About a year ago, a young man in his early thirties who was having severe dental problems due to having no dental insurance said to me, “Well, I guess I’ll just get dentures sooner than later — it happens to us all!” Though he smokes, chews tobacco, and drinks only coffee and colas, I had to bite my lip to avoid exclaiming, “No, it does not!” By that time, I’d learned that arguing, stating “the facts,” or trying to persuade people whose minds are already made up is not only futile, it’s egotistical. Unless you’re a lobbyist, a member of a debating team, or an attorney arguing a death penalty case, it’s a useless, thankless endeavor, and the reward is small — being “right” for a minute, or forever, in nobody’s but your own fondest memories. Additionally, because everyone wants to be “right,” they resent it if you cause them to feel or look “wrong,” and the repercussions can be swift, or slow and insidious. And of course, issues of race, class, someone’s lack of self-esteem, or just plain accountability can define the difference between our being seen as intelligent or a trouble maker…
Nonetheless, much reading and discussion with dental professionals will lead one to the discovery that teeth were meant to last a lifetime, even if you live to be 100, but you need to know how to take care of them. Tooth loss is not an inevitable, unavoidable “fact” of life. This much, I knew. I also knew that if I’d disagreed with him, he would have discounted my views because I was a woman, and not “free, white, and over-21,” as he constantly reminded me and anyone else with whom he “conversated” no matter what they looked like. And this leads me to the discussion of one of the Three Poisons, ignorance, as identified by the Lord Buddha. The other two “poisons” are attachment and aversion. They are also interpreted, respectively, as delusion, desire, and hatred.
The word, ignorant, is actually a beautiful, compassion-based word that has, in the common usage, been bastardized into meaning “stupid.” Though I am not an expert in the language of the Theravada Buddhist scriptures, Pali (the language of Theravada Buddhism), I have learned that when Buddhists [properly] use the word “ignorant,” it does not necessarily imply stupidity, but rather “not knowing.” And that’s a significant, yet subtle difference. What this means is that it is possible to say people are ignorant not as an insult, but as a simple statement of fact coupled with the understanding that those persons are simply doing the best they can with the information they currently possess. Truly, even when it doesn’t look like it, most people are doing what they think is “best” — if only for them…
For example: Robbing a bank (however “justifiably” desperate one may be) is stupid; but telling a lie, however “white,” is ignorant. The Buddha famously said, to his young son, Rahula that a liar is capable of any evil, and thus, lying is never justified. Lying is bad karma — and here, it is important to remember that the term karma does not refer to what happens to us, but rather to what we actually do. Karma translates to “action.” So, karma is what we do, but vipaka is what happens to us as a result of that action. If someone falsely accuses a person of committing a crime, causing that person to be wrongly incarcerated, that’s bad karma (action). When the truth of their lie is finally revealed, and they, themselves go to prison for lying, that’s their vipaka, a term which translates as “the ripening or maturation” of [a] karma (action). So, vipaka is the consequence of [a] karma — whether it be good or bad.
One of the the beautiful, liberating things about understanding the difference between karma and vipaka is that we realize that we have much more control over what occurs in our lives than we might think. When something bad happens to us, it is not “right view” to say, “That’s just my karma.” Buddhists are not as fatalistic as they’re reputed to be. Then there’s the hard truth. It is more appropriate to throw up one’s hands and say, “Ah, well, I guess that’s just my… vipaka (i.e., the natural consequences of my past actions.) Nonetheless, at any given moment, we can choose what karma we wish to enact, and immediately influence our future vipaka, i.e., outcomes.
We do have some level of control over our vipaka until the moment we draw our last breath, but this does not necessarily mean that we will escape the vipaka (ripened effects) of our previous karma (actions/choices) in this life, or the next… Viktor Frankl, the Austrian psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor who authored one of my favorite books, Man’s Search for Meaning, said:
Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.
And God help you if someone knows you know this. They’ll often be happy to place you in a position to test your true adherence to this theory. Nonetheless, the ability to choose should be our greatest and most treasured freedom because our choices today are where we’ll live tomorrow — whether our role be that of punish-er or sufferer.
The story of the Maha-Moggallana, the arahant and beloved companion of the Lord Buddha aptly illustrates this. Despite living the holy life, he was murdered, according to the Buddha, because of murdering his own parents in a former life… This is why it is so vitally important to guard our actions and speech as if our lives depend on them — which they do… And just in case what I said didn’t register with you, Maha-Mogallana attained Liberation; yet, was beaten like a dog, dragged himself “home” through the streets to be in the presence of the Lord Buddha once more, and then died.
Buddhists believe that out of the many different types of sentient beings, of which humans are only one, the human rebirth is the most fortunate. This is because only human beings can attain enlightenment. There is a verse from the Holy Bible that I have always loved, and which is most appropriate here:
Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling. –Phillipians 2:12(b)
Unfortunately, not everyone can do this all of the time. What I perceive as “right” today, I could realize to be a colossal mistake tomorrow — and it’s all because of my “ignorance,” my “not knowing.” According to the Buddha, there is much that cannot be learned in books or by talking to other people. No one can make up our minds for us. ‘Truth’ is an experience, ultimately too subtle for words, and can sometimes be relative. “What God has joined together, let no man (or woman) put asunder”; yet, some marriages need to end. We need to be willing to meditate,think upon and rigorously examine our experiences, remembering that because they are our experiences, we were there, taking part in them… Putting up a nasty meme on Facebook, e.g., “Some women think they are everything; in reality, they are everything but..,” without questioning one’s own self or culpability is not a solution — neither is drinking, drugging, or sinking into silent, angry bitterness. We all pay, one way or another, for negative karma we’ve committed, but often, the people who inflict these punishments often incur their own negative karma for inflicting your vipaka. They think they’re lucky dogs for getting revenge, but don’t realize that through that very act of revenge, they are sealing their own vipaka. If they were not ignorant of this fact, they’d be merciful…
For in the same way you judge others, so will you be judged… Matthew 7:2
And this applies even when those being punished “deserve” to be punished. Mind you this discussion is taking place outside of a discussion of any established legal system or the prison industrial complex…
When someone simply doesn’t know, or realize, that the results (vipaka) of their karma (actions) can only be unhappiness and suffering, even though their ignorance is to blame, they will suffer the consequences. Just as drunk drivers can’t use their drunkenness as an excuse for murder, we don’t get to use our ignorance as an excuse for the mistakes, or missteps we take. This is why I am so grateful to the individuals who have been merciful to me, and why I am obligated to try to be as merciful as I can be. We all act under the influence of “not knowing,” and because of our not knowing, we cause problems by judging or retaliating against people whom we, ourselves, may have been responsible for inciting.
Today, I will remember that as much as I care, and as hard as I try, I am still a “hot mess.” If that can be true for me, it can be true for another. Today, and always, I will strive to meet “in the middle,” as much as I can, and as much as others are willing, so that I do not hasten the end…