Karma probably confuses people from Western and Judeo-Christian cultures more than any other Eastern spiritual or philosophical concept. Most just seem to dismiss it as the simplistic idea of “what comes around goes around.” I remember a friend – a loyal, well-intentioned guy who could, nonetheless, get quite worked up when he felt somebody had taken advantage of him or personally wronged him – exclaiming about the downfall of a man he felt had cheated him in some way, “That’s karma! Karma will always get you!”
I almost brought up holocaust victims or school shootings, but decided I could get across the same general point without creating such an awkward mood. Making it into a bit of a joke, I asked, “What happened? Was this guy mean to you, so he got eaten by a tiger?” My friend knew I was teasing him – and probably also knew I was trying to get him to think more deeply about what he’d said. His reply was something along the lines of, “Come on… of course he didn’t get eaten by a tiger, but he screwed me over, and now it’s his turn. What do you think karma is?”
The problem with many people’s conception of karma is that “bad things” happening to “good people” seems unfair to them (and “fairness” is a modern cultural ideal), so some just dismiss the idea of karma completely because they see “unfairness” happen too often throughout the world; others, perhaps even more misguided, figure there must be reasons that fit their limited frame of reference. (e.g. “That baby must have really been an asshole in a past life to end up with spina bifida!”) The concept of some sort of inevitable “punitive” karma destined to smite evildoers is also used as a comforting mechanism by many who feel bitter and/or vengeful.
However, what we think of as “good” and “bad” is actually quite subjective. Most people have no problem eating animals kept in horrible conditions and slaughtered for (unhealthy, unnecessary, environmentally problematic) food or with buying products made by child slave laborers. If you want full disclosure, I’m quite careful not to do the former and pay very little attention to the latter. Maybe a tiger will only eat half of me?
A hundred years ago, a doctor willingly performing an abortion would be seen as an evil act by most people, but now the majority of developed nations feel abortion should be a woman’s personal choice. Blasphemy is considered a serious crime by most Muslims, yet perceived as an indispensable element of free speech by most Westerners. Social programs Americans and Europeans currently take for granted, such as emergency medical care and public schools, used to sincerely worry well-meaning traditional capitalists.
Still, you may ask, what about more “basic” morals, such as not killing, stealing or committing adultery? Well, what about other old standbys involving specific rules for how to sell one’s daughter into slavery or the correct way to torture witches to death? Stuff changes. And we have far more trouble predicting what will change, why and when than most people like to admit.
In other words, the world is in flux. Constantly. And that’s okay.