Karma and the bus: Grey’s Anatomy

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SPOILER ALERT: If you have not seen the first two episodes in Season 6 (the current season), don’t read any more.

What happened to George made me think about karma. And that led, in turn, to some thinking about no-self.

One way of understanding karma is to see it in terms of cause and effect. The sutras often say we plant a seed (cause), and the kind of fruit (effect) we get depends wholly on that seed. So then you naturally ask, “What did I ever do to deserve this?”

What did George ever do to deserve being hit by a bus?

Well, the simple answer is: He walked in front of the bus.

I’m not joking. Seriously, that is cause and effect. Now, if you don’t watch Grey’s Anatomy, you don’t know George. George was one of the sweetest people you could ever hope to meet. He had a lot of friends — most of them women. (He wasn’t really close with guys.) He was never mean or cruel. As a doctor, he was super-sensitive.

You have to ask why a guy like that would get killed in a brutal, painful way — and at a young age. How can that be right?

Karma isn’t about right or wrong. Some people would say George must have done something really awful in a past life — that would explain why he had this painful death. That view assumes that death is a bad thing for the person who dies. But if you watched the season opener of Grey’s Anatomy, you know who’s really suffering — his friends, and his mom. They are all suffering a lot. But George — he’s gone. Do you think the dead suffer?

Now, being hit by the bus would be horribly painful. Pain is suffering. And for the short time George lived after he was struck by the bus, he probably felt a lot of physical and emotional pain. The direct “seed” of all that pain is the bus. And why did George step in front of a moving bus? To save a life. Someone else’s life.

What kind of cruel universe rewards a hero — someone who saves a life — with horrible pain and anguish? Stop. The universe isn’t cruel. It isn’t good, either. The universe simply is. A common word used in English-language texts about Buddhism is suchness. It is as it is. Just that.

George’s intention was to save the woman who stepped into the path of the bus. It was a good intention. And that seed bore very good fruit — the woman’s life was saved. All her friends and family were spared the terrible suffering that George’s friends and family are experiencing now. George’s intention bore wonderful fruit.

What if George had simply been walking down the sidewalk and been killed by a bus that ran off the road? Then there would have been no intention on George’s part. Yet his friends and family would suffer just the same.

I think when people die, the greater suffering occurs among those who miss them. What George’s friends at Seattle Grace are experiencing is their loss of their friend, and it’s affecting each one of them in an individual way.

This is where I started thinking about self and no-self. All the bits and pieces of George’s life up to that moment had made him into a person who would save someone else’s life at the cost of his own. And each one of us is also a conglomeration of bits and pieces. We have not deliberately chosen each bit or each piece — they come from all over, starting at the moment we are conceived.

But no-self acknowledges that we can unwind or unravel those bits and pieces. We can reconstruct ourselves (with time, with Right Effort). That’s why karma is not destiny. In the Diamond Sutra, the Buddha says you could wipe out all your previous bad karma if you practiced with diligence and attained the perfection of wisdom.

If you could unwind George’s life and examine it, you would see how his impulse to save the woman from the bus fitted perfectly with his whole persona. Whether it was the best use of his talents or his potential — well, that’s not how cause-and-effect works. If you make a decision that yields immediate fruit, then you forfeit the future. If you plant a seed that’s going to take 20 years to bear fruit, maybe you will not be around to harvest that fruit.

In other words, karma can be viewed as a system, just as the whole universe is a system. Everything is interconnected and linked. Each of us influences other people, and other people influence us. But we’re not just leaves blowing in the wind.

We do make decisions. We are able to choose.

Breathe.

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