Karma and Responsibility

Because they had thus abandoned him and served Baal and the Ashtaroth, the anger of the Lord flared up against Israel, and he delivered them over to plunderers who despoiled them. He allowed them to fall into the power of their enemies round about whom they were no longer able to withstand. Whatever they undertook, the Lord turned into disaster for them, as in his warning he had sworn he would do, till they were in great distress.

Judges 2:14-15

The young man said to Jesus, “All of these I have observed. What do I still lack?” Jesus said to him, “If you wish to be perfect, go, sell what you have and give it to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” When the young man heard this statement, he went away sad, for he had many possessions.

Matthew 19: 20-22

We live with the consequences of our past actions, and the wider world does as well. What we do and choose not to do has effects, for good and for ill. Being a responsible human being means that we accept responsibility for the good and the evil we have done, and also that we accept responsibility for the effects on others and on our world that our actions and non-actions have had. The reason our lives get stuck, the reason why we ourselves and generation after generation tend to keep repeating the sins, failures, and lifelessness of the past is our failure to acknowledge and then to feel and experience the results of our actions, both good and evil. We often live in the moment as if we have not brought to that moment all of whom we are and have been, of all we have done and failed to do. The freedom to “do something new” comes only from the recognition and acceptance of all that has made us what we are.

The experiences of recent days in the United States have raised, yet again, the question:  “Is this country condemned to live to the end of its days repeating its ‘original sin’ of the enslavement of a people for the sake of the wealth and prosperity of the few?”  Throughout not only the history of the United States but all of human history, from the Egyptians to the one percent, the wealth of the privileged has been acquired by the suppression of the many. From the pyramids to the White House to the banks of Wall Street the great symbols of power were constructed by the labor of the enslaved. And yet, as a people, we refuse to accept responsibility for this truth. The result of this refusal to be responsible is that the hatred and oppression continue to be lived out in slightly altered forms that afford greater possibilities for deniability. Will the present moment become the “acceptable time” in which the people of the United States accept responsibility, not only for our “exceptional” achievements but also for the racism and even genocide on which the nation was and continues to be built?

The rich young man who encounters Jesus in today’s gospel reading is very aware that he has kept the commandments from his youth. He is not aware, however, of how much he has constituted his identity by his accumulation of possessions. He wants to do more in order to follow Jesus more closely, but he has yet to fully experience the sadness of his own greed and possessiveness. Perhaps the sadness he experiences as he walks away from Jesus became the stimulus for his awakening to the pervasive love of comfort and things that had dominated his life. If the sadness goes deeply enough, perhaps it will become the source of his accepting responsibility for how he has denied his deeper life for the sake of possessions and so enable him to make  a truly free choice to give away what he has to the poor and follow Jesus with an unencumbered heart.

We live illusions at the societal level because we are constantly living them at the personal level. Much of our busy-ness and self-aggrandizement come from our inability to accept responsibility for our own lives. We have contributed to the lives of others and the life of the world, but we have also diminished life through our action and inaction. Thank God that at times we have helped to realize the possibility in the moment before us and in the lives of those around us. Yet, we have also at times failed to serve or even inhibited the deeper life that was longing to be realized. This is the reality of human life. What we do and fail to do has consequences, and it is the degree to which we accept, at every level of who we are, responsibility for our lives that we become free to make new and different choices.

We tend to avoid responsibility by deflecting our responsibility on to others. Often those others are those who are most apparently different from us. So, we are likely to blame the sufferings of our current state on aliens and foreigners, on those who are racially different from us, rather than accept our own responsibility for enabling a social system that requires winners and losers, a value system that is so distorted by the totalization of the economic over all other human aspirations. It is in the recognition and acknowledgment of what our love of possessions has done to us that we might begin to recognize what and who should be the true target of our rage. Why does the well being of some have to be at the cost of the many?

Social forces are human forces. If the fabric of a society frays, if a way of life disintegrates, if a church ceases to be relevant to the people, these are consequences of human actions and non-actions. Nothing will change, however, as long as we fail to accept our responsibility. Accepting responsibility can seem as if it has the power to overwhelm us. Over the course of our years, we have much to be glad about, but also much to be sad about. To be present to the truth will not overwhelm us. In fact, it can direct us. As, perhaps, the sadness of the rich young man could have been the beginning of a transformation of his life, so too for us. Our lives, in their successes and failures, can show us the way we should go. To accept full responsibility for what we have done and not done, for the gifts and the hurt we have inflicted on the world, brings us to a moment of free choice. Whatever is the truth of the past, we can make a new choice in the present. Or, we can ignore the truth and create our own illusions and, as a result, keep repeating the evil we have done. The grace of the present moment is the encounter with Jesus that the rich young man experienced. Jesus will ask of us to do what we have been unable to do in the past, to turn from and change those habits of being that have kept us from serving the deeper life of the world. To accept that invitation, however, requires of us that we recognize whom we have been and what we have done and to accept responsibility for it.

The karma of what you did in the past exists right now, right here. When you see that karma, maybe you don’t feel good, but keep your mouth shut and just feel it!  Experience it!  Accept feeling good. Accept feeling evil. If you did something wrong in the past, you have to accept the result, but you are still free to do something good now. So carry your feeling, reflect upon yourself, and carefully think about what to do in the next moment. From moment to moment you have a chance to move toward the future. If you do something good now, there will be a good result in the future. Karma should be understood like this.

So first, totally accept your life and what you did in the past. Then, based on the past, make a choice about what to do in the present, and by your decision you can create a new life in the future. That is the real meaning of freedom. Freedom is the vastness of existence where you can accept your pst and create your new life moving toward the future. But there is no freedom without limitation. Freedom must be created within limitation. Within the limitation of karma from the past, there is a chance to create a new life. Whatever you did, this is true. So accept responsibility for your life. Then, with your free will, make a choice.

Dainan Katagiri, Each Moment Is The Universe, Chapter 28

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