karma and the middle passage

This post was originally published at the buddha is my dj nearly a year ago. The original post generated some great comments and conversations. I’m reposting it here because I think it’s an important topic, and I would love to see more conversation come out of it in a different venue.

I was out of town for most of this past weekend for some personal, family related issues. (That’s all you get, Internet! I don’t hang out all my laundry, dirty or clean!) So I’ve been out of touch with my usual online sources — blogs, Twitters, etc., etc. But one thing did catch my eye, and it’s been rattling around my head for a couple of days now. Claudia, of the wonderful blog The Bottom of Heaven, twittered (tweeted?) the following:

Can’t quite wrap my head around the idea of Karma on a meta-level; was the Middle Passage “bad Karma”? Is this a question Buddhists ask?

For those of you who’ve forgotten your high school American history class (or, more likely, never got the Full Story) the Middle Passage refers to that part of the triangular, trans-Atlantic slave trade between Africa and the New World, a long stretch of empty ocean that took months to cross where captive African women and men and children were lined up like so much cattle below deck, chained together to go mad, and very likely die of disease only to have their bodies thrown overboard. If they were lucky (and I use the word reluctantly) to survive the Passage, they would be sold into bondage to wealthy American landowners like Thomas Jefferson’s family where they would suffer a lifetime of cruelty and labor, separated from their homeland, from their culture, from their families and later children.

Yeah. That Middle Passage.

Claudia’s question is a good one. A relevant one. For a lot of reasons. But before I comment on the relationship between personal or individual karma, collective or social karma, and social injustice, I’d like to remind folks of something Harry and I talked about in the DharmaRealm, over a year ago now. That is, traditional understandings of karma, first, assumed the reality of reincarnation, so fully grasping cause and effect necessitates a much longer scale of time than just one lifetime. Secondly, and way more importantly, understanding karma is, itself, part of the path to awakening. On the last night of his long sit under the bodhi-tree, right before he went from being merely Siddhartha to The Buddha, one of the very last things the Buddha awakened to was his entire karmic history, spread out across a vast sea of time, innumerable lifetimes. He was suddenly, intimately, aware of how this incompressible complex of events had lead him inextricably to that very moment. What’s more, he was also suddenly, intimately, aware of the karmic histories of every single sentient being in the cosmos — because we are all interrelated after all. In short, it was only at that moment, right before becoming fully awakened, that Siddhartha was able to fully comprehend karma.

That should give us pause. That should tell us something. That should be a very important reminder that karma, even though it’s part of Buddhism 101, is something incredibly deep, incredibly profound, and not easily grasped by reading a book or two or sitting in mediation for an hour. Karma is something way more profound than that, so anyone who presumes to tell you something about karma — unless they’re sitting under a bodhi-tree, about to burst into enlightenment — is probably talking out of their ass. At the very least, they’re making an educated guess.

So, with that disclaimer, and with all due humility, here’s my own educated guess.

It is no surprise to some that Buddhists have throughout history used the doctrine of karma for less than enlightened purposes, suggesting that those who are suffering now are suffering as a result of bad actions in some previous life. I think this is a particularly narrow view of karma, and that it obviously suffers from having the burden to prove a literal view of reincarnation. I’m going to skirt that rebirth issue and suggest that regardless of whether or not reincarnation is literally true, we can learn a thing or two about karma and how it applies to our lives in the present.

It seems fairly clear to me that karma is more than just a simple “cause and effect” theory. Or, to put it another way, it is not just a theory of personal or individual cause and effect. It is somewhat too simplistic, in my view, to suggest that if “I” do some horrible thing today, next week some horrible thing will happen to me. It seems a little too simplistic to reduce karma to that level. Moreover, this understanding of karma seems to contradict some other, very important Buddhist doctrines like interdependence and no-self. That is, if we take the idea that there is no “I” — no I in the independent, permanent sense — then how can we posit that if “I” do something horrible today, next week some horrible thing will happen to “me”?

In other words, it seems to me that karma is all about the meta-level. I often think that the effects of karma have very little to do with just my past actions but are the direct result of the sum total of a collection of individual’s past actions, many of whom I’ll never know.

For example, here I am, living in Oakland, married to a smart, beautiful woman, working, teaching, doing my thing. Some of these “effects” are of my own doing. But most are the result of actions and decisions that I had no hand in. My wife is a smart and talented woman not because of anything I did but because her parents raised her that way. She’s left her mark on me. She’s had an indelible effect on my life that I cannot separate from my own karmic history. So not only are my past actions bound up in my current lot, but so are hers. And her parents. And their parents.

So multiply just my small little corner of the world and our little collection of karmic histories by six billion. Then multiply that six billion by all the trillions who have ever lived since we came down out of the trees. Then you begin to understand how our collective karmic histories have created the world we live in right here, right now.

But here’s the kicker. Even though the effects of past actions in which I am living may have been largely beyond my control, that doesn’t necessarily suggest a fatalistic worldview. Nor does it suggest that I have no free will. And I think this is the most important and least talked about aspect of karma. That is, each of us, no matter what conditions we find ourselves in right now, are not bound to repeat our past actions. We have the free will to transcend those actions, to transcend our current conditions, rise above, and change the world.

When I think about karma on this grand, vast, and worldwide scale of interconnectivity, and then throw into the mix unspeakable moral outrages such as the trans-Atlantic slave trade, it helps to remember that a one-to-one view of karma is limited, narrowing. The conditions in which slavery was to flourish were the result of an untold number of events, stretching back in time and history, centuries before any one slave or any one slave-owner were even born. Which of course leaves me back where I started, with a sad mixture of despair and outrage in my gut.

But then I do my best to remember that beneath that atrocity there were individuals who strove to rise above. There were what we colloquially call “slave rebellions” where Africans would do what they could to free themselves from bondage. There are cases of mutiny on the high seas. There were white allies and abolitionists who did what they could to help runaway slaves flee north to Canada. There were English and French lawyers who recognized the injustices of slavery and through their efforts helped bring an end to the Middle Passage. And by the early nineteenth century, there were bands of free-thinking white women, our country’s earliest feminists, who themselves could not vote, who laid they groundwork for the 13th, 14th, 15h and 19th Amendments.

Their collective karmic histories are thrown into the mix. The world we’ve inherited, the effects of their causes, is far from perfect. But it’s what we’ve got to work with in the here and now. And the best we can to do is trust to hope and work to create a better future for those that will follow us.