Thought for the day Wed, 01 June 2011

Listen to the talk here

My relief that the Bosnian Serb commander Ratko Mladic is at last being subjected to international justice has a personal dimension. My father’s family were Jewish victims of the Nazis and my grandfather died in Sobibor Concentration Camp, so I feel a particular resonance with accounts of Central European genocide. Most chilling for me, and most reminiscent of the Nazis, was the cool deliberation behind the Srebranica massacre when the state turned its power on Bosnian Moslems killing 8,000.

My relief may sound rather un-Buddhist if you consider Buddhism to be essentially passive, focusing on meditation rather than action and relying on karma as a kind of mystical justice system that ensures wrongdoers get their just deserts. But the Buddha’s teaching of karma has been badly misunderstood both in the West and in the popular religion of many Buddhist countries. The Buddha started with the principle that actions have consequences and wanted to understand how the actions we perform now affect the future. He saw that we constantly shape and reshape our experience depending on how we act, and the moral dimension, for Buddhists, starts with observing that the choices we make mould the kind of people we become. Every time I act generously, I become a little more likely to do so in the future and therefore experience the happiness that goes with being a generous person. The converse is true of cruelty, hatred and so on. The real meaning of karma is that the choices we make determine the kind of person we become. ‘Sow an act, reap a habit; sow a habit, reap a character; sow a character, reap a destiny.’

From this perspective, our every word, thought and deed has a moral weight, and the whole of life is an ethical arena. That’s a powerful incentive to act ethically oneself, but what of those who don’t share this perspective? A leader who’s ordered an atrocity may well be morally warped as a result, but such people also write the laws, run the police forces and frame the ideologies that justify their actions and let them get away with them. The malevolence of the Nazis who killed my relatives was matched only by their conviction that they were acting for the good.

That’s where others must intervene, and those who impose justice from without need precisely the sort of ethical awareness that is fostered by seeing the moral or karmic effects of actions for both oneself and others. Notwithstanding the popular view, karma doesn’t mean that one should sit back passively and let destiny take its course. It’s a call to action.