Karma and Katrina

Natural disasters like Hurricane Katrina or last year's Asian tsunami raise all kinds of questions, including religious ones. For followers of theistic religions this is usually couched in terms of God's agency. This is not an issue in Buddhism, which does not postulate an almighty creator. Instead the question for Buddhists is how to make sense of the law of karma in the face of sudden massive death and suffering.

Simply put, the doctrine of karma teaches a being's experience depends upon their actions. If one does "good" deeds, deeds of generosity or kindness, one experiences happy results. If one does "bad" deeds, deeds of cruelty or selfishness, one experiences unhappy results, in this or a future life. This process is not the judgment of a supreme being, but the process of a natural law like gravity.

Many find it hard to understand how this may work when thousands experience a disaster all at once. The answer is not simple, nor is it without controversy within Buddhist thought. On the one hand, the Buddha taught that it is an error to believe that karma is the sole cause of everything. On the other hand, the Abhidhamma texts also teach that all our sense experiences can be classed as results of karma. This would presumably include the experience of sudden death by drowning.

There is more than one way to reconcile these teachings. Some Buddhists put little stock in the Abhidhamma, as being a later addition to the Buddha's teaching. These thinkers would allow that some events are just random. A more orthodox position within Theravada Buddhism holds that while karma is one cause of a given experience, it is never the sole cause. External conditions must come together to allow a karmic seed to manifest. In this view, all the beings who die in a flood must have made the karmic seed, possibly by deliberately drowning others, in one of their many past lives. We all have many such unmanifested seeds waiting for external conditions to ripen. In this view, those people who "miraculously" escape would be just those who lack the requisite karma.

We must be careful not to use the idea of karma for casting blame. Buddhism is always a practical religion, interested in what we can do to end suffering. In this light, discussion of past karma is of theoretical interest only; what is done is done and there is no way to change it. One should instead take a keen interest in the making of new karma, something over which we do have control.

In the event of a calamity like Hurricane Katrina, a practical view would be to focus more on the other aspects of external causality. While the Asian tsunami was caused by a shift of tectonic plates, a natural process completely beyond human agency, the hurricane was a result of climatic forces which have been disturbed by humanity's careless discharge of carbon into the atmosphere. It is obvious that such storms are increasing in power and frequency. It would be wise to start heeding these warnings, before more and worse disasters befall our coastal cities.

Likewise, we could focus our attention on practical issues of flood control and disaster relief. There is plenty to criticize here in both the cases of the tsunami and the hurricane. To highlight one glaring example; just when Louisiana could use the services of their National Guard, most of them were thousands of miles away fighting an unjustifiable colonial war. It is much more useful to consider issues such as these than to speculate about past karma, a kind of speculation the Buddha criticized as pointless.

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