Wait A Minute! ~ SCENARIO

The flight from London to Sydney had stopped over in Singapore where some passengers had got off while others had got on; then, with few vacant seats and over 300 people on board—including the crew—the plane took off for its final 7 hours’ leg to Sydney.

Not surprisingly, those aboard represented a broad cross-section of many societies and races: men, women and children, young and old, some in their distinctive national dress—Indian ladies in sarees, Sikh men with turbans and beards, Catholic nuns in their habits, Muslim women in their typical head-scarves, a Jew with his yarmulke, an Anglican minister with purple shirt and dog-collar—and even a Western Buddhist monk with shaven head and saffron robes! There were businessmen and backpackers, migrants and students, a concert pianist from Hungary, a chess-player from Russia, a basket ball team from Malaysia. There were politicians returning from ‘perk-trips’, nightclub entertainers, a circus acrobat, a cat-burglar (though not declared as such), and someone smuggling drugs (but only he knew that). Then there were doctors, lawyers, builders, fishermen, secretaries, cooks, drivers and engineers; there were complete families, single mothers with children, widows, widowers, spinsters, bachelors, divorcees, straights and gays, gamblers, alcoholics, thieves, speculators, liars and cheats; there were military personnel, civil-servants and ‘private-eyes’. All had their hopes, fears and plans for the future, and most had arranged for someone to meet them at Sydney airport, although those people were probably still asleep in bed at that time of night.
There was also someone sinister, with plans not just for himself but for everyone else on board, though his plans were short term—very short term—a suicide-bomber who intended to blow up the plane in mid-flight with a small but sufficient slab of plastic explosive he had carried—undetected by the metal-detector at the airport—in his hand-luggage; dispersed in his bag and on his person, too, were the detonator-parts, needing just assembly and fitting. Time was short for all on board as the plane sped through the night over the Java Sea.

Supper was served shortly after take-off, and when everyone had eaten and things been cleared away, the lights were dimmed and a movie shown for those who wanted to watch; most people just settled down to sleep as best they could. The assassin waited for people to become quiet and still, then from his bag beneath the seat he took out a toiletry-case and a rolled-up towel, and made his way to a vacant toilet. There, he took the Semtex from the case and the detonator-parts from the towel and his person, and carefully assembled everything, using his alarm-watch as the fuse. Twice checking the device, he opened the paper-towel dispenser on the wall, removed some of the towels to make room, and taped his mechanism—timed to explode in fifteen minutes—inside. Closing the dispenser and gathering up his bits and pieces, he flushed the toilet and ran the water in the wash-basin for a few moments. Opening the door, he went back to his seat to pray and ready his mind for the explosion, happy at having struck a blow at Western aggression and interests and drawn the attention of the world to the plight of his oppressed people, sure of going immediately to heaven for his ‘act of faith’. One of his accomplices would call the New York Times as soon as he knew the plan had succeeded, to explain everything. The plane flew on, the minutes ticked by, and no one apart from the assassin knew what was about to happen.

The explosion tore the plane apart, and it fell, flaming, into the sea below. No one survived.

A scenario—not real. But things like this have happened—most notably, the Lockerbie disaster over Scotland—and may easily do so again. I have fabricated this simple story here, however, to raise a point: how to account for the deaths, so similar, of people so dissimilar? It strains our fond theories and beliefs quite a bit if we think of it instead of lightly dismissing it, doesn’t it? Are we to continue to talk glibly about ‘God’s will’ or ‘karma’? That would be callous and indifferent to the feelings of people who lose loved ones like that; if it happened to someone close to us, we would probably be angry, bewildered, faith shaken and shattered, and our theories would comfort us little.

We like to be able to explain things; it gives us a sense of security if we feel we understand how things happen, even if we can’t prevent them happening. We have understood and can explain natural phenomena like floods, storms, volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, tidal-waves, etc., and are able to take precautions against them. We know how the Earth rotates in orbit around the Sun, about its atmosphere and climate. We have discovered that disease is caused by germs, microbes, bacteria, imbalances in the body and so on. We know and can explain so many things, and it is really wonderful.

But there are many things that we do not understand and which we cannot explain and demonstrate, things that—even with our tremendous scientific and technological advances—still baffle us.

“There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamed of in your philosophy”, said Shakespeare’s Hamlet to his friend. Why do we feel the need to explain everything? Perhaps it would be better to feel the wonder of life all around us, and know that we are part of it all.

We have prattled on for centuries, thoughtlessly repeating stock phrases like “As you sow, so shall you reap”, without insight or direct personal experience, and never pausing to wonder at cases of large and disparate groups of people killed in disasters like the imaginary one above: were they all drawn together in space and time like that by some terrible karma they had jointly committed long ago, and is their karma then expiated by them all dying similar deaths? What terrible things can they possibly all have done to cause them to die like that, leaving their friends and relatives to suffer similarly, too? Does the cause merit the effect, or the ‘punishment fit the crime’, as the concept of the Law of Karma—which, let’s face it, is still hypothetical as far as most of us is concerned—has it? Is the Law of Karma so general, flexible and approximate that the same effect can be ‘used’ to suit various causes, like adjustable seat belts? Is it not too convenient, and thus rather suspect, to put everything down to past karma—the awful abnormalities and birth defects, the vast differences and discrepancies between people, the incredible evils, horrors and crimes that humans perpetrate on each other, the endless and seemingly pointless suffering in the world? If it is educative and corrective, how come we remember or perceive so little of what might have caused it all? To say it must have come from a previous lifetime that we do not remember and have just no way—the vast majority of us—of checking, sounds too facile and easy. To smack a small boy for no reason that he is aware of, and then tell him, if he asks why, that it is for something he did when he was two years old—especially if you don’t tell him what it was that was considered deserving of such punishment—would be punitive and cruel but hardly educative. Does this theory really satisfy us and explain things appropriately, or does it just anaesthetize us? Does it not cause us to doubt and question it? I am not saying that it is right or wrong, but merely trying to be objective about it, as I feel too many people accept and subscribe to this concept with little or no investigation, and thereby derive no benefit from it; in fact, they become prisoners of it, bound and fettered.

It is claimed that the workings of the Karmic Law can only be understood by a fully enlightened Buddha, but this is a claim that must be taken on faith and which some of us would regard as a ‘smoke-screen’—something that cannot be proved true or false, and therefore conveniently beyond question and investigation. It is similar to what the ‘Godists’ say: ‘The ways of the Lord are inscrutable and beyond mortal comprehension’. Such phrases are used to disguise and cover up ignorance rather than admit it.

Buddhists, Hindus and other ‘karmites’ find themselves in a similar condition, with their theories, as the Godists with theirs, except that, to the latter, the ‘rewarding-and-punishing’ agency is personal, while to the former it is the function of an impersonal law or principle, like the law of gravity. Buddhists smile at and find quaint the concept of a ‘Creator-God/Cosmic-Judge’ figure, who—and to the Godists it is a ‘he’ rather than a ‘she’ or ‘it’—spends his time thinking up and apportioning rewards and punishments for deeds he regards as good and evil: ‘This lady has been more than reasonably kind, so I’ll reward her with wealth and high position’; ‘This man has been honest and hard-working, so I’ll have him promoted’; ‘This boy is devout and prays to me a lot, and I like that—I do so love to be prayed to and adored!—so I’ll see he passes his exams with honors’; ‘This girl has been cheerful and uncomplaining in spite of her crippling disease, so I’ll step in and cure her’. And, on the punishment-side: ‘This fellow broke my law against working on the Sabbath and went out gathering firewood, and I can’t allow that, so I’ll have him stoned to death’; ‘This woman earned her living indecently by prostitution for many years; a good dose of leprosy will fix her; let’s see how she feels when her body starts to rot’; ‘And that gay bloke down there—oh, how I hate gays! They are an abomination in my sight!—well, this little pestilence I concocted recently, and which humans call AIDS: that should do nicely for him and his kind!’ ‘And this lot over here—they are just a bunch of infidels who have completely ignored what I’ve been saying for thousands of years—that I am the only God and they shouldn’t worship any others, as that only makes me mad, and when I get mad, well, I sometimes lose control, and then, watch out! They can’t say I didn’t warn them! And now I’ve run out of patience, so here’s a nice little earthquake to shake up their port-city, and if that doesn’t do the trick and have them groveling at my feet, I can always send a tidal-wave, a fire or a flood—the big flood I sent a while back was great, but still they didn’t learn, dammit! Then there are famines and wars, droughts and plagues—yes, I’ve a few more of those up my sleeve! The Black Death caused quite a stir in Europe, didn’t it? Wiped out half the population, it did—bodies lying everywhere, rotting and stinking, with not enough living to bury the dead, and too scared to go near ‘em anyway! AIDS is nice, but isn’t spreading fast enough; I’ll release a few of these nice new beasties—my favorites, mmh! That’ll thin ‘em out a bit—and quicker than the Second World War, which lasted six years but killed only 50 million! I just have to speed things up a bit; these humans are becoming too cocky, too wicked and sinful by far! I’ve got to show ‘em who’s the boss around here, otherwise I’ll be marginalized! They don’t understand kindness; I mean, look how they treated my boy in Palestine when I sent him to warn them! Shameful, it was! This has just got to stop! It’s ruining my appetite!”

Yes, we think that’s funny, and yet it’s not very far from the kind of thing some people believe and propagate. We must take care that we don’t fall into the same hole with our ideas about Karma. Let me say here that I accept the concept of Karma, but tentatively, and with some reservations. As a hypothesis, as yet unproved, it may help us—in our own lives—to suppose that whatever is happening to us is the result of some thing or things we did previously, even if we do not recall doing them, and to say something like: “I don’t know why this is happening to me now, and I certainly don’t like it; however, since I can see that nothing comes from nothing, but from causes both known and unknown, I suppose this is the result of something I did in the past, and so let me see what I can do with it and where I can go from here”. Or, “I don’t know why this is happening to me; maybe it’s just part of the price to pay for being alive, and since being alive provides me opportunities for many things, I will accept this, look at it in different ways, and see what I can do with it; after all, every situation is an opportunity to learn something, even if it’s not always immediately apparent; and what I learn might be useful to others and not just myself”. Saying things like this, instead of feeling sorry for ourselves, bemoaning our fate or blaming others, helps us accept our situation and come to terms with it.

We might call this a ‘working hypothesis’, and one that is not too offensive or insulting to the reason. But we must take great care about extending this concept or hypothesis outwards from ourselves, as if it’s an established and proven fact, and that we know why things are happening to ourselves and others, as it would then be easy for us to judge and condemn. “Oh, it’s his karma and he must deserve it, otherwise it would not—could not—be happening to him”. “I knew it! I told you this would happen if you did that, but you wouldn’t listen, and went ahead and did it anyway!” We become ‘experts’ or ‘professors’ of ‘karmology’, ready with explanations for almost everything: “The Jews who died in the Holocaust were reaping what they sowed long ago when, as Hebrews, newly liberated from bondage in Egypt, they came to Palestine and seized the country from the people there, claiming that their God had given it to them, and slaughtering not just all the men, women and children of the towns they besieged and captured, but even all the animals, too!” Or, like people in medieval Europe used to think: “The Jews deserve to be persecuted because they rejected and crucified Jesus! They are the enemies of God!” (And after the Second World War, Pope Pius XII had the audacity to say that—after 6 million Jews had been murdered in concentration camps—they had finally been forgiven by God! What arrogance!)

Our understanding of the karma concept can be very dangerous and we should treat it with great caution. The fact is, we don’t know; we only think that we know. We may be good at memorizing and expounding theories and explanations that have been passed down for generations or which are to be found in religious scriptures, but if we have not experienced things directly, for ourselves, we still do not know. We cannot say a thing is true merely because it is written in a book or books that are regarded as ‘sacred’; if we have not experienced it directly for ourselves, we are not qualified to say it is true; the books are merely ink on paper. Moses Maimonides, a 12th century Jewish philosopher, said this:

“Do not consider a thing as proof because you find it written in books, for just as a liar will deceive with his tongue, he will not be deterred from doing the same with his pen. They are utter fools who accept a thing as convincing truth simply because it is in writing”.

If we start out with a set of concepts about life, we must be careful not to try to make everything fit in with and conform thereto; concepts, religions and philosophies must be supported by reality, and not the other way around.

All the reasons that we really need for following the Way—that is, leading a moral and responsible life and discovering or learning about oneself and others: that we are inseparable—are right Here and Now. If we do good just because it’s the right thing to do at the time (that is, when we do it, in the Here and Now), and likewise restrain ourselves—as far as possible at this stage of our evolution—from doing the evil that we are all capable of, all the results we need are here, immediately. And to think and live in this way all we have to do is to ponder, reflect and meditate upon how we benefit in so many ways from the labors of others, and we will then know—automatically and without needing to be told or taught—what and what not to do. We still might not understand how and why the universe functions as it does, why people are different, and why things happen to us as they do—and might never understand such things—but we will have a purpose in our lives and know that we are living not just for ourselves but as part of something much bigger than us; the whole contains the part; the part reflects the whole, and though there will still be acts of terrorism in the world, and evil and crime, they will be committed by those who do not understand what we have understood, and when/if they do understand—and there is a possibility of this, just as we have understood what we have understood so far—they will desist from such things and turn to positive living, instead.

Let us say there are two opposing sides in a game, ten players to a side. If one player changes sides, one side will have eleven players and the other only nine. So, one more for is two less against. Each of us is important and has a role to play in the world. Think about this.

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