Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Sacred Cow -- Karma

We have sacred cows in Unitarian Universalism, and right now, I believe the one treated with the most reverence is the concept of "karma."

We have youth programs that revolve around karma, it is regularly dropped into sermons and casual conversations.  From my experience, questioning people about their reverence for it is considered out of bounds.  In fact, when I have discussed my own feelings about it -- not in response to someone else's tenderly-held belief, but just speaking from my own experience -- the reaction has often ranged from "you just don't get it" to outright hostility.

It's a sacred cow, folks.

Hey, I was quite fond of it, too ... until I discussed it with someone who actually is a practicing Hindu.  And that made me confront the other side of the equation.

We're human.  We want to make sense of things.  We are all Job's friends, sitting around with him as he scrapes his sores with broken pottery, trying to figure out what he did to cause himself such misery.

Karma makes us feel good.  Because it takes an ounce of natural consequences, and expands it into a full-blown philosophy that allows us to feel that we have control over the events of our lives.

Look, if I walk around being nice to people, the natural consequence is that I have greater odds of people being nice to me.  That's not karma, it's predictable consequence.

Karma expands that into the metaphysical.  You do good, good things will happen to you.  You do bad, you will be punished by bad things.

Sound fine, right?

But if 1+1=2, we must be willing to accept that 2-1=1.  You can't just accept the first equation.

So ... if bad things happen to you, it's because of something you did. Either in this life, or a previous.
Soum Bunnarith, 41, (is) a former salesman whose wife blinded him with acid five years ago in a rage of jealousy. “I ask myself, ‘Why me?’ ” he said. “But then I think maybe I did terrible things in a past life, and that thought helps me to accept this.”
I was at a multi-faith dialogue dinner, and we were discussing "why bad things happen."  The example of a disabled, disfigured baby was brought up.  The Hindu at the table explained that they believe that is karma, that the baby was a terrible person in a previous life and now is receiving the consequences.

It's his fault.

Now, obviously, as a mother of a baby diagnosed with cancer at 7 months, I can't pretend this isn't personal for me.  But this is part of karma.  We can't dismiss substitutionary atonement with disdain and then turn around and only see karma as sunshine and rainbows.

Do I think you need to just reject karma?  No.  I think that living as if there will be consequences for all your actions/inactions, whether it's through karma, the three-fold law, judgement day, etc, can produce positive results.

But go deep.  Examine your belief.  Educate yourself about how it is applied in reality.  Look at not just the sunshine and rainbows, but also the acid burns and Down syndrome.  Poverty.  Abuse.  Caste.

Examine the differences in understanding about karma.  Buddhist karma is not that same as Hindu karma.  And "American karma" is a whole other concept.

No sacred cows.  Check the teeth.  Sometimes they bite.


The Elephant's Child said...

Hi, Liz (if I may call you that, lol).

I'm a Buddhist with mostly Zen roots, not a UU, though I used to sing in UU churches.

My extremely heterodox view of karma is this -- it really IS simply consequence, though not necessarily predictable. What makes my view heterodox is, I don't accept the idea of personal karma. That is, I don't expect that at my death, a packet of karma will be shipped along to predetermine some other person's life.

Instead, I view the entire universe as a karma pool or, if you prefer scientific metaphors, a state machine. At each moment, karma determines the next moment. From any point in the universe, it would seem that the entire universe comes crashing in at each moment to determine what, if anything, can exist at that point and fit in with the rest of the universe. Thus forms arise and pass away.

To me, this is consistent with both anata (no-self) and dependent origination, which are two of the most sensible (though sometimes counterintuitive) teachings of the Buddha.

The downside of this view, of course, is that justice is not assured. I'm OK with that, but a lot of people are not. They demand some kind of judgment after death, whether karmic or divine.

Lizard Eater said...

Hi, E.C.!

Now that's an examined view of karma that I can get behind. It meshes well with both process theology and universalism.

Thanks for your thoughtful answer!

Heather said...

Years ago, while doing a summer CPE unit, we visited a Hindu temple. I still remember the staff person from the temple saying, "You wouldn't comfort someone who has slapped himself." I had a hard time wrapping my head around what being a Hindu chaplain would look like--or what I could do as a chaplain visiting a Hindu patient.

I wonder, with the raging debate about Islam echoing in the back of my mind, how much diversity there is within Hinduism. You & I encountered people who interpret karma pretty harshly; maybe there are gentler forms of Hinduism.

goodwolve said...

It seems to me that people say it when they want something bad to happen to someone else: "karma will get them". Why not just feel the feeling of feeling bad - what is wrong with that. We don't have to wish bad things on other people.

I think we have discussed this before and you pointed out the Hindu version to me and made me completely rethink how I thought about it. Karma is ok if it is all working out for me or working bad for the guy over there, but don't let bad things happen to me and mine.

Sacred cow - definitely. A leftover from the Hippie mod podge of religious inspired worship.

hysteric cleric said...

Really? See, I haven't experienced that at all. Not in the church I serve now, nor in previous congregations. Sure, I know quite a few UUs that believe in karma, but the majority of them are fairly calm about it. And yes, I have met a couple of UUs who are as anxious about it as you describe here, but they are so few and far between, I would never have thought to associate karma with a UU sacred cow. (Don't get me wrong - we definitely have our sacred cows, but that one I haven't seen much.)

Personally, I agree with that most influential of contemporary theologians: Bono. When he spoke 8 years ago at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government(!), he said, "I am a sworn enemy of the saccharin, and a believer in grace over karma." That sounds about right to me.

kimc said...

It made me think that I have heard that the word "self" was invented along the way (more recently than you'd think): before that there was no self, there was only the community and one's place in it. Since the concept of Karma, I think, was invented before the concept of self, don't we have to try to look at it from that world view? (If it's possible.)