Instant Karma's Gonna Get You


Sharon Stone regrets having suggested that the Chinese earthquake was the result of bad karma for oppressing the people of Tibet.

Her suggestion mirrored a fairly commonplace usage of the word "karma", which is to say, as some sort of impersonal force that implements payback for misdeeds. "That's his karma," some people will say, if a not-very-nice person gets his or her comeuppance. Karmic justice is to the present day world what Yahweh's justice was to the Old Testament. Yahweh was said to reward Israel for being good and punish Israel for being wicked. Karma is more or less just like that in the contemporary popular imagination, except without all the theistic baggage, so that you can talk about payback from on high without actually sounding religious.

The author of Ecclesiastes figured out a long time ago that life wasn't always fair, and that our rewards in this life don't really match very well how righteous we are. But all these thousands of years later, people still want to believe otherwise, and with the magic K word they can express this notion without even having to believe in God.

One problem with this concept of national karma, as opposed to individual karma, is that it says that people are punished whether or not they had anything to do with the supposed national sin. Was Katrina simply America's bad karma for foisting George Bush on the world? How many of the Katrina victims even supported George Bush? Similarly, how many of the victims of the quake in China had anything to do with China's Tibet policy?

The Shin Buddhist author Taitetsu Unno writes in the book River of Fire, River of Water:

In Buddhism hell does not exist as a place; it is created by each individual's thought, speech, and action. Hell is the consequence of karmic life for which each person alone is accountable. No one else should be blamed for one's past history, present circumstances, or future happenings. The law of karma is the ultimate form of personal responsibility, and its validity is to be tested through rigorous self-examination and applied to one's own existential predicament. The principle of karma should never be applied to others, as found in such thoughtless expressions as "That's his karma," when another person experiences misfortune. (pp. 158-159; emphasis added).
In other words, "judge not and ye shall not be judged."

Footnote: The common slang expression, "parking karma," refers to the ability to find good parking spots in congested or difficult-to-park areas. My parking karma is generally bad, although I can attribute this to the fact that I live in a city where parking is scarce. There is a measure of both irony and superstition in a phrase like that. It is hard to know what kind of good behavior it would take to earn good parking karma, although maybe the idea is that being a generous and polite driver who doesn't nearly mow down pedestrians on the way to a popular restaurant might earn you enough karma points to win that coveted parking space right next to said popular restaurant.


James F. McGrath said...

Carmen Andres gave me a blog award, and I've listed you as one of my 5 choices. Congratulations! :)

Joliene said...

One of my favorite professor-quotes: "If you really believed in karma, you wouldn't have brought it up."

Pastor Bob Cornwall said...

Okay, James McGrath named me too, so I name you as well. Come and find out your reward!

Frank said...

I know someone who has a "parking angel", not sure if that is related...

I like your comparison between OT retribution and modern notions of karma. When I was doing my studies on the Book of Job, a commentator pointed out how modern readers will think that OT retribution is such a silly concept. How could Job's illness be the direct result of his sin? We scoff at that. Yet, if you look closer, you can see that people still believe there is a direct line between their behavior and reward/punishment. Just look at how many people have thought that AIDS was some kind of punishment due to a "sinful" lifestyle (which Rosemary Hubble points out in her book on Job). Your post about Karma is another example of this, as well.