Whoopi Goldberg had a lot on her mind when she met the star of PBS' "The Brain" at the Rubin Museum in New York City a few weeks ago. "What makes me me?" she demanded. Well, other folks make you you came the answer: "A lot of brain activity is in relation to other brains," replied Dr. David Eagleman. This was one of 22 onstage conversations the Rubin is mounting this fall to explore the nature of Karma - the thing that almost everyone seems to think is either about retribution, what you come back as in your next life, or a nifty T-shirt slogan.
Ripples in a pool
You won't find that sort of T-shirt at the Rubin shop; but head up the museum's signature spiral staircase and you will find that every other work on its walls is from the Tibetan Himalayas, karma central. The simple translation from the Sanskrit of karma is 'action'. Yet, to the Buddha, karma is not the linear 'do good and good things come back to you'. Individual actions do not necessarily lead to a corresponding reward or punishment. Instead actions are more like a stone dropped in water--the ripples extend out 360 degrees. And the ripples created by other dropped stones in the same pool intersect in such a way as to create unfathomably complex and unanticipated patterns. A full awareness of these rich intersections, and how we are connected to and responsible for all past, present, and future events, that is karma.
The brain is a cosmos
The brain is also full of such unfathomable intersections. Our perceptive tools - sight, smell, taste, hearing, touch - interact with our consciousness with such complexity that the brain is often hailed as the most elaborate organism on earth. No wonder that we find Eagleman channeling Carl Sagan a little with a look at that inner cosmos between our ears.
Why don't we care?
"Half of us is other people," according to Dr. Eagleman. Then why don't we care enough for other people? Just as news headlines and public debates about climate change have dominated the year (Pope Francis' encyclical! Volkswagen's vehicle emissions scandal! Exxon's tobacco industry-style deception!) so the implication with karma is, of course, that we have all contributed to our current climate crisis, whether through our ignorance, inertia or indifference - call it #ClimateKarma. In the 21st century, responsibility for our current climate disruption has grown beyond the local and national to hold the global community accountable; more than ever we are questioning how our collective actions today will impact the future of our world. Then why aren't we doing more about it?
Good question. In fact during the question session Dr Eagleman was asked to address just why it is that humans seem unable to react proactively to what may turn out to be the greatest calamity to affect humankind, whereas we can readily slip into amber alert mode when we miss our plane connection at Houston's George Bush International Airport. This was his answer.
Tibetan Buddhists are well equipped to deal with fear. They have a deity called Green Tara. She is the protectress against the eight fears. The eight are: the fear of being trampled by wild elephants (to which New Yorkers dealing with the rush hour subway crowds can readily relate); the fear of being mauled by wild lions; the fear of drowning; the fear of incineration; the fear of brigandry; the fear of false incarceration (a real fear these days, even in this country); the fear of snakes; and the fear of ghosts. Now to be clear: Tara does not prevent you from sinking beneath the waves, or from fangs sinking into your neck a la Siegfried and Roy. What she does is help you understand the paralyzing psychology of fear. Her mantra could almost be that of President Roosevelt's response to the Great Depression: "The only thing we have to fear is fear itself."
Is there a Buddhist solution to the paralysis affecting most nations in confronting the perils of climate change? Yes: compassion. If you understand how everything is interconnected, you will not feel yourself as far removed from the circumstances of the near future. Compassion is action. Action is karma. A full circle. I guess it's what goes around, comes around after all.