist. She asked me why she was suffering so much and told me that she had thought herself to be a really good person in her life. She helped others when possible, she hardly broke any laws, she paid her bills on time and was a good community member. She thought that karmic laws would lean in favor of her not having a painful, debilitating illness. What had gone wrong? Was she wrong about her understanding of karma?
I find myself saying and thinking this often—karma is not a bitch.
Karma isn’t some fickle source of judgment out there just waiting to jump on you and take you down like a lioness on a wildebeest. When I began in Buddhism I was surrounded by practitioners who really were rooted in their belief in karma, but it was never this vindictive karma and it was definitely never situational. Karma was almost beautiful and natural in the way it was taught to me.
I was given the metaphor of a ripening fruit as karma.
In one lifetime, the fruit might be green with youth. Into the next lifetime the fruit goes and it’s green has started to turn a little bit. In the next lifetime, there’s some red beginning to show on the fruit. Soon into the next lifetime we have an almost ripe fruit which is mostly red. Then we have a lifetime where the fruit is completely red and fully ripe.
This fruit’s karma led to it being a healthy and nutritious food over many lifetimes. But some fruit comes forth from the bud on the plant in its first lifetime in a dry period. Not much moisture got to the plant, so the next lifetime we see a fruit struggling to ripen. It is small and still very green. In the next lifetime the fruit is growing, albeit slowly, and it’s got a spec on one side of red. Finally, the fruit has struggled long enough with a lack of water and it falls from the plant a shriveled up lump of hard, sour fruit.
Just to keep things interesting, at any point in the fruit’s growth, conditions could change and take the ripening with it. A big rainstorm could liven up a shriveling fruit and it could go on to be the juiciest fruit on the plant. Alternatively, a fruit who was well on its way to winning a ripeness award at the county fair could receive no rain for far too long and slowly die.
I think this new, secular idea of karma being so instant and so sure is frightening.
This type of misunderstood karma appears like the Greek god Zeus with his thunderbolts of weaponized judgment, blasting down from the sky, rewarding good conduct and punishing evil. I have heard descriptions of karmic events in the lives of non Buddhists that make it seem as if the karma boomerang can sweep in at any minute and throw on its Emperor Karma Robe and crown ready to instill swift justice fueled by spiritual snobbery.
“It’s simple,” they tell me, “do good things and good things happen.”
People do this sort of karmic community service under the assumption that if they feed the poor or say, “bless you” to a stranger when they sneeze they can ward off a parking ticket. I sometimes feel like that woman in the car insurance commercial who looks at her friend saying, “That’s not how it works. That’s not how any of this works.”
“You must acknowledge and experience this part of the universe. Karma is intricate, too vast. You would, with your limited human senses, consider it too unfair. But you have tools to really, truly love. Loving the children is very important. But love everyone as you would love your children.” – Guan Yin/Kuan Yin
Holly has bonded her spirituality to her activism. She began her relationship with Buddhism through Fo Guang Shan, an international Chinese Mahāyāna Buddhist organization and monastic order based in Taiwan that practices Humanistic Buddhism. However, she finds herself more aligned with Stephen Batchelor’s more secular Buddhism currently. Holly works in homeless services and is very passionate about promoting the inherent worth and dignity of all people as well as eliminating stigma about homelessness and behavioral health.
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