More Earthquake Follies

Will Buckingham at has an article on Sharon Stone’s clumsy comments on Karma, linking to BBC reports covering the remarks (1 and 2) and notes that people who really know what they are talking about (such as Lati Rinpoche), reaffirm my own understanding, that metaphysically speaking, according to at least some schools of Buddhism, it is quite possible that there may be a causal link between the actions of the Chinese government and some of the citizens of the PRC enduring an earthquake.

What has been interesting in this whole unhappy business is the response from Buddhist commentators, who have almost unanimously claimed that Ms. Stone has misunderstood or misrepresented Buddhism. But is this the case? […]

In the interview, Hayes asked [Lati Rinpoche] how Buddhists could explain the suffering of the Jews in the Second World War. The answer was troubling.

Rinpoche: The proper Buddhist answer to such a question is that the victims were experiencing the consequences of their actions performed in previous lives.[…]

It is possible to claim that Ms. Stone’s comments were profoundly wrong-headed; it is also possible to argue that this retributive view of karma is not only nonsense, but also dangerous nonsense[. …]

What is it not possible to do, however, is to credibly argue that Sharon Stone’s comments were entirely misrepresentative of certain Buddhist ideas. There are many figures and texts of influence in the Buddhist world that have claimed no more and no less than Ms. Stone herself. Would it not be better if those Buddhists keen to dismiss Ms. Stone for her lack of understanding were to turn their attention to the traditions that they revere, so that their own houses might be put in order?

I have quoted extensively as I wanted to capture the subtlety of the development of the argument here (the red ink is mine). Unlike the atheist commentary I critiqued earlier, there is a serious effort to use impeccable sources and a thoughtful critiques is offered that acknowledges a diversity of different perspectives. But this argument disturbs me.

Firstly Stone’s comments were incredibly crass. Lati Rinpoche is qualified to speak and his comments are of course a proper explanation of the Tibetan Buddhist understanding of karma. Sharon Stone is not, and she was clearly suggesting that a significant causal connection between PRC actions in Tibet and the earthquake. This is entirely different from stating that The Holocaust, the Tibetan suffering and systematic destruction of their tradition, and the recent earthquake in China as having causes in the past actions of the people that got caught up in the tragedies. The first is wild and ignorant speculation hypothesizing something that is actually highly unlikely to be true, and is bound to suggest without any proper context that the earthquake is retribution for abuses of the Tibetans that should be allowed to take its course.

Please note that the traumas that the Tibetan nation has undergone since the 1950s is equally regarded a playing out of karma by the Tibetans (as it must be).

And note the above use of ‘retributive’ which is nowhere to be found in Lati Rinpoche’s comments. Rinpoche was talking about a causal relationship. It makes no more sense to talk about the burning phosphorous taking retribution on the wood after a match is struck. For retribution to make sense you need an agent motivated to mete out retribution. Buddhism posits no such agent: that is a theistic idea, which needs to be dealt with in the relevant theistic context.

My teachers tell me again and again that the central idea that governs all action in Buddhism is compassion. If you find yourself losing compassion for some people who are suffering then it means that you have simply gone wrong, as surely as if, scientifically speaking, you would have gone wrong if you find you have produced a design for a perpetual motion machine.

My teachers tell me that a thoroughgoing understanding of the causal nature of reality will lead to an increased sensitivity and compassion for those that are suffering, and an increased determination to alleviate that suffering—be they victims of earthquakes, holocausts, or whatever. I can safely say that their teachings on karma haven’t reduced my compassion for others that are suffering.

Unless you have a real preference for nihilistic philosophies I can’t see why it is an improvement to replace a causal theory with a one in which random things happen (imagine the randomness increasing to the extent that none of our actions correlate with any effects). The only reason that I can plausibly think for hoping for more randomness in the world is if, in the bigger picture, you don’t want to take responsibility for either your situation or your actions.

As Patrick Kurp at Anecdotal Evidence has just posted a related article with a remarkably apposite quotation, the final paragraph of William Maxwell: A Literary Life (2005) by Barbara Burkhardt, I can’t resist quoting it:

`I think it is somehow unimaginative to consider the universe as the product of chance,’ he told me. He paused a moment, looked over his tortoise shell glasses, and then continued to type: `I am inclined to say that it is the product of God knows. The evidence offered in Nature is so astonishing and so consistently on the side of an Intention. I did not escape the influence of seven or eight years of Sunday School, and believe we ought to help each other when it is possible, that the self-centered life is a kind of living death, that life on any terms is a privilege and that we ought to be grateful for it and use it to our best ability, and not be frightened or frantic when we reach the end of it. But instead stand, accepting, like a flower that has gone to seed.’


3 responses to “More Earthquake Follies

  1. Actually Sharon Stone was quite correct about the earthquake being caused by China’s bad karma as a nation. Burma also has plenty has plenty of bad karma.

    See more info on group karma at

  2. If you had understood the above you will have realised that I was saying that, according to Tibetan Buddhist teachings (and probably all Buddhist teachings), all suffering has karmic causes, i.e., causes lying in the suffering individual’s past actions, probably in previous lives. But Sharon Stone didn’t leave it at that and speculated about which causes led to the eartquake–in this she was wholly wrong. It was also clear from the reports that she really didn’t know how karma fitted into the Buddhist teachings and, even if she did, she made her comments in a context where they were bound to be misunderstood. It was silly, ignorant and deserved the opprobrium it attracted.

    I have checked your link and I am sorry to say that it really isn’t very much better. Which tradition do the ‘four Devarajas or Lords of Karma’ belong to? It certainly isn’t Buddhism? It rather gives the appearance of a new-age mish-mash. Who are your teachers?

    I agree with the basic point that all our actions will have consequences that are of the nature of the action and the actions of some countries in the world today are creating frightful karma, most of which probably won’t mature until much later. But that is going to only make sense to someone who thinks of the world in terms of karma, and how such a person thinks about it will depend upon which particular tradition they follow, whether, for example, it is a Buddhist or a Hindu tradition.

    The reason that I respect Buddhist explanations is because my teachers have demonstrated and manifested great wisdom and compassion, and everything they have said has stood up on closer examination. They can also point out their own teachers whose learning and actions are a clear reflection of their teachings.

    Most importantly of all, as a result of their teachings I find the world a kinder and less confusing place.

    My point is this. For the highest teachings (philosophy) it is important to seek out qualified teachers for commentary. Sharon Stone doesn’t qualify. If you were going to spend many years training to be an architect then you would take care at the outset to make sure that your teachers knew what they were about, had a good reputation and was compatible with you and so on. Believe me it is worth being equally discriminating about these teachings.

    Before I take any commentary on karma seriously I want to know which tradition it relates to and some indication of who taught the person writing the commentary. It is the same as we would demand for any other technical field of knowledge.

  3. Hi,

    Mahatma Gandhi also made a statement once when an earthquake hit India that it was sent by God as a punishment for the sin of untouchability. This angered many of his colleagues who thought it a mere superstition.

    I would like to adopt a scientific approach to religion and verify the teachings by my experience. Adopting the same scientific approach to whether the earthquake was caused by the misdeeds of the Chinese people I can say that it is not something that we can prove in a laboratory. And it is something that we can never know for sure unless we become omniscient and know all that there is to know about the Universe.

    Even if certain Buddhist sects hold that the earthquake was a punishment for Chinese sins there are others that would hold otherwise. So all the experts in this matter are not agreed and we do not know anything for sure.

    In such a case the sane approach is to keep an open mind and not reach any conclusions.

    This then is my view. And also Sharon Stone’s remark was quite insensitive and showed a complete lack of compassion for the suffering caused by the quake. And of course she is not an expert in the matters of Karma and Buddhism. So really she should not have made the comment.



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