Back when I spent several years in Rome as a student of Canon Law at the Gregorian University, I also used to go to St. Bonaventure University in Olean, NY, to study Franciscan spirituality during the summer semesters. I was a member of the Capuchin order, which is one of the major branches of the Franciscans.

Every student was required to take a foreign language test. I asked my faculty advisor if I could get dispensed from the test since as a foreign student I obviously could speak a foreign language.

He told me the chairman of the Institute of Franciscan Studies could make that dispensation. However, he suggested I should go to the vicechairman instead as he, too, was a Capuchin.

Well, the vice did not want to do it. How do I know you can really speak a foreign language? No amount of explaining helped. I was born and raised in Slovakia, even graduated from Komensky University, so obviously I speak Slovak. I attend Gregorian University in Rome, so obviously I can speak Italian. I showed him a certificate from University of Vienna about my proficiency in German (except, he did not understand German, so he could not read it).

He said, no, you have to test.

I then went to the chairman who said, of course, we are honored to have you here, no foreign language test necessary for you.

About ten months later, the vice had some business in Rome and he stayed in our house. This was his first time outside the US. It turned out that not only did he not speak Italian, he could speak nothing other than English.

Through the irony of karma, there was only one person in the whole house willing to go with him wherever he needed (or even wanted) to go, show him around Rome and translate for him. Who was this person? You guessed it: Me.

At the end of his stay he publicly acknowledged that he would have been totally lost in Rome if not for my help. He also felt very ashamed about his prior behavior and insistence on my taking the test.

So what does this have to do with karmic evitability?

Many a Hollywood plot line is based on the idea of karmic inevitability.

The idea goes something like this:

The person who is now your wife was your husband in your last lifetime (and you were his wife, naturally). He murdered you. Because of karmic inevitability, your roles are now reversed. You are the husband, she is your wife. You will inevitably murder her. In the next lifetime your roles will reverse again: You'll be the wife, he'll murder you, and you will go on like that forever.

A good plot, perhaps, but, sorry, it doesn't work that way.

The plot is based on a naive interpretation of the law of karma and the concept of samsara, i.e., the cycle whereby we do keep coming back over and over.

But this cycle is not eternal, nor is it inevitable.

In all fairness to Hollywood, they did not invent the idea. It is commonly believed in Hinduism that samsara is indeed endless (though not necessarily as dramatic). It was not until the Buddha presented his Third Noble Truth that anyone realized the cycle is breakable.

Where did this idea come from? Observation, unfortunately. It often does happen that way. We do some wrong to someone, they "return the favor." We get upset over it, and venge. We just keep venging, avenging, and revenging. We do it as individuals, we do it as society.

But that is not caused by karma, it is caused by our own stupidity. It is important to realize that karma is not some kind of force. It is a law of nature, that is, the law of action and reaction. It can't make us do anything.

There is a force of sorts that causes the reaction to a prior action. But that force comes from the action itself, not from the law of karma.

So, if someone has done me a wrong, he has produced a force. But that force cannot push me to revenge. That was his force, and will eventually bring about a reaction. The reaction will happen when an occasion arises but there is nothing in this Universe that can make me be that occasion, unless I freely decide so.

Let's go back to my St. Bonaventure experience. The priest did me a wrong (in some way). No doubt, as far as my end of the deal is concerned, it was a result of some prior action of mine. Perhaps I did something similar to him in a previous lifetime. Perhaps we carried on this silliness over hundreds of lifetimes.

Now, the fact he was at my mercy in Rome was a reaction to his action in the US. But, whatever unpleasant force his action had produced, it could not make me vindictive. I could have turned him down. But that would have been my choice, not his karma. I never turned anyone else down in a situation like that. It's just not something I do. I wouldn't even dream about turning him down. He needed help, I was able to help, I had the time to help. So I helped. End of story.

Yes, end of story is right. No, I was not thinking about the law of karma at the time. I was a Catholic priest. I had no understanding of the law of karma at the time.

But, looking back at it now, I realize both he and I broke some kind of "karmic link". Whatever past karma brought us together for the first time in this life was renewed by his refusal to dispense me from the test. That was a new action on his side that allowed for the "link" to continue. But our second encounter, the one in Rome ended it once for all. I did not act unkindly, and he admitted his own mistake. The story ends for both of us.

We both have ended a tiny little piece of the seemingly endless cycle of samsara. We both probably have enough samsara left to end (well, I do anyway, I have not heard of him since, so I cannot really tell how he is doing).

But the point is, the karmic cycle of samsara is not inevitable. It can be ended, if just one step at a time. I can only hope next time I see him it will be in nirvana and we will both have fun reminiscing.

While on the whole I agree fully with your writeup, I just had a bone to pick.

Most Hindus do not believe that the cycle of reincarnation is endless (by the way, reincarnation and karma, while linked in Hindu philosophy, are not part and parcel. It is quite easy to believe in one, and not the other).

At least, most of the Hindus I know (myself being one of them) do not believe this. Instead, the general idea of Hindu reincarnation, as I understand it, is this:

The soul undergoes the cycle of reincarnation many times. Every time, its actions in its past life determine its state at the outset of the new (this is where karma comes in). However, once the new life is begun, a soul is free to do whatever it wants, within those bounds. Actions from the past life do not necessarily come back to influence the next (although this is by no means ruled out).

Eventually, a soul has accrued enough "goodness" (or good karma, I guess you could call it), to transcend the mortal coil, and attain moksha.


While this might seem very similar to the Buddhist view of reincarnation, this is the view I was brought up with, and I think it has come about due to the tempering influences of Buddhism on Hinduism (which are now rather widespread throughout India).

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