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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

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