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Dear Karma Queen: A big thing I’ve never understood about karma is the idea that whatever horrible thing anybody is suffering, they earned it. The Dalai Lama has said publicly that sufferings are the result of past lives. On the one hand, that helps to make sense of all the suffering in the world, the unfairness and the inequality of people’s lives. But if we’re only getting what we deserve—in fact, what we need—the implication is that there is no need to intervene or help. If people are experiencing what they need to experience, who am I to change that for them? If the victims of Katrina needed to lose everything for karmic reasons, why should others restore their losses? If the Jews in Dachau needed to be there for karmic reasons, why should others have liberated them? I could go on and on, but you get the idea. It is recommended that we cultivate compassion. But if we act on it, are we messing up someone else’s karma? ~Ellen Newmark
Karma is a very subtle and complex teaching. It doesn’t have to do with “deserving” suffering, or blaming the victim, or the overlay of judgment we tend to put on it. Karma implies a number of things: a power to our intention; an interconnected universe in which what we do matters, as the effect of our action ripples out and doesn’t disappear; and a very big picture of life that extends beyond this one birth.
As I understand it, in Tibetan Buddhism we are guided to reflect on our own karma as one of the strands of conditioning leading to our present circumstances, but not to look at other people’s lives in that light. In other words, we don’t look at someone who is suffering misfortune or a bad turn of events and say, “This is just their karma.” Furthermore, how you respond in this moment to someone needing help also plants a karmic seed for yourself. So apathy, indifference, and callousness aren’t appropriate reactions, out of compassion for both yourself and others.