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Karma At The Rubin

This fall The Rubin Museum of Art is educating patrons about karma though a series of discussions and films. It's a flashy buzzword these days, but its intricacies are ancient and complicated. The series is cleverly structured to help the audience navigate what can be complex material.

Talks are conversations between an expert and an interesting—often famous— second participant. However, not all the experts are experts in karma, or the actions that affect our conditions. For example, the series featured talks with film makers Noah Hutton and Jonathan Demme. Coming up is playwright David Hare paired with novelist Michael Cunningham (11/4). Still, there’s ample opportunity to learn about karma from Buddhist scholars and teachers including Sharon Salzberg, George Dryfus, and Elizabeth Mattis Namgyel.

YogaCity NYC’s Megan Mook caught up with Tim McHenry, Director of Programs and Engagement at The Rubin, to find out more about both the complexities of karma and The Rubin’s broader mission.

Megan Mook: Why karma? Does this stem from a personal interest, or you did feel there was something in the air?

Tim McHenry: Oh, there’s definitely something in the air! The responsibility we share to bring about collective change is pressing, especially concerning the environment. With the Paris meeting at the end of November, there's an increased awareness in the environment just now. It’s possible to link this awareness to something particularly prevalent in Buddhist culture, which is karma. The Rubin’s role is to speak about what’s relevant today, specifically issues that affect us all, and then help to uncover the principles behind the theory.

MM: In the description on The Rubin’s website, it says that many cultures equate karma with destiny. Can you explain?

TM: In Indian precepts, there’s often a hierarchy of karma, specifically surrounding social position. Karma has a way to keep people boxed in, without ever escaping their social position. The Buddha blew that idea out of the water. People who don’t understand karma think of it as a dividing process and not a way to improve your position or that of others. Karma is not linear. It’s not that by virtue of your actions you reach a reward at the end. Our actions are more like a stone dropped in water—the ripples extend out in 360 degrees. In fact, energy is dispersed up and down as well. You’ll never understand the links of karma, which is ultimately a form of suffering. The only way out is to come to a non-attached understanding of how things are connected and thereby to help free yourself. It’s complicated to explain, therefore we’re trying to tie it to specific examples throughout the series.

MM: Where does your understanding of karma come from?

TM: Largely from Traleg Rinpoche’s book on karma. It’s a summation and exploration of karma, tracing how it developed through various societies, as well as the various misinterpretations of karma within the 21st century. This book is like my mini-Bible on karma! My understanding has also been refined through the series. We are constantly learning and readjusting because our perceptions are constantly shifting.

MM: Speak to the difference between karma in the Buddhist and Hindu traditions?

TM: In Buddhism the emphasis is inter-connection, instead of seeing karma as a form of punishment for past actions. It’s not linear, which is counter-intuitive. It’s akin to the full alignment of existence, which we can explore through meditation using the practice of yoga as a prelude. On September 24, Eddie Stern of Ashtanga Yoga New York spoke with Chris Martin, of Coldplay. Eddie is a Sanskrit scholar who translated karma into 21st century terms. This was really helpful. Chris is an agent of bringing people together, although he said that he feels passive on stage. The music flows through him; he doesn’t create it, he’s just open to it. He’s a transmitter. When you’re in the flow, music has the ability to speak to all parts of your brain at the same time. It bypasses analysis. Sound gets people to feel bonded, and when we’re bonded over an issue, it can be very powerful—with large numbers of people comes change, through voting for example. People can bond and reach change through music. Really, all of these wisdom practices are about enhancing our awareness. They are pathways to the divine.

MM: Why did you chose to structure the series as conversations?

TM: It’s a conversational exchange between someone who know a lot about something and someone else who is curious, or who knows a lot about something else. This creates a transmission of sorts within which there’re these “Aha” moments on stage that hopefully transfer to the audience in the theatre. As the conversation unfolds, there’s a series of mini-enlightenments, so to speak. This format is as old as the hills—it’s simply dialogue. And through dialogue, comes synthesis.

Karma: Cause, Effect and the Illusion of Fate runs at The Rubin through 12/30.

Tickets: $20/$18 (members)

The talks commonly sell out, so be sure to get your ticket in advance.

For a list of upcoming speakers, click here.

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