I've been doing a lot of reading on mindfulness, meditation and Buddhism as evidenced by the books read in January 2017:
- Looking At Mindfulness: Twenty-Five Paintings to Change the Way You Live by Christophe Andre translated by Trista Selous (2011)
- Mindfulness is Better Than Chocolate: A Practical Guide to Enhanced Focus and Lasting Happiness in a World of Distractions by David Michie (2014)
- Buddhism for Busy People: Finding Happiness in an Uncertain World by David Michie (2004)
- Train Your Mind Change Your Brain: How a New Science Reveals Our Extraordinary Potential to Transform Ourselves by Susan Begley (2007)
- A Buddhist Grief Observed by Guy Newland (2016)
- Buddhism Without Beliefs: Contemporary Guide to Awakening by Stephen Batchelor (1997)
- Re-read Stillness Speaks by Eckhart Tolle (2003)
- Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking by Susan Cain (2012)
Karma is a concept from the Buddhist tradition that I've been mulling over in my head for a while. In fact, my daughter gave me a "karma" necklace that rarely comes off - a thin, almost non-descript strand with three small gold rings. The message: "as with these circles, we are all connected...what goes around, come around. you live what you give so remember to keep the circle positive, peaceful and loving."
We joke that our dog Benji was a grumpy old man in a former life and since his karma is not changing, he may come back as a snail or bug.
What goes around, comes around
You reap what you sow
The law of cause and effect
In Buddhism for Busy People, David Michie learns from his teacher that"karma" is translated from Sanskrit as "action". That with each action, including thought and speech, comes a consequence. It is like planting seeds: good karma seeds cultivate good consequences and negative karma seeds cultivate negative consequences.....we are the authors of our own destiny. He offers this quote from the Buddha in Dharmapada:
The thought manifests as the word;
The word manifests as the deed;
The deed develops into habit;
And habit hardens into character;
So watch the thought and ways with care,
And let it spring from love born out of concern for all living beings.....
As the shadow follows the body,
As we think so we become.
But how does this answer the haunting question - why do bad things happen to good people? Or said another way, why do bad things happen to those who plant good karma seeds and good things happen to those who plant bad karma seeds?
According to Michie, Buddhism's answer is that we should look not just to circumstances in this life; in fact, "a seed that may have been planted two lifetimes ago can ripen to produce an effect which may have no bearing at all on our current behavior." In other words, negative karma seeds planted in former lives may come to fruition in the present life. So at the end of the day, karma says that one always gets what one deserves.
So did Josh have some horrible karmic debt from another life that had to be paid? Even worse, did I.....that he had to atone for? Or as bad, does the action of taking his own life create a karmic debt for future lives?
It is good to know that I am not the only one to find this teaching hard to accept.
In Newland's slim but profound book, A Buddhist Grief Observed, he, who is a Professor of Religion and a practicing Buddhist, questions Buddha's teachings in light of the death of his beloved wife's from cancer.....considering what was helpful, not helpful and why. Similar to C.S. Lewis's grief memoir, A Grief Observed, also written as a way to come to grips with his wife's death and the Christian faith. Consider the epigrams at the beginning of the book:
It is nothing strange that human beings should die. (The Buddha)
Don't come talking to me about the consolations of religion or I shall suspect that you don't understand. (C.S. Lewis)
Newland also struggled with what he calls "strong karma" - the idea that people get what they have coming: "Was Valerie's cancer the moral consequence of some past action? To me, this seems outrageous. There is no evidence for it, and it inflicts more pain on those in pain."
So as a practicing Buddhist, how does he reconcile himself with this fundamental teaching of karma?
Newland agrees that actions matter and directly affects our lives but rather than the traditional metaphor of karma as a seed, he postulates that we should think of our actions as waves, impacted by other waves, outside our control:
A choice, an action, is like a wave in a field of energy, a ripple in a pond. It affects the next moment of our mind; it affects other people; it affects the world at large....Our choices are one set of waves in a vast, churning sea....Sometimes we get rocked by the wake of another boat. It's a fact that we all get whacked by forces we did not set up....So our choices matter and cocreate the future, but they are not always the main causes of what happens to us....What we do makes a difference, but it does not uniquely determine our future; no one has that much control.
This analogy makes more sense. Just as his wife's unexpected force was breast cancer, diagnosed and successfully treated in 2004, but back with a vengeance eight years later, moving through out her whole body, eventually killing her, so Josh's unexpected force was undiagnosed and untreated depression, a cancer of the mind that overcame him as well.
Definitive answers about karma are unknown. What I do know is that Josh is gone and nothing we do can bring him back. But we can honor his life by working to prevent other teens from getting to such point of anguish and despair they do not see a way out. By working to prevent this tragedy from happening to other families.
If there is a karmic debt, hopefully the work of the Josh Anderson Foundation can pay it off.