Friday, August 26, 2011

question one: karma

Okay, y'all have given me some incredible questions to answer. So, I am answering one theme of questions at a time. You can still ask me questions. I will be answering them every day next week too. I will select a winner next Tuesday. 

This is one I have been meaning to write about anyway, so I am starting with this. It got very long very quickly. 
Sarah: OK. Since you asked. I'm still struggling with the concepts of karma and past actions creating future consequences (all because of what that psycho beast told my hubby...) and wondering if you can give a little mini lecture on the concepts of karma and how babies dying has NOTHING TO DO with our karma???

And on a lighter note, do you know anything about pickling? I've always been nervous about CANNING since I fear the botulism...but does pickling carry the same threat? (Don't worry if you have no idea, please don't do any additional research; I'm merely asking because you seem crafty in the way that you'd know a thing or two about pickling.)

I also fear botulism, so I know nothing about canning, but mercifully, Sara wrote something in the comments of this post. I have made pickles. I ate them in one sitting, so I figured the botulism scare was not warranted. Sorry I am not better at that question.

Nerissa asked this karma question too, for a very similar reason, someone told her that her child's death was karma. And so, this is the first question I am tackling. I hope Buddhists come school us if I am way off base here, but this is my understanding.

Firstly, I just want to say how horrible I think it is that anyone would suggest that anything you or your husbands did could cause the death of your children. That is an unforgivable thought/comment/statement. It not only reflects absolutely no understanding of the concept of karma, but on how the person saying it is just a motherfucker.

About karma, the actual theological concept...this question you ask was one I was totally obsessed about in the early months of my loss. When I finally worked up enough nerve to ask my Buddhist therapist and my Buddhist friend and writer, they both answered with a resounding and vehement NO. Karma does not work that way. In Buddhism and in Hinduism, the victim is very rarely blamed for their own suffering. So, I do have an answer for both you and Nerissa. It is very long and involved, and I will put a little asterisk where the exact answer comes.

First, I wrote about my experience asking about karma here at Glow in the Woods.

So, I have done quite a bit more reading on the subject and research since that piece. Karma, from a Buddhist or Hindu point of view, is a very complicated concept. One that I can't begin to fully understand and one that Buddhist monks spend their whole lives trying to make sense of. But the word has been bastardized in this society by the commoditization of Buddhism so that everyone thinks they understand it. I blame the John Lennon song Instant Karma. Because that is the idea that people are throwing around, instant karma--the idea that if you do something that immediately you will pay for it. Like Newton's third law of physics, each action has an equal and opposite reaction. Karma doesn't work that way, though it does refer to the relationship between our actions and the resulting force.

Here is the very religion-major answer to what karma is. Literally, karma means "action". Karma is all of our actions in our lives. These actions have judgments on them--good, bad or indifferent. Walking down the street, indifferent karma. Walking down the street punching people in the face, bad karma. Walking down the street helping an older person carry groceries, good karma. Intention is also a very powerful concept in Buddhism. So, karma has a kind of implicit understanding that it is action with intention.

Okay, I should back up a little bit and give a little background of Buddhism. The Four Noble Truths are the basic tenets of Buddhism.
1. Life is suffering.
2. The origin of suffering is attachment. We are attached in certain ways: desire, passion, pursuit of wealth and prestige, striving for fame and popularity. It is also called craving and clinging.
3. The cessation of suffering is attainable.
4. The path to the cessation of suffering is the Eightfold Path. The eightfold path is right view, right intention, right speech, right action, right livelihood(work), right effort, right mindfulness and right concentration.
Buddhists and Hindus believe that you live many many lives. The cycle of rebirth is called samsara, which is basically a cycle of life and death. You are born, you live, you die, then you are born again. The specific circumstances of that birth, life and death are always different.You are given many different types of lives to live. One you may be famous, others a beggar. A doctor, then a murderer. With each action, wholesome karma or bad karma, there is a kind of soul movement both from that point on in time and into the next life or the one after that or the next one. Buddhism and Hinduism understand this as karma, you are literally carrying over your life lessons and your life attachments and bad karma from another life. Karma moves the wheel of life, they say.

Since life is suffering (Noble Truth number one), samsara is a cycle of suffering. Beings crave escape from that that cycle of suffering. We try to get out of suffering in many ways--drinking too much, being attached to worldly items (materialism), eating too much, saying cruel things to people, being attached to other people, sex and love, lashing out at others when we were wronged, watching television all night. I guess part of what you can say is that we get attached to things and feelings that are impermanent, and by attaching ourselves to things that can't stay, we suffer more.

We all have the same goal. To stop suffering. For ourselves and eventually for others. Our own attachment to things, diversions, our ego, our attempt to escape suffering, that keeps us committing wrong action, or bad karma. An example of this might be if you fall in love with a married person, your intention is love. Where is the sin in love? But you are hurting someone else in the process, the wife. You know he is married and you choose to pursue this relationship, because all that matters is your happiness and your own escape from suffering. And so, every action is supposed to be mindful. Mindfulness is important in Buddhism. We must be mindful of the consequences of each action. If we ignore the suffering of another human being for our own gain, or our own impermanent attachment to the pleasure of love and sex, we amass bad karma.

Except "bad karma" is not really like points or something. It's not like there is a karma bank where all your good deeds are stored, and you just subtract from that when you do something morally questionable or vice versa. It is like something that keeps you stuck in the cycle of suffering, personal suffering. It is a constructed suffering, because thinking that love/attachment to a married man is going to get you out of the basic suffering of life, or in the very least make you the least bit happy, is ignorance. It is attachment to illusion. We usually don't know when we are ignorant, because we are too unknowing to know better. This is why karma hangs around for lifetimes, because the lesson might not fit that life, it will move into the next when you are ready. Because your mind is still stuck in this place of attachment, you will be stuck in this place of suffering. So, you are born again into another life, going through different choices, but that have the same basic structure--where are you going to get attached to illusion. Maybe in another life, you are the wife, or the husband, or the child in a home where a father is engaged in an affair.

You hopefully grow. You learn. You start doing wholesome karma. You stop making shitty choices and hurting other people. You lessen the ambient suffering in the world. You enter into the stream of nirvana. You gradually become "enlightened." It happens over lifetimes.

The idea of karma is that you carry with you a kind of imprint of your actions. Or rather those actions, or karmas, move you into situations in which you deal with your wrong action, help resolve your negative impulses, or the impulses to continue suffering. We are not enlightened enough to understand the complexities of the way karma works. And no other human is enlightened enough to fully understand the complexities of karma, ergo, no one can say that one's suffering is a result of karma. Period. End of story. We simply cannot understand why we suffer when we suffer in the way we suffer. But what we do with that suffering is the crux of karma.

So, when we think about the death of our children and karma, we wonder what we did to cause that death. Karma just simply does not work that way. Lucia. Otis. Holden. They were beings with their own lives, and their own karmas. In Buddhist thought, death of other people is not a suffering inflicted upon others. It is a fact of life. Everyone dies. Some young. Some old. It had nothing to do with who we are as people. It might seem that way, because babies in particular, come into their being slowly , gradually, over time. Zen Buddhists believe that the being flows into the body, like water, from conception until the child is about six. So children are called mizuko, water children. Because their being is still liquid and flowing into them.

Still, our babies' deaths were not a result of our bad karma. They were simply deaths. What we do in the wake of great suffering, the ultimate of suffering, the grief associate with losing a child, is what will define our karma into our next life and into the future of this one. Each person is supposed to live his or her life with compassion and love, kindness and wisdom, taking the higher road, being the bigger person, letting go of your attachments that keep you bound to this cycle of birth and rebirth. That is the eightfold path. And so your actions, how you treat others in your life, kind of imprint on your soul, even though ego and the soul are seen as constructs of the human mind.

I consulted a psychic once, who told me about the idea that stillborn children are enlightened beings on their last life, healing the last wounds by living a life of pure love and compassion, both giving and receiving it. The experience of being in the womb is the last comfort of unconditional love they are given to move them into the Enlightenment, or be released from the cycle of birth and rebirth. See, Buddhists don't believe in the self. The ego is an illusion. Something our karma constructs to make sense of itself. Really we are all one. When we inhabit a body, we are like a drop of water. We think that being a drop of water is all we are. Just one drop. It is part of what keeps us bound in our body, the construction of ego. When we achieve enlightenment, it is as though we drop into the ocean. We are still the drop, or the conglomeration of our karma, but we also can never be separated from the ocean again.

Buddhism teaches that to escape the cycle of suffering you must achieve a kind of wisdom and compassion and understanding through your lives. It lays it out quite directly in the eightfold path what you can do to manifest good karma. Be good. Grow. Learn about the ways in which you are hookable, or stuck in the cycle of suffering. And above all, be kind, dammit.

Or if you will, self-improvement and mindfulness. If you get to a point where you understand the illusions that you live with, you understand that your ego is an illusion. The self is an illusion. The attachment to who you think you gets very complicated very quickly. If there is no self, then how can you carry karma with you life after life? If there is no soul, then how does one suffer? These are the questions Buddhists wrestle with when we start talking about karma and suffering and ego and egolessness.

One thing I thought I would throw in there is the idea of a Buddha, which is someone who is enlightened, who has grown wisdom through lifetimes. They say that person is released from the cycle of samsara or rebirth. But there is a concept in Buddhist of the bodhisattva, which is an enlightened being who chooses to return to the cycle of birth and rebirth to teach others about the Four Noble Truths and guide other to enlightenment. It is the ultimate selflessness and compassion to willingly choose to go through suffering for the betterment of other beings. Jizos are bodhisattvas. And mizuko jizos are bodhisattvas who help guide the beings or souls of stillborn children into their next life. Or out of the cycle. Cool, huh?

I hope this helped. Believe it or not, I edited it almost in half. I felt like I had to give a lot of background to get to the meat of your question. If you made it this far, you should get some kind of karmic medal to pin on your ego-less chest. Next question I will answer will be about how I talk to my children about the death of their sister.


  1. Hi Angie, Wow, this post really answers the question. I never knew this stuff before, and would have never asked.

    You said:
    "...bodhisattva, which is an enlightened being who chooses to return to the cycle of birth and rebirth to teach others about the Four Noble Truths and guide other to enlightenment."

    Does the bodhisattva get to return to non-circle status when they choose, or after they have finsihed guiding others?

  2. All I can say is wow! Hit the nail on the head! I must agree with you about Sarah's (psycho beast). I too have a psycho beast, who was all over the wonderful world of Facebook hours after Parker died, blasting how Parker's death was karma for mine and her then husbands actions. Yes, she is a mother fucker!

  3. Well, in Mahayana Buddhism, which includes Tibetan and Zen, basically is all about the bodhisattva. The Dalai Lama is a bodhisattva, specifically the rebirth of the bodhisattva of compassion. As a Buddhist, you are encouraged to take the bodhisattva vow to help all sentient beings achieve enlightenment. You yourself can delay your enlightenment until everyone else achieves it. That is the goal to alleviate the suffering of all sentient beings. So, yes, I think you could technically not return to the cycle of samsara to help others, except no Buddha would. If that makes sense.

  4. Thanks so much for this. Fascinating. Now I feel smarter.

  5. Wow! CHILLS! This really really rings true to me in so many ways. I remember after Camille died my husband said..."I guess we just need to be better people" I know we are good people, but what did we do to deserve this "suffering"??? It is so hard because we all want to find meaning in such we can get out of the suffering. I am not religious...more spiritual and find my spirituality especially in the forest and in nature. This really helped me in so many ways. Thank you for your insight.

  6. I also wanted to say, I am not sure if I believe in literal rebirths but I believe energy. Energy always stays but is in different this way I believe in rebirth...that the energy of our existence is somehow transferred or shifted to further energy and existence.

  7. Angie,
    Thank you. I plan to read this often, as it is so rich with information that my mind can only accommodate in little bits in pieces...

    I am so grateful that you took the time to write this out, in your ever-so-eloquent ways, and to read it knowing that you have the experience of losing Lucia brought a depth to it in ways that my reading others' writings on the basic topic of karma, samsara, life/death/birth/rebirth hasn't been able to do.

    And seeing Otis's name in print, always, always, always makes my heart soar, so thank you for that as well.

    And this part: The experience of being in the womb is the last comfort of unconditional love they are given to move them into the Enlightenment...

    brought me to tears, because yes, that is so true, that is all our babies knew, the comforts of unconditional love. And it reminded me of the true beauty of this experience we share.

    Much love,

    (PS - Also, to the other Sara, with the canning/pickling advice, thank you too!)

  8. As a fellow studier of Buddhism I love seeing it explained so well here. It's hard to see people bungling the idea of Karma so much in the world. It helps when someone explains in perfectly.Thank you!

  9. Angie, thank you for this. Like Sarah I was moved to tears by this
    "The experience of being in the womb is the last comfort of unconditional love they are given to move them into the Enlightenment..."
    That's just how it feels to me. I was so happy growing Florence in my womb, surely she must have felt that..or even gave me that?
    Who knows.
    Sometimes I tell myself she just was who she was, and there's some beauty to that. Infact my friend said as much to me, and helped me to see a little clearer.
    This has helped too...even me, an atheist through and through. x

  10. Although I have never been very religious myself (because religion has ever given me more questions than answers), I have always been appalled by the fact that how people use karma to explain the tragedies. It's so ingrained in the culture and the society.

    So when someone is suffering due to a tragedy, people just come around and say this is your destiny. You were pre-destined to go through this. They tell you this is a part of the 'plan'. So accept it and move on. When a baby dies, they come and tell you - it's not your baby. It's someone else's, that's why you didn't get to keep him/her.

    They believe so much in what they say. Interestingly, these people have not experienced such a loss themselves.

    For me, this is just a lack of compassion. And these people are using the logic of karma to hide their lack of compassion.

    Just my two cents.

  11. Wow I am going to have come back and re-read this post but thank you so, so much for writing it. It's very interesting and has such a wonderful clarity. Nobody has ever told me that they feel my daughter's death was a result of karma but I know that I felt it was karma, in that misinterpreted sense of the word, that it was because I was an awful person that she had died.

    that the being flows into the body, like water, from conception until the child is about six this concept makes absolutely perfect sense to me.

    I also like what the psychic told you, that stillborn children are on their last life. I felt that my girls were very wise when they were born, I don't really know why, but they seemed privy to secrets that I couldn't understand.

    Thank you for writing this x

  12. Wow, so much to absorb here. I feel like a giant sponge. Thank you for giving me such clarity on this topic, as I'm sure like many others, I was misguided on the word - the same way Catherine says she was.

  13. Thanks, Angie, very interesting. :)

  14. Wonderful and detailed thoughts on karma. Thanks so much!

  15. that was really fascinating! thank you for taking the time to explain all of that. i have a question...when you talk about letting go of attachments to "end" suffering, what do Buddhists feel about the attachment to family. i mean, i realize that our grief/pain of losing our children is so intense because our love for them/attachment is so great. but how can one get away from that kind of suffering unless we isolate ourselves and refuse to love? so is there really away to stop the suffering?

  16. Thank you Angie. And thank you for your support earlier in the week when I was freaking out. This is perfect. And I agree with Sarah. Holden's name in print. Ahhh...

  17. This is a great question, Tiffany, and I think one so many people have about Buddhism. The idea is not to be non-loving or have no attachment, but to channel our attachments in positive ways. Buddhist monks take vows of celibacy, because it is hard to practice non-attachment with people we love, particularly our children. But most Buddhist have families, so we are not to renounce our families or community. I read this great quote:

    "Too often Buddhist “nonattachment” is misconstrued as “non-loving.” The purpose of Buddhist practice is not to “renounce” our families or community, but to shed habits of self-protective clinging that prevent us from loving them more unconditionally, powerfully, enjoyably. The greater and more unconditional our love for others, the greater our wisdom that sees through, and compassion that feels through, the thought habits of communal suffering. The mutual care that family life expresses is our Buddha-nature, actualizing itself in its most palpable and tender ways.

    -Lama John Makransky, "Family Practice" (Summer 2001)

    For me, the grief is a form of love, and so I cannot, nor do I want, to fully abandon it. But I use my own suffering to help me understand suffering of other kinds, and grow more compassionate to others suffering in any way. I also engage in tonglen as a form of meditation and compassion work to help grow towards helping alleviate the suffering of sentient beings.

    Hope that helps.

  18. that does help a lot, angie. i didn't think Buddhists were about being non-loving but i was confused with the talk of attachments. i know that my son's death has shed me of pretty much every materialistic attachment i ever had and put life into perspective for me. but the one attachment i could never get away from, is my love for him. so i thought i would ask. thanks for taking the time to clear that up for me.

  19. Thank you, Angie. That was so well written and expressed. As others have said, I need to go back and read it again (preferably not last thing at night!) but I already got a LOT out of your words.

  20. I love this. And plan to come back to it time and time again, like others. But not become too attached to it. ; ) Seriously, great post, and thank you. xoxo

  21. Angie, thanks so much for this.

    Am I the only one still searching for the little asterisk? Or maybe that was kind of your point - that there is no nice simple exact answer?

    I love how you point out how the concepts of karma and egolessness are in constant tension. I do wonder if you can have a distinct soul with no ego - that kind of makes sense to me, because life is by its very nature diverse - constantly creating unique faces, creatures, flowers, etc, but humans are the only ones who turn our individual distinctiveness into ego.

    I agree that 'grief is a form of love' - beautifully put.


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