Featured Articles

Kleenex Karma

You know how it is when you're thinking about something and you begin noticing it everywhere? For me, this week, it was karma. I looked up the lyrics to a song and learned I could earn "karma points" by making corrections. I think those are like the ephemeral punk points or scene points rather than a constantly running total on a cosmic spread sheet -- but the popular conception of karma seems to lean toward the spread sheet.

Here's today's Dilbert:

That's now how karma works. It's not tit-for-tat. Karma, literally, means action. It is shorthand for cause and effect -- your actions have consequences, in the next moment and the next lifetime. Not listening to what's being said means you don't have that information; in the work setting, that may mean that you fail to do things that have been assigned to you and you get fired and can't find a new job and lose your house... In a relationship, the other person may decide you're not interested and move on. (None of this applies in Dilbertland, where no work gets done and no one leaves.)

Popular knowledge is a two-edged sword. On the one side, it's nice that more people know about the Buddhist teachings; on the other, they get it wrong a lot.

Companies whose products have become so popular that their names verge on generic -- like Frisbee, Kleenex, and Xerox -- have staff to police that.  At the newspaper where I work, we've received many letters warning us about referring to a large trash bin as a dumpster. Was it, in fact, a Dumpster? Or a knockoff brand?

Karma may be in need of similar policing. Dilbert gets a pass. The karma points people get a written warning. 

Something more serious awaits those who see material success as evidence of good karma. 

We might call this a belief in spiritual meritocracy. The implicit idea here is that our professional and financial growth depends on our spiritual merit, not on the presence or absence of social structures and biases. We are told that if we are grateful enough, if we put enough happy energy into the universe, then we will be rewarded with material wealth and earthly pleasures. (Think “The Secret.”) We are told that we actually can have it all: a rich spiritual life, leading to a rich material life.

You can have it all, a rich spiritual life and a rich material life. The problem is the "leading to." Spirituality that's practiced for material gain is false spirituality. It's manipulation, not exploration, a search for treasure, not meaning. It has no depth.

For the last seven years I have dedicated myself to a Buddhist meditation practice ... As I have become more skilled, I have enjoyed moments of sublime bliss. And the more mindfulness I developed, the better I got at daily activities. I got a little better at surfing, playing poker, driving; the truth is, meditation helps me achieve whatever goals I set for myself, whether that’s being kinder to my friends and family, or earning more money.

One problem with a capitalist-inflected Buddhism is that it can lead us to a kind of spiritual cul de sac. I found that my practice was in an uneasy tension with my leftist politics. I found myself attracted to a glamorous Santa Barbara lifestyle that left me feeling unfulfilled and disappointed. I found that it became easy to deal with disturbing images in the news by dismissing the suffering of others as the karmic products of their own poor decisions. (They’re just not being positive enough!)

Karma doesn't forgive social institutions that lock people into poverty. The idea is misused when it becomes an easy way to dismiss problems rather than an opportunity to look at the causes that have created these effects.

The infamous Satya Nadella quote about how women shouldn't ask for raises but should wait for the karmic process to play out actually isn't that far off about the cause-and-effect action, on an individual level. But it fails to take into account generations of discrimination against women that also have contributed to their current economic status (and the need to ask for raises). In fact, by asking for raises, women are helping men to avoid the karmic effect of perpetrating discrimination.

Buddhism's not for the lazy. It asks you to look at your thoughts, speech, and actions, to let go of the explanations and justifications, to take responsibility for them and commit to using them for the benefit of self and others. It supports "leftist politics," in my understanding of what that term means. Renounce killing. Renounce intoxication. Feed the hungry. See the worth and dignity of every being, even those in prison.

Don't let karma become a flying plastic disc. Keep it a Frisbee.

Over 100,000 people like you annually access our center, website, blog, social media, and podcasts, uniting and creating a network of awakening in which everyone can participate. If you have benefited from being a part of this unique sangha, now is the time to express your support.  The opportunity to donate to our annual Giving Campaign continues through December.  
Vote for this article to appear in the Recommended list.


Very Clear and Necessary

Thank you Nancy, for this offering.

Site developed by the IDP and Genalo Designs.