LATELY, people have taken to intoning karma as the explanation for events that appear to be comeuppance, perhaps even poetic justice (although there is seldom any “poetry” in it at all). As popularly understood, it is the belief that not only does one reap the fruit of one’s actions; rather, the harm or injury visited on others comes around and strikes at the perpetrator, hard!
The trouble with karma is not the belief that actions have consequences — a proposition not too difficult to accept, and because somehow, things are connected with each other, I am visited by the resonance of my own actions, particularly if they are hurtful or injurious. It is rather that karma is taken to be some inexorable law of retribution, some kind of inescapable fate brought about by one’s own contumely. It is a comforting thought for victims, the assurance of vindication, at the same time that it excuses one from being one’s own avenger! But if karma were the unavoidable desserts of one’s thoughtlessness or malice, then there would be no room for repentance. And because repentance would be completely useless, neither would one of the most beautiful and laudable exercises of human power — forgiveness. Karma is engraving for eternity one’s faults and failings, and when this is so, it hardly makes any sense to turn about and utter a heartfelt “I am sorry,” nor for one who has been injured to pronounce those words of genuine healing and humanity: “I forgive.”
One acceptable understanding of karma was proposed years ago by Magdalena Villaba, former dean of the Graduate School of the University of Santo Tomas and my professor in Indian philosophy. She wrote her doctoral dissertation actually on the conundrum arising from the Buddhist rejection of a permanent, lasting self and the doctrine of transmigration. What is there to transmigrate if there is in fact no soul?
But her exegesis of Buddhist texts serves our purposes well in attempting a rational acceptance of what has been popularized — and, unfortunately, bastardized, as karma. She proposed the analogy of billiard balls. When you strike the mother ball (or whatever else it might be called), the energy from it passes on to the other balls along some line or curve (if one is skilled enough) — something does pass, the energy or the force. And if that is how karma is understood, I can grant it. Chaos theorists after all have raised the prospect of the fluttering wings of a butterfly in one part of the globe making their effects felt in a hurricane on the opposite side.
Then, too, process philosophers have a useful suggestion. Since every entity — actual occasions — consists in the appropriation of immediately antecedent events, then reality is “social” in the sense that things in this world are never really completely disconnected from each other. Then indeed, carelessness, malice and criminality can stir long-lasting and far-reaching ripples, if not treacherous waves.
But there is nothing unavoidable or inexorable about retribution, and so conversion and repentance should always be meaningful options, as should forgiveness always remain a promising, healing possibility.