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Tsunami � Lessons in Courage and Karma

    The tsunami that crashed upon the coasts of south Asia and Africa in late December is the worst natural disaster in our lifetimes. Jan Egeland, emergency relief coordinator of the United Nations, declares, �We cannot fathom the cost to these poor societies of the children, the nameless fishermen, and numbers of villages that have been wiped out. Hundreds of thousands of livelihoods have gone.� Likewise, British Prime Minister Tony Blair calls it �not just a terrible tragedy, but a global catastrophe.� Quite apart from the still desperate need for donations and immediate action, all of us must be asking deep in our hearts, how could any God or benevolent power in the universe allow such a massively destructive thing to happen, killing so many tens of thousands, a third of who are said to have been children?

    In the Hindu and Buddhist faiths, native to most of the lands devastated by December�s colossal tragedy, there is a strong belief in the law of karma and of rebirth. Hindus and particularly Buddhists do not believe the terrible destruction of the tsunami is an act of a malevolent god; instead, all such things issue from the self-fulfilling law of karma, which governs not only physical events, but every event in human experience. According to the Buddha, a large part of human experience is simply the mechanical return of karma our previous actions have accumulated�what we have done in the past must return in kind, whether good or bad, even though it make take a very long time for the right circumstances for visiting us with the consequences of our action. Thus even disasters or misfortunes may be a delayed karmic reaction to something we did in this life or in a previous life. Moreover, the effects of karma can be visited not just on the individual. There is karma, too, for communities, towns, and even nation�for worse, but even more, for better.

    Paradoxically, karma offers hope and not despair, for it gives much weight to our actions. A friend of mine in Sri Lanka once said that, if we truly believed everything we did had a consequence for us, for better or for worse, life would become a heaven. If one truly believes that action is paramount, then whether he lives or dies is immaterial to him; the only question asked is, how fully has one used life�s precious opportunities�even those that seem like the most destructive disaster-- for positive growth, to use each life to perfect the qualities of infinite compassion and unqualified goodwill for all creatures under all circumstances. Here are several examples in the tsunami show how people who rose to courageous heights achieved heroism by helping in this terrible disaster:

  • the British police sergeant in a Thai resort who pulled people from desperate waters around the flooded hotel and brought them into the top story rooms, caring for the wounded for over 18 hours

  • the surfer in Thailand who rode the Tsunami wave a mile inland and used his board to float to safety over 30 people

  • in the aftermath, the hundreds of newly wealthy Indians and Sri Lankans who have gotten critical aid and supplies to communities in desperate need whom overstretched governments have not yet reached

  • the ten year old British girl who saw the wave coming and ran up and down the beach warning people, saving several hundred

    The real lesson of karma is that life�s purpose is none other than to go beyond suffering. When suffering occurs, whether in the small events of one�s own life or on the massive scale wrought by the tsunami last weekend, the message of Hinduism and Buddhism is that here is your chance to rise closer to your full humanity. Birth as a human being, says the Buddha, is the highest of blessings, because only in human form can one undertake the journey to reach nirvana, the state of complete freedom from all suffering. For to show love, compassion, patience, and caring in the daily events of one�s life, is the way to become fully human. How much more urgent it is to give of ourselves when such untold suffering is wrought on the lives of our fellow human beings. At such a time, let us use all our energy in this life to pray for and go to the help of those whose lives have been devastated by this catastrophe.

    � Dr. Stephen Ruppenthal

    Dr. Stephen Ruppenthal is the author of The Path of Direct Awakening: Passages for Meditation. He is also the co-author of Eknath Easwaran�s edition of The Dhammapada and the author of Keats and Zen. He has taught meditation and courses on Han Shan at UC Berkeley and San Francisco State University. Dr. Ruppenthal is an international workshop leader in passage meditation and in courses for those looking for end of life spiritual care and for the spiritual step component of twelve step programs.

    Visit Stephen�s work at www.directawakenings.com