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Whose Karma Is This?

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Is the death of my loved ones my karma or theirs? Our lives were intertwined, and so is our karma. When my mother and my husband died just five days apart, there were some who told me that I must have had some really bad karma to have lost the two people I was closest to during the same time frame. There was nothing particularly helpful about these comments. Eventually I realized that these comments were probably not meant to be judgments about me; they were meant to make others feel better about their own lives. If they could convince themselves that I have some really bad karma, they could better come to terms with what had happened. They could seek to assure themselves that something like this would not happen to them.

Is it possible that my father and my husband, Ed, had karmic similarities? Within two years of one another, they both died from the same form of lung cancer. At some point in their lives, both of them had smoked. It is apparent that lung cancer was in my father’s genetic makeup. His brother, Bill, died four years later, also of lung cancer. My grandfather also battled lung cancer. Some might call this an interesting twist of fate. I have learned to call it karma. Is it my karma to have loved individuals who would have lung cancer? Absolutely. But my experience is not unique. In the United States, an estimated 131,880 people will die from lung cancer in 2021.* Lung cancer and losing family and friends to lung cancer is part of our karma.

Karma—kamma in Pali—is a complicated topic. In its simplest form, it means action. In today’s world, especially in the West, many see it as payback or retribution. We see too many bumper stickers and t-shirts that say, “Karma’s a bitch.” In our culture, there are not enough acknowledgments of good karma and not enough recognition that “Instant Karma” might be a catchy song by John Lennon, but it’s not an accurate representation of what we should expect in the real world.

If you find yourself wanting someone whom you perceive to have committed bad acts to be punished, be careful. You are falling into the trap of wishing them ill will. And your intention creates your karma. You will see people perform the same actions and appear to receive different results. This could be true. It can also mean that the karma from a particular action will ripen at another time.

AN 3.99, the Lonaphala Sutta teaches us that some people will perform the same action with different karmic results:

“There is the case where a trifling evil deed done by a certain individual takes him to hell. There is the case where the very same sort of trifling deed done by another individual is experienced in the here and now, and for the most part barely appears for a moment.” 

And the reason for these different results has to do with how you have developed yourself:

“Now, a trifling evil deed done by what sort of individual takes him to hell? There is the case where a certain individual is undeveloped in [contemplating] the body, undeveloped in virtue, undeveloped in mind, undeveloped in discernment: restricted, small-hearted, dwelling with suffering. A trifling evil deed done by this sort of individual takes him to hell.

“Now, a trifling evil deed done by what sort of individual is experienced in the here & now, and for the most part barely appears for a moment? There is the case where a certain individual is developed in [contemplating] the body, developed in virtue, developed in mind, developed in discernment: unrestricted, large-hearted, dwelling with the immeasurable.[1] A trifling evil deed done by this sort of individual is experienced in the here & now, and for the most part barely appears for a moment.”

Was I a bad person in a past life? This is an unanswerable question. And anyway, there is nothing I can do about my past lives. All I can do is work to be the best person that I can be now. The karma that I experience is a blend of my past and current actions.

I cannot go back in time and change anything about my current or past lives. Time travel storylines, while fun, are inherently flawed. You are only supposed to change one thing, but if you change other things the universe is cursed forever. You are never supposed to meet yourself in another dimension, or the universe is cursed forever. Forget about all that. It is much easier to just work on your life as you live it right now.

You do not know what will come. You do know that whatever happens is part of your karma. There is no need to rush through any part of your life; it is all as it is meant to be. Just keep practicing; do not spend time trying to predict how your karma will ripen.

The Acintita Sutta (AN 4.77) says:

“There are these four unconjecturables that are not to be conjectured about, that would bring madness and vexation to anyone who conjectured about them. Which four?”

The sutta goes on to state that the precise working out of the results of karma is one of the four things not to be conjectured about.

It never occurred to me to ask why my family members died when they did. To practice Buddhism is to accept impermanence and to know that your karma cannot be fully mapped out, nor predicted. To fully embrace impermanence is to understand that everything that arises will cease. Everything also means everyone. We are all going to die, and we are all going to lose people we love. This is part of our karma. 

* Key Statistics for Lung Cancer (American Cancer Society)

See more

Margaret Meloni: Death Dhamma
The Death Dhamma Podcast (Margaret Meloni)

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