I feel the necessity to speak of a great "natural force" which is widely misunderstood in the western world. Karma isn't like HELL, a punishment visited upon the wicked for their past sins. That's the over-simplified concept people seem to identify with the word -- I killed you in my last life, and you kill me in this; he was a villain in his previous incarnation, and so came back as a cockroach. Amusing as well as satisfying when you see the wicked prospering like a green bay tree, with their victims unable to get justice on the earth plane, ... but complete nonsense.
See, the purpose of karma (which is defined as "volitional action") in our philosophy is not to look upon the suffering and judge them -- save that judging BS for sanctimonious puritan types! According to the "masters of wisdom" the only appropriate response to suffering is compassion. As a matter of fact, it's probably a big mistake to think of karma in reference to other people, and their good or bad fortune, at all. At its best, this doctrine is a tool to help you form YOURSELF into the best person you can be.
I happened to have mentioned karma to a facebook acquaintance the other day, and she got extremely upset. One who believes in karma is a horrible person, because that means BLAMING THE VICTIM! One who believes in reincarnation is deluded and psychotic. One who believes in anything spiritual is stupid and unrealistic because she is too smart to have fallen for group hallucinations and fairy tales -- and if she doesn't believe in it, it just ain't so. She's a secular humanist, and obviously a better person than anyone who believes in any kind of life between lives: she does right BECAUSE it's right, and people who do right while believing in an afterlife are expecting to get a reward out of it, so they're impure or something.
She reminds me of conscientious vegetarians. You know, they're better than people who eat vegetarian for health reasons. It's not enough to do the "right thing" -- you have to do the "right thing" for THEIR reasons.
Rather a strong response to my statement of belief, I thought. I briefly tried to explain that karma is more complicated than she seemed to think it, but no, I was a victim-blamer and a horrible person because I have reason to believe that a politically-incorrect tenet is real. She spoke as though I had invented a dreadful system of heaping coals of fire on the heads of innocent sufferers.
This afternoon while doing some holiday baking I had plenty of time to muse on her comments. How did a central belief of one of the most gentle and compassionate World Teachers turn into a hateful and ugly concept? Buddhists SHOULD be lovely people! Why do bad things happen in countries where they predominate? ...Of course, there are probably as many ignorant and unevolved Buddhists as there are ignorant and unevolved Christians, but that's what happens when people are brought up in (or converted to for political reasons) an exotericized belief system for which their spiritual development isn't ready. Blaming the Path for unprepared travelers upon it isn't reasonable. I started googling "blaming the victim and karma Buddhist philosophy." I waded through a lot of garbage before I found this:
"Sometimes this teaching is decried as a harsh doctrine which blames the victim, and even justifies social abuses. If someone is born poor, this argument goes, karma makes a convenient excuse for leaving them that way, because it is their own fault from a previous life. This is a gross distortion that cannot be justified from the Buddhist teachings. On the contrary, karma means that we have a responsibility to act compassionately towards others. To fail to do so is to make negative karma for ourselves. Judgmental attitudes are negative mind-states which cause bad karma in and of themselves*."
People are extrapolating from a social-psychological trap into an esoteric complexity, and getting tangled in the subtleties. We WANT there to be justice, so we invent philosophical systems that explain OTHER PEOPLE'S PROBLEMS ... but when it comes closer to home AND WE KNOW we didn't ask for the hardships we are experiencing in this life, we have a conundrum on our hands.
"But what of the case of someone born with a physical challenge like blindness? Some critics find it cruel to 'blame' the person's previous actions. This is also a misunderstanding. The emotive word 'blame' should not enter into it. The determining power of karma is not a moral judgment, but simply an explanatory tool. If karma is rejected as an explanation, are the alternatives any less 'cruel?' It is then either the deliberate act of a creator-deity or the result of blind chance in a hopeless and meaningless universe."
My facebook acquaintance obviously prefers the latter, and goes out of her way to make a virtue of unbelief. Again, like a religious person who lives a rough, joyless, hard-working life, she convinces herself that the life she MUST lead is the life ALL SHOULD lead. If the frontier-dwelling church-goer does her damnedest to be a good, god-fearing person and her short unpleasant life is the high-road to heaven, why, the high-road to heaven is defined as an unpleasant one, filled with hardships and sour pain.
People like our archetypal frontier "soldier of the cross" see any pathway different from their own as a path with an entirely different destination. If s/he experiences a special affliction or hardship, it's God testing her/his faith, BUT if that "different" person is visited similarly, The Other is being punished. It's just human nature, but as Katherine Hepburn's character in "The African Queen" declares: "Nature, Mr. Allnut, is what we are put in this world to rise above." And that is EXACTLY what the Buddha prescribes. We're here to learn to improve ourselves, rather than be the condemnatory, self-important prat we started out as, in our first incarnation (or earlier in this one).
Actually, the Buddha's teaching goes that there are many other forces in action that influence our lives -- karma isn't responsible for it all. We have various purposes, and we are sent experiences which will teach and prepare us for what we need to do. Naturally, if one doesn't believe in anything "unseen" one will not believe this either. But great things have been done by people who have been "sent" afflictions either personally or via their loved ones. These innovators -- like Bell who in attempting to develop an aid to hearing for his deaf mother and wife, gave the world telephony -- don't just SEE a need, they FEEL it; they rise to the occasion and apply their gifts in truly inspired ways.
Sometimes a highly-evolved individual actually CHOOSES to be a "sacrifice" for the good of his/her group. Am I blaming the victim for pointing out that such an individual is responsible for the plight s/he is in? I don't see it that way. I bow before their amazing unselfishness.
So when we see someone who has been treated appallingly, either by fellow humans or by the fates, we don't know if this person is being taught a lesson for past misdeeds, or if s/he is "a human angel in disguise" doing special work for mankind. Don't judge. At all. The ONLY appropriate response to suffering is compassion.
* quoted passages from http://www.arrowriver.ca/torStar/karmanote.html