Oct 202014

LC1bI first became interested in poetry around 3rd or 4th grade after I read e.e. cummings’ poem “in-just spring,” and I used to borrow books of poetry from the school and city libraries, but I didn’t actually own a book of poetry until years later. It was Selected Poems 1956–1968 by Leonard Cohen. I still have that book. If you were to open it, you’d find an inscription: “To David on his 17th birthday, Love Dad.”

That was a long time ago, and the book, its author, my dad, and I are all still around.

Not only that but the legendary Canadian singer-songwriter has a new live album titled Leonard Cohen – Live in Dublin set for release in December. The video from the album premiered on Oct. 16. It’s called “Come Healing” and it’s from his critically acclaimed 2012 studio album Old Ideas.

Now, as you probably know, in addition to being a poet and songwriter, Cohen is also a Buddhist. In fact, he ordained as a Zen Buddhist monk in 1996 at the Mount Baldy Zen Center here in Southern California where he also spent several years on retreat.

Any influence that Buddhism has exerted on Cohen’s songwriting seems to be in between the lines of his lyrics. Like Bob Dylan, Cohen is Jewish, and yet both infuse their songs with Biblical imagery. In “Come Healing,”: ” The splinters that you carry/The cross you left behind” and “And let the heavens hear it/The penitential hymn.” The song is quintessential Cohen, dealing with reparation and devastation, desire and betrayal, faith and loss, and absolute love – reoccurring themes for the man someone once dubbed “the high priest of pathos.”

Yes, Leonard Cohen is still around, these days sporting a fedora that makes him look a bit like a latter-day Philip Marlowe, Private Rabbi, prowling the mean streets of the City of Lost Angels. According to Rolling Stone, he told the crowd toward the beginning of his one of his Dublin sets, “I’m not quite ready to hang up my boxing gloves just yet. I don’t know when we’ll meet again, but tonight we’ll give you everything we’ve got.”

Come watch Leonard Cohen drop to his knees to “Come healing of the body/Come healing of the mind.” Full lyrics after the video.

Come Healing

O gather up the brokenness
And bring it to me now
The fragrance of those promises
You never dared to vow

The splinters that you carry
The cross you left behind
Come healing of the body
Come healing of the mind

And let the heavens hear it
The penitential hymn
Come healing of the spirit
Come healing of the limb

Behold the gates of mercy
In arbitrary space
And none of us deserving
The cruelty or the grace

O solitude of longing
Where love has been confined
Come healing of the body
Come healing of the mind

O see the darkness yielding
That tore the light apart
Come healing of the reason
Come healing of the heart

O troubled dust concealing
An undivided love
The Heart beneath is teaching
To the broken Heart above

O let the heavens falter
And let the earth proclaim:
Come healing of the Altar
Come healing of the Name

O longing of the branches
To lift the little bud
O longing of the arteries
To purify the blood

And let the heavens hear it
The penitential hymn
Come healing of the spirit
Come healing of the limb

O let the heavens hear it…

Oct 172014

As many of you know, Dogen was a 13th Century Japanese Buddhist, the founder of Soto Zen. I am not a Zen Buddhist, yet I am. Just like I am a Tibetan Buddhist, but then I’m not.  But you don’t have to Zen to be familiar with his Shobogenzo, “Treasury of the Eye of the True Dharma”, a collection of ninety-five essays on the dharma. Lessen known, outside of the Zen tradition, is the Shinji Shobogenzo, essentially a collection of 300 koans. A koan can be a story, dialogue, question, or statement, they are often paradoxical, and often an object of meditation.

chinese-bamboo1dOne koan goes like this:

A student once asked the Zen master Tsui Wei, “What is the essence of Buddha-dharma.” They happened to be in the lecture hall where there were other monks around. Tsui Wei said, “I’ll tell you later on, when there is no one is around.”

In the afternoon, when the two were finally alone, Tsui Wei, “Now that we are by ourselves, I can tell you the essence of Buddha-dharma.” Tsui Wei took the student outside and pointed at the bamboo growing in the garden. “See?” said Tsui Wei. “Here is a tall bamboo. And over there, a short one.”

In his essay Yui Butsu Yo Butsu, “On ‘Each Buddha on His Own, Together with All Buddhas’,” Dogen wrote,

Buddha-dharma cannot be known by ordinary people. This is why since ancient times no ordinary person has realized Buddha-dharma . . . Because Buddha realized awakening all by himself, he said that each Buddha on his own, together with all Buddhas, has been able to fully realize It.

When you realize awakening, you do not think “This is awakening just as I expected.” Even if you think it is, awakening always differs from your expectation. Awakening is not like your conception of it. Therefore, you cannot realize awakening as you previously conceived. In Buddha-dharma you do not know how awakening has come as it has. This is something to reflect upon: What you think one way or another before your realization of awakening is not an aid to realization.

Now, I am sure you understand the story about the bamboo.

Oct 152014

In Monday’s post I mentioned the wonderful Malala Yousafzai who last week became the youngest person (17) ever awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace, but have you heard of the “Alternative Nobel”? This is also known as the Right Livelihood Award, established by a Swedish charity and presented annually in the Swedish Parliament.

On September 24, the 2014 awardees of the Right Livelihood Award were announced and they are NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden and Guardian editor-in-chief Alan Rusbridger (The Guardian is a British national daily newspaper founded in 1821).

Snowden is being recognized for “courage and skill in revealing the unprecedented extent of state surveillance violating basic democratic processes and constitutional rights” and Rusbridger for his role in “building a global media organisation dedicated to responsible journalism in the public interest, undaunted by the challenges of exposing corporate and government malpractices.”

Earlier in September, the 1995 recipient of this award, Buddhist activist and social critic Sulak Sivaraksa spoke at the University of Wisconsin in commemoration of 9/11. The eighty-one year old delivered what was described as a “fiery lecture.” He cited the need to create new economic systems as a path to peace, and discussed the individualism of Western economic systems in contradistinction to the more collective Buddhist philosophy:

The capitalist myth of individual emancipation is not equal to the we. The community is made of the individual and the people around the person. Only through realizing the suffering of others can peace arrive . . .”

According to The Progressive, he also expressed his hope that young Americans will less hesitant to question the lifestyles of their elders than past generations:

Young people will save the world from the American empire and make it into an American republic with a small r.”

I must admit that I am not wild about first part of that sentence.  “Empire” sounds so evil, but I suppose someone needs to be saved from us, probably us most of all. That aside, I very much like the idea of a republic with a “small r.”

Sulak Sivaraksa likes small letters. So do I. Lower case is cool.* I have written about Sivaraksa several times. Included in those posts are his thoughts about Buddhism with a small b. He says,

Buddhism with a small “b” means concentrating on the message of the Buddha and paying less attention to myth, culture, and ceremony.

I think having a small “r” republic is much the same thing.  The question, however, is what is meant by message. Many people seem to think that Republic means patriotism, flag-waving, parade-holding, adopting a sort of us or them mentality, nationalism.  All that is message, all right, but it is usually of little real substance.  What I think Sivaraksa means is something less symbolic and more significant, more liberating.  In a republic with a small “r” patriotism is not as important as people and upholding the principle that the supreme power rests with the people and that all people in the republic are equal.

The people in Sivaraksa’s country of Thailand do not have much power at the present time.  It is a country going through a great deal of unrest. The current issue of National Geographic has an article from New York Times ‘ Asia correspondent Seth Mydans that explores the roots of the situation, “Thailand in Crisis.” Accompanying the article are photographs by James Nachtwey and I thought there was one in particular you might enjoy seeing:

13-robot-aide-buddhist-monk-670The caption reads, “Icons of different eras meet as Dinsow, a robotic home health aide, attends to a Buddhist monk. Not all changes sweeping Thailand are so benign.”

* Re: small letters – see this

Oct 132014

The other day while rummaging around in a closet, I ran across an old book I have on Mahatma Gandhi and since I hadn’t seen it for some time, I began thumbing through the pages and almost immediately hit upon this, which is so beautifully said, that I just have to share it with you:

Woman is the incarnation of ahimsa. Ahimsa means infinite love, which again means infinite capacity for suffering. Who but woman, the mother of man, shows this capacity in the largest measure? She shows it as she carries the infant and feeds it during nine months and derives joy in the suffering involved. What can beat the suffering caused by the pangs of labour? But she forgets them in the joy of creation.

Who, again, suffers daily so that her babe may wax from day to day? Let her transfer that love to the whole of humanity, let her forget that she ever was or can be the object of man’s lust. And she will occupy her proud position by the side of man as his mother, maker and silent leader. It is given to her to teach the art of peace to the warring world thirsting for that nectar.”

M.K. Gandhi*

Ahimsa (Sanskrit: “not to injure”) means non-violence. Another way to put it is “do no harm.” It is an important principle in all the major Indian religions, and in fact, the phrase “do no harm” is often used for the Buddha’s first precept.

Historically, Buddhism has demonstrated some extremely misogynistic tendencies and even today there remain issues in a few Buddhist schools regarding gender equality. Yet, Buddhism has also a tradition of revering women as uniquely awakened beings. In Prajna-Paramita literature, Buddhas are not born from Nirvana but from the practice of Prajna-Paramita, Transcendent Wisdom. Consequently, Transcendent Wisdom is the mother of all Buddhas, and naturally when contemplated in this way, visualized as feminine.

Likewise, compassion, or in Gandhi’s words “infinite love,” is often represented as Kuan Yin, the goddess of compassion. And we have the famous words attributed to the Buddha,

Even as a mother protects with her life
Her child, her only child,
So with a boundless heart
Should one cherish all living beings;
Radiating kindness over the entire world.

 We can all be inspired by this year’s co-recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize, Malala Yousafzai, the young campaigner for women’s rights and education. After she was shot in the head by a Taliban gunman in 2012, she said,

Extremists have shown what frightens them most: a girl with a book.”

– – – – – – – – – –

* M.K. Gandhi, Women and Social Justice, Ahmedabad, Navjivan Publishing House, 1954, 26-27.

Oct 102014

Leo Tolstoy wrote in War and Peace, “’Greatness,’ it seems, excludes the standards of right and wrong. For the ‘great’ man nothing is wrong, there is no atrocity for which a ‘great’ man can be blamed.”

At several points in the novel, Tolsoy’s characters (and the narrator) proclaim the greatness of Napoleon Bonaparte, a man whose intentions were often noble but his actions regrettably ignoble. Napoleon’s ego and ambition led him to believe he was the greatest of the great, and therefore, excluded from those standards of right and wrong. Tolstoy, however, at the conclusion of the chapter from which the above quote is taken*, rejects the ethical exceptionalism of the great, stating, “There is no greatness where there is no simplicity, goodness and truth.”

Those three qualities would most certainly describe the “great” man whose birthday is tomorrow, October 11.

tnh-3bThey don’t call it a birthday at Plum Village in France where Thich Nhat Hanh lives and where he is currently in Autumn Retreat. It’s Continuation Day. As Thich Nhat Hanh continues, he will be 88 years old.

It seems somewhat inappropriate to praise a man whose path asks him to shun praise in favor of humility. This, of course, is what makes Thay (as he is affectionately known by his students) an exceptional teacher and role model, deeply grounded in the standards of right and wrong, an individual whose positive influence has been felt far beyond the tradition of Vietnamese Zen and the Way of Buddha-dharma. Whether you hear him speak in person, or watch him on a video, or merely read his words, his humility and sincerity shines through. It’s like Lao Tzu said, “When greatness is not shown, true greatness is revealed.

I like the idea of Continuation Days.  Continuation seems an excellent word, for as you know in Buddhism each individual is a continuum, beginningless and infinite, a continuum of consciousness, and actually, everything continues . . .

In the clip below, Thay talks about this using simple words and poetic imagery that allows for greater accessibility to a complex concept, and helps those who listen deeply and openly to think about death and continuation differently, in a way that transcends notions of literal rebirth or other such concepts.

“Some people might ask you, ‘When is your birthday?’ But you may ask yourself a more interesting question: ‘Before that day which was my birthday, where was I?’”

– – – – – – – – – –

* Book Fourteen: 1812 Chapter XVIII

Oct 082014

This is the final installment of my trilogy of posts about the Roosevelts and Buddhism. Although the connections are rather slight, I feel they are intriguing. As I wrote on Sept. 30, the primary link with Buddhism for Franklin and Eleanor was Tibet.

In 1923, Eleanor Roosevelt wrote an article titled “The Women of Tibet.” I have not been able to find the piece or gather much information about it. There is, though, a rather well known quote from the article that biographers take to be a subtle jab at husbands (hers in particular) and their “betrayals.”

It has been brought to my attention that the wives of Tibet have many husbands. This to me seems a good thing, since so many husbands have so many wives.”

eleanor-roosevelt2 It is true that Tibetan tradition allowed a man or woman several spouses (most Tibetan marriages are monogamous nowadays). I suspect though that this information, and nearly everything Eleanor knew about Tibet came to her second-hand, because as far as I can determine she did not ever visit there, although she went to India in 1952. Of course, she was no doubt very aware of the dispute between Tibet and China since that had been an issue FDR had to deal with early in his administration.

In the 1950s ER became an ardent supporter of the Tibetan struggle for freedom. She wrote about the Tibetan situation a number of times in her “My Day” syndicated newspaper column (published 6 days a week from 1935 to 1962, the year she died).

Earlier that decade she exerted influence that went beyond simply trying to mold public opinion. In a book on Theos Casimir Bernard, the self-proclaimed “White Lama,” Paul G. Hackett reports that “Acting along the line of one of the suggestions made by Eleanor Roosevelt years earlier, the CIA decided to train and arm Tibetan fighters from Kham (Eastern Tibet), who had already gained notoriety for their fighting against the Chinese.” Even though something she had said was the genesis of the plan, apparently ER was unaware of this action taken by the Eisenhower Administration.

In October 1959, the Dalai Lama’s brothers came to the United States to speak before the United Nations. ER met with one brother, Gyalo. She wrote about their meeting in her Oct. 16 column in which she also expressed these thoughts:

I am glad that the situation is being brought before the U.N. and I hope that the nations of the world will give help to these refugees and bring the weight of world opinion to bear on the entire situation. Only thus can peace come to Tibet and the traditional ruler returned in peace and be allowed to try to work out the problems of modernization and contact with the outer world, which now becomes necessary in spite of the remoteness of the people in that country.

It points up to us that there is no area of the world that is remote any more and that all of us are going to feel whatever happens, no matter how far away it is.

Five days later, on October 21, 1959 the UN passed a resolution calling “for respect for the fundamental human rights of the Tibetan people and for their distinctive cultural and religious life.” Eleanor Roosevelt urged the Chinese to appear before the UN to “justify [their] actions before a world body.”

Eleanor_Roosevelt_and_Human_Rights_Declaration2Well, some interesting tidbits about a very interesting woman . . .

What is most interesting, and remarkable, about her is that when people think of Eleanor Roosevelt, it is not just for her role as an exceptional and transformational First Lady, but also for her outstanding achievements in promoting universal human rights and peace. She was our country’s first delegate to the United Nations and chaired the committee that drafted The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, a document praised by many, also criticized by many, but which Roosevelt herself said “may well become the international Magna Carta of all men everywhere.”

“It isn’t enough to talk about peace. One must believe in it. And it isn’t enough to believe in it. One must work at it.”

Eleanor Roosevelt

Oct 062014

Discussing Buddhist conversion from a historical perspective in his book Unmasking Buddhism, renowned Buddhist scholar Bernard Faure writes,

It was not the expectation of Awakening that convinced Chinese, Tibetan, and Japanese leaders to convert to Buddhism but rather the protection that Buddhism appeared to offer them against evils of all kinds, both individual and collective (epidemics, invasions, etc.).”

This was also true of the common folk who took refuge in the Buddha’s dharma. Protection of both the state and the individual was a major appeal for Buddhism in earlier times, perhaps still today. Dhammo have rakkhati dhammacarim – “the dharma protects those who follow the dharma” is supposed to be a saying of the Buddha. The idea is that those who follow dharma cultivate goodness and this goodness will provide inner and outer protection, or from their practice of dharma they may receive protection from mystic forces.

The fears we must grapple with today are not different from the fears people have faced throughout history. A quick review of the news reveals what? Jihad, the Ebola epidemic, and something new but which has been long in the making: deadly climate change. It would be nice to think that if everyone just became good, it would all turn around and we’d be safe. Or that merely by practicing meditation or chanting a mantra we could invoke the protection from those mystic forces. You don’t need me to tell you that it doesn’t work like that.

Goodness manifests through thoughts, words, and deeds, but stems from feeling. I don’t mean emotion so much as I mean a sort of pervading awareness, a deep-seated state of consciousness that permeates our entire being. A good person feels goodness. Meditation and mantra are tools for developing a total feeling of goodness.

Meditation, ethics, and wisdom are three components of the Eightfold Path, which in turn is one of the four Noble Truths taught by the Buddha. Wisdom is known through meditation, calming and observing the mind, and is then displayed through ethical living rooted in compassion. My feeling is that the Buddha believed that whenever a crisis arose or a threat appeared, a person who had cultivated tranquility and ethics was equipped with a presence of mind that would deliver him or her to emotional, mental, and perhaps even physical safety.

Ultimately, the practical view of dharmic protection is that those who follow and most importantly practice the dharma are able to protect themselves from unwholesome thoughts, harmful speech, unwise actions, key factors in the spread of epidemics and war. Put another way, we protect ourselves from ourselves, and then because we have wisdom and compassion we know that we have to protect the human beings around us and our planet.

Oct 032014

Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia told an audience at Colorado Christian University Wednesday that the Constitution supports keeping God and religion in the public square.

“I think the main fight is to dissuade Americans from what the secularists are trying to persuade them to be true: that the separation of church and state means that the government cannot favor religion over non-religion,” he said.

Earlier this year, Scalia, the conservative Catholic jurist, joined the Supreme Court’s majority opinion in Town of Greece v. Galloway, which held that the town of Greece, New York, did not violate The First Amendment’s Establishment Clause by starting its town-board meetings with explicitly Christian prayers.

In her dissent, which could also be a rebuttal to the Scalia’s remarks at CCU, Justice Elena Kagan wrote that “when citizens go before the government, they go not as Christians or Muslims or Jews (or what have you), but just as Americans.” In other words, civic/governmental meetings like those of a town-board should be secular because the Establishment Clause erects a “wall of separation” between government and religion, even if it is a largely symbolic one.

There is a fundamental disagreement about what religious freedom means in the United States of America. Conservatives see as one of the main functions of the Constitution to protect freedom of religion but not also to protect freedom from religion. It seems to me they have forgotten that men and women fleeing religious persecution in Europe settled this country, and with that fresh in their minds, the framers of the Constitution wanted the United States to be a refuge for people of all religions, not a stronghold for just one religious view. The latter is the vision Scalia offers when he tells audiences we have to get back to “original orthodoxy.” First, you have the government choosing religion over non-religion, then choosing one religion over another.

I am probably preaching to the choir here, but sometimes I need to get stuff like this off my chest. Such is the therapeutic virtue to having a blog.

Sep 302014

I’ve finally finished watching The Roosevelts: An Intimate History, Ken Burn’s documentary on Theodore, Franklin, and Eleanor, three extraordinary individuals. It’s a long haul, fourteen hours, but I recommend this program. A comprehensive portrait of complex personalities who shaped history in ways still felt today.

In my Sept. 19 post, I wrote about the slight connection TR had with Buddhism, through a friend, William Sturgis Bigelow, who was Buddhist. FDR had a similar link. His Vice President, Henry Wallace, studied Buddhism, and was friends with a self-styled guru from Russia, Nicholas Roerich, who wrote a book on Tibetan Buddhist legends. Wallace at one point was involved with a woman, a relationship that evidently was “not physical but metaphysical – they were involved together in a quest to discover the true Buddha” or so Roosevelt was told.

FDR sent the Dalai Lama a signed photo like this one in 1942

FDR sent the Dalai Lama a signed photo like this one in 1942

But the primary Buddhist link for both FDR and Eleanor was Tibet. The country’s status was a delicate issue early in FDR’s administration. The Chinese had already laid claim to the Land of the Snows and Roosevelt had to tread lightly when dealing with the Tibetan government. In 1937, a cousin of Eleanor’s, Helen Cutting Wilmerding, wrote to him asking for a “signed photo” and a “letter of good will” on behalf of her brother, Charles Suydam Cutting, who planned to visit Tibet that summer. In 1930, Cutting was the first American to visit Tibet. He had traveled previously with Theodore Roosevelt to Ladakh and Sinkiang.

Wilmerding’s letter landed on the desk of Assistant Secretary of State Sumner Welles who vetoed the request. In a letter to Marguerite Alice “Missy” LeHand FDR’s private secretary (and mistress), Welles wrote, “Tibet is still technically under the suzerainty of China and consequently, gifts or a letter of good will from the President of the United States to officials of Tibet would be liable to be misconstrued in China.” Even then, the U.S. Government walked on eggshells around the Tibet issue for fear of upsetting the Chinese.

Eventually, FDR did send the Dalai Lama a personal letter.

Ilia A. Tolstoy was a Russian Count, the son of Leo Tolstoy, and a U.S. Army Colonel. He and a man named Brooke Dolan visited Tibet in December of 1942. They were on a mission for Roosevelt and the Office of Strategic Services (OSS, forerunner to the CIA). They wanted Tibet’s help in the war against Japan. The Allies wanted to set up a shipping route in the country for transporting goods Tibet to China.

Tolstoy and Dolan carried with them a letter from the President of the United States, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, age 60, to Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama of Tibet, age 7. It read:

Tenzin Gyatso

Tenzin Gyatso in 1944

Your Holiness:

Two of my fellow countrymen, Ilia Tolstoy and Brooke Dolan, hope to visit your Pontificate and the historic and widely famed city of Lhasa. There are in the United States of America many persons, among them myself, who, long and greatly interested in your land and people, would highly value such an opportunity.

As you know, the people of the United States, in association with those of twenty-seven other countries, are now engaged in a war which has been thrust upon the world by nations bent on conquest who are intent on destroying freedom of thought, of religion, and of action everywhere. The United Nations are fighting today in defense of and for preservation of freedom, confident that we shall be victorious because cause is just, our capacity is adequate, and our determination is unshakable.

I am asking Ilia Tolstoy and Brooke Dolan to convey to you a little gift in token of my friendly sentiment toward you.

With cordial greetings [etc.]

Franklin D. Roosevelt

The “little gift” was a gold Rolex watch. “At that time, my only interest (was) the gift of the watch, not the letter,” the Dalai Lama said 68 years later. In 2007, the watch was in his pocket when President George W. Bush presented him with the Congressional Gold Medal. The letter, however, had been lost. In 2010, he received a copy of it from President Barack Obama during a White House meeting.

In a future post, I’ll have some tidbits about Eleanor Roosevelt and her Tibetan connection.

– – – – – – – – – –


David M. Jordan, FDR, Dewey, and the Election of 1944, Indiana University Press, 2011

Franklin D. Roosevelt and Foreign Affairs: Vol. 5, April – June 1937, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Franklin D. Roosevelt Library (New York, N.Y.), Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1969

Melvyn C. Goldstein, A History of Modern Tibet, 1913-1951: The Demise of the Lamaist State, University of California Press, May 19, 1991

 Posted by at 11:02 pm
Sep 292014

Karma means “action.” Do our actions have consequences? Yes. Nagarjuna likened them to “debts.” Rather than take these debts to be some sort of payback or karmic retribution, I prefer to think of simply taking responsibility for our own actions.  Not that taking responsibility is all that simple.

It’s said that all karma is volitional. All human activity is volitional, a result of an individual’s own self-determination, and even when action is not determined by choice, but by external forces, one may choose a response that is not prevented by any outside forces or conditions. This is freedom of choice, free will.

We are always free in one way or another. We exert our free will by choosing our actions, our behavior. Volitional activity is always directed by will, determined by choice.

I was reading something on this subject by someone who evidently practices Buddhist meditation but may not be a Buddhist, and he maintains that free will is an illusion, that everything in the world is the result of past events, which is more or less the popular view of karma, and along with other causes and conditions, such as biology, there is no freedom.

From the Buddhist side I see some holes in this position. One is that this “illusion” would be created by the mind, which is thinking, and if karma is created by thought, words, and deeds, then thinking must on some level be a volitional process.  Secondly, if there is no freedom of action, then how do we even explain volition, one of the Five Skandhas, the components of human life? Thirdly, Buddhism teaches that we can control our minds, and I don’t believe that would be possible unless we maintained some degree of free will.

Maybe we are conning ourselves about freedom.  Maybe you can scientifically prove there is no free will.  Nonetheless, for me, the idea of everything per-determined is a tough sell.

As for karmic retribution, we should be less concerned with payback and focused more on paying it forward.

Nagarjuna says, “[The debt] is paid only through cultivation.” He’s talking specifically about meditation. However, in a broader sense, it means “to avoid negative actions, and do actions that are good, and to purify the mind” (the Buddha’s words). We pay forward by striving to improve ourselves and our choices, and helping others do the same.  Compassion is also paying it forward.

We are free to choose our actions, and we are free to decide how to react to the consequences of our actions. So, there is free will, but this is not absolute.  As living beings, our existence is dependent upon causes and conditions, but neither is determinism absolute.  The real Buddhist answer to all this is where is always is, in between absolutes, for that is The Middle Way.