A Parallel Between Collective and Individual Karma
What is collective karma?
We’re collectively creating the world we live in through our actions. The environment where a person is born, his family and friends are essentially all decided by karma. Furthermore, the actions taken by one generation of the individuals of a given country will have effects on later generations. However, all effects of actions are not karmic effects. Karmic effects impinge only on the mindstreams of those individuals who perform the actions.
”Individuals should be responsible for the deeds formerly done by this so-called ‘same’ people. In reality, however, this present people may not consist at all of the karmic heirs of the same individuals who did these bad deeds.
It is of course quite true that any individual who suffers bodily, suffers for his past or present bad deeds. Hence, each of those individuals born within that suffering nation, must, if actually suffering bodily, have done evil somewhere, here or in one of the countless spheres of existence; but he may not have had anything to do with the bad deeds of the so-called nation.
We might say that through his negative karma he was attracted to the miserable condition befitting to him. In short, the term karma applies, in each instance, only to unwholesome and wholesome volitional activity of the single individual.” – Nyanatiloka Mahathera
It is commonly explained that the collective karma of all the beings on this planet is responsible for the general traits and characteristics of this planet and the elements that make it up. When Lati Rinpoche was asked about collective karma, he said:
”Collective karma just applies to group decisions and group actions, such as the decision to go to war. But it should not be understood as applying to individuals.
For example, it is not the case that a Tibetan in this life was a Tibetan in a previous life or will be a Tibetan in the future. That is not how group karma works at all. The way it works is that if a group of people decide to agree with each other and live together in harmony, then they will experience happiness. But if they decide to be in conflict with each other, then they will experience the hardships of conflict.
For instance, Toronto is a very beautiful city that has so many beautiful parks and wonderful hospitals and is very peaceful with very little crime. That is because the citizens of Toronto have decided collectively to be civilized people. They have made an effort in that direction. And it is because of what they have done as individuals in their past lives that the individual citizens of Toronto are so fortunate as to be able to live here.”
Collective karma example
Catastrophic events, such as the tsunami that devastated Sumatra in 2004, the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami in Japan in 2011, or the hurricanes that changed the East Coast and the Gulf Coast forever, cause our gut to engage with compassion with the despair and sadness of those who suffered.
If we don’t ground the energy into the earth, it will go out to the situation and engage with others who are also feeling the same despair and sadness. Therefore, it becomes a collective experience of sorrow and suffering, one that is repeated in the same way that individual karma cycles through life times.
What is individual karma?
“Karma” literally means “deed” or “action” in the Sanskrit language of India. It is the law of cause and effect. The Law of Karma applies to everything in the manifested Universe. This is the way the Universe maintains its balance, harmony, and equilibrium.
Individual karma refers to a specific place and time and the circumstances and views that are unique to you and no one else. The time can be present, past, or future. It is precisely what you did in the past that has brought you to your present circumstances. The place can apply to your immediate environment, the human world, or that which is common to all sentient beings.
What can we do?
You can easily change your individual karma by taking charge of your life and being more practical and living a healthier lifestyle.
The collective karma, however, is more difficult to modify as it involves more complex forces and people.
To purify our past negative karma, we need to rely on the 4 Rs: regret, reliance, remedy and restraint. If we actually apply these 4 powers in our life: genuine regret over our past harmful mistakes, rely on altruistic motivation, apply an appropriate remedy (such as,meditation on love, practice of charity, chanting of mantra or sutra, practice non-violence etc.), and restrain ourselves from the same mistaken behaviour in the future, we will no longer feel the slightest trace of suffering.