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Karma and societal responsibility

Reflections from a conference on trauma and healing in 2018

· Reflections

Last year I attended a conference on trauma and healing, held at Meta House in Phnom Penh. At one of the sessions there were some panelists speaking about the spiritual side to healing. One was a Buddhist monk and the other the CEO of a consultancy using Buddhist philosophy to build empathic leaders (and let me say here, how awesome is that).

The monk spent some time talking about karma in his presentation. I couldn't understand a lot of it, as the interpretation wasn't good enough.

After their presentation, one participant asked a question on karma about how her Khmer friends often refer to the poor in the street and are reluctant to provide help, using the rationale that the poor are poor because of their past life. Because they deserve it.

In response, both panellists responded alike. That if a poor person says I'm poor and this is my karma therefore I can't achieve anything, the poor person is lazy.

Now, on one hand I find this line of thought empowering on an individual level. Regardless of your circumstance, you always retain control over how you react. I'd encourage anyone to take this perspective for their own lives.

However, the shortsightedness of this approach is clear. This thinking, if applied across society, places the blame on the victims of societal inequality and injustice, if they struggle to get out of their situation. It is too simplistic and is ignorant of scientific and sociological research (of trauma patients and poverty, to take two areas).

I wanted to shout, "What about societal karma?" The panellists' answers ignored the societal conditions that led to the rampant poverty in Cambodia. They were reinforcing the beliefs of those referred to in the initial question, that if the poor are poor, it's their fault. Whether it's because of karma or their actions in the present. This leaves society (and importantly the government!) free from blame. I thought this was ironic given the supposed collectivist nature of Cambodian society.

The answers took a more sinister turn when the topic shifted to female victims of abuse and violence. In 2013, 67% of Cambodian women believed that the way to keep the family together was to keep silent in the face of abuse. The monk's answer was a demonstration of the issue that women face all over the world. He said women shouldn't retaliate. Because this would stop the cycle of violence. They should walk away from the fight. And just let go.

The monk... said the women shouldn't retaliate. Because this would stop the cycle of violence. They should walk away from the fight. And just let go.

Now, the monk is probably a kind man. Possibly even a wise man who helps a lot of other MEN. I couldn't really tell from 30 minutes of broken interpreted English. And from what I can tell and hear from others, the other panelist is a good man doing important work. This is not a personal criticism of them.

But their answers reveal the same limitations that I saw from my Christian experience. Cosying up to the Powers That Be rather than taking a stand for justice and goodness. Neglecting social justice.

It's also interesting that throughout the conference many parallels between the Holocaust and the Khmer Rouge genocide were drawn. I couldn't help think of those Christian leaders in Nazi Germany that didn't speak out in fear of persecution. Maybe the injustice is not as extreme here. People aren't murdered at the same rate (murders still happen). But these venerable leaders who lead a country that is 90% Buddhist stay silent.

But the future is not all bleak. I heard of examples of monks who do see things differently. Who speak out against poverty and the societal mechanisms that facilitate the status quo. Things will inevitably change, because goodness wins out over the long term.

In the West, spiritual leaders and wider society became conscious (or re-conscious) of social justice. That we are part of a larger body that is society, and so we have a societal responsibility. That without doubt, if you are poor then it's not your fault. That the game is rigged. That we need to fix the game so it is less rigged. That it's not okay to blame the victims (of poverty, physical, psychological and sexual abuse etc). Things weren't always this way. This shows things can change in Cambodia and other places too.

(Yes, Cambodia is absolutely BEHIND in this area! I hate terms like "third world country" and appreciate that we should be wary of forcing a cultural lens on another, but some things need to be said clearly.)

Yes, at an individual level, you will be happier if you let go of what's happened to you, once you have removed yourself from that situation. But the other part of healing is to prevent things like this from happening again. And this happens at the societal level, when we as a society starts taking responsibility.

Here is my call to action, if you think attitudes like those of the panellists are a problem. Things don't change by themselves. We need to shift collective consciousness and we do this through conversations. With our friends. With the leaders that have the opportunity to influence many others.

Challenge them. Question them. There's no need to demonise them, but leave no doubt in their minds when you tell them they are wrong. If they have any wisdom, they will reflect and join the right side of history. Maybe it won't happen when you speak to them. But it's a seed. So go plant it.