It’s been a while, but when I posted my initial comments on The Circle of Karma by Kunzan Choden (my book for Bhutan), I promised that I would write a second post talking about religion in the book. I got distracted by booksales and book banning, but I’ve finally gotten around to the follow-up post.
In looking through online reviews of The Circle of Karma I found it interesting that they primarily focused on gender (which certainly was an important aspect of the book) and paid little attention to the overarching religious theme. I suspect that on average as Westerners, we might have an easier time thinking and writing about sexism than about Buddhism. I certainly don’t feel like I have a good understanding of Buddhism and this post is more about the questions that The Circle of Karma raised for me than about conclusions.
The Circle of Karma tells the story of the religious journey of Tsomo, an uneducated woman who was born in a Bhutanese village. I see Tsomo as going through three stages of religion, all of which I associate with Buddhism, but which I have wondered for some time how to integrate. As a child in the village, Tsomo’s religious life consists primarily of ceremonies to avert bad karma and appease the spirits which might otherwise infect people. Later in her life, having left the village, Tsomo wants to seek out religion, though the book never makes it clear why. She seeks out lamas and holy sites. Finally, as she reaches the end of her life, she embraces a philosophy of detachment and forgives old injuries.
What I don’t understand is how these aspects of Buddhism connect with each other. How does belief in troublesome spirits fit in with belief in karma? How does traveling around visiting holy sites lead Tsomo to be able to forgive the people who have wronged her? Unfortunately, this isn’t well explained; Tsomo just suddenly arrives at a new mindset. Can anyone guide me to a good explanation of how these things fit together?
Most of all, the book makes me think about the psychology of what it would be like to seriously believe in karma. Would you feel guilt because you believe that your baby dies due to your own prior mistakes? Is it worth living with the guilt because belief in karma gives meaning to your suffering? Do you feel less concerned when bad things happen to other people when you believe that they did something to deserve it? Or do you do more to help the poor person in your village because being poor is part of their karma and therefore there is nothing they can do about it?
Based on The Circle of Karma, the answer might be yes to all of these questions even when they contradict each other. I know that the concept of karma in Buddhism can be much more complex than the simple scheme of reward and punishment I’ve described, but many characters in the book (and presumably many people in real life) do see karma as direct reward/punishment. And I want to know what it would be like to be one of those people. I think that it would dramatically alter my thought processes to such a degree that I can’t really comprehend what it would be like. Reading this book did get me a little closer to understanding though.