The Late Night Buddhist: Karma’s a bitch and then you die (over and over again)

By Scott Taylor
Reader Columnist

Remember the TV sitcom My Name Is Earl? In it, a scroungy, down-and-out, low-rent petty criminal believes that his past bad deeds were the reason for him losing his winning lottery ticket, and so he decides to go about making up for all the horrible things he’s done, hopefully erasing his “bad karma.” (The actors in that show, including Jason Lee as Earl, were brilliant — including short-order cook Eddie Steeples as Darnell “Crabman” Turner and Jaime Pressly, who inspired me to have some definite “bad karmic” thoughts of my own, as Earl’s trailer trash ex.) 

In a past column I promised that I’d write about karma — which I believe is widely misunderstood — so here goes:

One thing I’ve learned by studying Eastern philosophy is that, when it comes to deep thinking, everyone comes to their own understanding in their own time. Neither Webster’s nor Wikipedia can provide a definition that truly conveys the concept of the way I view karma. 

Despite what Nas or some cheesy-ass country-chick song or brainless pop-culture meme says, it’s not as simple as “you get what you give” or “you reap what you sow.” Some of us mistakenly think that if we do something nice today, we’ll be rewarded tomorrow (maybe even tonight — helped the little old lady with her groceries today? Buy that lotto ticket!), or maybe that drunk guy who spilled beer on our wife’s new shoes then called her a bitch will be run over by a Coors truck. 

Sorry, it doesn’t work that way.

Karma is a Sanskrit word meaning “action, effect or fate,” but many Buddhist scholars refer to it as “unfinished business,” which is exactly how it was portrayed in My Name Is Earl. It refers to how our actions, thoughts and intentions in this life will affect us in the next. If we engage in “unwise” or “harmful” actions and thoughts, we are accumulating “bad karma” that must be dealt with if we are to escape the endless cycle of death and rebirth that Buddhists and Hindus believe prevents us from reaching a state of nirvana (Come as you are/ as you were…) or moksha. 

The intent behind our actions and thoughts is also vitally important in determining whether we’re gathering good karma or bad. If we accidentally kill a bug by stepping on it, it’s not as bad as purposely squashing a spider while maniacally cursing, “Die, evil arachnid!”

A story is told in Buddhist teaching of a monk who called three young students to sit before him. He was stepping down as their teacher and wanted one of them to take his place, but first he would test them. He gave each a chicken and told them to go kill it where nobody would see or know what they did. (Strict Buddhists avoid killing any creature, and are vegetarian. Late Night Buddhists? hmm…) When they each returned, the monk asked them where they chose to kill the chicken.

The first student said, “I took it far into the mountains where nobody ever goes.”

The second said, “I killed it deep in the jungle where the vegetation is so thick nobody could see or hear.”

The third said, “I didn’t kill the chicken.”

The monk asked, “Why did you disobey me?”

“Because no matter where I went, I would see it and know I killed it,” the student responded. 

Guess who became the teacher?

Each of us is in charge of our own karma (if you believe in such a thing), and nobody but ourselves can make it better or worse, or take care of our “unfinished business.” 

As Earl said:

“You know the kind of guy who does nothing but bad things, and then wonders why his life sucks? Well… that was me. Every time something good happened to me, something bad was always waiting around the corner. Karma. That’s when I realized I had to change. So, I made a list of everything bad I’ve ever done and, one by one, I’m going to make up for all my mistakes. I’m just trying to be a better person. My name is Earl.”

Earl made a choice: be miserable or be happy. Be like Earl: choose happy!

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