I am not an expert on Buddhist theory. I took a few classes in college, things like "Tibetan Buddhist Psychology," and "Zen 101." OK, OK, so I majored in religious studies. With a second major in Psychology. But let's not forget that I graduated over 20 years ago, so I've forgotten most of what I learned. (Yikes I feel old). But one thing that stuck with me from Buddhism 101 was the theory of Karma.
It is a more complicated theory than the following (my more knowlegeable Buddhist readers will probably cringe at my explanation), but in layman's terms, the idea is that we live our lives and we die and then we are reborn into this world in a continuing cycle unless / until we are able to attain the state of Enlightenment or "Nirvana," and escape from the cycle of life on Earth.
Additionally, every volitional action ("Karma") we do while we live our lives causes a good or bad effect, reaction, or "shadow" known as "Vipaka" (like good energy or bad energy) in the universe and, once created, this good or bad energy has to be used up before you can achieve the state of Nirvana and escape from the cycle of life on Earth. Or something like that.
I probably mangled it, but that's what I remember reading in my text book. Also there was a lot of stuff about how, as with Christianity and Islam and Hinduism and any other religion you can think of, there are lots of variations on the basic theme and different levels of understanding -- and also that there is much more to Buddhist theory than just Karma and Vipaka.
This "layman's theory" actually explains a lot that Christianity leaves unexplained, though, if you think about it. For example, a real "sticking point" that requires a lot of faith to overcome for a lot of Christians, is the question "How can God be considered good, all-knowing, and all-powerful, and still allow good things to happen to bad people and extremely bad things to happen to good people?" Well, the Karma theory explains this apparent unfairness in life quite well:
If you are a good person in this life, but horrible things are continually happening to you, you are simply using up your "bad energy" or the "bad effects" of your "bad Karma" that you manifested either earlier in this life or possibly in a prior lifetime. This is a good thing, because it will (potentially) allow you to reach the state of Enlightenment.
If you are a bad person in this life, but good things happen to you, it is simply due to the good actions that you engaged in previously, in a prior life. Since you are doing all those bad things now, you are creating bad energy and eventually, in this lifetime or some other one, you will "get what's coming to you."
Also, if you do something bad and immediately experience something bad, you should be glad you are using up that bad energy right away. If you do something good, and then something terrible happens to you, you get to be glad that you are using up that old bad energy, and rest assured that sometime, in this life or a future one, you will get something good that you don't seem to "deserve."
The theory has been popularly interpreted as "what goes around comes around" (either in this lifetime or in another) and is somewhat similar to the Christian idea that "as we sow, so shall we reap." This is a very simplistic explanation of Karma theory, but sufficient for my purposes today.
For parents, here is what this means:
Suppose you are at the park with your little angels and you see some other child (you'd be tempted to say "brat" but be careful...) throwing a total hissy fit over something stupid. For example, his mom said he could not have a lollipop while he climbs on the monkey bars, and he immediately starts jumping up and down screaming "MOMMY I WANT THE LOLLIPOP!!" and then when she says no again he flings himself on the ground flailing his arms and screaming at the top of his lungs, "I WANT IT I WANT IT I WANT IT I WANT IT I WANT IT I WANT IT...... NOOOO FAIIRRRR!!!!! YOU'RE THE WORST MOMMY EVER AND I HATE YOU!!!!! WAAAAAH AHHHHHHHHHH WAAAHHH...." .....you get the idea... you are shocked -- appalled, even -- that any child would act that way in public, and secretly smirking because your kids are playing nicely on the other side of the playground...
BUT YOU MUST NOT... I repeat, because this is important ... ABSOLUTELY DO NOT turn to your friend / relative / neighbor / fellow bench warming parent and say something like, "Wow, I would never put up with that from my kids." This judgmental (bad) action, undertaken with an attitude of superiority (i.e., engaging in bad Karma) will immediately create that bad Vipaka which will come back to bite you in the butt -- and probably sooner rather than later -- so that soon (possibly sooner than you can imagine) you will be the horrified and embarassed person standing near a screaming, flailing, bratty kid who you are trying really hard to pretend is not yours while at the same time trying really hard to usher him out of the park / restaurant / store / museum and to your car.
One more thing:
If you fail to heed my advice, then, when the inevitable happens, just remember to be thankful that you are using up that bad energy right away so that, with proper Buddhist training, you can learn to stop engaging in volitional actions (Karma) and creating bad energy (Vipaka), so that you can achieve Enlightenment or "Nirvana" and escape the cycle of suffering that we call life here on Earth.
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The fine print (because I'm a lawyer, that's why):
I do hope that if you are a Buddhist you have not been offended, either by my probably inadequate explanation or by my use of the Karma theory to illustrate a common parenting mistake. Although I am not a practicing Buddhist, I do often find myself thinking of Karma theory and how it might apply in my own life, and trying to correct my own impulse for bad Karma. I also hope that if you are a Christian, you have not been offended by my probably inadequate phrasing of the fundamental question of God's goodness as that relates to suffering in this world. Although I do not attend Christian churches often, I do often find myself thinking of Christian teachings and how they might apply in my own life, and trying to correct my own impulse toward "sin." I am not very good at any of this.
If you are an athiest, well, I hope you had a good laugh and I assume you are not offended at all.
In summary, no offense to any religion, philosophy, or world view was intended, and I hope none was taken.