This week I thought I would discuss some aspects of karma and touch upon a common misconception about the relationship between karma and the physical world. This is particularly relevant in the aftermath of the tragic natural disaster faced by Japan and the crisis the nation is going through at present. In the media we often find misrepresentations of the theory of karma, perhaps the most common being that the external world is determined by an individual’s karma. For instance, natural disasters, accidents and physical disabilities have been all mistakenly labelled as the results of a person’s “bad” karma in the past. It is reasoned that since these situations cause someone to suffer, the event must be the result of their previous misdeeds.
This view neglects the fact that the results of karma are psychological and are not physical. In addition, this view creates an unquestionable causal connection between certain aspects of the physical world and the psychological state of an individual. For instance, it is incorrectly reasons that all people who are disabled are suffering. It neglects that everybody’s experience of the world is relative and that suffering and happiness are therefore relative too. For instance, when
viewed from the outside, the condition of blindness may seem unquestionably linked to suffering. However, such a view does not take into account the individual experiences of the partially sighted in which this condition often leads to a greater capacity for memory and hearing. In addition, having a lack of sight may actually lead to greater happiness and insight as the visible world is removed as an impediment to practice. Thus, when the complexity of an individual’s psychology is taken into account, can it truly be said that this condition was simply the result of “bad” karma?
Let us turn to the phenomena of natural disasters. When we witness such a terrible tragedy as the recent tsunami in Japan or the earthquake in China, it is difficult to see how the psychological results of this event are not absolutely determined. However, if we look closer at the individual stories of this tragedy we can also see the overwhelming number of tales of incredible selflessness, astonishing acts of bravery and sometimes even self sacrifice. At times like these societies tend to pull together and, in the aftermath of grief, generosity and kindness triumph. The engineers that are working to fix the cooling systems at the nuclear reactors of the plants are risking their lives for thousands of people. For some, such a point of adversity is the time when they fulfil their potential to be a Bodhisattva. When such a disaster is viewed in its complex reality, it becomes clear that the connection between the physical world and our psychology is not determined. The huge range of psychological results produced by a natural disaster, or any physical phenomenon for that matter, means that any general connection made between the physical world and “good” or “bad” karma is ultimately meaningless.
In addition, certain situations that are often considered to be the results of “good” karma, such as winning the lottery, show an equally complex relationship with psychological states. For many, winning the lottery will bring a lot of happiness as they can live an easy life free from the pressures of debt. However, for some people, winning the lottery may cause them to suffer greatly. They may quit their jobs and, after many years of sitting around at home, become depressed and introverted. Perhaps their friends and family begin to use them for their money. Therefore, can winning the lottery be truly said to be the result of “good” karma? When human experience of the external world is considered as relative in this way, positing a firm connection between the physical world and “good” and “bad” karma becomes untenable. Even the most extreme incidents in the world, such as natural disasters, have an incredibly complex psychological impact and cannot be reduced in this way. When we stop interpreting the physical world in karmic terms and instead turn to the psychological relativity of karma, we may return our attention to our own minds as the most tangible source for understanding the processes of karma.