A Stolen Car
Let’s begin with a humorous episode between a Buddhist named Stephen, a relative newcomer to Buddhism, and his Buddhist minister.
STEPHEN: Can you bless my new car?
BUDDHIST MINISTER: What benefits do you hope to get from a blessing?
STEPHEN: I want nothing bad to happen to my brand-new car.
BUDDHIST MINISTER: We don’t usually do blessings since they go against our teachings, but if you really insist, I can do it as a pastoral service to give you peace of mind.
(A few weeks later, Stephen returns, really upset, to tell the minister that the car was stolen.)
STEPHEN: Reverend, my car was stolen yesterday! I feel that your blessing didn’t work.
BUDDHIST MINISTER: I’m very sorry to hear that, but that blessing doesn’t work for stolen cars; it works only for preventing the car from getting into an accident!
This episode is meant to point out the following relying on religion to prevent bad things from happening to us. Buddhism, or any religion for that matter, cannot control or determine what happens to us. What is important in Buddhism is not what happens to us but we experience life. So in this case, religion cannot prevent the car from being stolen or also from getting into a car accident but can help us mentally and spiritually to deal better with the misfortunes of life.
And how we experience our lives depends on the quality of the jewel of wisdom within ourselves. This wisdom can also be expressed as “understanding,” “view,” or “insight.” Whatever we call it, Buddhism encourages us to cultivate it.
What Karma Is Not
Before we move on to discuss the ways of cultivating the jewel of wisdom within, we would like to discuss the teaching of Karma. It is a well-known word but often highly misunderstood and misused. Let’s use the example of the stolen car.
Around use of the word is to say that it was Stephen’s Karma that the car was stolen, meaning that the theft of the car was due to “fate” or “predestination.” So, based on this way of thinking, no matter how much Stephen had taken steps to secure his car by always locking and parking it in safe places, this car was “fated” or “predestined” to be stolen.
Another wrong understanding of Karma is to think that Stephen was being punished for something “bad” he had done recently. Actually, a few days before his car was stolen, Stephen was so upset over his team’s loss in overtime in an important basketball match that he took out his frustration on others. He purposely stepped on a on the sidewalk and yelled at the family dog! However, these did not directly cause Stephen’s car from being stolen. The stolen car was not a punishment for his bad behavior.
In my understanding of Buddhism, there are two basic categories of cause and effect: 1) objective conditions and 2) personal Karma. Stephen getting his car stolen was a result of the first category but not the second. The objective conditions point to a myriad of circumstances that contributed to the act of being stolen.
These include the fact that Stephen’s car matched perfectly with the burglar was looking for and the burglar happened to have exactly the right tools for disarming the alarm system on Stephen’s car. So, the causes bleeding to Stephen’s car getting stolen are so innumerable that we are unable to identify them all. However, one thing is clear: the car was not stolen due to Stephen’s personal Karma.
The Real Meaning of Karma
What then is personal Karma? Karma means “action.” This action takes three forms or Three Actions: 1) intentional thoughts, 2) speech, and 3) bodily action. In other words, Karma refers to what a person does, says and thinks, primarily in the religious context of cultivating oneself. 1 Actually, Karma is very optimistic, because it encourages us to cultivate ourselves religiously and morally to be the best we can be. This clearly differs from the notion of fate, which is clearly pessimistic.
Second, Karma is applied primarily to oneself (first person). It should not be a means of judging others (third person), especially to explain why other people find themselves in unfortunate situations. So, we should not be saying to Stephen, “Oh, too bad, but that was your Karma,” implying that he was fated or that he was being punished. Karma should not be the tool for judging others.
Unfortunately, in the long history of Buddhism, Karma was used to explain the reasons for the plight of others. For example, the outcasts, the poor, and even the disable were told to accept and resign themselves to their condition because they were told they were suffering due to their past actions, including in previous lives.
We have so far talked mostly about personal Karma is not, so let us now discuss in greater detail what personal Karma is. As previously said, Karma refers to what a person does, says and thinks, primarily in the religious context of cultivating oneself toward the realization of Awakening.
When applied to Stephen’s case, had he been cultivating himself he would have been better able to cope with the loss of his car. Instead, he was extremely upset, felt victimized and even blamed others, including the minister even though the minister had explained to Stephen that blessings do not play any part in the main purpose of Buddhism.
Is Stephen had been studying the teachings to cultivate his thoughts, speech and bodily actions, he would have responded to the stolen car without being as upset and blaming others, and he might even have felt grateful that the situation wasn’t worse. He was not physically hurt, which was a real possibility had he been around the car during the burglary. So in the spiritually mature personal Karma, Stephen would have shown greater calm, understanding and even gratitude.
If you like, imagine a diagram that looks like a cross, with a horizontal
axis and a vertical axis. The horizontal axis represents the objective conditions in which we live, our daily lives of family, school, work and society. This axis is wavy to represent the bumpy nature of our existence. Many people that only this axis or dimension, which makes them subject to the ups and downs of their bumpy lives.