Buddhist scholar Robert Thurman talks about how suffering, even through the tsunami disaster, can offer a karmic advantage.
Interview by Lisa Schneider
Robert Thurman holds the first endowed chair in Indo-Tibetan Buddhist Studies in the United States, at Columbia University in New York. He is the author of the international best-seller "Inner Revolution," and the co-founder and president of Tibet House U.S., a nonprofit organization dedicated to the preservation of Tibetan culture.
Why do bad things happen to good people? Does karma play a role?
Abstractly speaking, karma is not really a theory of fate; it's a causal theory. And it says that anything bad that happens to you is a resonance of something bad that you perpetrated in a previous life.
The main thing about karma, what we might want to call collective karma, when there's a disaster where people haven't done anything and a terrible thing happens from nature, is that the bodhisattva, or the outside person looking at the situation, never invokes the karma theory and says, "Well, I don't have to worry about them because that was their bad karma and they got wasted and too bad--as if it were some sort of fate or a way of writing off the disaster. It should never be used that way.
The bodhisattva never accepts the absoluteness of that explanation, although she would be aware of it. She would think of it as a terrible tragedy, unprovoked and unmerited, and would try to do everything possible to save the people from the disaster and help the survivors.
On the other hand, the karma theory that everything bad that happens to me is from my own negative action in the past is always useful for the person who suffers. In other words, using the karma theory to blame the victim is good for the victim to do about themselves. This is a very surprising idea. If the victims just sit and shake their fist at the universe, shout at God (if they are theists) or shout at karma, then they weaken themselves in the sense that they have just emphasized their helplessness.
Whereas if they say, I'm going to use this disaster that happened to me as if it were expiating previous things that I did to the world that were negative, and I'm going to grow stronger from it....In other words, I can't do anything about the disaster but I can do something about my reaction to it. I'm not going to add to the suffering it has caused with a new suffering of agonizing about myself and feeling helpless and feeling angry at the external world. I'm going to take responsibility for being in the way of the disaster as part of my own karma and therefore I'm going to use this tragedy as an advantage toward freedom, towards Buddhahood.
Is that a way they can find meaning in their suffering?
They find meaning and they find advantage is the main point. They can say, this is going to be a conscious effort I'm going to do.
Now if they got killed, of course they're not going to do anything in that life. But from the Buddhist point of view, if they have a lingering memory of a catastrophe because they died in a moment of panic and fear and worry for their loved ones and so on, if they retain some memory of this death—which often the just-dead do, in the Buddhist view in the bardo, the between state—and they're saying, well, this is a terrible karma thing that happened to me and others. I will try to make my suffering a sacrifice, an expiation of previous things that I caused, and I'm going to have a better life in the future. And I'm going to try to help the beings who died, my loved ones and others, and be of more help to them in my next life.
So that they would try to take advantage in the between-state in the after-death state in order to improve their rebirth, rather than just freak out.
What solace can Buddhism offer to survivors who have lost loved ones?
The solace to survivors who have lost someone is: Well, they lost this life, I lost my contact with them, but moaning and groaning and freaking out about it and being angry about it isn't going to help. I should send them good prayers and good vibrations about their rebirth. If I dearly love them, I will pray to meet them again in the coming life, in wherever they are reborn, to make the world in general a better place for them, and vow to rejoin them (if it's a soulmate sort of thing) in another life. So the consolation of karma is not just identifying the lost beings with the embodiment of a particular life, but feeling a sense of spiritual connection to their larger continuity of life and sending good vibes toward that.
The theist says it's God's will and God took care of them and hopes to join them in heaven, which is also good consolation and sort of leaves it up to God. But the karma is seeing it as a process in which you are also a responsible actor. Otherwise the vastness of the causal mixes is so huge it's pretty incomprehensible, and no wonder some people call it God, or God's will, or providence.
But the key thing is that karma is not the exercise of a particular agency or divinity; it is an impersonal process of causality. I call it evolutionary causality.
What do you mean by that?
It's a causality by which beings evolve. Like if they do an action of a certain type, they get an effect from that action because it changes their being and their being evolves. It can evolve in a negative or a positive direction depending on whether the actions are negative or positive. In a way, karma is a biological theory just like a Western genetic biological theory. And it is very like a genetic biological theory in that it has humans being reborn as animals, animals as humans. And it adds to that also the idea of the spiritual gene or the soul gene being interwoven within that genetic rebirth process. So that your own individual consciousness can become the animal or become the god or become the human or whatever it becomes.
It's hard to generalize across cultures, but is there a traditional mourning period for Buddhists?
In the Buddhist context, they consider that the weeping and wailing and shrieking and tearing hair and clothes, that kind of thing, is not actually a good idea. It doesn't really relieve the bereaved; in fact it even pumps up their emotion. But the main point from the Buddhist point of view is that the one who just died, being still aware of what those left behind, the survivors are doing for a while--the departed one gets very anxious and upset and preserves that raw emotion as very disturbing. So whenever someone is overcome by grief, the tendency, especially in Tibetan Buddhist culture, is to try to calm that survivor down and have them think of good and positive thoughts and send good vibes.
So the nature of their grief should take the form of looking forward and being compassionate with others?
Yes, that's considered better--sincerely sending really strong caring and loving vibes toward the one who passed away. Because the main person in transition at that time, the most difficult transition, is the death-rebirth transition in the Buddhist view. The one left behind is not that drastic in the sense that they're still in their familiar embodiment, even though it may be a big disruption for them. So the priority is to send the good vibes to the departed, in the Buddhist world view.