I usually avoid jumping into Facebook discussions (especially those noisy Shin Buddhist ones), but about a year ago, the Uptown Uprising page posted a story on Jay Michael describing how he overcame ill health and was enjoying his success as a real estate developer. Several comments talked about “karma” – saying that if the law of karma was working, Mr. Michael would be suffering and dying for all the misery he’s caused by displacing longtime tenants from low-rent apartments in Uptown and nearby neighborhoods. I had to enter my comment that karma does not mean that illness and death are punishments for evil deeds and that success and power are rewards for good deeds. I said Mr. Michael is subject to the consequences of his actions that harm other people, but I didn’t go into how and when the karmic results would bite him in the butt.
If you Google Mr. Michael’s name, you’ll find mostly good things written about him – he passed away from lymphoma at age 34 in January of this year. But my bias is that what I’ve heard about him in Uptown is his disregard and disdain for the people who can’t afford the upscale, super-healthy lifestyle he promoted in his residential and commercial developments. Yes, I was one of the people (along with many faith leaders, such as Rev. Jean from Peoples Church) picketing his home in 2013.
Now I have some ideas using him as an example of how the power of karma defines what is called “afterlife.” This past Friday I spoke to the students at the Chicago Academy for the Arts in two social studies classes and the question came up, “How do Buddhists consider the afterlife?” I answered that as a minister talking to families who just lost a loved one, I don’t talk about the loved one’s spirit travelling to some other realm. What I do talk about is karma – that everything the loved one thought, said and did is still continuing to work in our lives and will continue to have effects even beyond our lifetimes. I gave the example of Prince, who had just passed away – his physical life no longer exists, but he left us with great songs to sing and dance to. That for me is his afterlife – that he continues to be alive in the world for me now.
The Buddha saw how egocentric the popular notion of reincarnation was – people wanted themselves to be rewarded for doing good and wanted to see others punished for doing bad. That idea of karmic reward and punishment crept back into the Buddhist literature not too long after the Buddha died, but one can easily see how incongruous it is with the teachings of transcending the ego, of waking up from the delusion of having a self that has a permanent substance separate from the rest of reality.
The teaching of karma is to make us aware of how our thoughts, words and deeds have rippling effects in the world – maybe not in the immediate future but somewhere down the line. Rather than being concerned about getting our prize or avoiding our punishment, we should be doing what we can to make life more fulfilling for our contemporaries and future lives and trying to turn around the bad consequences we (and our predecessors) already set in motion.
On Saturday our temple held a memorial service for the late Mrs. M, who passed away at age 90 from a decline in her physical and mental health. The various family members – in-laws and grandchildren – spoke about how selflessly giving she was. I knew her as a sweet lady but talking to some of the people in the large turnout that day, I learned she had reached out to many people and touched them with her kind support and encouragement. She had long been active at the temple with various groups and involved in the Japanese American community, but like many women of her generation she was known mainly as “the wife” of a high-profile community and cultural arts leader.
Although I knew many of the relatives and friends attending were devout Christians, in my Dharma message I had to say that Mrs. M wasn’t concerned about whether she was going to heaven or not after she died. In her thoughts, words and deeds, she was bringing heaven to all the lives she touched. Her afterlife is the continuing effects of her karma on everyone who remembers her and she serves as an example of how we should care for others, not for thanks or reward, but because it’s the thing to do.
Now getting back to Jay Michael – his afterlife is to be long known by increasing numbers of people as someone who brought hell to Chicago neighborhoods. He serves as the example of extreme narcissism – focusing on healthiness as a benefit for the affluent and denying the dignity of those who have untidy lives of struggling with disadvantages imposed by poverty, racism and other burdens of society’s past karma. In a way, it’s a shame he died so young – he might have eventually woken up like Prince Siddhartha to how maintaining a high-class lifestyle is destructive to your own life as well as to so many other lives.