Tsunamis, Cyclones, Earthquakes and Karma

There is a prominent teaching in Buddhism, which it also largely shares with other Indian religions such as Jainism and Hinduism, and that is the belief in the law of karma.

Basically what the law says is that your present condition is the result of your post actions, and that your future condition will be the result of the combination between past and present actions. The law of karma explains, for example, why you were born in such and such a place and enjoy doing certain things (such as playing the piano) rather than others (such as bowling). It explains the character of who we look for in a mate and many other things.

The law of karma works because our mental continuum is receptive and sensitive to a large variety of influences and has the tendency of carrying over these influences. In a type of Mahayana thought, that of the Yogācāra, there is the teaching on the Ālayavijñāṇa (now I have to force myself to do the diacritical marks), or “store consciousness.” This is a type of consciousness that underlies the workings of the other six types of consciousness that are known in the early teaching, each corresponding to the five senses and one “inner” or mental sense, so to speak. It is the store consciousness that keeps record of our doings in the past and when time is appropriate, or the condition is ripened, the result bears fruit. All these records are kept in the store consciousness, and each individual who is not liberated has his or her own store consciousness that keeps records of everything that person has ever did through bodily, verbal or mental actions.

This is the usual explanation of how karma works. There is a saying that in Buddhism nothing exists by chance, because everything that happens does so as a result of a combination of causes and conditions. So when one wants to have an explanation for natural disasters like the 2006 Indian Ocean Tsunami or the recent cyclone in Burma and the earlhquake in China from a Buddhist, the typical answer would be that of karma.

This immediately brings about discomfort among I think Westerners who are not used to this kind of idea. Asian Buddhists have a much easier time understanding and accepting this. The question that springs up is: If it is karma, then is it ultimately these people’s fault that they have to suffer the Tsunami? What kind of teaching is that? In fact many blogs here in WordPress are reeling after Sharon Stone made a comment referring to the earthquake victims as suffering from “karma.”

Don’t get me wrong on this. Stone is utterly wrong when she said that the Chinese earthquake victim suffer because of their wrongdoings, or because of the wrongdoings of their political leaders. That is very wrong indeed and definitely not a Buddhist thing to say at all. The meaning of Stone’s remark is something like: They deserve it because of what they have done. But that is NOT the Buddhist teaching on karma. So Stone is giving karma a bad name.

Since everything that happens, happens because of causes and conditions, so do earthquakes and cyclones and other events. There are causes and conditions that all together explain why such things happen, even though right now we do not understand them all, since earthquakes and cyclones are extremely complex phenomena. And what about those people who happened to be there when the quake occurred? They clearly do not deserve their death at all. Nobody, absolutely nobody, deserves such a fate. Let me repeat. Buddhism does not teach that victims of earthquakes (or tsunamis, etc.) deserve their fate because of their “bad” karmas.

Before going further let me digress. In the 18th century (I don’t remember exactly the year) a huge earthquake took place in the Atlantic ocean quite close to the Portuguese shore. The quake sent off a huge tsunami rushing to Portugal. I did not look this up, but perhaps around 30,000 people or so died. Being Christians, Portuguese and other Europeans raised this question: What could ever justify such a calamity? If God were a thoroughly compassionate and all powerful being, then how could he let such a thing happen? This is known in theology as the problem of theodicy. The thing is that the people who died were devout Catholics. If anything there were not sinners who might have “deserved” to die. But if they were so faithful, why did they suffer such a fate?

The people in the Irrawaddy delta or in the Chengdu area are not sinners either, at least they are not singled out by a supreme and all powerful being because of their common characteristics. There is no more feature in common among them than in any group of people living together in any other geographical area in the world. So God, being infinitely powerful and loving, did something totally incomprehensible. We mortals cannot fathom His mind; all we can do and have to do is to remain faithful and be mindful that such a calamity could one day strike ourselves too. We can’t help with that, but we can help ourselves because faith does arise within ourselves.

Well, that seems to be the Christian answer, and I am not of a Christian theologian to give any more precise answer to that. But at least it seems to me that way. Now back to Buddhism. I have just said that it is wrong to say that these people deserve to die. That is as bad as saying that the Portuguese Catholics who perished because of the 18th century tsunami were sinners and God punished them. Who are we to judge that these people have sinned? I mean what are the differences between them and us??

So the Buddhist response to this would be something like this. Causes and conditions that explain the occurences of things in the world are so complex that not even a hugely powerful supercomputer (let alone a finite human mind) could comprehend it. Perhaps there might be some reason, or some explanation, as to why this particular person happened to be at the area where the quake hit. But what is the significance of that? Why do we need to single this out and point our fingers at them as Stone seems to be doing? Suppose we find a patient suffering from a serious illness, do we point our fingers to him saying “You deserve it because you did something bad”? What bad manners! And worse, saying things like this means that you feel that you are somehow superior to others. It is this kind of attitude that will quite likely bring you down to the lower realms in your future life. Things just happen. It could happen to you too.

So instead of saying things like Stone does, the Buddhist would extend compassionate hands to the victims and help every way they can. They also take this event as a reminder of how impermanent things are. Human life is so short and so fleeting. There is no time to fool around because no one knows what lies ahead of us in the next life and if we don’t practice the Dharma (which includes helping others in need), then there is a big chance of not being born a human being again. And once you are born as an animal, then you have to wait a LONG time before coming back as a human again….

2 thoughts on “Tsunamis, Cyclones, Earthquakes and Karma

  1. Cittasamvaro May 30, 2008 / 4:58 pm

    To be fair, Sharon Stone asked a question “Is that Karma?” and proceeded to say how the Tibetans reaction was to go and help – which is what she learned from the situation. She proceeded,
    “Sometimes you have to learn to put your head down and be of service, even if with people who aren’t nice to you. And that’s a big lesson for me”
    Taken in context, her words seen fairly reasonable, especially considering they were not planned, but were an off the cuff remark after being cornered walking somewhere.
    Thanks for the word “theodicy” – I never knew there was a word for that.

  2. soraj May 30, 2008 / 6:08 pm

    Thanks for clarifying this. Perhaps I did not read the piece through when I came across the news. What she said in your quote is nice though.

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