31 May 2008

How Karma Works

The idea of secularized, new age karma is having its moment in the limelight. Newspapers and magazines use the word to spice up headlines or subtitles with colorful flair. Restaurants plaster their tip jars with signs promising good karma for only a dollar or two. Singers ponder over the power of a vaguely vindictive karma in songs like "Instant Karma" and "Karma." And according to the Social Security Administration, "Karma" even made it into the top 1,000 baby names for girls in 2006. But what is karma, and how did it get transplanted from Eastern religion to Western pop culture?

Karma is a central concept in Eastern religions like Hinduism, Buddhism, Sikhism and Jainism. The word "karma" has its roots in the Sanskrit word "karman," which means "act." In general, it is believed that actions affect the quality of life and the quality of future lives. Good deeds create good karma and evil deeds create negative karma. Karma's effect can manifest immediately, later in life or after multiple lifetimes. Some religions view karma as the law that governs reincarnation. Others believe that karma is actual particulate matter, something that gets stuck to the soul and must be removed through acts of piety.

In the West, the relatively modern idea of karma is not so much a spiritual reality as type of luck influenced by deeds. It's an appealing attempt to influence fortune -- something seemingly beyond our control -- with definite action. Most people would agree that it's reasonable enough to believe that good behavior merits a reward and bad behavior warrants punishment. Karma is also a convenient way to explain ostensibly random hardships. In a rational age, karma is a popular and fairly legitimatized form of superstition, unlike its closely related partner, reincarnation.

For most adherents of the major Eastern religions, karma is a spiritual, philosophical and ethical fact. It helps explain inequalities among animals, encourages virtue and allows people to make sense of life's ups and downs. However, Hinduism, Buddhism, Sikhism and Jainism have differing ideas about how karma works and its effect on one's existence in subsequent lives.

Hindus believe the soul is trapped in a circle of birth and rebirth called samsara. Until a person quells all desires and accepts that the individual soul is the same as the absolute soul, he or she must suffer in samsara and forgo moksha -- the goal of salvation. But because moksha is an ultimate goal, and one that can be achieved only after it is no longer desired, most Hindus attempt to generate good karma so that they can be born into a better life.

The law of karma controls samsara, with good actions engendering good karma and bad actions creating negative karma. For Hindus, good karma is usually produced by correctly performing the duties of one's caste, or social class. If a person lives admirably and fulfills the responsibilities of the caste, the soul can be reborn into a higher caste. Hindus also believe that because karma is its own law, it requires no divine interference.

While most Hindus believe that an unchanging soul is reincarnated until it achieves salvation, Buddhists believe that a soul's accumulated karma, rather than the soul itself, transmigrates between bodies. The soul, which consists of the five skandhas -- aggregates of body, sensations, perceptions, impulses and consciousness -- expires at death. However, the soul's accumulated karma becomes vijñana, or the "germ of consciousness," in a new life. Like Hindus, Buddhists strive to escape the cycle of samsara by achieving a state of complete passiveness. Many Buddhists believe that an individual can end the cycle of reincarnation and achieve nirvana by passing through multiple lifetimes and following the tenets of the Eightfold Path or "middle way."

Sikhism also teaches karmic law and reincarnation. For Sikhs, karma affects the quality of life and of future lives. To exit the chain of reincarnation, Sikhs must understand God and ultimately become one with him.

Not all Eastern religions conceive of karma as law. Jainism teaches that karma is an atomic substance -- an actual particulate that attaches itself to the jiva, or soul. Jain followers believe that as long as a soul is burdened by karma it remains trapped in a cycle of birth and rebirth. Because negative qualities of the soul (like anger, greed or pride) make karma more inclined to stick, Jain believers try to minimize passions, live soberly and inflict harm on no living thing, except in self-defense.

Most religions include some sort of impetus for good social behavior. For many Eastern religions, karma is that impetus -- its law decrees that positive and negative actions will be rewarded or punished (eventually). While karma works like a mechanical law, Western faiths usually entail a final judgment at the end of one's life. Good and bad actions are presumably tallied and leveled upon the soul at death.

However, the idea of karma is still appealing to people unfamiliar with its Eastern roots. Karma suggests that self-determination is possible and that action can influence the future's quality. Karma has become a popular New Age ethical philosophy -- one largely removed from religious connotations. The simple ethical basis of karma -- that good engenders good and vice versa -- translates into most religions.

The secularization of karma in the West started in part with the creation of the Theosophical Society in the late 19th century. The Russian émigré Helena Blavatsky founded the society with Henry Steel Olcott, a lawyer and journalist, in 1875 in New York City. Blavatsky originally shaped the group's doctrines around her gnostic and kabbalah beliefs, but an 1879 trip to India steered her toward Hinduism and a more regimented understanding of karma. Blavatsky believed that the Theosophical Society's studies, discussions and meditations could help prepare the world for the Aquarian Age -- a time of enlightenment and brotherhood. Annie Besant, an English woman, helped extend the society's reach and introduce modified Hindu beliefs to the West. Today, the Theosophical Society defines karma as "a law of spiritual dynamics related to every act in daily life". It's a view of karma that is only loosely connected to the structure of Hindu, Buddhist, Sikh or Jain philosophies.

23 May 2008

The Golden Rule: The Ethic of reciprocity

"Every religion emphasizes human improvement, love, respect for others, sharing other people's suffering. On these lines every religion had more or less the same viewpoint and the same goal."
The Dalai Lama
Bahá'í Faith:
"Ascribe not to any soul that which thou wouldst not have ascribed to thee, and say not that which thou doest not."
"Blessed is he who preferreth his brother before himself."

"And if thine eyes be turned towards justice, choose thou for thy neighbour that which thou choosest for thyself."
Epistle to the Son of the Wolf

"This is the sum of Dharma [duty]: Do naught unto others which would cause you pain if done to you."
Mahabharata, 5:1517

"...a state that is not pleasing or delightful to me, how could I inflict that upon another?"
Samyutta Nikaya v. 353
"Hurt not others in ways that you yourself would find hurtful."
Udana-Varga 5:18

"Therefore all things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them: for this is the law and the prophets."
Matthew 7:12
"And as ye would that men should do to you, do ye also to them likewise."
Luke 6:31

"Do not do to others what you do not want them to do to you."
Analects 15:23
"Tse-kung asked, 'Is there one word that can serve as a principle of conduct for life?' Confucius replied, 'It is the word 'shu' -- reciprocity. Do not impose on others what you yourself do not desire.'"
Doctrine of the Mean 13.3
"Try your best to treat others as you would wish to be treated yourself, and you will find that this is the shortest way to benevolence."
Mencius VII.A

Ancient Egyptian:
"Do for one who may do for you, that you may cause him thus to do."
The Tale of the Eloquent Peasant, 109-110

"This is the sum of duty: do not do to others what would cause pain if done to you."
Mahabharata 5:1517

"None of you [truly] believes until he wishes for his brother what he wishes for himself."
Number 13 of Imam Al-Nawawi's Forty Hadiths

"Therefore, neither does he [a sage] cause violence to others nor does he make others do so."
Acarangasutra 5.101-2
"In happiness and suffering, in joy and grief, we should regard all creatures as we regard our own self."
Lord Mahavira, 24th Tirthankara
"A man should wander about treating all creatures as he himself would be treated."
Sutrakritanga 1.11.33

"...thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself."
Leviticus 19:18
"What is hateful to you, do not to your fellow man. This is the law: all the rest is commentary."
Talmud, Shabbat 31a.
"And what you hate, do not do to any one."
Tobit 4:15

Native American Spirituality:
"Respect for all life is the foundation."
The Great Law of Peace

"The heart of the person before you is a mirror. See there your own form"
"Be charitable to all beings, love is the representative of God."
Ko-ji-ki Hachiman Kasuga

"Compassion-mercy and religion are the support of the entire world."
Japji Sahib
"Don't create enmity with anyone as God is within everyone."
Guru Arjan Devji 259
"No one is my enemy, none a stranger and everyone is my friend."
Guru Arjan Dev AG 1299

"The basis of Sufism is consideration of the hearts and feelings of others. If you haven't the will to gladden someone's heart, then at least beware lest you hurt someone's heart, for on our path, no sin exists but this."
Dr. Javad Nurbakhsh, Master of the Nimatullahi Sufi Order

"Regard your neighbor's gain as your own gain, and your neighbor's loss as your own loss."
T'ai Shang Kan Ying P'ien
"The sage has no interest of his own, but takes the interests of the people as his own. He is kind to the kind; he is also kind to the unkind: for Virtue is kind. He is faithful to the faithful; he is also faithful to the unfaithful: for Virtue is faithful."
Tao Teh Ching, Chapter 49

"The inherent worth and dignity of every person;"
"Justice, equity and compassion in human relations.... "
"The goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all;"
"We affirm and promote respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part."
Unitarian principles 7,8

"An it harm no one, do what thou wilt" (i.e. do what ever you will, as long as it harms nobody, including yourself; One's will is to be carefully thought out in advance of action.)
The Wiccan Rede

"That nature alone is good which refrains from doing unto another whatsoever is not good for itself."
Dadistan-i-dinik 94:5
"Whatever is disagreeable to yourself do not do unto others."
Shayast-na-Shayast 13:29

22 May 2008

The Same(?) Ten Precepts of Buddhism, Taoism, Islam, Judaism, and Christianity

The Ten Commandments may be called the 10 precepts of the Jewish and Christian faiths. However other faiths also have 10 precepts which are not very different from the morality of Judeo-Christian religions either.

The Ten Precepts of Daoism were outlined in a short text that appears in Dunhuang manuscripts. The precepts are the classical rules of medieval Daoism as applied to practitioners attaining the rank of Disciple of Pure Faith. They first appeared in the Scripture on Setting the Will on Wisdom.

1. Do not kill but always be mindful of the host of living beings.
2. Do not be lascivious or think depraved thoughts.
3. Do not steal or receive unrighteous wealth.
4. Do not cheat or misrepresent good and evil.
5. Do not get intoxicated but alwyas think of pure conduct.
6. I will maintain harmony with my ancestors and family and never disregard my kin.
7. When I see someone do a good deed, I will support him with joy and delight.
8. When I see someone unfortunate, I will support him with dignity to recover good fortune.
9. When someone comes to do me harm, I will not harbour thoughts of revenge.
10. As long as all beings have not attained the Dao, I will not expect to do so myself.

The Ten Precepts (Pali: dasasila or samanerasikkha) may refer to the precepts (training rules) for [Buddhist] samaneras (novice monks) and samaneris (novice nuns). They are used in most Buddhist schools. The ten precepts of Buddhism are:

1. Refrain from killing living things.
2. Refrain from stealing.
3. Refrain from un-chastity (sensuality, sexuality, lust).
4. Refrain from lying.
5. Refrain from taking intoxicants.
6. Refrain from taking food at inappropriate times.
7. Refrain from singing, dancing, playing music or attending entertainment programs.
8. Refrain from wearing perfume, cosmetics and garland.
9. Refrain from sitting on high chairs and sleeping on luxurious, soft beds.
10. Refrain from accepting money.

In the 17th chapter, "Al-Israa" ("The Night Journey"), verses [Qur'an 17:22], the Qur'an provides a set of moral stipulations which are "among the (precepts of) wisdom, which thy Lord has revealed to thee" that can be reasonably categorised as ten in number. According to S. A. Nigosian, Professor of religious studies at the University of Toronto, these resemble the Ten Commandments in the Bible and "represents the fullest statement of the code of behavior every Muslim must follow".

1. Worship only God
2. Be kind, honourable and humble to one's parents
3. Be neither miserly nor wasteful in one's expenditure
4. Do not engage in 'mercy killings' for fear of starvation
5. Do not commit adultery
6. Do not kill unjustly
7. Care for orphaned children
8. Keep one's promises
9. Be honest and fair in one's interactions
10. Do not be arrogant in one's claims or beliefs

19 May 2008

The Five Precepts in Taoism

The Five Precepts in Taoism (Chinese: 五戒; Pinyin: Wu Jie; Cantonese: Ng Gye), constitute the basic code of ethics undertaken mainly by Taoist lay-cultivators. For Taoist monks and nuns, there are more advanced and stricter precepts. These precepts are no different as the Buddhist Five Precepts, but with minor differences.

According to The Ultra Supreme Elder Lord's Scripture of Precepts, the five basic precepts are:

  • The first precept: No Murdering;
  • The second precept: No Stealing;
  • The third precept: No Sexual Misconduct;
  • The fourth precept: No False Speech;
  • The fifth precept: No Taking of Intoxicants.

Their definitions can be found in an excerpt of The Ultra Supreme Elder Lord's Scripture of Precepts:

The Elder Lord said: "The precept against killing is: All living beings, including all kinds of animals, and those as small as insects, worms, and so forth, are containers of the uncreated energy, thus one should not kill any of them."

The Elder Lord said: "The precept against stealing is: One should not take anything that he does not own and is not given to him, whether it belongs to someone or not."

The Elder Lord said: "The precept against sexual misconduct is: If a sexual conduct happens, but it is not between a man and a woman who are married to each other, it is a Sexual Misconduct. As for a monk or nun, he or she should never marry or practice sexual intercourse with anyone."*

The Elder Lord said: "The precept against false speech is: If one did not hear, see, or feel something, or if something is not realized by his Heart, but he tells it to others, this constitutes False Speech."

The Elder Lord said: "The precept against taking of intoxicants is: One should not take any alcoholic drinks, unless he has to take some to cure his illness."**

The Elder Lord said: "These five precepts are the fundamentals for keeping one's body in purity, and are the roots of the upholding of the holy teachings. For those virtuous men and virtuous women who enjoy the virtuous teachings, if they can accept and keep these precepts, and never violate any of them till the end of their lifetimes, they are recognized as those with pure faith, they will gain the Way to Tao, will gain the holy principles, and will forever achieve Tao -- the Reality."

*The precept against Sexual Misconduct also outlines that sexual acts such as masturbation, premarital sexual conduct, adultery, prostitution, having intercourse with prostitutes, homosexual intercourse, etc, are all sexual misconducts.

**Smoking, the use of intoxicants other than alcohol, and the like, are also forbidden by the precept against Intoxicant-Taking.

17 May 2008

Thunder from Tibet

The police and soldiers were pelted with stones, their cars were burned, and, pursued by a group of stone-throwing youths, they fled. No reinforcements were sent into the area for at least three hours (one Western journalist who witnessed the events saw no police for twenty-four hours), though they were waiting on the outskirts. It was the traditional response of the Chinese security forces to serious unrest—but the hours of inaction left the citizenry unprotected and allowed the violence to escalate.

In this vacuum, a number of Tibetans turned from attacking police to attacking the next available symbol of Chinese governance, the Chinese migrant population. About a thousand Chinese-owned shops were set on fire by rioters who were seen by foreign tourists igniting cooking gas cylinders or dousing shops in gasoline. According to The Economist's correspondent James Miles, the only accredited foreign journalist in Lhasa at the time,

almost every [Chinese or Chinese Muslim] business was either burned, looted, destroyed, smashed into, the property therein hauled out into the streets, piled up, burned. It was an extraordinary outpouring of ethnic violence of a most unpleasant nature to watch.

Miles saw Chinese passersby, including a child of about ten years old, pelted with stones, and several Western tourists described hard-core rioters beating random Chinese civilians with enough force to have killed them. Eleven Chinese civilians and a Tibetan were burned to death after hiding in shops set on fire by the rioters, and a policeman and six other civilians died from beatings or unknown causes, according to the Chinese government.

The events of March 14 challenged any assumption that Tibetan Buddhists are necessarily nonviolent or that their political actions are limited to what Deepak Chopra has called "inert pacifism." If the six rounds of talks between Beijing and the Dalai Lama's representatives since 2002 had suggested that a negotiated solution for the Tibet issue might occur in the near future, such a solution [now] remains unlikely.

Tibetans were lifted out of feudal bondage by what China terms the liberation of 1950–1951, notes that the Tibetan Autonomous Region has received $13.8 billion in the form of government subsidies from Beijing since 1965, and that its GDP has boomed at over 10 percent per year for the last decade. As a result, a new and wealthy middle class of Tibetan Chinese has been created in the larger towns in the Tibetan region, and in 2007 alone the average annual urban income increased by 24.5 percent over the previous year to 11,131 yuan ($1,588) per person in the Tibet Autonomous Region. To say that Tibetan protests are driven primarily by people being economically disadvantaged thus seems hypocritical to those struck by highly visible economic gains in those towns.

Tibet has been an integral part of their motherland since at least the thirteenth century. The Chinese argument is indeed correct that Tibet was several times under the authority of Beijing.

It would seem that for many Chinese, and even some Westerners, the principal source of aggravation is the Dalai Lama. The Chinese authorities say that, although he has repeatedly declared support only for autonomy and renounced the claim for independence, he is concealing a continuing desire or a secret plan for independence. The government cites as evidence his refusal to say that Tibet was part of China in the past, his increasingly frequent journeys to the West, which are seen as a courting of anti-China feeling and a public shaming of China on the international stage, and his refusal to condemn those of his exiled supporters who continue to call for Tibetan independence.

The use of violence by Tibetans in some protests, leading, by the Chinese government's count, to the deaths of eighteen Chinese civilians and at least three policemen, raises a question about the ability of the Dalai Lama to persuade Tibetans to uphold his repeated calls for pacifism.

14 May 2008

Donate to the Chinese Earthquake Victims Through a Buddhist International Relief Foundation

Tzu Chi Foundation is a non-profit organization founded in 1966 by Dharma Master Cheng Yen in the impoverished east coast of Taiwan. The Foundation has been contributing to better social and community services, medical care, education and humanism in Taiwan for nearly 40 years. Master Cheng Yen firmly believes that suffering in this world is caused by material deprivation and spiritual poverty. She felt that "lack of love for others" has been the root of many problems in this world. "To save the world, we must begin by transforming human hearts."

A volunteer-based, spiritual as well as welfare organization, Tzu Chi’s missions focus on giving material aid and inspiring love and humanity in both the givers and receivers. Since its founding, the Foundation has dedicated itself in the field of charity, medicine, education, environmental protection, as well as the promotion of humanistic values and community volunteerism. The humanitarian work is both a means to help those in need, and also a way to open the eyes of the volunteer to the harsher side of life, so that through giving, they may find spiritual happiness and life's true meaning.

A home-grown Taiwanese organization, Tzu Chi volunteers living abroad began setting up overseas chapters in 1985. They use money that they have earned in their country of residence to help the poor and needy in their local communities. Today, Tzu Chi is an international organization with over 5 million supporters and over 30,000 certified commissioners around the globe.

Emergency aid to typhoon-stricken Bangladesh in 1991 marked the beginning of the foundation's international relief efforts. Firmly believing that, "Nothing is more valuable than life, All beings are equal." Tzu Chi demonstrates first hand that They overcome obstacles of time, distance, and politics, to provide relief and hope to victims of war, flood, and drought. As of August 2005, over fifty-seven countries in five continents have received Tzu Chi’s aid.

From the icy Arctic Circle to the sweltering tropics, Tzu Chi volunteers have left their footprints in many faraway lands, risking their lives in epidemics and wars. Their belief in "making the impossible possible" has sustained them in accomplishing many arduous tasks. In addition to material aid, Tzu Chi has also encouraged mutual help among disaster victims and helped them become independent by involving them in rebuilding their own communities. The ultimate goal is to inspire disaster victims to contribute to others in turn when they have the ability to do so, thus creating a global village of Great Love.

12 May 2008

The Jade Record

The Jade Record or Yuli is an illustrated religious tract that circulated in various versions and editions in the 19th century in China. It has some folk-Buddhist and Daoist features and describes the horrors of Diyu (hell in Chinese mythology) that await bad people.

The prologue states that the tract was submitted to the Jade Emperor or Highest God by the king of hell Yan Luo and the Bodhisattva of Compassion, then passed down to a Buddhist priest and on to a Taoist, sometime during the Song Dynasty.

The tract describes how the dead pass through the ten courts of hell and are punished with terrible torture according to their misdeeds during life. In the first hall, the "Mirror of Reflection" lets the dead see their own sins. Sins specifically mentioned include: mocking or disbelieving the tract itself, taking one's life without good reason, having weak faith in the Buddha, being careless as Buddhist or Taoist priest, killing live creatures, stealing, cheating, gambling, drinking, drowning baby girls, killing slaves etc. Yan Luo himself rules over the fifth court of hell; the Highest God demoted him from the first court because he proved too compassionate towards murder victims, allowing them to return to the world for another life. Yan Luo also built a "Tower to View the World", from which the dead can observe how their relatives curse their memory and fight over their possessions. At the end of their passage through hell, the souls are made to forget their previous lives in the goddess Meng's "Tower of Forgetting" and are sent back to the world, reincarnated as animals, poor, ill or ugly humans, or as rich men, depending on their prior behavior.

The Jade Record also contains a calendar, devoting the first day of the first lunar month to Maitreya Buddha, the eighth day to Yan Luo, the ninth to the Jade Emperor. The Sakyamuni Buddha, the Boddhisattva of Compassion, and the Kitchen God receive two days each.
Numerous other gods also receive their special day.

The Qing emperors tried to suppress the tracts, as the state religion Confucianism discouraged any speculation about the afterlife. Hong Xiuquan, the quasi-Christian leader of the Taiping Rebellion, forbade the tracts once he had risen to power.
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