“Braving the Days: The Western Understanding of Karma – A Personal Thought Flow” by Jordannah Elizabeth

Braving the Days

dc3a9f81225c5e2f35a8d8f2df98a920

I saw a post on social media asking “Why do Western people use the word karma so much, but don’t understand what it truly means?”

I think about karma often and try to live by its principals, but I am very honest with myself and clear to others when I speak of it: perhaps I can never understand karma the same way our Eastern neighbors do. Like slave spirituals, gospel music, soul and jazz is embedded in the African American communities, in our hearts, in our generational lineage, so is karma in the East. It’s a cultural implant.

The Buddhist view of karma says: Karma is the law of moral causation. The theory of Karma is a fundamental doctrine in Buddhism. This belief was prevalent in India before the advent of the Buddha. Nevertheless, it was The Buddha who explained and formulated this doctrine in the complete form in which we have it today; we ourselves are responsible for our own happiness and misery. We create our own Heaven. We create our own Hell. We are the architects of our own fate.” *

I also understand, as I am sure many do, that every ideology and religion has some a form of the concept of karma. Before we get to my own thoughts, let’s take a look at some Western belief systems ideas of karma within Christianity, wiccanism, quantum physics and theosophical belief systems.

__________________________

In Christianity (which has been adapted by Western Culture), the rule of “an eye for an eye” was part of God’s Law given by Moses to ancient Israel and was quoted by Jesus in his Sermon on the Mount. (Matthew 5:38, King James Version; Exodus 21:24, 25; Deuteronomy 19:21) It meant that when dealing out justice to wrongdoers, the punishment should fit the crime.

The rule applied to deliberate injurious acts against another person. Regarding a willful offender, the Mosaic Law stated: “Fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, the same sort of injury he inflicted should be inflicted on him.”—Leviticus 24:20. *

In Wicca, The Rule of Three expands upon the concept of harm. This rule is also called the Threefold Law or the Law of Return. It says: all good and the harm that a person does to another returns threefold in this life.

Some Wiccans interpret this to mean that the good or harm returns back to a person three times as much. Others say the good or harm has impact in three major realms of life: the physical, emotional and spiritual. Many hold to a combination of these interpretations. *

Quantum Physics: …if we get angry or frustrated for instance, it sends out what is like ripples – as in ripples in a pool.

We are constantly walking around sending out such ripples. The quality of the ripples is up to us – that is our choice. The fact of the ripples cannot be changed. We can only have an effect on the quality of the ripples, we cannot stop sending them out.” *

Theosophy: Any system that tries to explain the existence of consciousness, life as an emergent product of physical matter as seen by quantum physics will fail, and can, from a Theosophical point of view immediately be thrown in the garbage bin. Karma, connecting all layers of the universe, seems to be the only explanation for order and logical causality in the universe, and for the existence of the intuitive fact of justice. *

____________________________

I am not perfect in any way, but some may have noticed over the years that I have become calmer, cautious, patient, willing to take responsibility for mistakes and, as an aside, I always try to offer coffee or tea to anyone arrives to visit.

When I was very young and trying to make it as a musician and author, I was homeless on and off for many years. I think I am one of very few people who knows what a hunger pain actually feels like.

One day, while living in a shelter in Los Angeles, I stumbled upon a word: grace.

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines grace is “unmerited divine assistance given to humans for their regeneration or sanctification,” or “a virtue coming from God”, or a state of sanctification enjoyed through divine assistance. Others believe it is a “disposition to or an act or instance of kindness, courtesy, or clemency.” * I personally lean more toward the latter definition, but find it to be a combination of the all the definitions shared in the dictionary. If you don’t believe in a God or a higher power, that’s ok. Grace is just a special unexpected gift, like a windfall of money, a new job, a loving partner or other occasion we as human beings deem to be fortunate.

I don’t think you can understand karma before you learn about grace because grace allows you to pay that unmerited forward out of thankfulness for receiving it.

Living by the laws of karma is discipline. You’ve got to make it a top priority because over time it become, you will see yourself naturally becoming a more respectful person – respectful of others space and boundaries, less judgmental, easier to get along with work and with friends, etc.,  So, it’s important to spend time alone and get to know yourself, and also understand you inner goals. What kind of person do you want to be?

Being very honest with yourself, especially if you find yourself attracting people and circumstances that are harmful to you and others, can be a wake up call, and may being about a need for change.

I have to have a conversation with myself almost every evening in meditation, or just quiet my mind to let go of anxiety and fear. Karma is not a punishment, it’s not good or bad, it’s just a reflection of what you’re giving out, and if someone is not treating you and others the way you deserve to be treated after you’ve done everything you could to be kind and supportive, what you’re doing by shielding them from consequences. You’re subconsciously protecting them from karma. I believe karma and life will eventually move you out of the way, so the person you are trying to protect can learn and grow. You will lose a friend…who essentially wasn’t a great friend, so you receive the kind karma and grace of being freed from an unhealthy connection, and they receive the chance to move forward in their lives and make new choices.

There are people in the this world who don’t like me, who mean me harm, some are people I don’t know and can’t see, but I lay in bed at night and send them love. I connect with the energy of love, compassion, grace and mercy, build my relationship myself. I ask forgiveness for anyone I may have hurt (and may not even know I did) anyone, and I also forgive anyone who has hurt me or done me harm to keep my heart clear of resentment.

If you let anger, resentment, jealousy, hatred or any other emotions similar to this build up, you will attract people who will be working through similar karma, or, who want to glean what you learned without truly understanding the sacrifice and work you do to be the person you are.

When someone is acting badly and I have to be close to them, I had to learn, “That’s their personal relationship with their karma and themselves. Do you best to be loving, but step back a little and let them walk it out.”

That’s love, autonomy: “allowing others to have a “ state of being self-governing and self-directing freedom and especially moral independence” *  without judgment…which is sooooo hard.

I am not fool. I’m a 32 year old young Black woman from Baltimore City, so I do my best to make sure my boundaries are in place I am a strong person, but I am also kind, silly, fun-loving and generous. It’s all a balance.

In a Western sense, karma is just getting what you give, so try to give yourself, others and the world sincere kindness, support, love and generosity. It will come back to you and when you see it happen for the first few times, you can learn to keep it going. It’s not luck. It’s a lifelong practice.

Advertisements

“On names, identity, and personal mythology” by Lianna Schreiber

Visitants

7287fbf5b27d19b23bdb14100e0b1dda

 

Is it still an identity crisis if what is causing you grief is a fractal self which exists only in another person’s mind?

I am hyper-aware of myself at all times, and whether or not this roots in being a woman is a discussion best left for another time and thought piece, but the fact of it stands — I curate my behavior to the best of my ability whenever I am in public spaces, even if they are just everyday internet hang-outs. I treat each word as if it were a museum piece, analyzing its possible implications so as to not have my meaning be lost in translation by leaving something I consider to be implicit up to my peers’ interpretation. I do this because I know how easily misunderstandings arise.

Even my own self is parsed through the personal lens of every individual I come in contact with: cashiers, delivery boys, bus drivers, random pedestrians. They each apply their prior personal experiences to my image, together with all the preconceptions born from them; and so a paradox arises. Although they see me, they do not really see me.

They see someone who has my body — or, in the case of online spaces, my avatar and type beat — but whose psyche may have nothing in common with my actual self. They see a simulacrum that talks with my voice without possessing my thought process or intent, and I have no control over how they construct this person in their head.

I must admit that I have something of a fascination with the phenomenon of being seen always yet never perceived fully; even my friends and family possess a notion of me that is, at best, a partial overlap with who I am.

And part of this fascination roots in a kind of raw, abject horror — I am at times filled with such genuine despair over the idea that these mirrors of me are still only ever that, an array of imperfect reflections. This in turn is because to me, being loved equates to being understood, and I want an affection that is full and uncompromising; yet all the same here I am, a stranger in small ways to even the people I hold in confidence. Minute discrepancies will always color every interpersonal interaction I have, in much the same way my atoms will never touch. That space is a world in and of itself, and it is one terribly lonesome.

Over the years, I have come to compartmentalize these alien selves. I index them according to the extant level of familiarity, a knowing which is indicated by the name basis someone uses when addressing or otherwise referring to me.

Case in point: to the world I am known by my legal name, half baptism, half inheritance. When it rolls off the tongue, it leaves behind the oilspill of my father’s sins — and swimming in its black trails is enough Orthodox longing to build a church from the ground up. There is distance, here. The world sees me, but it does not understand me, as our level of interaction is built strictly upon formalities and necessity. The agora makes no effort to know me, and so I do not try to extend it explanations.

Ours is a business relationship: I am a blur of letters left behind on government paper in neat uppercase script and the half-formed, nearly unintelligible signature underneath them. And that suits me fine. I believe deeply in the power of words, you see. I believe in their magic.

To name is to tame, as folktales teach us, and we should never give away parts of ourselves if we are not to receive in exchange something of equal value. You have lent me your eyes, and for that I will make you privy to this aspect of my personal mythology.

In naming me, my mother consigned me to two distinguished crosses.

I was given the first name of Liana, as in “vine”, but also as in “God answers”; due to geography, its etymology is at best convoluted, but no matter which map you choose to trace it on it will always lead you back to a kind of paroxysm. My middle name, Andreea, was chosen to honor an old tradition, that of consecrating children to a saint — the association with Andrew the Apostle is thus inextricable. I and half the country bear the lopsided signet of his suffering and piety, and we may only hope to be worthy.

Growing up in an environment where myth bleeds so insidiously into everyday life has made me wary of life’s fine print. Etymology is important; names are, to me, prophetic.

Thus, when I had to assign myself a professional name, I took ample time to deliberate my options. In addition to personal meaning, I took numerology into consideration, too, and eventually christened myself Lianna Schreiber. The second n was added so as to conserve within the letters one of my arc symbols, the number fifteen; Schreiber I chose for its meaning — “scribe”. That is what I am, at the end of the day. A victim of my muses, a prophet rich in only blood, half mad and always, always raving.

Here, the distance has begun to lessen. My name tells you something about me, because you know it was chosen, not given, and you know the why behind that decision.

But to name is also to own, and pet names between friends always carry an inherent contractual aspect. Mine seem to love and think of me in flowers: I have always been Li, Lia, Lili — more recently, Lilia. I have accepted this nomenclature with both hands, because in truth I have always been the bird just as much as I have been the flower on whose thorns it perches; accepting the symbol did not require me to abandon my skin. I try to live up to it, to bring honey into their lives by being a soft thing, an ointment, a nurturing presence, and all the while I worry about the day I might become a poison.

I think that such worries are only natural — they are born of an understanding love. My friends get to see me at my darkest, and when I sink into one such nocturne, it takes me days to come back up for air. Of course I worry about how that will affect them; when you care for someone, a part of their suffering and joys becomes your own.

And thus the distance lessens further: “Lia” is closer to my true self than the persona I present before the court of my peers, as the intimacy which binds me to the people who have given me the name means they have seen all sides of me.

Still, this is at best an incomplete alignment; for you see, the highest level of closeness is, ironically enough, a nameless one.

In the dark, alone with myself, I am an amorphous thing. All there is to me then is a coil of flesh and a handful of fugitive symbols — I dress myself in them as one would in battle armor, becoming what I need to mean to myself in the moment.

Bird-girl. Witchling. Star-peddler. Absolute c-nt.

My own savior just as much as I am my own destroyer, my own God.

Perhaps taking the time to explain all these self-assigned sigils would help bridge the gap in perception — they are tells, after all, much like the tremor of a deer when it senses peril. Perhaps I would be better understood if I just said outright that the reason I think of myself as a bird, for example, is about more than the metaphor of its hollow bones, that it is chiefly about the freedom their kind has yet never takes full advantage of, always flying in the same exact patterns their ancestors have for millennia. Perhaps dialogue is, after all, the solution to this flavor of hedgehog’s dilemma.

And yet. And yet. And yet —

I cannot help but feel that something is lost when I myself am the one to say it. Is it wrong of me to want to be understood without needing to explain? To want to be deciphered, never needing to meet someone halfway as they have of their own accord followed the map to the proverbial door?

 

 

 

Lianna Schreiber is a Romanian author. A self-described “New Romantic”, her work mostly concerns itself with gods, monsters, and human nature as it is caught between the sacred and the profane — all wrapped up in an overabundance of floral imagery. She can be found @ragewrites on tumblr.

Tet @ the Coffee Shop by Tini Ngatini

Traversing Narrow Margins
PrayerThig

Image by: Bryan MacNeill, friend of author

Viet Nam has changed my relationship with coffee shops. They used to be a space where I worked and entertained my friends. Then, recently, they became a sort of anthropological space where I encountered a religious event which brought me to another level of appreciation and respect for local culture.

That local culture is called Tet. The Coffee shop where I encountered is called ABC.

The ABC coffee shop in Ha Noi, Viet Nam is a fusion of Asian and Western atmosphere. It has some Western characteristics like those found in Starbucks and some that might only be found in Viet Nam. By the former I mean comfy-soft seats, satisfying internet connection, people sitting by themselves with eyes fixated on a laptop or book with earphones on, casual outfits of course. Meanwhile, the latter characteristics are that the majority customers [mostly female] are wearing nice clothes, nice shoes and makeup on. Also, 90% of the Vietnamese customers are in a group with friends or family. The activity they engage in the coffee shop itself ranges from chatting, playing board games, holding a meeting, chilling with their lovers, napping, or eating sunflower seeds, or even just playing with their phones and smoking.

Such contrasting coffee shop features exist side by side at the ABC coffee shop. From my usual seat in the corner I can see a few European-looking customers in casual outfits. They sit quietly by themselves with eyes glued on their laptop or book and earphones on. And on the left side, just a few steps away, there are groups of three to six Vietnamese customers in lovely outfits gathered around a rather large table, lavishly chatting and laughing, or watching something on YouTube without earphones attached. You are most likely familiar with the kind of scene on the right. But, the one on left could elicit a glance or two out of curiosity. Or, it could be out of slight irritation that makes the glance more a “can you please tone it down” gesture. But, if you have been living in Viet Nam long enough, you might just be okay with it.

At lunchtimes, the whole of Viet Nam goes quiet. Between 12 and 2 pm, it’s nap time for the Vietnamese in general. Vietnamese customers who come during these hours are often by themselves, popping in to take a rest on the comfy sofa areas; or, if they don’t fancy a nap, they take a moment to rest, munching on sunflower seeds, eating food they brought or ordered from outside.

Such are the common views to be found at the ABC Coffee.  These scenes have been on my mind a lot recently, and have made me see coffee shops in a completely different light. Indeed, it all changed on the second day of Tet when, coincidently, I was at the ABC. That day not only upgraded my relationship with cafes to another level; it also helped me see the beauty inherent in the local tradition called Tet.

gate2

Image by: Bryan MacNeill, friend of author

Tet, short for Tet Nguyen Da, is the Vietnamese Lunar New Year festival.  It is usually celebrated either in January or February, depending on when the first day of New Year in Lunar Calendar arrives. During Tet, all businesses are closed for seven to ten days, which makes it near impossible to hunt down open restaurants and coffee shops. My landlord even advised me to ‘stock up’’ on supplies before the festival began, such is the extremity of the situation!  Here in Ha Noi, People get busy preparing for Tet about a week before the actual holiday. At this time, found ubiquitously across the city are ‘new year gates’. These are banners exclaiming  the new year greeting “Chuc mung Nam Moi,” reminding locals and visitors alike that Tet is just around the corner.

FlagsAndFlowers1

Image by: Bryan MacNeill, friend of author

Inside the cities, pavements are transformed into temporary marketplaces, selling flowers and plants associated with Tet celebration such as Cherry Blossom, Apricots, and oranges.  Shopping malls are flooded with people hunting for new clothes to be worn on the new year, ornaments to decorate their houses, and foods for Tet. It is also one of the best times for shopping, as every store offers discounts of up to 70%. With all these activities going on, the traffic becomes even more chaotic than usual. Vehicles move at a snail’s pace, Tet plants and decorations balancing precariously atop wobbling motorbikes. Take a gander around the streets during Tet and, you will spot houses, offices and other public spaces decorated with red and yellow ornaments such as lampion, flower, plants, small flags and, of course, the Viet Nam flag.

flag3

Image by: Bryan MacNeill, friend of author

Meanwhile, inside people’s houses, families become preoccupied with cleaning the house and ancestor altars, and preparing continual offerings for the ancestors’ spirits from the last day of the year to the third day of the new year. The offerings they prepare during these times of the year are more special than the usual type of offerings people do twice a month. The offering during Tet has more flowers and fresh food every day. The women of the house are expert at preparing both these offerings and the special Tet dishes such as Bánh chưng.  Most often, the whole family also go on visits to the family members’ and ancestor’s graveyards before Tet. They go to clean the graveyard, to pour some water over it, to spread flower petals over the graveyard, or leave flowers at the feet of the tomb. And, of course they pray for them.

OrangeTreeLights

Image by: Bryan MacNeill, friend of author

On the first day of the New Year itself, people gather with their family to exchange “lucky envelopes (money?)”—a Tet themed envelope with paper money in it, starting from 10,000 dong to any number you want to put.  This exchange is viewed as the most important Tet ritual because the lucky envelope represents the wish for a prosperous and lucky year ahead . A native Hanoian told me about it at length:

“That envelope represent for lucky money means you will have more money, Successful, basically it’s the same as wealth. It based on unreal story from China. Like Chinese they have a story about it, mainly to put a ring of coin to the children during new year so evil may not touch them. If you tell this original story from Chinese to any Vietnamese, they will refuse, and say that they never heard of it. And not many Vietnamese ever heard of it. [It’s] Vietnamese culture but not many people thinking as it was in Chinese in the past. We turned into our own way long time ago Vietnamese understanding. They [Vietnamese] give envelope, not because of reasons as they did in china. They [Vietnamese] give envelope to all age Not only children….”

“…. But in the past [in Viet Nam], it supposed to be coin, not paper money like nowadays Envelope. We switched to paper money 100 years ago. may be. Since I was small we did not use coin. Until I was 13, 2003 or 2004. But, they switched back to coin again. They did 1 time, but it last 2 years, people don’t like to keep it cause it heavy and not convenient. So they switch back to paper. May be 14 years ago. They produce coins for 1000, 2000, 5000, 10000, but it lasted for 1-2 years. [because] at the same time we still had 1000, 2000 paper money. People rarely use coin. So, 2 years after, government took coins back and never used them again.   The main thing about [lucky] envelope is the way Vietnamese use it is different from Chinese one [that Vietnamese give envelope not only to children]. Even now, Chinese also give envelope to all age.”

She explained that older members of the family give lucky envelopes to younger members. For instance, “my grandpa will give lucky envelopes to my mom and me and my brother. Then my mom will also give envelopes to my grandpa.” The exchange moves downward: her mom then will give lucky envelopes to their children. Similarly, older siblings in the family often the same to their young ones. This ritual also extends toward children in their neighborhood who may visit during this period.

Another important ritual people engage in the first day of Tet is buying salt. It symbolizes a hope for prosperous year ahead. “Why salt?”, I asked a Vietnamese friend of mine.

“…You know in Viet Nam we have this saying đu năm mua mui, cui năm mua vôi meaning buy salt in the beginning of the year, buy lime at the end. Vôi is lime. Like cacao, they usually use to paint the wall..it will help to erase bad things, bad spirit they believe, that’s why usually bought at the end of the year, aiming to let go all the bad things. Buying salt at the beginning of the year will bring luck to the house and help family members to be more connected, to live in harmony. and we also use it in rituals in Pagoda, salt is something you can never live without.”

On the second and third days, people put on their new clothes and go to the Pagodas to pray for a lucky year. Another Vietnamese friend of mine says, “people start going to the Pagodas to pray on the New Year Eve, usually after watching the firework displays.”   During these days people also visit friends, usually already having met their relatives at the grandparents’ house on the first day., So if you happen to be in Viet Nam on these Tet days, you would see many people in their nice clothes on the streets,  or you would see houses widely opened, showing scenes of  families chatting and enjoying the delicious Tet delicacies.

It was on the second day of Tet, at the ABC coffee shop, that I accidentally participated in such a special moment. I came there with my usual intention to grab a coffee and get some work done. As it was still Tet celebration, they opened only the first floor.

I sat at the very end of the room. There was not much going on in the coffee shop; a few customers sat at the other end of the room, playing with their phones. After a while, the owner of the ABC came in with two men. They sat at the table two chairs away from me. I saw them talk with one another; I didn’t take too much notice.  Then my eyes stumbled upon the cookies and cakes on their table. Wait a minute, I thought to myself; they are not customers. I took my eyes off my book and subtly threw intermittent glances at their direction.  The two guests spoke to the ABC owner respectfully, making a slightly bowing head movements as they talked. Finally, they shook his hands, stood up, and left. They must be either friends or relatives of the ABC owner, I concluded. And those cakes, cookies, and beverages on the table are amongst Tet food I have read online.  It then clicked in my head: This place, after all, is also where the ABC owner and his family live. And today is the second day of Tet. People are supposed to visit their relatives or friends.

As I held my gaze, observing this interaction, a palpable and yet unnamable feeling seeped in. I am participating in Tet ritual, I thought to myself. I somehow did not feel like a customer at that very moment. The fact that ABC is also the residential place for its owner suddenly became interesting to me. I think it was the familiar living room format of the coffee shop which facilitated me to have such an insider experience of that Tet’s ritual: the living room has no partition whatsoever. It put me in the same space with the guests. The proximity made the experience intimate, as if in some way I was part of the family.

Later that day, on my way home, I had a similar feeling when I saw a father and a son in their suits riding bicycles (presumably to visit their relatives or friends).  There was a certain kind of beauty that emanates from the two men in suits on their bicycles; it was a precious moment to witness I felt humbled and embarrassed at the same time just by seeing their dedication to their cultures. In the past, I’ve personally done anything I can to escape participating in similar social conventions involving family visits. I was leaning toward some of my Vietnamese friends who see Tet rituals as unpractical considering the money you spent on flowers and food, especially for offerings, that will end up at the dumpster next day.

But in this moment, I could see the social power and functions of local culture such as Tet for people who hold on to it.  In the case of Tet, its significance lies in its religious element. The religious aspect of Tet is encapsulated in the activities of praying and giving donations to the temple some people engage in, in the offerings to the ancestors’ spirits in the house, in the visits to the ancestors’ graves, and in other forms of reverence one pays to the elderly.  These are religious activities as far as they centered around the idea of Divine other in the form of spirit and its celestial virtues. One may argue that these religious gestures are what Pure Land Buddhist Shinran and Honen referred to as the ‘miscellaneous acts’. Majority Buddhists in Viet Nam are Pure Land Buddhist, after all. Within this view, the religious gestures themselves are meant to evoke good karma. They are activities which are believed to bring one closer to and/or to enter divine realm [the Pure Land]. Yet, not the one which result in the rebirth in the Pure Land.

The offerings, the flowers, foods, and money sacrifices and other forms of reverence appear to be a simple way to pray to god. It is so simple that it often deceives us into thinking of it as unintelligible, superstitious, or even devoid of reason. So, it is no surprise if some people may suggest an abandonment of traditional religious practices on this basis. This simple way to salvation seems similar to the bhakti yoga [devotion]. It exists presumably to accommodate to followers who, for one reason or another, have no access to the other two means to salvation which are claimed to be more sophisticated. The first is what the Bhagavad Gita refers to as jnana yoga, the way to know God through knowledge [philosophy in Platonic sense]. And the other is karma yoga, the knowing god through work.

I think it is safe to say that local cultures such as Tet have a certain degree of intelligibility and practicality. They may be simple and repetitive, and yet they are not devoid of reason. On the contrary, local cultures can be important assets for countries which are on the journey to become “modern”:  they can offer something that might complement modern values and other forms of progress they wish to adopt. That is so, especially because modernity may come with unexpected results such as social or spiritual alienation. It is these possible alienations which the continuing practice of local cultures might be able to answer. Last but not least, their simplicities fit modern people who have limited time for more sophisticated and intellective practices, such as meditation and philosophy related practices.