Back home, when we have natural  calamities,  we turn to God to make  sense  of our experience and suffering.  We pray for help  and also ask why such things happen,  and of all, to us.  We have a  word similar to karma  called "gaba."   A landslide  that kills  miners  is considered  a  nature's gaba to  the men  who deface  and  defile the environment.  We  view nature as a powerful avenger and ally that avenges for the oppressed.  If a cargo ship sinks after  a giant wave hits  it, it is the nature's  way to avenge the cheap labor of the poor exploited  by the cargo ship's operator.  Gaba, as widely believed, happens between individuals, groups, and communities.  It also happens between  spirits and people or gods and mortals.


What have happened in Japan--earthquake, tsunami, and volcanic eruption--have made me wonder whether  Buddhist and religious leaders in  Japan and the entire Japanese people also self-introspect and entertain the idea of collective karma in their current awful situations.  I hope this post will not come  out insensitive and be construed as foul.  Deep down, I have nothing but pity for the suffering Japanese.  I  just think the concept of karma, to some people, is obvious in the current  problems and  predicaments of the Japanese.  It can psychologically help to come to terms with  the collective karma the Japanese people of today get due to the evil deeds of their ancestors  and their father's and grandfather's generations.  The thought why they have to suffer can ease suffering  and hasten it.  It's all  about acceptance and moving on, but in doing so, they have to understand their collective karma, which  no amount of science can easily  replace..


I grew up listening to my grandparents' stories  about  the cruel, barbaric Japanese soldiers in our village during  World  War II.  What made me cry always was the story  when they swallowed kernels of corn because they could not cook them.  The Japanese bombed wherever there was  smoke.  They could not also chew them because they were dried and hard.  Later, they would strain the kernels in the river  after defecating them for their next meal.  For some reason, the said story  was  more powerful to me  than  the beheading of priests, the rape of  nuns, the sexual slavery of comfort women, the labor camps full  of  emaciated  brown men, and  many more too painful  to  enumerate.  My grandparents died with their hatred towards the Japanese unchanged  and  unforgotten.  They  wanted revenge but they could only pray for gaba to befall the Japanese from generation to generation.


Such vengeful feelings towards the Japanese are  common among  the elderly who experienced  the war and the cruelty of the  Japanese soldiers.  The young ones who only read them in history textbooks  do not care  as they wait in line at the  Japanese  Embassy for working visas  and  marriage  licenses.  If the Japanese people want to fully understand their  suffering  they must  also  understand the  suffering of others  that still  haunt  and  debilitate.  Maybe to start, they should  put closure to the comfort women issue,  where the  ageing victims are still  crying and asking them to apologize.   Maybe  they should  rebuild  the  lives of the communities  they destroyed  seventy or so years ago.  Maybe they should erase the memory  of suffering among their victims who cannot easily forgive and forget.  In collective karma or gaba,  it is believed that its potency is ever-present  and never-ending if without reconciliation.  What the evil father does will  come  back to his innocent children and grandchildren  and that  the cycle will only stop  if  there is  apology and forgiveness between the inflicter and the inflicted. 


Asking  for  and giving  forgiveness is very powerful in suffering and healing.  As the  village seer  once said,  "Whoever  makes  you  suffer will  suffer  many folds if not from god  and from other people, it  will  be from nature, and he  will only know of  gaba if he finds out that he suffers  because  someone does," I  could not help but think  of the day when  the Japanese  would finally pay their  dues.   I wonder  if  the Japanese think of  collective karma as  they currently suffer from  the wrath of nature.  I am sure there are older Filipinos who do not  rejoice but  believe their gaba is, indeed,  very  potent,  and,after all,  it works.   Maybe there  are others who  think  of  Japan's collective karma  as the  retribution they have been waiting.                      

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Comment by Cui Yin Mok on March 28, 2011 at 4:51am

I agree with John's point regarding the unlikelihood of attribution of natural calamities to karma, least of all "collectively".

I would not rule out the possibility that a Japanese individual who may suffered significant losses in a natural disaster copes with his loss by attributing it to his individual karma. However, what I do understand of the Buddhist concept of "karma", broadly speaking, is an individual thing, not one that usually carries collective value. I'm not as informed about the Japanese Buddhist understandings of "karma", or if that concept even holds much weight in practices/ beliefs today.


If I were to imagine how Buddhism/ Shintoism/ Zen may have influenced Japanese attitudes towards natural disasters, the focus would be less on the concept of "karma" or "karmic retribution", and more on the relative position of Man to nature, given the degree of influence of Shintoism and other paganic/ folk beliefs that still prevail. In other words, instead of thinking, "The earthquake/ tsunami has happened to us because we, as a nation, have accrued collective bad karma for our wartime atrocities," the Shinto/ Zen attitude is more likely to be a combination of: 1) "One does not question the way of the gods, or the way of nature, or the way of the spirits"; and 2) "We will accept and live through this because what we have lost are ultimately transient and immaterial."


Objectively speaking I think the former ("respect for/ deference to nature"/ Shinto influence) is probably a lot more more likely than the latter suggestion ("all things are ultimately immaterial"/ Zen influence), if one looks at which seem to be more prevalent in everyday Japanese life. (I mean, we all know that how consumer- driven the Japanese domestic economy is, so immateriality isn't exactly something that would likely feature in their everyday consciousness, would it?) Still, this is simply conjectural. It's impossible to identify what is really what and from where... at least from where I'm speaking.


More importantly, I don't believe the Japanese today have a tendency to explain natural phenomena in terms of (religious) causality. Of all the East Asian countries, modern Japan probably has the highest percentage of people who profess no subscription to any particular religion, and with regard to natural disasters their attitude, behaviour, and policies seem to suggest they are a lot more interested in understanding how best to prepare themselves mentally and infrastructurally against a natural occurrence, rather than attributing/ accepting responsibility for such events.

Of note: The last time I heard a similar suggestion of "collective karma" was in the wake of the 2006 Sichuan earthquakes, when Sharon Stone allegedly said it was collective retribution for the way China was treating Tibet. Whilst Philip also makes an excellent point that it's impossible to identify whether any idea of karmic retribution is essentially Buddhist, or influenced by Christian ideas of justice (or whatever else), I think comments such as those made by Sharon Stone or that Sea Shepherd guy tend to be made with political intentions by people who 1) don't understand or believe in the concept — or versions of concepts — of karma; 2) are actually outsider commentators.

Comment by Philip Swift on March 24, 2011 at 1:56am


Interesting questions you raise, M.


I agree with John that Japanese generally - in my experience anyway - don't tend to frame the causation of misfortunes or calamities in terms of karma. But one might expect an event on the scale of the present catastrophe to invite interpretations of this sort. And not just in Japan. It was reported in the Japanese media that the founder of the Sea Shepherd organisation (an American eco-activist group dedicated towards stopping Japanese whaling activities) wrote a poem more or less implying that Japan had it coming. 


But if causation of calamity isn't generally articulated in terms of karma amongst Japanese in general, then something of that sort is definitely articulated in Japanese new religions, of which there are many. I don't know about the present catastrophe, but the major earthquake prior to this one, in 1995, in Kobe (the Hanshin daishinsai, in Japanese) was deemed to be the working of divinity by a number of Japanese new religions. Aum Shinrikyo - the group that infamously attacked the Tokyo underground system with sarin gas in the same year - understood that event to be a sign of the oncoming apocalypse. 


But, from my understanding - having worked with members of a Japanese new religion - ideas of karma in Japan were already, long, long ago, well mixed in with native ideas of the importance of purification, etc. The upshot of this being that Buddhist concepts have become thoroughly intertwined with Shinto ideas of defilement, and more recently, with a slight admixture of Christian ideas of sin.


In other words, I don't think it's easy to cut these concepts and determine what is exactly 'buddhist' about them. 



Comment by M Izabel on March 22, 2011 at 6:57pm
The Christians' "you sow what you reap"  is not really the same as karma.   Retribution in karma is not equal to  the  deed, and in a Christian belief system, it is God who punishes  not things or humans or the suffering of humans.  In gaba, for example, if you smash an ant with your  thumb,  it  is  not God  but the  ant that  will cause you to experience the  karmic  effect of your act.  Gaba, however, is Christianized among Filipino Catholics who view God  as the  sole judge and giver  of punishments.  It's usage among indigenous  Filipinos  simply means karma.  When  I sarcastically answer my mother, she usually says, "Gabaan ta kaw gani"-- "I might cause  you harmful karma."  It  is clear that even a human being and his act, like in karma, can also cause karmic effect or retribution.
Comment by M Izabel on March 15, 2011 at 5:50pm

I guess the  "#Ishiharadamare'" soft campaign worked.


I watched again the video my  friend sent me.  It was  actually in Otsuchi  famous for porpoise not dolphin slaughtering.   I wonder why environmentalists  can easily disregard facts over propaganda.  Is it  because Taiji is the setting for "The Cove"  and what the world  knows?  An  environmentalist to me is always a suspect.  I find the myth-making employed by environmentalists a turnoff. 

Comment by John McCreery on March 15, 2011 at 5:29pm

From an email from Ruth to our daughter.


BTW, Gov Ishihara has retracted his statement about divine retribution
and apologized.

Guess he really does want to get reelected.



Comment by M Izabel on March 15, 2011 at 7:45am

Sorry, I just noticed the link was broken...


My interest in this post is academic and cultural.  I don't believe in Karma.  If it were real, Spain should have suffered a karmic retribution more than Japan.  Three hundred years of suffering is not comparable to half a decade. 


It is interesting how an  environmental phenomenon like this is used  by  environmental  activists to strengthen their causes  and ideology.  An environmentalist friend sent me an e-mail telling me to watch "The Cove"  and the video she  linked showing  how  the tsunami destroyed the warehouses in Taiji where dolphins were  used to be slaughtered and  convinced  me  about environmental karma.  I  find this kind of thinking very rural and animist like the belief in our village almost.  My friend is White American, educated, and from Newport Beach, CA.  She reminded me  of what we  used  to do  when  we were kids.  We would  yell  "kamalig! kamalig! Kamalig!" to make the waves rise.  When they rose,  we would run thinking we disturbed the spirit of the sea.  I'm interested to know more about this Western environmental animism involving karma and  conservation.   If it were not due to the causes they involve  themselves  in, would they still think this way?  
Comment by John McCreery on March 15, 2011 at 5:14am
We now have one confirmed case of a Japanese blaming current events on divine retribution. Right-wing Tokyo mayor Shintaro Ishihara says the gods are angry with Japanese for becoming a nation of egotistical slackers. No mention of war guilt or anything like that.
Comment by M Izabel on March 14, 2011 at 8:19pm

In a Buddhist point of view, there is "collective karma."  I don't think it is a Christian tradition.  Karma contradicts the Christian belief that Jesus' death saves humans from  their sins." target="_blank">


I  also don't think  the rhetoric of the fundamentalist  Christians regarding  Hurricane  Katrina was karmic.   It was more of the Christian concept of divine punishment a la Sodom and Gomorrah.   



Comment by John McCreery on March 14, 2011 at 10:08am

All I can say is that after living thirty years in Japan, I don't think I have once heard karma evoked as an explanation of a natural  or other disaster. It may be significant that people who use the term in this way (1) ascribe collective blame to the Japanese and (2) appear to be influenced by monotheistic, particularly Christian traditions in which collective punishment for sin that evokes divine wrath is a common theme: from the flood and Noah's ark and the plagues visited on Egypt to the book of Revelations.


From this perspective, ascribing the current events to Karma is on the same intellectual plane as US televangelists' blaming the drowning of New Orleans by Hurricane Katrina on the gay rights movement or the notorious sinfulness of New Orleans' French Quarter. 

Comment by M Izabel on March 14, 2011 at 7:10am

Another  one from Facebook with a hint of  environmentalism:


"Dear Japan,

Karma's a Bitch.


The 20,000 Dolphins you guys slaughter from September to March EVERY YEAR."


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