(Originally published in Donna’s blog DQ’s Windmill.)

Karma; a tricky thing to talk about. It is so much more and so much less than what we think it is. A student in sunglasses raised his hand. I sensed anger. He is a philosophy major. He asked, “what about those people who organize slavery and profit from it and get away with it?” We had little time left, but the example struck me as a bit arbitrary, since it was but one of 500 other possible examples of horror and cruelty and injustice in our world. “Where’s the karma then?” he asked.

My response, which was broken by the clock’s dictations, took this direction:

How can one gauge the effects of any action? Karma is just action. Action driven by the perennial and sometimes subtle law of cause and affect. Where you are and what you are right now is the culmination of 10,000 ripened conditions, that is to say, of all the circumstances that have led you here, and we’ll only, ever, consciously understand but a few. The effects of life’s circumstances are infinite and often subtle. They unfold in their own time and in their own way and are immeasurable. I could say that this is true for both the perpetrator and the victim, and it still wouldn’t capture the scope of it, for we are all perpetrators and we are all victims of everything.

And although it seems a twisted thing to ask, what form of suffering is worse? What atrocity is more horrendous? There would be no way to measure.

Not to make light of my student’s selected example, but my mind was swimming with grisly horrors from any day’s headlines, or any random chapter from any history book: “Darfur,” “The Armenian Genocide,” “The Rwandan Massacres,” “The Holocaust,” “Myanmar,” “Vietnam,” “The Chinese Invasion of Tibet.” Tyrants like Stalin, Pol Pot, and Mussolini whooshed by in my mind’s eye, like a bad dream. And all this, not to mention the everyday atrocities that happen all around us, without our ever being aware, things like rape, domestic abuse and murder. And how about the conventional varieties of addiction that cause endless amounts of silent suffering among everyone the addict’s life touches? And the vices that those addictions entail, like continuous evasion, theft and infidelity?

All cause untold suffering. A broken heart is enough to kill a sensitive being, and sadly, as we saw just this week, an act of betrayal can drive a man to a tragic suicide.

But then, for unknown and countless reasons, there are others who survive unspeakable acts of oppression, not only through varying coping mechanisms, but, as if driven by some silent calling, some compelling need greater than themselves, they transform the horror into healing rays that shine on us all, on the ignorant world, in order to heal us and awaken us, to make us more forgiving.

It’s true, crooks in suits have done great harm by their greedy, oppressive business practices.

But we’ll never know the longterm effects of anything. We will never know to what degree anyone will “pay” for their evil doings. There is no magic in karma; it is simply immeasurable. Even the standards of good and bad are immeasurable. Yet at the same time there’s something to be said about creating the kind of world you want to live in, and we all know when we’re causing harm.

And so all that remains is to look inside and bravely ask ourselves what weare contributing to this turbulent sea we call our world. “While I’m pointing my finger at the hateful, greedy tyrants of the world, what hatred and greed do I have within myself?” And make no mistake about it, whatever is inside inevitably streams forth through the darkness.

You might say, well, that’s on a much lesser scale.

We don”t know.

Or you might say, as my student did, that the bad people still should pay, and that the problem is that they often don’t.

We don’t know that.

It’s all projection. But we do know that if they are still living, that they are living in a world they created. And that is not projection; it’s tangible, inevitable and all too real. And the wish that someone “pay” does no more to cool the fires of this insane world than the evil that came before it. That’s what we care about, isn’t it? A better world?

Sacred Chant Retreat

It’s in the past, it’s over and the only thing left is to make repairs. That’s where courage comes in.

Can we turn evil into good?

I saw a touching story the other night about an unusual friendship and the grace and power of forgiveness. Like so many others, a man was accused of a heinous crime he didn’t commit, and spent more than a decade in prison. His accuser’s apology was sincere and his acceptance was real, and now the two friends are changing the world, not for the sake of vengefulness, but for the purity of truth and from the standpoint of their affection for each other.

The Dalai Lama, disguised in a military uniform, marched out of his homeland one night amid gunfire, in the aftermath of unspeakable destruction and cruelty, in the wake of nearly 90,000 innocent civilian murders at the hands of Mao’s communist military regime. But in the spirit of tireless optimism and the kind of hope that eludes most of us, he turned this misfortune into an opportunity for resolution. And on a platform he wouldn’t have had before.

Who can measure the balance of good versus bad? We’d need omniscience exceeding all boundaries of time and space. It’s all too easy to say, they’re getting away with it, but we don’t know. We’re stuck in our limited and deficient perspective, and so we set about as some sort of universal judge.

It is impossible to go back in time and reverse the atrocities of time past, but with wisdom and compassion, we can transmute them. It is perhaps just as challenging, but certainly more desirable than adding more hatred to the world.

It’s both humbling and empowering: All we can do is put out our own fires. It’s what the spiritual classics mean when they tell us that the true battle is on the inside.

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