Living Life in Accordance with Natural Power: Part 2: Karma, Equality and Guaranteed Rights

           As human beings, we naturally desire to be happy and free from suffering.  In America, this desire translates into an expectation of guaranteed rights:  the right to happiness, prosperity, freedom, and so forth.

           This guarantee of rights is just another idealistic view, and it fosters much resentment among Americans.  For instance, we automatically assume we have the Constitutional rights to "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness."  How do we interpret these rights?  Does it mean we have the right to own a machine gun if that makes us feel content and secure?  Does it mean we have the right to have two spouses if that makes us happy?  Does it mean we have the right to a decent place to live with a decent job? 

            From our experience, we know that these “rights” in the Constitution are open to wide interpretation.   They do not always mean the same thing to all people.  For instance, some people want to own guns, but some people want protection from guns.  Americans must compromise some of their own rights to insure the rights of others.  Congress doesn’t always have the ways and means to insure the rights of all individuals.  Not all people in America are working today, and not all have enough money for food, shelter, and medical treatment. We have been told we are automatically guaranteed these rights, so we assume them to be accessible, and feel resentful when we see obvious examples where this is not the case.  “Equal rights” is a nice concept, but it does not correspond to reality at all.                

            People have different responses when there is a seeming inequality of rights. Some might aggressively push to get the rights instated.  Some might sit back, lazily expecting their rights to manifest.  Some might feel frustrated and depressed, because reality does not match their expectations.  Some might passionately fight for their particular cause, in either an aggressive or non-violent manner.  We should be sure our efforts are not blinded by emotionality. We should clearly examine ‘unfair’ situations before taking actions which commit us to a particular course. Our actions would therefore be based upon intelligence and an understanding of natural processes rather than emotionality.

            Another American ideal is the equality of all people.  There is no denying that we all exist.  From that viewpoint, we are all equal. There is no fundamental difference between people on that level. However, on a more relative level, perfect equality does not exist.  For instance, people are paid differing amounts of money for different types of jobs.  Some people drive around in fancy sports cars, while others take the bus.  Socially, politically, physically, economically -- people are just not equal.  We are not equal at work because we have different skills, and therefore, different positions.  We are not equal in society because we are all born into different family situations.  Our reputations, status, race, religion, etc.-- all have bearing on our relative differences.

             Due to our karma, which makes us different, there is no such thing as a guaranteed right of equality.  As explained above, situations happen all the time that remind us of our differences.  If we understand the laws of karma -- the causes and conditions for our differences -- we become more comfortable with our limitations and strengths.  We do not get frustrated or resentful towards the seeming inequalities.  This applies both to our own situations as well as conditions in society.

The Nature of Change

            There are three basic ways that change can occur:  through aggressive force, through cultivation of positive actions, and through an understanding of the nature of cause and effect.  For instance, in the struggles for minority and women’s rights, change has been hastened by the many citizens who have taken a stand on the issues.  However, if your actions in support of change are motivated by aggression, you create more negative karma.  We may think that “the end justifies the means,” but that is not the case. Karma never misses--those actions motivated by aggression will always lead to a negative result. The same is true for actions grounded in positive motivation.  

            In some situations, it is a natural condition that people are not equal.  In other situations, inequality and injustice are the lingering results of the rule of an unnatural, forceful power system.  For instance, slavery in America formally ended over one hundred years ago.  Yet the injustice and inequality stemming from that era are still evident today. 

            We might have an expectation that social change should happen quickly, overnight.  However, if we act from the point of view of urgency, we are bound to be disappointed. Things do change; the situation is always changing.  But lasting change takes time to set up, implement, and take effect.  Just because we do not see immediate results, as Buddhists, we know that the situations are never static, due to the interdependent nature of  existence.  We can motivate our social activism from compassionate intelligence instead of from naive passion.  Conversely, we should not think:  "The world is too messed up.  I cannot do anything about it."  In the face of injustice, prejudice, oppression, or inequality we should not feel doomed or unable to act.  Embracing a karmic view does not mean we become complacent passivists, any more than aggressive activists.

            We can always cultivate ways to improve our lives, both externally and internally.  From our practice, we know that mind will manifest in worldly action according to how well we train it.  We should train our minds to have the clarity to distinguish helpful action from harmful action, pure motivation from tainted motivation, and beneficial change from aggressive change.  From a Buddhist point of view, we should cultivate an awareness of things as being impermanent and conditioned.  If we cultivate the right causes and conditions for change, the negative conditions that stand in our way will begin to dissolve. 

Buddhists in Society:  The Middle Way

              Buddhism offers a path of outward action through the cultivation of inner wisdom.  Instead of encouraging resistance, we are asked to use our critical intelligence to evaluate situations.  Rather than asking us to surrender, Buddhist teachers ask us to trust the path only if the teachings are confirmed in our experience.  Devotion, in this case, is not a surrendering of personal power, but a natural extension of developing trust.  This middle path between surrender and resistance is cultivated with an understanding of natural power. For instance, we trust certain teachers because, through study and practice, they have realized the true nature of phenomena.  They demonstrate how to benefit others through their manifestation of wisdom and compassion.  The benefits of such devotion include a softening of aggressive tendencies, expansion of compassionate tendencies, and a lessening of ego-clinging.  The benefits of wisdom include a knowledge of which ideas and actions to abandon, and which to cultivate.

            If the Buddhist path is helpful to us, we should skillfully adopt the teachings into the context of our own society.  Even though the world has changed considerably over the years, the essence of the teachings remains relevant to human experience. Teachings from a thousand years ago can speak directly to our hearts, penetrate our minds, and open our eyes.  It is important, however, not be missionary about our path.  We should, instead, be open to circumstances in which we can benefit and educate others.  We can exemplify our path through life example, working for change in a peaceful, diligent, and joyful manner.

              Longchenpa taught that we can live as a king or a queen regardless of our circumstances.  A king or a queen does not need to fabricate that which they are not, nor apologize for that which they are.  They are powerful by nature of their position, and need answer to no one.  Likewise, we can be fully content with who we are, because of an understanding of natural power and our relationship to it.  Regardless of our specific position in society -- president or grocery clerk -- you can fully embody the quality of king or queenship in your life.

            We do not have to come up with a new system in which to live, nor do we have to live in isolation with a group of like-minded individuals.  Wherever we live, we can live in an uplifted manner, according to the guidelines of right speech, right livelihood, and so forth.  If we can live in accordance with these teachings, we can live as Buddhists in modern society.  We can have clear thoughts, take precise actions, and live wholesome, complete lives within the context of the society in which we live.

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Self-Reflection, Karma