Do what you’re doing when you’re doing it

Large scale natural (and man-made) disasters, like the recent earthquake and tsunami in Japan, often drive people to come up with ‘explanations’ for why these events happen. Like the response to the tsunami disaster that struck the countries in the Indian Ocean in 2004, I’ve come across a few claims that the ’cause’ of the suffering in Japan today is the ‘result’ of a collective national karma for its past. Depending on which you read, accounts range from their misdeeds during WWII, to their failure to take care of the victims of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki! All of which I personally find pretty outrageous, and the reason why I’m not linking to them — in the age of the Internet, they’re easy enough to find if you’re inclined to look.

I don’t claim to know whether or not it is a collective karma at work. It may well be so, I can’t say. What I’m more intrigued by is the audacity of any one person to claim to know such a thing. I don’t feel particularly well versed in any of the theologies that support the concept of karma, but from my own fledgling and intermittent Buddhist studies, I’ve picked up a sense that the notion of karma, at least in the Buddhist tradition, is far more complex, layered and ineffable to be so crudely applied.

The law of karma, as I understand it, does not just refer to the past but also to the present, and applies to deeds, as well as thoughts. That’s partly why no one escapes the karmic cycle of cause and consequence — we always have thoughts, even if we don’t do deeds. But because none of these processes are linear, there is very rarely one identifiable cause for any consequence. It made me wonder about the karma created by passing judgement on someone else’s karma?

Personally, I find it more productive to explore my own karma in response to tragic events like this. What have I done, what can I do, what won’t I do? Exploring one’s own resistance is always revealing. I really appreciated Julie Demboski’s post on the subject, where she writes that, ‘I just know that we must do our very best as individuals, and call forward our faith, no matter what it’s placed in…’. I like her reminder to do our best as individuals, which I took to mean doing the best we can wherever we are — being the best teacher, friend, mentor, co-worker, and so on — even if we felt we couldn’t do anything specific for the Japanese communities. Doing our best as who we are is sometimes the best we can do. I am reminded of a Zen talk from a few months back where the teacher explained that the core teaching in Zen is to ‘do what you’re doing when you’re doing it‘.

To an extent this seems to reflect on the many positive accounts of how the afflicted communities are coping with the aftermath of the disaster with resilience and equanimity. One of the accounts that is making its rounds in the social media and blogosphere is Anne Thomas’ blog from Sendai on the Ode Magazine website. Read her follow-up posts too. They are less like snapshots of life in Sendai ‘post-tsunami’ than miniature watercolours of life in Sendai as it is being lived. Here’s an excerpt from one of her later posts:

One group of people found themselves stranded with no way to get to a shelter. So, they banded together and made their own community. They collected wood from broken houses to make fires. They rummaged through rubble to find packets of food. And since one member was a hairdresser, who miraculously found her scissors, everyone was able to get a nice trim haircut. Simple pleasures, immense joys.

Again, normalcy is what people are striving for, even if in form only. Astonishingly each day a newspaper arrives. It is thin, but crucial. There are photos and articles on how things are progressing, information on where food can be found, on medical centers, on places where people can bathe.

Since there is no gasoline, or very little, people resort to bicycles or walking. Today as I was sorting through yet more things in my shack, I heard someone calling outside. I went to see who it was and was utterly astonished to see a new friend there, bringing food, and checking to be sure I was all right. I have known this person for less than a month, but he was concerned about me because I am a foreigner and living alone.

If we must speak of karma, then perhaps we might also ponder the karma of quiet grace and simple pleasures in the wake of such lamentable loss.

Image: Origami cranes; Mount Fuji. Source: Wikimedia Commons.


5 Responses to Do what you’re doing when you’re doing it

  1. Asha says:

    Thank you. This is beautifully done.

  2. juliedemboski says:

    Wonderful post, eloquent and moving.
    And thank you for the link.

  3. Bodee D says:

    “Do what you’re doing when you’re doing it” seems functionally equivalent to “There is no doer, just doing.” Yeah?

  4. nray says:

    Hitch, with no wish to offend and in the spirit of offering another prespective, here is a link:

    I respect Tom’s work and just wanted to share.

    Much love,

    • hitchhiker72 says:

      Thanks for this, Neeti. I read Tom’s work too. Like I said, I am not disputing the collective karma position. I don’t feel qualified to quarrel over it.

      I am just saying that there is a more nuanced understanding of karma that not many pick up on. Karma only ever gets raised when bad things happen, but in some traditions, good deeds/thoughts generate good karma, too.

      Personally, I prefer to see all the good that’s also emerging from this tragedy, without diminishing the magnitude of the loss. I can’t see the usefulness of telling the guy whose house has been washed away he is merely participating in the collective karma of his nation. For me, it is a question of framing. And an opportunity for self-reflection.

      Thank you for sharing.

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