The St. Joseph Buddhist Sangha is a small group of dedicated people that meet at the St. Joseph Public Library to study and meditate together.
Recently, our sangha has been studying “The Four Thoughts that Turn the Mind from Samsara,” a commentary on the Buddha’s teachings by Khenchen Palden Sherab Rinpoche and Khenpo Tsewang Dongyal Rinpoche. The “Four Thoughts…” can be concisely summarized as follows: human life provides us with a unique opportunity to practice Buddhism, everything in this life is impermanent, all actions in this life have consequences, and human life is characterized by suffering.
Recently, I have been thinking more about the third thought “all actions in this life have consequences.” Traditionally, Buddhist call this the law of karma. In popular culture, karma is often expressed in the simple idea that if we act nice towards others good things will happen to us and if we act unkind towards others bad things will happen to us. There used to be a commercial that featured a modern hippy guy having his parking place stolen. He slams on the brakes and is about to yell something out the window when he notices his little Buddha stature and he is reminded not to react in anger because of karma.
In my own recent thinking about cause and effect, I have been inspired by ideas discussed in “The Story of the Human Body” by Daniel Lieberman. In his book, Liebermann explains how the human body has changed in response to its environment over millions of years and continues to change in modern times. Karma, from this point of view, is more neutral in effect. The climate of the earth changed over time due to environmental factors and this affected all creatures which lived in it. Some, like dinosaurs, were driven to extinction while others, like homo sapiens, developed and prospered.
The concept of natural selection highlights the science of cause and effect in Lieberman’s thesis. Homo sapiens’ ability to adapt to a changing world by developing brain power and then tools and language are part of our karma story. Lieberman points out that beginning with the development of agriculture human beings began to make lifestyle changes that had positive and negative effects on their own bodies. Farming led to food surplus which promoted faster population growth then were possible in the hunter gather lifestyle. Negatively, farming led to a less diverse diet which resulted in more death by diseases caused by nutritional deficiencies.
This evolution created by human beings continued into the Industrial Revolution, according to Lieberman. The growth of factories had negative effects on the body as workers were compelled to toil long hours in often unsafe conditions. In the 19th century factory workers worked as much as 12 hours per day in poor conditions. These challenges however, inspired the rise of labor unions to advocate for worker rights leading to safer conditions. Modern medicine was also born as a result of Capitalism which led to advances in sanitation and the discovery of germs and antibiotics to treat diseases.
Climate change is currently being shown to be the latest way human beings are generating karma for our present and future. The growth of alternative energy sources and the changing of our planet’s weather patterns are two results. It can be attractive to attack others in our society who we feel are to blame for “Global Warming” but Buddhism and human history teaches us that life is seldom that simple. Instead, we need to harness our energies to work together for a future that benefits us all. No matter what we decide to do, all of us can agree that our actions or non-actions will have consequences for future generations.
Today’s Insights was written by Kunga Nyima, coordinator of the St. Joseph Buddhist Sangha. Insights is written by area clergy to give different viewpoints on a variety of topics. It is published each Saturday in cooperation with the Berrien County Association of Churches. The views expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect the views of member churches.