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His Holiness the Dalai Lama has said that he promotes the non-violent, non-aggressive approach to the Chinese occupation of Tibet, despite the fact that things thing are getting much worse. He takes this approach because he sees that violence is bound to create long-term resentment in others. This is basic intelligence shining through. Basic intelligence recognizes that the resentment caused by a violent response, by a score-settling action, will be the source of future conflict.

We can use our intelligence to exploit other people’s capacity to get hooked. Look at advertisements. The advertisers have figured us out a bit. They know how to get us hooked so that we buy something. If you wanted to be really smart and conniving, you could exploiting your adversaries’ propensity to settle the score. You could encourage them to start retaliating all over the place, so that they will have more and more enemies. You could cause people to hate them more and more. Human beings can be this clever, learning to exploit our propensity to settle the score in order to try to settle the score. There are people doing this, but where does it get us?

We could use that same intelligence to figure out for ourselves that retaliation or aggression gives birth to aggression and that if we really want peace, happiness, and harmony to be the result, there has to be some other way of settling the score than retaliation. That’s what Martin Luther King Jr. said in his acceptance speech for the Nobel Peace Prize. We have to find a way to overcome oppression and violence without resorting to oppression and violence. As you know, he was passionate about this idea and charismatic enough to get a lot of people on board with it. Gandhi, of course, is an example of the same idea of settling the score at a more fundamental level. I use famous examples, but there are women and men, unsung heroes and heroines, all over the world who are working this way to help alleviate suffering. These are people I love and respect and they are my role models for the Buddhist version of settling the score.

Repaying our karmic debt

Buddhist score-settling doesn’t really have to be Buddhist per se, but since the notion of karma figures in, it sounds pretty Buddhist. I offer it to you not because I feel you need to buy it as the best and only way. I offer it to you as an alternative that some have tried with some success. The Buddha’s approach to settling the score actually settles the score, because both sides are closer to each other rather than more split apart. They are closer to their true nature, their interdependence.

When something happens to us that we find really painful—an insult, a physical ailment, the loss of someone we love dearly—the Buddhist teachings train us to understand that we have just been given an opportunity to repay a karmic debt. It’s a way of talking about settling the score. This is the perspective that the Dalai Lama comes from, and I would say that it is also the perspective that Martin Luther King Jr. came from too. Many other people who don’t call themselves Buddhist but who believe in non-violent communication and finding a solution to oppression that doesn’t itself oppress also see things this way.

A very painful turn of events gives us an opportunity to pay a karmic debt. Of course, there is a belief system involved in this understanding, and I acknowledge that belief systems usually cause lots of problems. They polarize people. The belief system of karma could indeed polarize as well, if we used it to get into battles with people who didn’t believe in it. The point of this system, though, is that it works.

The karmic understanding need not be religious nor an occasion for guilt. In fact, it can allow us to act without being guilt-ridden. Anything I cause someone else to feel, either pleasant or unpleasant, resulting from my words, actions, and activities, I myself will feel sooner or later. What goes around comes around. It doesn’t necessarily mean that it comes back in the same form, but somehow anything I’ve caused someone to feel, I will feel at some point in the future. This system applies to good feelings as well, but my focus here is on the karmic repercussions that cause us to try to settle the score.

Therefore, when something unpleasant happens to me, I know it is a debt coming back. I have no idea what I did, so it’s not something I have to feel guilty about. I don’t have to know the origin of my toothache or of someone slandering me or injuring me. I have no need to go into the history of how I got here. I just say, “I am feeling this.” At this point, I have a chance for the buck to stop here. This stimulus does not need to be the cause of evening the score in the usual pain-causing way.

Instead, at this point you could apply a meditation method that would circumvent the habitual score settling. Whatever practice you use, the point is to stay with the underlying uneasiness and lean into it. Connect with the natural openness of your mind. You can feel at that point that “this debt has just been paid.” At that point, there isn’t going to be any further debt to somebody else or to yourself, no further repercussions from this exchange except further awakening, further connecting with the natural openness and intelligence of mind, further connecting with warmth and loving-kindness toward yourself, further connecting with compassion and love for other beings. Those are the kind of results that our uncomfortable situations could give birth to. That’s a notion of settling the score that is much different from the habitual approach that gives birth to terror and war.

I offer an example from my own life of karmic debt, not because it is in any way special but because it helps to illustrate how intimate our experience of pain is, and how it becomes our teacher. After all, it is our own pain, the many gifts of shenpa that our lives offer, that give us the opportunity to settle the score in the way the Buddha understood. I left my first husband in a very unkind way. I left with the children and went off with another man. It was really sudden and shocking for him, pretty brutal. I was about twenty-five years old and really unconscious about the effect this was having on him, my family, my children, and an array of other people. Ultimately, it was the right decision, but the way I went about it was pretty childish.

Then, guess what? Eight years later my second husband left me suddenly, in a scenario that was eerily, awesomely similar. At that point, I knew I was experiencing what I put my first husband through. The first thing I did was to get together with him and say, “I’ve said I’m sorry before, but now I really am sorry, because I am now feeling what you felt.”

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