Buddhism and the Myth of the Cosmic Karmic Flush…

We in the Western world are truly mothers of invention and children of it, too, notwithstanding the early achievements of the Chinese and others, with their paradigm-shifting inventions of paper and playing cards and gunpowder and so forth. But somewhere along the way we got the idea that we can throw things away and they somehow just disappear. Now that big (bad) idea may have come with the development of widespread indoor plumbing, but it likely dates back to the beginnings of our species.

The only thing that has changed is that the amount and nature of what we throw away is much more toxic to the environment and our lives than before. After all, simply tossing a banana peel is hardly worth the space it takes to type the word, while dealing with the radioactive refuse at the Fukushima nuclear power plant consumes volumes of bits and bytes, paper and print. We toss anything and everything in the toilet, with the psychological assurance that it will be transported to a better place, but many a plumber and handyman knows better.

But the convenience of curbside trash collection is probably the greater impact upon our lives. After all, the toilet and its contents are fairly limited, even when some wayward guest stuffs paper down the pipes of his Air BnB casual rental. And some even carry the analogy too far, tossing waste down the sink drain even if it has little resemblance to water by that time. But what we throw away to be picked up by the men in gray has got to be seen to be believed. Recycling helps some, but not nearly enough.

So what has any of this got to do with Buddhism? Karma, that’s what. Now my acceptance of Karma is a bit tentative, and limited in scope, but still it’s there, and if the word ‘karma’ itself means nothing more that ‘actions,’ the connotation is certainly that those actions at the very least have consequences, and in many versions of the story can jump generations to come back and haunt you, literally. Now I won’t go that far, but I do believe that actions have consequences, and it is more than just action and reaction, or cause and effect. That’s business, or baseball, a ball’s response to the swing of a bat.

But karma, if it’s anything, is certainly more than that, if not quite the Grim Reaper from a bygone age now come back to exact retribution. The important point for me is that good actions have good results that go far beyond the immediate exchange of smiles and business cards. Thus it is something like herd immunity, or better still, maybe a ‘contact high,’ if you are familiar with hippie jargon. Another point is that once actions are performed, whether good or bad, they never go away. They can perhaps be mitigated, or atoned for, but they can never go away.

This is a point of departure from the Christian doctrine of forgiveness, in which sins are forgiven and the sinner starts anew with a clean slate simply by performance of his penance, but probably not so much. For Buddhism also recognizes the mitigation of Karmic effects, for which I am eternally grateful, thank you. The Christian version is a bit fanciful, after all, that things just go away, and that brings us back to the point: you can’t just flush things away, to disappear somewhere somehow.

I believe in Karma Lite. So everything that has happened is still right there, but we don’t have to be punished for it in perpetuity, nor rewarded. Things are constantly in process and need fresh actions to refresh the karmic narrative. That trash needs to be cleaned up, also, and we need to change our habits. Most of all we need to change the notion that things can just disappear. They don’t. Space junk is still floating in the orbit it was released in, until it loses speed and altitude and crashes unceremoniously to earth. Sound familiar?

Buddhism has a social function, also, and can be a powerful social paradigm if put to that purpose, in my humble opinion, and the sustainability of its foundational doctrines are at the core of that idea. The existence of a practicing sangha, or community, seconds that emotion. For we do not have to be limited to the few choices offered us by the liberals and conservatives of any given country at any given time. We can arrive at our own conclusions, with our own solutions, at any time we feel so inclined. What happened to our hippie communes, anyway? Now they’re called ‘intentional communities,’ hint hint.