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Stoned: What is karma?

BBC News, May 29, 2008

Sharon Stone claims the earthquake in China is the result of bad karma for its treatment of Tibetans. Is her definition - "when you are not nice, bad things happen to you" - correct?

London, UK -- Radiohead sings of the "karma police", called in to arrest those who upset Thom Yorke: "This is what you get when you mess with us." And Boy George warbles about a "karma chameleon", in a toxic relationship because he's not "so sweet" anymore.

<< Sharon Stone bows to the Dalai Lama

Cause and effect, see. Actions have consequences.
And Sharon Stone, a convert to Buddhism, has claimed - to much criticism - that the earthquake that killed at least 68,000 people in China was bad karma for Beijing policy in Tibet. "I thought, is that karma - when you're not nice that the bad things happen to you?" she mused at the Cannes Film Festival.

Karma is an important concept for Buddhists, Hindus and Sikhs. Translated from the Sanskrit, it means simply "action". Because karma is used in a number of ways and contexts - even among different branches of Buddhism - this can be confusing.

Dhammadassin, a teacher at the London Buddhist Centre, says that Stone's take on karma is common - glossed over as an outcome that is the result of something done in the past - or even a past life.

"This reduces the enormously complex matter of causes and their effects to a question of retribution meted out for unspecified previous actions," she says.

But the law of karma states that it's the motive behind one's actions that affects the outcome of that particular act.

"So an intentionally ethical action - for example to promote kindness, generosity, contentment - is more likely to have positive, beneficial consequences. An intentionally unethical one - to promote self-aggrandisement or greed - will be more likely to have unhelpful, even harmful consequences. Unhelpful, that is, for the positive well-being of either the doer or the recipient or both."

In a complex world, it's too simplistic to expect that a positive intention will always have a positive outcome as many factors are involved, she says.

The idea of moral causation has long been held in India, but the doctrine of karma was formulated and explained by the Buddha, a spiritual teacher thought to have lived about 2,500 years ago. Some believe that he was a human who became enlightened; others that he was a god.
His teachings hold that whatever comes into existence does so in response to the conditions at the time, and in turn affects what comes after it.

Sangharakshita, the Briton who founded the Friends of the Western Buddhist Order in 1967, explains this with the following example in his book Who Is The Buddha? "Rainfall, sunshine, and the nourishing earth are the conditions from which arises the oak tree, whose fallen leaves rot and form the rich humus from which the bluebell grows."

Philippa Carrick, chief executive of the Tibet Society in London, said Stone's comments were ridiculous, and oversimplified the concept of karma.

"None of us fully understand the concept of karma unless we are wise, so to use it in this context is ill-advised," she said. "The concept of karma is that you are sowing seeds that come back on yourself, but for Sharon Stone to suggest the earthquake was caused by bad karma is unthinking. Things don't work in such straight lines and she seems to have neglected that Tibetans suffered in the quake."

Dhammadassin says that despite its simplicity, this example reflects the inter-connectedness of our world, "in which our views, attitudes, opinions and intentions all have a part to play in creating our actions and their consequences". And what many call karma is actually closer to the idea of poetic justice, she says.

Nor do Buddhists believe karma is the only cause - others are:

    * inorganic or environmental factors, such as the weather
    * organic or biological factors, like bacteria or viruses
    * psychological factors such as stress
    * and transcendental or spiritual factors (such as the sometimes powerful galvanizing effect of spiritual practice)

"The earthquake in China or the cyclone in Burma have much to do with environmental factors," says Dhammadassin. "To invoke karma is more to do with our desire to nail things down and find someone to blame. But that's not ours to do."

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