Karma -- and a Prison Inmate

By Eloise Hart

The recent electrocution of a prison inmate whose crime had been committed under the influence of drugs was particularly disturbing. The young man had been, before and after his tragic encounter, outgoing, concerned, and intelligent. When sanity returned, and every day of the nine years he spent on death row, he suffered the agony he had inflicted not only on his victim but also on the victim's family and on his own family and friends.

The anguish of shame, and the anger and blame directed at those who had supplied him with drugs would have been devastating had he not come to realize, from books he had read about karma and rebirth, that he was responsible even though his memory of his crime was a blank. In some past incarnations he, and his victim, must have set up the conditions that had brought them together in tragedy. In a sense, both were victims, but both could, he believed, be gainers if he could now make amends.

He resolved to do so. His long incarceration and death would not be sufficient, he felt, to break the chain of causation; he must completely change himself and the karma involved. He set about reshaping himself inwardly, changing his attitude and thoughts so that he might, to the degree his confinement allowed, help others. In this way he would atone for the suffering he had caused and prepare himself for future incarnations in which he hoped he would be born in situations where he could benefit in larger measure those he had injured. The consistency of his effort worked wonders. Prison guards and officials later admitted they missed this young man: there had been something about him they had seen in no other.

Such an example helps us recognize how involved we become with others by our thoughts and acts, even when unintentional. It makes us examine our lives, our motives, desires, and their possible consequences. Nutritionists claim we are what we eat; Buddhists that we are what we think: "All beings are led by thought, are controlled by thought, are made up of thought."

Under the inexorable law of karma, each man is what he is and where he is because of his actions in the past. What he will be in the future is what he is making himself today. Positive, compassionate action once begun becomes habitual. Its beneficial effects continue through life and death experiences and, if it be our karma, bring us back into situations where we can more effectively help others. Understanding this, the incidents in our lives take on new meaning. Fear of the unknown and of karmic disasters dissolves, for, knowing we have the power to rectify past error, we transform the avenging demons we have created. Strengthened by knowledge and the intent to do good, we bring to these foes of our past a measure of peace. Tensions relax. People (and situations) we had dreaded we come to see as friends -- as possibly they were lifetimes ago before we had alienated them.

Following the karmic action-reaction-action sequence back, back to causes that the prisoner may have set in motion lifetimes ago, we wonder at the power of the initial thought that had energized the long chain reaction that culminated in so tragic a climax. Many conditions and individuals undoubtedly contributed, both innocently and purposefully, to his degradation. He did not act alone, nor was he alone responsible. No one can sin or suffer the effects of sin alone. Nor can one do good and enjoy the blessings that result alone. We each are affected by the desires, thoughts, or actions of others, and in turn we affect others for good or ill whether we know it or not.

Furthermore, our thoughts are never gone and done with. Once energized they take on a life of their own and travel from mind to mind where, if not rejected, they incite to action and in this way contribute to the elevation or degeneration of the consciousness of the world. Carl Jung was intrigued by this carry-over consequence of karmic effects. In his autobiography he wrote: "When I die, my deeds will follow along with me -- that is how I imagine it. I will bring with me what I have done." (Memories, Dreams, Reflections, p. 318.)

Tsong-kha-pa, the great 14th century reformer of Tibetan Buddhism, described this sequence as consisting of thought, volition, act, after-act, fruit. To him the fruit or result of an act is the karmic consequence. Though the physical act appears to have vanished, the energy involved in the act has merely disappeared from sight, become latent, awaiting an opportunity to produce karmic fruit. This happens on all levels. Tsong-kha-pa, anticipating modern psychology, thus described the enduring quality of after-effects.

By cause-and-effect repeated over lifetimes, greatness can be achieved. As the Sutta-Nipata (3.9.57) tells us: "One does not become a Brahmin by birth, nor does one become a non-Brahmin by birth. One becomes a Brahmin by (one's) action; one becomes a non-Brahmin by (one's) action" (R. W. Neufeldt, trans.).

But can one so easily "become a Brahmin"? Could our prison inmate, by kind thoughts and deeds, transform the karma of lifetimes? This certainly would not easily be accomplished. What he attempted, and succeeded in doing to a degree, was to completely change his thought and action patterns. This took tremendous effort and consistent control of his mental, emotional, and physical nature. He did not "escape" past karma: no one can do that. He did, however, change his character, raise himself to a higher level so that when the "demons" of his past will again confront him, he will be able to deal with them impersonally and with understanding take the appropriate action to harmonize discordant elements.

(From Sunrise magazine, June/July 1988. Copyright © 1988 by Theosophical University Press)

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