Collective Karma

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I am in the middle of David Loy’s catchy title Money, Sex, War and Karma: Notes for a Buddhist Revolution and bow deeply to his call for Buddhists to develop a clearer understanding of the function of collective karma.  Loy points out the unconscious impact of institutionalized habitual ways of thinking and acting, group functions within which we are continuously embedded. The core themes in the title of the book, money, sex and war, become various strategies that exploit our need to make ourselves more real, filling an inner void with things or pleasure, a flight from our sense of unreality and lack. With even a little examination, it’s not hard to see the samsaric result in our lives and communities in this culture of never having enough money, never hooking up with the perfect partner, and engaging in endless military conflict to feel protected enough as a nation. Although collective karma is not the traditional understanding, I also feel that is not enough to wake up to the delusion of our individual creation of a separate self, but to also awaken to the group function of creation of separate group selves and the ways they are also subject to the laws of karma and to emptiness.

One of the problems is that collectives are more difficult to observe in the awakening process than individuals. How do groups wake up? Can the collective become orientated towards service where compassion and wisdom are valued over worldly gain? Can groups awaken and let go of the attachment to self? Consider all the groups and associations that influence your sense of self – family, gender, ethnicity, race, class, culture, subculture, religious, professional and political associations, just to name a few.  What are the ways of being in the world, habitual perceptions and behaviors that are proscribed by each?  How does the boundary between inside and outside function?  Collective boundaries, that are essentially psychological, evolve more slowly, and yet do change as emergent symbols and myths replace outdated structures that no longer serve. The question remains how we practice as Buddhists with these boundaries.

As Loy points out, when it comes to the ecological crisis before us, the technology we’ve devised to control the conditions of existence is now a threat to that very existence. As many consider its cause a political and technological problem, he reminds us it is fundamentally a spiritual problem, a delusion of separation, nation versus nation, species versus species, supported by continuous institutional reinforcement of greed and ill will, a human experience set apart from the true reality of our vital interdependence with all things, sentient and insentient. To practice with this awareness means we notice where we have adopted rigid boundaries unthinkingly and explore the teachings of radical nonduality.  Too often we practitioners focus solely on the individual boundary, the “small I,” and forget to look at the collective boundaries, the “small we,” in which our role may only be as one member among many, but is no less vital.

Can we invite into our practice the reality that much suffering in the world is wrought under the name of a group identity, one group at the expense of another where no one person is accountable. Many Western practitioners are unaware of the way Buddhist teachings of karma worldwide serve to rationalize tragic social injustice of one class against another. In contrast to ways teachings work to reinforce a fragile status quo, I recently ran across some powerful examples of compassion and wisdom performed on the level of the group. A few months ago, a Portland Muslim community sponsored a blood drive on the anniversary of the New York City Trade Tower attacks with the goal of donating enough blood to represent each life lost. Even though their group, including any members personally, did not have to answer for the actions of a separate radical group, they chose an action of selflessness and generosity that recognized a way to address our polarized society and take responsibility for an association by name. Another group, the family descendents of members of the Lewis and Clark expedition, recently made a sacred canoe for a Native American tribe from whom one was stolen hundreds of years ago by their ancestors. Again, these individuals were technically innocent of that crime, but chose to do something to answer for transgressions of a group of ancestors in the past. These are just a few ways group actions that could not have been easy to enact, yet expressed the Buddhist teachings of interconnectedness perfectly.  We should look for and partake in other examples. Inspired by these actions, I hope we can continue to explore this practice edge together on how to work with collective karma, awakening on many levels, for the sake of all.