Friday June 6, 2008
Most readers of thinkBuddha will already know about the political fallout from the actress Sharon Stone’s ill-advised comments on the subject of karma to a Hong Kong film crew at Cannes the other week. For those who don’t, the BBC reports (1 and 2) will fill you in on all the necessary details.
What has been interesting in this whole unhappy business is the response from Buddhist commentators, who have almost unanimously claimed that Ms. Stone has misunderstood or misrepresented Buddhism. But is this the case?
The traditions of Buddhism are many and varied, and theories relating to karma are similarly diverse in these different traditions and texts and teachings. And whilst it is no doubt true that there are some of these traditions, texts and teachings clearly at odds with Ms. Stone’s comments, there are many that are uncomfortably close.
An example of this came in an interview between with Lati Rinpoche, the eminent Gelug lama, and Richard Hayes. In the interview, Hayes asked how Buddhists could explain the suffering of the Jews in the Second World War. The answer was troubling.
Rinpoche: The proper Buddhist answer to such a question is that the victims were experiencing the consequences of their actions performed in previous lives. The individual victims must have done something very bad in earlier lives that led to their being treated in this way. Also there is such a thing as collective karma.
Hayes: Do you mean that the Jewish people as a whole have a special karma?
Rinpoche: Yes. All groups have karma that is more than just the collection of the karma of the individuals in the group. For example, a group of people may decide collectively to start a war. If they act on that decision, then the group as a whole will experience the hardships of being at war. Karma is the result of making a decision to act in a certain way. Decisions to act may be made by individuals or by groups. If the decision is made by a group, then the whole group will experience the collective consequences of their decision.
Lati Rinpoche is no renegade, as his biography makes clear. As spiritual adviser to the Dalai Lama, one would imagine that his words carry at least a little weight. And the claim that he is making in this interview is substantially no different from that made by Sharon Stone. It would seem, in the light of this, that her comments are reflective of the most orthodox and learned of sources.
It is possible to claim that Ms. Stone’s comments were profoundly wrong-headed; it is also possible to argue that this retributive view of karma is not only nonsense, but also dangerous nonsense; it is possible make the case for some kind of theory of moral consequence, and to argue that certain Buddhist understandings of karma may help us to formulate such a theory; or it is possible to make the claim that perhaps the theory of karma is so compromised that we’d be better off without it.
What is it not possible to do, however, is to credibly argue that Sharon Stone’s comments were entirely misrepresentative of certain Buddhist ideas. There are many figures and texts of influence in the Buddhist world that have claimed no more and no less than Ms. Stone herself. Would it not be better if those Buddhists keen to dismiss Ms. Stone for her lack of understanding were to turn their attention to the traditions that they revere, so that their own houses might be put in order?
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