Skip to main content

Karma and Family Heirlooms

In pre-industrial America, it was common for family heirlooms to be passed down from one generation to another. 

 A woman might wear her mother’s wedding dress to get married or a father might give his prized car to his son as a graduation present.

Other times, the heirloom might be less descript; a bookcase that Grandpa built when he was a child or a photo album that a favorite aunt maintained for years. These heirlooms served two purposes.

First, they were pragmatic. In pre-industrial America, items like furniture and clothing were hard to come by. A family’s dinner table was either purchased at great expense or it was built through many hours of hard labor. And just getting the fabric for new garments could take months in addition to the many hours spent cutting and stitching the fabric into a dress or pair of pants.

Gifting items like these to the next generation saved the recipient both time and money; allowing them to focus their energy on other tasks.

In addition, family heirlooms created a tangible legacy that could be passed from one family member to the next. When a young girl received her grandma’s hairbrush, she also received the stories and memories that went with it.

That physical object tied her to a people and place in history. Thus, as long as the hairbrush was with her, the girl’s grandma was with her too.

Post-industrial America changed all of that. As global trade routes became more efficient, artisans were replaced by machines. Products became cheap, and people became nomadic; traveling all over the country for school and work.

Once they settled in one place, young twenty-somethings realized buying a new coffee table was easier than transporting one from their childhood home. And fast-fashion made high-end clothing available to cost-conscious shoppers.

Sadly, grandma’s stitchery couldn’t compete with couture. Thus, family heirlooms and the legacies that went with them ended up in landfills.

I thought about this recently when I stumbled upon the property records of my home. I live in a farmhouse in the middle of nowhere. It was built in my great-grandfather’s time, and it possesses a rich history.

At one point, a thriving business was run out of its doors. The family lived upstairs and there was a store downstairs. After that, it was sold to a couple who grew corn behind the barn.

When they died, the house was sold to a young couple who were trying to rebuild their lives after the husband returned from the Korean war… and on it goes.

Four generations of people lived in this house before me. Each of them cared for it; nurturing and protecting the property so that I could have it one day. And I often wonder what they would think of the changes I’ve made to their home.

Would they like the new siding I put on the house? Would they approve of the garden beds and the greenhouse in the backyard? Would the rabbits make them laugh with their antics?

I also think about the people who will live on this land when I’m gone. What will they do with it once my bones have crumbled to dust?

In Buddhism, we’re taught that things come about as a result of karma. Chickens lay eggs because farmers give them food and shelter. Plants grow because gardeners water their seeds. And houses exist because people build and care for them.

Thus, everything in creation is an heirloom. An object passed down to us from previous generations through their karmic actions. As Buddhists, we nurture these objects; caring for them so they can benefit others when we’re gone.

We do this because we understand that the world exists today as a result of what happened yesterday. Through our actions, we plant the seeds that will blossom into tomorrow’s beauty, hope, and joy.

The era of the family heirloom may be ending, but karmic heirlooms are alive and well. And as I continue making improvements to this old house, I do so in the hope that I'll make life easier for the person who owns it after me.

Namu Amida Butsu

If you enjoyed this essay, you'll love my books!


Popular posts from this blog

Magic Mushrooms and the Buddha Dharma

You meet all kinds of people on the road.  Some of them are clearly running from something; a past trauma or an action they regret. Others are clearly looking for something; a tribe of like-minded people or a safe place to call home. This results in a strange mix of people ending up in strange places and sharing their lives for any where from a few weeks to a few months.   You part ways knowing that you'll never see each other again despite your endless promises to keep in touch.  But you always remember the people you meet on the road, and your life is usually better for having met them. Case in point, I met a guy named "Fred" when I was farming in Indiana who'd lived an insanely cool life.  He did corporate America for a while, and decided it wasn't for him.  So, he high-tailed it to Vietnam and taught English for several years before deciding that he wanted to become a shaman.  After that, he made his way to Brazil where he wandered fo

Sacred Robes

In less than a month, I'll be inducted as a Lay Minister in the Bright Dawn Center of Oneness Buddhism .  After the ceremony, I'll have a new Dharma name, and be authorized to use the title Sensei . I'll give Dharma talks, teach meditation, and assist in training the next group of Buddhist Lay Ministers who are working their way through the ranks. Depending on the day, my feelings about the ceremony alternate between awe and terror.  This is a very serious responsibility, and I don't know if I'm ready.  I stay up at night pondering questions like, "How should we teach Dharma in the West?"  and "Should Buddhist teachers be involved in politics?" In addition, there are many mundane tasks that need to be addressed.  For example, this past week I booked a pet hotel for my cat.  I bought a train ticket.  And I purchased a set of Buddhist robes. The robes are much heavier (both literally and figuratively) than I thought they'd b

Living a Holy Life

In the meditation hall, I have an altar dedicated to Amida Buddha and the bodhisattvas Kannon and Jizo.  It contains three statues, which bear their respective images along with candles and an incense burner.   The statues are of good quality, but they aren't that different from other figurines.  They're white, standing approximately six inches tall. I bought them on Amazon, and for most of the day, there's nothing special about them. That changes, however, when I perform my Buddhist liturgy.  Twice a day, I light the candles on my altar, I burn incense as an offering, and I bow to those ordinary, everyday statues. In that moment, they are transformed into celestial beings.  They become a source of comfort. They become spiritual guides.  They become holy and sacred in a way that other statues are not. This transformation occurs because each time I bow in front of my altar I shift my relationship to the statues.  I treat them as holy objects, so they become holy.  More than