Karma, again . . . and again . . .

I have to admit that I am not 100% sold on the ideas of karma and rebirth. Some people tend to think of them as a kind of “next-life” balm, and there are times when I tend to agree with that.

But after I think it about it some more, I wonder. How is the notion that you carry around everything from your past, especially all the dumb shit you’ve ever done, around with you through countless lives, endlessly into the future, any kind of balm or reassurance? Karma is like a set of luggage that you tote around everywhere you go. You can leave the bags at the gate, bribe the sky cap to lose them, hope that the airline loses them, or better yet, destroys them, and yet, no matter what you do or where you go, it catches up with you, a huge set of heavy bags to lug around some more. Nothing very soothing or restorative about that. No ambrosia. No nectar or honey-dewed comfort.

Now the flip side is of course that we also carry around good stuff, and for most people the good and the bad should even out, with the former having a bit of an edge. That’s something that is often forgotten about when this subject is discussed.

So while I may harbor doubts about the actual mechanics of this doctrine, I take seriously the point teachings about karma and rebirth are trying to make, which is to take responsibility for your thoughts, words, and actions. You can’t escape from yourself and there is no blaming others for this or that because ultimately you are the one who decides what to think, what to say and what to do.

It is important to remember that karma means “action,” a word that can refer to many things. In an essay entitled “The Buddhist Concept of Karma”, Professor of Indian Philosophy, Hari Shankar Prasad grouped Karma(s) into two categories:

karma-without-agency . . . the dynamic nature of reality . . . This kind of karma is essential and blind, for example, the internal bodily processes, the [burning] of fire, etc. . . . the second, karma-by-human-agency which is the basis of the popular doctrine of karma and its retribution (vipaka). This kind of karma is essentially ethical and causal in nature . . .

Prasad goes on to explain that this second kind of karma, which reflects the ethical aspect, demonstrates that it is not necessary to hypothesize the existence of a Supreme Being, for the Buddhist concept of karma instills moral values on the secular level. Furthermore, the Buddhist karmic doctrine rejects any sense of fate (niyati, vidhi) to which a person can evade responsibility for his or her actions by passing the buck to external determining factors.

Up to this point, I think everyone should be on board, but we come to some forks in the road when the ideas of rebirth and transference of merit (parinamana) are thrown in. On one hand, this should be enough. Taking responsibility for our thoughts, words, and deeds on the deepest level, while at the same time purifying them, is the job of a lifetime. What more can we do  other than exercise control over our “volitional capers.” Living an ethical life in this life is the right thing to do regardless of whether or not it increases the possibility of more favorable circumstances in some next life.

We may or may not have had past lives, but we all certainly have a past. That’s why the bags have our names on the tags and no matter how hard we try to lose them, some sky cap will always come up and say, “Here is your luggage . . .” And, what’s more, you have to give a tip.

As I noted this doctrine of karma with its moral aspects is not the exclusive domain of religion, nor should it be the starting point of religion. The Buddhist sense of karma put it all down on the secular level, and as well, on the level of conventional or relative truth. On the ultimate level, it’s a whole other ballgame, as Nagarjuna points out in the Maha-prajnaparamita-sastra:

All deeds are empty, sunya (relative and contingent); and the deeds that are done with this understanding are called the right deeds. The farer on the Mahayana way, the bodhisattva, comprehends the ultimate sameness of all deeds; and he does not take the good deed as meritorious and the evil deed as devoid of merit. For, in the ultimate truth, there are no deeds, good or evil. This is the true wisdom (Prajna). But this is itself also the right deed for it issues in the deed that is done with the right understanding . . . Having achieved the true understanding of deeds, one neither does deeds nor desists from them, for one is devoid of clinging and so one does not consider oneself as the doer of deeds. And such a wise man always does the right deeds and never any wrong ones. This is the right deed of the bodhisattva.

Nagarjuna is not denying deeds literally. Rather he is rejecting clinging in regard to deeds and any sense of passion, pride, or even guilt, associated with doing deeds. It is definitely not an escape clause that one can use to justify any action simply because in the ultimate sense all actions are empty. Nagarjuna is pointing to the state of mind capable of transcending suffering on account of thoughts, words, and deeds. It is also safe to assume that if there is some kind of balm being offered, it too is empty, relative and contingent.


Carrying the fire

The Dalai Lama just concluded an eight-day visit to Sikkim, a state in the northeastern part of India, where he gave teachings on Nagarjuna’s Commentary on Bodhicitta. He also visited the Namgyal Institute of Tibetology and, according to The Tibet Post, he told the students “that the concept of ‘we and they’ should be removed from every individual. His Holiness said people should only talk about ‘We’ reflecting the unity. He said that one should judge the people not by their external beauty but by ‘inner beauty’. He said the external beauty does not last for long but the internal beauty is eternal.”

This is something we’ve heard a million times: beauty is only skin deep and so on. It is so familiar and so simple that perhaps it often goes in one ear and out the other. Yet, it’s definitely a major part of the Bodhisattva Path. In the SGI, they used to tell us that we should “look for the diamond” in others. This guidance was given especially if you were complaining about the people around you. Don’t complain, our seniors would say, they are only reflections of you. When you change, they will too.

Obviously, one’s power to change others is rather limited. What actually changes is the way you look at them. When you begin to transform yourself, you look at others differently. You begin seeing their diamonds, their inner beauty.

The job of a Bodhisattva is to not only see the diamond in other people but to help them see it in themselves and then to help them polish the diamond. They, in turn, help someone else polish their diamond. In this way, we create a chain of diamonds. We transform the chain of Dependent Origination from a chain dominated by suffering to a chain of sparkling jewels.

Viggo Mortensen and Kodi Smit-McPhee in the film based on Cormac McCarthy's apocalyptic vision of the world. (Photo: Supplied)

It’s like passing a torch. It’s like the father and the son in Cormac McCarthy’s novel The Road who are on a journey through a landscape devastated by some unnamed cataclysm that has destroyed all civilization and nearly all life on earth. At the end of the book, when the father cannot go on any futher, he tells his son that he must keep going and find the “good guys” (meaning anyone still alive who has not turned to cannibalism). He tells his son that he must do this because “You have to carry the fire.”

The boy says that he doesn’t know how to carry the fire and his father replies, “Yes you do.” But the boy say he doesn’t know where it is, and the father says, “Yes you do. It’s inside you. It was always there. I can see it.”

In his novel, McCarthy keeps this phrase somewhat ambiguous. However, it’s rather clear that along with whatever else it might represent “carrying the fire” also symbolizes a sense of hope (there’s that word again), and further, it reminds us that lighting the torch of hope in ourselves and others is an eternal, fundamental, and utterly necessary, human mission.

We really have no choice. We have to search for the diamond. Find the inner beauty. Light the torch. See the “we” instead of “me.”

Why? Because we’re carrying the fire.


The Great Man’s Christmas Letter

Previously unknown photo of Fields

If you know anything about W.C. Fields, you know he was a curmudgeon, a misanthropic, a drunk, and a hater of children and dogs. Actually most of that was an act, he was at heart a softy and he left a sizable portion of his estate to an orphanage. Before talkies, Fields’ forte was as a comedic juggler. After talkies, it was simply being one of the funniest men who ever spoke on screen.

However, it’s true he was a world class drinker and he was good friends with another legendary lush, John Barrymore, who today most people only know vaguely as the grandfather of Drew.

Barrymore as Hamlet

Barrymore was a great actor, considered the finest Hamlet of his generation. He also appeared in the first feature film with a soundtrack (music only), Don Juan, released thirteen months before The Jazz Singer.

Anyway, Fields died on Christmas Day in 1946 (Charlie Chaplin, that other famous comedian, also died on Christmas in 1977), and somehow I have a feeling that “Bill” had a love/hate affair with the holiday. No doubt he loved the sentiment but hated the commercialism.

A prolific writer (he wrote many of the screenplay for his films), Fields wrote thousands of letters to friends, admirers, studio executives, etc. Most of  are hilarious, of course, and they are collected in the book, W. C. Fields By Himself. One year he sat down at Christmastime and wrote a letter to his good friend, Mr. Barrymore. This is how it came out:

Fields and Barrymore: two hams

Dear John,

I have been having a few drinks and I thought I would drop you a note. About this time of the year I usually take a moment to write a few letters to my good friends; the time when I remember all the good things and indulge myself to the extent of getting a little sentimental.

It is a blustery evening, but here in my Den it’s coz-zy and comfuable. I’m sitting before a nice open fire with my typewriter, John, sort of haff lissning to the radio and slowly sipping a nice, very dry double martini. I only wish you were here, John, and since you are not, the least I cando is to toast to your health and happy-ness, so time out, old pal – while I bend my elbow to you.

I just took time to mix another Martini and while I was out in the kitchen I thought of all the time I would waste this evening if I went out to mix another drink every once in a while, so I just made up a big pitcher of martinis and brought it back in with me so I’d have it right here beside me and wouldn’t have to waste time mixing more of them. So now I’m all set and here goes. Besides Mratinis are great drrink. For some reson they never seeme to effec me in the slightest. and drink thrm all day long. So here goes. The greatest think in tje whole wokld, John, is friendship. Anebelieve me pal you are the gertests pal anybody ever had. do you remembre all the swell times we had together “pal??/ The wonderful camping trisp. I*ll never forget the time yoi put the dead skunnk in my sleeping bag. He ha Bow how we laughued didn we. Never did the stin kout out od it. Bit it was pretty funnya anywayh. Nev I still laught about it onec in a whole. Not as muhc as i used to. But what the heck & after all you still my beset old pal john,. and if a guy can’t have a luaghg on good treu friend onc in a whiel waht the heck. Dam pitcher is impty so I just went outand ma deanotherone and I sure wisch you wee here old pal to help me drink these marotomi because they are simply sdeliuccious. Parn me whil i lieft my glass to you good helahth oncemroe John because jjhon Barrymroe best pal I goo Off cours why a pal would do a dirty thinb liek puting a skunnk in nother pals sleeping bagg I&m dash if I kno. That was a lousi thing for anybodyhdy todo an only a frist clas heel would di it. Jhon, wasn a dm dam bit funney. Stil stinkkks. And if you thininkit funny you’re a dirity lous anasd far as Im concerned you cn go plum to hell and stya ther you dirty lous. To hel with ouy.

Yours very truly,

Bill Fields


At long last . . . Rainbows

We’ve had five days of continuous rain here in Southern California. During this period if it quit raining it was only for five or ten minutes at a time. I can’t remember when it has rained this persistently for so long. Maybe a decade ago.

You’ve probably heard the old saying: It never rains in Southern California. It’s not true, of course. But it almost is. Often we can go from April to October with nary a drop. Personally, I get tired of sun all the time. I relish a cloudy day and if it rains too, wow, what a treat.

Fortunately for me, the rain hasn’t caused a big problem. Except that I couldn’t (and didn’t) want to go out in it because I am still recovering from cataract surgery and not supposed to get water in my eye. But it has wreaked havoc and caused suffering for many in the area.

Today a whopper of a storm swooped in. Torrential downpours, thunder and lighting – the whole bit. And then, in the late afternoon . . . the sun finally made an appearance, and for once I was rather glad to see it. But there was still some rain falling and whaddya know . . . a double rainbow.

Here’s one of the pictures I took:

You can see the others here.


A Buddhist’s Guide to Christmas Movies

Deep down inside, I am just a sentimental softy. Emotional, too. And just like John Boehner, I cry. Movies can make me cry. Sentimental, emotional movies. It’s a guilty pleasure. Only I don’t feel guilty about it.

Worse than that, and despite the fact that I resent having this commercial extravaganza they call Christmas that seems to exist for no other reason than making a lot of money for people who are not me foisted upon us each year, and that I am less than thrilled about having to share my birthday with this Jesus dude especially since, unlike myself, it’s highly unlikely he was born on Dec. 25th, I enjoy Christmas movies. Why? Mainly because they make me cry.

Not all Christmas movies are created equal, so what follows is more or less my Top Five picks.

The King Daddy of Christmas movies is probably It’s A Wonderful Life. But it wasn’t always like that. The movie was a flop when it was released in 1946 and forgotten until the mid-70’s when PBS discovered it was in the public domain and began showing it each holiday season. I think I watched that first year, and since I am a fan of both Jimmy Stewart and Frank Capra, and because it’s a great film, I loved it. All of the sudden, so did everyone else. No one owned the rights, so anyone could show it. It became so popular that at one point in the mid-80’s I figured that if you lived in Los Angeles (this was pre-cable when we had 7 commercial and 2 PBS stations) and it was clear so you could get Channel 6 from San Diego and Channel 24 from Palm Springs, you could conceivably watch It’s A Wonderful Life 28 times during a 36-hour period. Of course, you would also need 3 TV sets because several stations could be airing it at the same time.

Now, the film is no longer in the public domain and you have to watch it whenever NBC wants you to watch it. Unless you rent a DVD or own one.

The moral of It’s A Wonderful Life is pretty obvious: have appreciation for your life. This is a message that gets lost sometimes in Buddhism, but I have always thought that dharma teaches us to be positive about life. That’s what being in the present moment is all about. As the Dalai Lama, once said:

Every day, think as you wake up, today I am fortunate to have woken up, I am alive, I have a precious human life, I am not going to waste it, I am going to use all my energies to develop myself, to expand my heart out to others, to achieve enlightenment for the benefit of all beings, I am going to have kind thoughts towards others, I am not going to get angry or think badly about others, I am going to benefit others as much as I can.

That’s the same message imparted to us in Frank Capra’s now classic film.

I’m not sure what the main message of A Christmas Story is, other than be careful with BB guns because you might shoot your eye out. If you haven’t seen it yet this year, don’t worry, you should have about 50 more chances, since they will be playing it to death in the next several day. It’s a great movie, though. Christmas through the eyes of a kid in the 1950’s.

Now, if you think that Miracle on 34th Street is just about some old guy who thinks he’s Kris Kringle, you couldn’t be more mistaken. This film conveys several important messages. One is summed up in this line spoken by Fred Gailey, the character played by John Payne, “Faith is believing in things when common sense tells you not to.” I probably wouldn’t put it exactly that way, but to me that means you can’t live by your rational mind 100% of the time. Common sense often tells us we can’t do something but then we take a “leap of faith” in ourselves and find out we can. Common sense says that sitting in contemplation is just a passive approach to life that accomplishes nothing. But we try it anyway, maybe because of the recommendations and experiences of others, and whaddya know? It works. Based on that we develop some confidence, some faith.

This kind of faith is really trust. Trusting in the way that you follow, trusting in yourself and in others. We often lead ourselves astray, so it’s helpful to have some faith in your capacity to win over yourself.

Another message you’ll find in Miracle on 34th Street concerns social justice. In the same scene in which the line quoted above appears, Doris (Maureen Ohara) accuses lawyer Fred of going on an “idealistic binge” because he’s decided to represent Kris Kringle who’s on trial for being “crazy” and it has cost him his job. Fred says he’ll open his own law office if he has to, and Doris asks what kind of clients he’ll get. He replies. “Oh, probably a lot of people like Kris who are being pushed around.” Well, Doris doesn’t buy it. Payne’s character says, “Don’t you see it’s not just Kris that’s on trial, it’s everything he stands for, it’s kindness and joy and love and all the other intangibles-”

Kris Kringle, or Santa Claus, here is a metaphor for those intangibles, as well as lost causes and all the people pushed around who never have the resources to fight back and that covers most of the people on the planet. Here, Kris Kringle is not focused only on bringing gifts. He’s concerned with something bigger: “Oh, Christmas isn’t just a day, it’s a frame of mind.” Kris believes in the true spirit of giving which is based on compassion and is, in the end, the best way to achieve real peace on earth.  In other words, Santa is a Bodhisattva.

I could go on about this movie, especially about the year Channel 5 showed the film the day after Natalie Wood died (just 9 when she appeared in the film) and just a few days after Jack Albertson’s death – I would have given cry-baby Boehner a run for his money that day . .  . let me just say that when it comes to Miracle on 34 th Street, I accept no substitutions. It’s the original 1947 version or nothing.

Now, here’s a film I just discovered a few years ago, thanks to Turner Classic Movies: Remember the Night with Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray. You can’t get much more sentimental or hokier than this one. Made in 1940, just four years before the two stars would team up to play illicit lovers who kill Stanwyck’s husband in the film noir classic, Double Indemnity, this movie, written by Preston Sturges, could be sub-titled Quadruple Smaltz.

Stanwyck gets arrested during the Christmas holidays for shoplifting and MacMurray, the Assistant District Attorney, prosecutes her. The trial starts just before Christmas, but is postponed and MacMurray posts Stanwyck’s bail so she won’t spend Christmas in jail. He’s going back home to Indiana for the holiday, and when he learns that she is a fellow Hoosier, he offers give her a lift . . . the rest pure 1940’s sentimental hockum at its best, mainly due to the watchability of the two stars. Also starring is Beulah Bondi, aka Ma Bailey, and Sterling Holloway. Do yourself a favor and catch this delightful warm-hearted movie when TCM airs it Dec. 24 at 12am Eastern.

I don’t think that Young at Heart is considered a “Christmas movie” but it comes to a climax on Christmas Eve so that qualifies it in my book. I absolutely love this movie and it’s good any time of year. Here’s just four of the reasons why: Frank Sinatra, Doris Day, Gig Young and Ethel Barrymore. Based on an earlier film, Four Daughters, Sinatra plays the character originally played by John Garfield, and in my opinion, it’s Sinatra’s best role ever. Both Doris and Frankie Boy do some singing and best of all, the recordings used for Sinatra’s songs are of him with just a small combo (guitar, piano, bass and drums), with no big band to get in the way. I believe you will only find these recordings in this movie. When Sinatra bends a certain note in “Someone to Watch Over Me” and when he sings “Just One of Those Things” in an empty barroom as he’s waiting to leave town, it’ll tear your heart out.

Lots of smaltz in Young at Heart, too. The message is pretty much the same as the Capra film and it may seem corny and simplistic, but when you watch it consider this: the suicide rate is higher during December than any other month.

Honorable Mentions: Christmas in Connecticut (with the amazing Ms. Stanwyck), Holiday Affair (Robert Mitchum, Janet Leigh), The Lemon Drop Kid (Bob Hope), White Christmas (Bing Crosby, Danny Kaye, Rosemary Clooney, and that wonderful 1950’s Techicolor color), Bad Santa (Billy Bob Thornton and the Coen Brothers), and Die Hard 2 (terrorists taking over air traffic control at a Washington DC airport on Christmas eve, what more could you ask for?).

There are others, and perhaps some great Christmas movies I don’t know about, but that’s the cream of the crop for me.

Christmastime is not a universally happy time. There’s the above statistic and they also say it’s the most likely time of the year to experience depression. Some people truly enjoy the season, others feel like it’s something they have to endure or they just grin and bear it.

I say you don’t have to suffer through the season. The key to surviving the holidays is as follows: meditate regularly, watch some of these movies, and don’t be ashamed to enjoy them or to cry.