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Karma, India, and Systems of Circumstance

IMG_7653Resistance is Futile

a reflection and photos by Evan Silverman

A few months ago, after a long day of traveling throughout India, I was asked the question “What makes some of us born into wealth, while other people suffer so much?” It was a well-warranted question; we had just indulged in room service merely hours after driving through areas of India where people lived with hardly any shelter, literally in houses made of dirt.

I stumbled through an answer to this difficult question, emphasizing that it doesn’t matter how we’re born, but what matters is how we hold our mind. That we can experience suffering whether we have a million dollars or just ten rupees. And that the point is to generate loving-kindness towards others and especially towards ourselves – that when we can love ourselves we can turn that towards others, and make a difference in people lives by being genuine.

IMG_8053But, honestly, I felt like something was missing in my answer. Even though I believed in what I said – and I still do – there was a bit of “jargon” to my answer. So, as I went to bed, the question began churning in my mind.

Eventually, I thought, the answer lies somewhere in the word system. My computer defines the word system as a ‘complex whole formed from related parts.’ From this, one may say that one person can born into wealth and another can be born into poverty, but in reality, we are all born into parts of many systems. Some of these obviously include social, religious, monetary, and political systems.

IMG_7770So, it’s not simply enough to say that I was born in wealth, simply because I am able to travel and never have had to worry if I’m going to be able to eat my next meal. I’m also part of the American system, which currently means that throughout most of the world I’m immediately looked at as an aggressor. I’m part of the Buddhist system, which means I don’t believe or place my faith in a creator god. Additionally, I’m born of Jewish faith, so this means I enjoy bagels with cream cheese, have problems with my mother, and like watching Woody Allen movies. Especially the older, funnier ones.

IMG_7668The point is that I was born, and exist, within many systems. This viewpoint can explain, for example, that despite the outrageous and cruel world (from a Westerner’s eyes) of a typical Indian persons’ daily life, a leader such as Mahatma Gandhi was able to rise up and become an inspiration to the world. And, looking further back, the amazing vibrant attack of the senses we refer to as India also produced the living human being that we refer to as the Buddha.

So, what if we remove the world “system” and replace it with the word “karma”? We’re still talking about the same thing. Why are some people born into poor American families, where the diet consists of huge unhealthy snack foods, versus poor Indian families, where one rarely meets a shower? It’s all karma. Define karma how you will – there’s a number of different ways and many of them make sense. A web of interconnedtness, perhaps. A system of action and result. The Dalai Lama says, if you want to be happy tomorrow, look at your actions today. Etc….

IMG_7971How we’re born and the lives we lead, every single moment, is due to karma. But this doesn’t mean that we have to be afraid of it, or use it as a crutch. Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche refers to karma as a series of causes and conditions, and likens it to an egg being cooked. The causes and conditions include all things such as having heat, a container to place the egg, an area where it is heated, someone to apply the heat, even the egg itself. If all of these causes and conditions exist, then the egg is going to be cooked, whether we like it or not! It’s really that simple – there is no room for opinion or judgment in the equation.

IMG_7815Karma is also constantly being played out; it’s constantly being created. Created for all of us. Namkhai Norbu Rinpoche tells a small child during a touching moment in the movie My Reincarnation, while reflecting on a teaching by the great Buddhist master Patrul Rinpoche, “If you have a goat, you have goat problems. If you have money, you will have money problems. If you have a car, you will have car problems.” Again, a simple way to contemplate a topic that has filled volumes of books.

Similarly, Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche tells us, in Turning the Mind into an Ally, “Karma means ‘action.’ In Tibetan we say le. We tend to simplify the dynamic of karma by saying that one thing causes another. However, karma is more complex than that. There are many causes to any one effect. Think of all the conditions that must fall into place just for us to drive to work: good health, clothes to wear, a working car, no accidents on the way, knowing where the office is. Whatever happens is the result of many causes and conditions. Who grew the apple we eat? Who picked it? Who delivered it to the grocery store? Karma makes the world go round.”

IMG_7627So, to return to my original answer, what we really need to do is to learn how to tame our minds, and how to introduce compassion into that tamed mind. And then turn this flower of compassion out and direct it towards others. We need to really believe that we are no separate than the masters we love, the people with such magical presence that you can be near them, having no idea who they are, yet are completely drawn to them. They don’t have to be Buddhists. They simply need to be complete, genuine human beings. They’ve overcome the notion of “system” to find an inner happiness that is present in every condition that arises, whether they are in public, all the way to eating a meal with the family.

There are no hiding places on this path. So I’ll suggest working with the systems that we have been presented with; working with our karma. Sitting and watching our minds, and introducing some kind, gentle space into our existence. And we can do our best to make our actions of today be virtuous, as far as we understand them to be. And, last of all, try not to hurt anyone, remembering that that when we have nothing to offer, even a smile can turn a day around.

~~
IMG_7924Evan Silverman
began practicing and studying the dharma when he met his first teacher, Chagdud Tulku Rinpoche, in 1994. He began studying under Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche in 2004 and soon thereafter spent three years as a core staff member of Karmê Chöling. A native New Yorker, Evan has been a human rights advocate in his past, as well as a successful musician. He plays both the electric and upright bass and is currently living in San Antonio.

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2 responses to “ Karma, India, and Systems of Circumstance ”
  1. Emma Cataford
    Mar 14, 2015
    Reply

    Thank you for sharing your reflections, Evan. That of karma is a question I’ve been relating to the debate about privilege lately. It certainly gives more depth to our intentions.

  2. Evan, Thank you for that clear piece of writing, brimming with kindness and understanding. I’m glad to see how you are doing since meeting you at our dathun at SMC in 2009. Ever onward!


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