The Reality of Suffering

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Do you know this word, karma? When you hear it, what does it imply to you?

The concept of karma, found in Buddhism and other ancient Indian religious traditions, has begun to enter our everyday vocabulary. Unfortunately, it is often used mistakenly to mean that everything is predetermined — "It's my karma." People who misuse karma in this way are also inclined to blame things on karma ("It was karma") and absolve themselves of responsibility. In the extreme karma can thus be misused to defend not taking personal initiative.

With such a distorted view, one might respond to suffering by shrugging one's shoulders and saying, "It's my/their karma!" Such a passive use of the concept karma reverses its true meaning.

Karma means 'action.' Karma is a very active process. And when we talk of karma, or action, it is the very action committed by an agent, in this case, ourselves, in the past. So what type of future will come about, to a large extent, lies within our own hands in the present. It will be determined by the kind of initiatives that we take now.

Based on what you've read so far of karma, who creates karma? Who creates your karma? Might there be a family's karma or a community's karma?

We play the essential role determining the course of the karmic process. What we think, say, do, or desire creates karma. What we do or do not do creates karma.

As I write, for example, the very action creates new circumstances and causes some other event. My words cause a response in the readers mind. In everything we do, there is cause and effect, cause and effect. In our daily lives the food we eat, the work we undertake, our relaxation are all a function of action: our action. This is karma. We cannot, therefore, throw up our hands whenever we find ourselves confronted by unavoidable suffering. To say that every misfortune is simply the result of karma is tantamount to saying that we are totally powerless in life. If this were correct, there would be no cause for hope.

In the previous lesson you learned about cause and effect. Does your understanding of cause and effect help you appreciate how you can influence your experience of happiness and suffering?

As with the torments of negative thoughts and emotions, we certainly have a choice in how we respond to the occurrence of suffering. If we wish, we can adopt a more dispassionate and rational approach, and on that basis we can discipline our response to it. Or we can allow afflictive emotions arise and our peace of mind is destroyed. When we do not restrain our tendency to react negatively to suffering, it becomes a source of negative thoughts and emotions. There is thus a clear relationship between the impact suffering has on our heart and mind and our practice of inner discipline.

Karma includes the widest implications of our actions.

Karma refers to an act we engage in as well as its repercussions. When we speak of the karma of killing, the act itself would be taking the life of another being. The wider implications of this act, also part of the karma of killing, are the suffering it causes the victim as well as the many who love and are dependent upon that being. The karma of this act also includes certain effects upon the actual killer.

How can you use this awareness of the future affects of your actions when you face afflictive emotions such as anger and hatred?

When choosing how to respond to difficulty, awareness of karma can help guard against the harmful consequences of afflictive emotions such as anger.

Imagine someone hurts you either with word or action. How will responding with anger help you? The deed has already been done. If you respond with anger are you not possibly creating a cause for future suffering? On the other hand, if you respond with tolerance, the pain from the action will still be there but are you not affecting the long-term consequences?