Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Karma and blaming the victim

Here is a word that gets thrown around a lot in pop-culture: 


And it is really starting to annoy me. 

It seems that every time something tragic happens to a group of people, someone says, "Well, they did _____, so that's just karma. They got what they deserved." 

First of all, it is very unlikely that everyone affected by a catastrophe should be 'guilty' of something that warrants such widespread suffering. But even if it were true, is that really the correct attitude to adopt when something bad happens to someone else? 

Is this what we would want others to say, if we were affected by tragedy?

Let me tell you something about karma. Back in my Sangha at university, people would often be surprised when I declined to discuss it. I gave two reasons: 

1) I was not well-versed in how different Buddhist traditions might view and discuss karma. 

2) In my experience, when not done mindfully, such discussions easily lead to intense metaphysical arguments, which I believe are not helpful (and could perhaps even be harmful) to practice. 

In my opinion, and from what I have read and observed, karma is laden with innumerable variables, too vast and complex for most of us to comprehend, let alone explain to others. It is not the same thing as justice under the law, where there are specific consequences for those who are found guilty of a crime. Despite its pop-culture meaning, karma is not merely a punisher. It is a phenomenon that directly affects every one of us, not based on guilt or innocence, but on all our actions. 

We have all experienced times when we did something we thought was very skillful, only to have something unfortunate happen as a result (or vise versa!). Looking at our infinite number of thoughts, words, and actions (and also, as Buddhists believe, lives), and how they are so intimately intertwined with those of others, we may never know why things happen the way they do. 

But the important thing is that while we acknowledge our lack of total control, we also realize that we do own our thoughts, words, and actions, and must take responsibility for them. The idea is not to control or decipher our karma, but to find ways (i.e. make choices) to improve it without being preoccupied by the outcome. After all, the only time we ever really have is the present moment

That is why I believe it is very foolish to invoke karma to collectively blame victims of tragedy. This is because it is truly a waste of the moment in which we respond to bad news, a moment that could make an unpredictable and sometimes scary world a better place. While every tragedy surely has a cause, victims of such events need only one thing from us, and that is our compassion

Do you think there is a knee-jerk tendency for society to blame the victim/s of tragic events? If so, what can we do differently?

May all beings be happy!

Thursday, May 9, 2013

The Parable of the Lute

One of the most important impacts Buddhism has had on my life is fully introducing me to the concept of the Middle way.

A beautiful way this core Buddhist principle is explained is through the Parable of the Lute. Although there is one major lesson to be learned from this Buddhist parable, there are several widely known versions of this story. 

The first focuses on the experiences of Sona, who was a monk meditating alone in the forest during the time of the Buddha. Although he meditated diligently, he was frustrated by his lack of spiritual progress. He went to the Buddha to ask him why he was not being successful in his practice.

The Buddha answered, "Tell me Sona, in earlier days, were you not skilled in playing the stringed music of the lute?"

"Yes Lord" replied Sona.

"And, tell me, Sona, when the strings on the lute were too taut, was then your lute tuneful and easily playable?"

"Certainly not, O Lord."

"And when the strings on the lute were too loose, was then your lute tuneful and easily playable?"

"Certainly not, O Lord."

"But when, Sona, the strings of your lute were neither too taut nor too loose, and adjusted to an even pitch, did your lute then have a wonderful sound, and then was it easily playable?"

"Certainly, O Lord."

"Similarly Sona, if energy is applied too strongly, it will lead to restlessness, and if energy is too lax, it will lead to lassitude. Therefore Sona, keep your energy in balance and balance the Spiritual Faculties and in this way focus your attention."

The previous discourse is from the Anguttara Nikaya, which literally means "increased by one collection". It is the fourth of the five nikayas (collections) in the Sutta Pitaka, which is part of the Pali Tipitaka of Theravada Buddhism. I found this version of the Parable of the Lute on a personal website citing Jack Kornfield's The Teachings of the Buddha, and from a Google Book, Buddhist Wisdom, The Path to Enlightenment. The terms and context pertaining to the Anguttara Nikaya can be found on Wikipedia.

Finally, here is a neat cartoon video clip depicting the exchange between Sona and the Buddha. I believe that it is done quite well, and would be perfect to show to teens and pre-teens. The video ends with commentary about following the Middle Way from the young people narrating the animation.

In other versions of this parable, realization of The Middle Way through the proper tuning of a lute was made by Siddhartha Gautama (who later became the Buddha) himself. 

From what I have read so far, the following version has two variations: 

One day Siddhartha was meditating near a river bank. He was near starvation, his face sunken, his hair matted. He heard a fisherman teaching a young boy the proper way to tune a lute, a kind of stringed instrument. The fisherman said, "Listen, when the strings of the lute are too loose, the lute does not produce any sound, but when you tune it too tight, the strings snap. Only when the strings are tuned just right the lute can make music." (a similar variation describes the conversation between young girls learning to play the lute). 

Siddhartha, who had at that point spent several years depriving his body in his quest for enlightenment, had a revelation; One can achieve wisdom neither by a life of merriment nor of mortification, but only by a life lived in moderation- The Middle Way. This realization had very important implications for Siddhartha; his change in course would eventually lead him to enlightenment and to develop the foundations of Buddhism- the Four Noble Truths and the Noble Eightfold Path.

Indeed, Siddhartha's realization, and his teaching of this revelation to others, has had a huge impact on the history of the world. Providing a major guiding principle for millions of practicing Buddhists (and perhaps many others), his teaching helps us strive to guard ourselves against extremes that lead to ignorance, anger, and attachment.

Does this parable resonate with you? What is your favorite version? Do you know of another version that you would like to share? How did learning about the Middle Way change your life?

May all beings be happy!  

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

The Buddha Next Door

Having spent some time on Buddhist forums and websites, I have found that a common lament among Buddhists is that they are solitary, practicing without a 'physical' Sangha (Buddhist community), or a teacher with whom they practice face-to-face.

Although I could easily make this post a discussion of the advantages and disadvantages of the virtual Sangha, that's not what I want to do.  

Instead, I think it is important for people who are practicing Buddhism in a solitary way to think about their solitude differently. As we've discussed before here at BCB, labels are strange little animals. They can be accurate or inaccurate, true or misleading. Labels can help us make sense of our world, or confuse us completely. That is why it is important to be mindful of them. Because of their propensity to help, we should not disregard them. Yet, because of their potential to mislead, we should not push aside the possibility of being completely surprised. 

And to be completely honest, we are often surprised when we venture (or are permitted) to look beyond the label that someone has described themselves with. My point is, although we might be practicing 'alone', as a 'solitary' Buddhist, 'without a Sangha', we are not. As Buddhists, we must remember that core Buddhist principles can be practiced by anyone, whether or not they consider themselves Buddhists- or even know anything about Buddhism!

When we take notice, we see many people around us who are just trying to lead a good and moral life, through a number of different paths. In fact, it is likely that they emphasize some of the same things that we as Buddhists do!

So although we would not want to arbitrarily label others as Buddhists just because of this fact, we can see others who do not call themselves Buddhists as part of our community. Indeed, that is the case for the whole world, whether we like it or not.

In short, while I agree that seeking and belonging to a like-minded community is just as important to Buddhists as it is for others, if we can't find one we should not be discouraged. There is always an opportunity to learn from people, whether or not they are Buddhist. In fact, anyone around us who is full of compassion, generosity, wisdom, and happiness, can truly be our inspiration; our Buddha-next-door.

The Five Moral Precepts:
1. Refrain from killing
2. Refrain from stealing
3. Refrain from sexual misconduct
4. Refrain from lying
5. Refrain from the taking of intoxicants

. . . Concepts which I believe inspire community and agreement between people of all faiths.

"Don't try to use what you learn from Buddhism to be a Buddhist; use it to be a better whatever-you-already-are" - His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama   

May all beings be happy!