Millions of people today are carrying a burden of private sorrow and asking themselves why -- why was this child born defective and fated to early death, while its siblings are normal and with every chance of fulfillment? Where is the justice and mercy in a universe supposedly administered by an all-loving God? It is cold comfort indeed to anguished parents to be told it is God's will, the decree of Allah, or the working out of old karma. Even if this is in part true from the vantage of one's inner god, the cause and cure of suffering reach to the core of mystery and will remain such until, beyond the words of all the teachings humanity has received from Buddha's day to the present, we can feel with every atom of our being the compassion of divine purpose behind everything that happens.
Last week we received a letter from one of our readers which contained this paragraph:
Somewhere in one of the issues I picked up an idea that I don't particularly like. I may be misinterpreting, but I think the notion was that it's possible to view some congenital affliction as punishment for some transgression in an earlier (previous?) reincarnation. That proposition strikes me as highly unfair. The human being can't know anything about his previous life, and what good is punishment if the punished doesn't even know that he/she has, in some remote way, committed a crime? I fully believe that nature (whatever that is) is neither cruel nor kind, only indifferent. And I assign congenital afflictions to the category of a consequence of that indifference.
The question, what good does it do to punish a person in this life when he doesn't know what he has done wrong in a former one, is a puzzler. It also raises a second question: "Why don't we remember our past lives?" It might seem simpler if we did, for if we knew where we had gone astray we wouldn't object so strenuously to meeting the consequences. Also, we could see where to make amends. Fortunately, nature -- by which we mean the universe in its totality as a living being, an organism -- is wiser and more merciful than we are. Supposing we did have full awareness of our past, our lives would become intolerable: lingering memories of follies and outrages could cast a terrible shadow, while the remembrance of our accomplishments could make us lazy and smug! Worse still, flashbacks of the weaknesses and strengths of former families, friends, and associates could have a devastating effect on present-day relationships.
The fact is, however, that we do remember our past, for the past is ourselves: we are the karma, the fruit, of our aeons-long experience unfolded in the present. True, our physical brain, being newly formed for this life, has little power of recall, but this is not all we are, The Vedanta teaching of sutratman -- from the Sanskrit, sutra, "thread," and atman, "self" -- is pertinent here: on a "thread-self " are strung as beads on a cord the series of personalities we assume from life to life. While the beads or personalities are only partially conscious of the radiant self linking them together and from which they draw their life-force, our individual atmic self or sutratman does remember and benefit from the experiences of its personalities. Something of the aroma of awareness carried over into each new personality can be intuited in moments of inner quiet.
The ancient teaching that the record of ourselves leaves its ineffaceable seal on our character, our essential selfhood, appears in divers forms in practically every culture. Plato writes of this in his "doctrine of reminiscence": that the soul ought to re-collect to itself its "inborn wisdom," the innate knowledge of "the truth of all things [that has] always existed in the soul," and that although before each return to earth we are obliged to drink of the waters of Lethe -- Unmindfulness -- those who are wise will not drink more than needful! Nature may be "neither cruel nor kind," but her ways are protective. We see a divine forethought in this enforced "forgetfulness" until we have grown sufficiently in soul maturity to live consistently and consciously in our spiritual nature. For as Buddhist texts remind us, the time will come in the future when we will be expected to gain knowledge not only of our immediately preceding life but of several lives past. By then we will handle such knowledge without injury to ourselves and others and will have earned the boon of instantaneous recall of the wisdom that is natively ours.
But let us turn again to the observations of our correspondent: first of all, I don't think anyone can say categorically that a child born with a congenital affliction is paying for some misdeed in a previous life or lives. It may well be the case; but equally it may not be so at all. Is it not possible, for example, that a returning entity -- for we are primarily spirit-souls, not bodies -- could be far enough advanced interiorly to "choose" the karma of severe malformation in order to gain a profounder sympathy with human suffering? There is also the possibility that the reincarnating ego might need a temporary respite from the hurly-burly of certain mental and emotional pressures and select a "retarded" vehicle. Again, it could be that cruelty or selfishness had been so engrafted in the character that the surest means of removing the stain would be to take birth in an impaired body; the lesson of compassion could then be burned deep and the nature gentled.
The universal law of karma, of action succeeded by corresponding reaction, may seem simple when applied to physical happenings; but it becomes exceedingly complex when we try to follow the intricate meshing of karmic strands of even one person, let alone that of the billions of our fellow humans, each with ages of past experience. "Judge not that ye be not judged" -- only one able to read the spiritual history of an individual would be able to determine just what lines of karma had been traced in lives long gone that culminated in the precise conditions which the reincarnating ego finds itself handling -- or not handling -- in this life. All of us have been weaving grandeur and baseness into the tapestry of the soul; but when we intuit, as many do, that we are linked with our divine parent and that whatever we experience of joy or pain is an intrinsic part of our destiny woven since the beginning of time, then we know there is a fitness and a beauty in even the most heart-rending of circumstances.
A letter from a friend received last November bears this out. It was typewritten with a mouth-stick by one who from birth has weathered the trauma of severe disablement. She earns her living as an artist, and also devotes what time she can to working with children and young adults who are more incapacitated than herself. She is not concerned with what they can't do; she focuses on what they can do. In this way she energizes their will and creative energy to actualizing whatever potential they do have. She wrote:
Please promote erasing the false idea that people get about the word "karma." Neither I nor others handicapped have been "punished" by being in damaged bodies (brains, or . . . ). No! In fact, once one's consciousness has sprung past the illusions of faulty education, then in a flash one changes one's attitude about the disability -- changes and realizes once and forever that the damaged form is not a punishment but a holy privilege, through which one is at last permitted to "work" on a conscious (awakened) level. It's like wearing a proper costume to "go to work" -- the damaged vehicle is a necessary and self-imposed outer draping. Our own inner mechanisms permit the current "body" and momentary circumstances so that the teaching-learning conditions may be met. Each of us has in some moment of time had to "pay" for past errors in thought or deed. Able-bodied people are not purer than cripples; they "pay" for their errors via a different cause-and-effect situation. . . .
Karma -- the word should be explained as meaning "circumstances currently the soul chose as the best opportunity for the soul's growth and for teaching others."
A powerful response to the question, "Is life fair?" by one who refused to stay bitter and has consecrated her gift of courage and love to all in need of hope and self-esteem. Dare any one of us do less? Let us honor and respect each other, in full recognition that every human being who has the stamina and compassion to assume challenges beyond the norm is adding his "building stone" to the ageless temple of the soul.
(From Sunrise magazine, February/March 1982. Copyright © 1982 by Theosophical University Press)