Whose Kamma Is It, Anyway? A Reflection on a Visit to Skid Row And The Importance of Compassion.

Today, the Spiritual Leadership class at University of the West, led by Danny Fisher, visited Skid Row, Los Angeles. We walked through the heart of Skid Row in an attempt to see the reality of poverty in the United States, a complex subject we have been studying in class.

Poverty is not unfamiliar to me. Due to the Dawes General Allotment Act of 1887, a notorious act of legal thievery which opened Indian Reservations to white settlement, my Caucasian family, in 1964, was able to buy land on the Flathead Indian Reservation of Montana. I spent my childhood there, a difficult and sometimes dangerous experience.

The rural poverty of the reservation is different from the urban poverty of Skid Row, yet also very similar. The common suffering is shown in the worn, lined faces found in both places. An edge of anger is there as well as I saw when two residents were clearly upset with our presence. Not as bad as the beer bottles I had thrown at me from passing cars during my childhood on the Reservation (luckily the throwers were usually drunk and missed). But on the Reservation I don’t remember seeing as many people mentally and physically ill. On Skid Row, seeing people suffering from mental and physical illness was unavoidable. I remember a man on crutches, his left leg hugely swollen, hobbling down the street. Wheel chairs abounded (thank you whoever provided them). But what I felt walking through Skid Row was something much more positive. I felt I was walking through a community. People greeted each other and conversation surrounded us. My impression was that the most vulnerable members were being taken care of by those more fit.

As will be discussed below, Appellants’ declarations demonstrate that they are not on the streets of Skid Row by informed choice. In addition, the Institute for the Study of Homelessness and Poverty reports that homelessness results from mental illness, substance abuse, domestic violence, low-paying jobs, and, most significantly, the chronic lack of affordable housing…

It also reports that between 33% and 50% of the homeless in Los Angeles are mentally ill, and 76% percent of homeless adults in 1990 had been employed for some or all of the two years prior to becoming homeless…

[A]pproximately 14% of homeless individuals in Los Angeles are victims of domestic violence.

— JONES v. CITY OF LOS ANGELES, 2006, emphasis mine.

Skid Row is the last refuge of many who find their way here, but it is gentrifying, leading to a reduction in affordable Single Room Occupancy (SRO) hotels.  These hotels are used by the poor to get off the street. New buildings were under construction a couple of blocks inside the boundaries of Skid Row. Hopefully this will be new homes for the poor, but I wonder. A building on the edge of Skid Row that appeared to have been a SRO hotel now offered leases at $800 a month.  Few poor people in Skid Row could afford this rent, or have enough stability to sign a lease. LA County General Relief to the homeless is only $221 a month, an amount has not changed since Clinton was President. Residents frequently have a room during the early part of the month and then live on the street when their money runs out (http://articles.latimes.com/2009/sep/20/local/me-welfare20 and http://www.lafla.org/service.php?sect=govern&sub=relief).

I was struck by the lack of homeless white people. Everyone living on the street was Black. Are different racial groups segregating themselves and we just did not find the white people? I researched the racial demographics of Skid Row and found wildly varying numbers. Finally I decided to use the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA) figures. They did not break out the racial demographics of Skid Row but instead had numbers for all homeless in LA County. According to the Agency, roughly 44% of the homeless population is Black. In LA Country Blacks make up 8% of the population. On our walk the percentage Black people living on the street was much higher than 44%.

What might account for this? Perhaps I overlooked people of different races. Perhaps the population demographics vary wildly depending on time of day or year. So I used Google Street View (which looked to be taken in the summer) to confirm what I saw. Using Google Street View I found the same high percentage of Black homeless. It is also possible the Black population has less financial resources and they had run out of money to rent SRO housing. It is also possible, since there are more homeless in Skid Row than housing, that there is some sort of discrimination making it difficult for Black people to get into SRO housing. Unfortunately there was no information in the LAHSA report which would allow me to tease out what was happening, which I find an interesting fact in itself. For those of you interested the report can be found at http://www.lahsa.org/docs/2011-Homeless-Count/HC11-Detailed-Geography-Report-FINAL.PDF.

As I have studied at UWest I have often thought about the role of kamma (Sanskrit: karma) in social inequality. I note here that I approach this subject as a person influenced deeply by Theravada Buddhism as taught in the Pali Canon.

Is Skid Row a form of hell where homeless people find themselves because of unskillful acts in this or previous lives (deterministic kamma) or is the situation more complex and non-linear? Of all the teachings of Buddhism I understand kamma the least. In the Pali Canon the Buddha declares the precise working out of kamma to be one of the four unconjecturables that “bring madness & vexation.”

There are these four unconjecturables that are not to be conjectured about, that would bring madness & vexation to anyone who conjectured about them. Which four?

The Buddha-range of the Buddhas…

The jhana-range of a person in jhana …

The [precise working out of the] results of kamma is an unconjecturable that is not to be conjectured about, that would bring madness & vexation to anyone who conjectured about it.

Conjecture about [the origin, etc., of] the world…

These are the four unconjecturables that are not to be conjectured about, that would bring madness & vexation to anyone who conjectured about them.

— AN 4.77, the Acintita Sutta, translated by Thanissaro Bhikkhu, my emphasis.

Thanissaro Bhikkhu has this to say about kamma:

Karma is often understood as the idea that what you experience now comes from what you did in the past, but that’s getting it all wrong. The Buddha’s teachings on causality are much more complex than that, and in fact resemble chaos theory with their many feedback loops. In their lack of determinism, they resemble the laws describing the nonlinear behavior of chemical systems operating far from equilibrium—systems very similar to the human mind.

— Thanissaro Bhikkhu, http://www.shambhalasun.com/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=2844&Itemid=0

So, are the people on Skid Row there because they deserve to be? I don’t think so. Perhaps these folks are in a vulnerable position because of kamma. But given the racial and other forms of discrimination which operate in so many areas of American society it is difficult to tease out what is due to personal responsibility (intent and acts) and what is caused by the lack of opportunity due to discrimination. But, clearly, there is a great deal of unneeded suffering added by cruelty and indifference. In the United States we live in an extraordinarily rich society with wealth and income inequality as great as or greater than many third world countries. Not long ago (before the 1980’s) many of the people on Skid Row would be living in mental hospitals or institutions. These institutions were not perfect, but the mentally ill had the chance to live a life of some comfort. In the 1980’s they were thrown out into the street with no place to go. The institutions they lived in were closed. Many of these people have found their way to Skid Row (or were dumped there by law enforcement from outside the city). Was this sad act of cruelty the fault of the people now on Skid Row or the fault (and kamma) of those who made the intentional decision to put them on the street?

Many of the homeless are veterans of our numerous wars of economic opportunity, wars fought because fighting these wars made a very small percentage of the population vastly richer. The most vulnerable veterans have suffered moral, psychological, and physical harm due to their service and are often homeless. These veterans are on the street because the individuals in control of our society, who have reaped the most benefit from these wars, have chosen not to allocate the resources necessary to take care of them. So, who has reaped the worst kamma? The people with power and resources who have chosen not to act with compassion or the people whose lives have been made more difficult due to the actions of those in power?

I realize the situation is not quite a cut and dry as I make it out to be. Indifference and greed are not the only forces acting in America. The wealthy are constrained in their actions by social paths of least resistance which lead them to act greedier than they would act in a healthier society. But the more I think about kamma the less obvious it becomes to me who has good kamma. I no longer believe being rich is an indicator of good kamma. Modern research has shown wealth makes people greedier and less compassionate towards others, traits which will not lead themselves or others to the end of suffering. Often the most generous and compassionate people are those lower in the economic scale (http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=how-wealth-reduces-compassion).

Who has the greater good kamma: the man who I saw on Skid Row who gave our group such a kind and wonderful smile and said hello to us, a man who clearly even in the midst of great suffering found the ability to be good and kind, or is it the rich banker in one of the huge bank buildings just outside of Skid Row who has the power to help people but does not do so because doing so would require him to fight against the path of least resistance enforced by the bank’s “profit at ANY cost, as long as it is not OUR cost” culture?

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10 thoughts on “Whose Kamma Is It, Anyway? A Reflection on a Visit to Skid Row And The Importance of Compassion.

  1. tom nickel says:

    I appreciate your reflections on kamma on skid row a great deal, especially the dissection of the obvious and shallow linear tie between the tough life there and the getting-what-they-deserve mind-set. Kamma is definitely more like a non-linear system, as you say, and without romanticizing, skid row life has some aspects that make the rich and supposedly positive-kamma-endowed look like the losers. I hope this view can get a wider audience and influence more people. To do so,you will have to distill this message tighter and more briefly. Thanks, and keep up the great work.

  2. The discussion of visiting Skid Row reminded me of one of the reflection papers that I wrote in class last semester. Here is a citation from the paper.

    “Shakyamuni Buddha was an unemployed, homeless beggar, who lived to be over eighty in a healthy condition.” If someone described the Buddha as such, most people would laugh about the paradox. Nonetheless, if you seriously apply modern socioeconomic criteria to the Buddha’s life, few people would be able to deny these labels put on him.

    Could someone tell me what a clear difference between real Buddhists and homeless on Skid Row?

  3. buddhakaruna says:

    unprecedentedhumanrightsviolations, here is a take on your question from Thanissaro Bhikkhu:

    “It’s unlikely that the lion-hearted prince we know from the story would take to any of this well-meant advice. He’d see it as propaganda for a life of quiet desperation, asking him to be a traitor to his heart. But if he found no solace from these sources, where in our society would he go? Unlike the India of his time, we don’t have any well-established, socially accepted alternatives to being economically productive members of society. Even our contemplative religious orders are prized for their ability to provide bread, honey, and wine for the marketplace. So the prince would probably find no alternative but to join the drifters and dropouts, the radicals and revolutionaries, the subsistence hunters and survivalists consigned to the social fringe.”


  4. Anonymous says:

    Great article & take on the complex concept of “karma.”

  5. From a Mahayana perspective, it is difficult to separate individual karma from collective karma. “Countless are sentient beings. I vow to liberate them all.” This sentiment is echoed in the words of Liberation Theologian James Cone who wrote, “none of us are free until all of us are free.” Concepts of individual karma have been influenced by the sociocultural norms of the contexts in which they have arisen. In general, and not as a direct response to your particular article, I am deeply concerned about a concept of karma that victimizes a person by saying that his or her suffering is exhausting negative karma from previous lives. Direct experience sees things-as-it-is. In this life, one can see homeless individuals as created by causes and conditions (e.g. dualism, greed, anger, and ignorance) evident within this moment in space and time. I believe Engaged, or Humanistic, Buddhism calls people to act based on the gestalt of direct experience. The alternative is to justify inaction based on a theoretical view of causes and conditions outside of direct experience. This is the logical error known as post hoc ergo prompter hoc. In other words, the person is poor, therefore, according to karma, he or she did something earlier to deserve to be poor. Can we accept that? If we consider the alternative, that the person did nothing to deserve the situation he or she is in, then whose karma is it?. Is karma open to a Liberation Theology perspective? Can we assign varying levels of karma, as responsibility and accountability, based upon varying levels of agency. I am not a scholar of karma, but I propose that the asymmetrical distribution of power and resources and the concomitant creation of scarcity traces the lines of karma. These lines terminate in the homeless, but traced back to their sources, they originate in the 1% who were looking down on us as we walked around Skid Row. With respect, love, and gratitude for your thought-provoking article, witness, and testimony, both of our experiences in Skid Row and of your experiences on the Reservation. – RMM.

  6. Anonymous says:

    Wow! It is very nice article! Thanks buddy.

  7. buddhakaruna says:

    You are very welcome!

  8. buddhakaruna says:

    aconsideredmoment, I like what you have to say especially your discussion of agency and the asymmetrical distribution of power. I think that is a very clear way of understanding the issues of responsibility and intent. I feel sometimes as if the privileged in this society (and in today’s America, most, like past nobility, are born into their wealth) are like children in a candy store without anybody to restrain them from eating candy until they get sick. Unfortunately, the sicker they get, the sicker the rest of us get. If that is because of kamma, then kamma sucks, doesn’t it?

  9. […] frightened of homeless men, to a Thai monk from Florida reminded of the brahmaviharas, to a white American man reflecting on collective and individual kamma.  So far the dozen Skid Row posts […]

  10. […] Whose Kamma Is It, Anyway? A Reflection on a Visit to Skid Row (dharmadialogue.wordpress.com) […]

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