- A Buddhist Carol
I will live in the Past, the Present, and the Future! The Spirits of all Three shall strive within me.—Scrooge on Christmas Day
To the Buddhas of the past, present and all future time . . . I will prostrate and bow.—Śāntidēva
Charles Dickens's A Christmas Carol is one of the greatest tales of human redemption known in the Western world. As a child I heard it read aloud every Christmas, and there was always a thrilling magic to rehearing the story of Scrooge's moving spiritual transformation. Yet, the story raises an important spiritual question: Scrooge is a new man on Christmas day, but what about after that? We often vow to be better people and fail. Why is this? A Christmas Carol is, of course, pure fantasy—a deeply heartwarming fantasy that bears repeated hearings—but it nonetheless does raise a real question about how spiritual enlightenment is actually achieved.
I still appreciate A Christmas Carol as much as I did when I was a child, but as I have grown older, and after having encountered Buddhist philosophy, I have also begun to contemplate the story of Scrooge's spiritual transformation in a new light. The Buddhist notion of karma entails that, even if we are deeply moved now to change our ways for the better, the unexamined patterns of thought that underpinned our past actions retain a latent force in our mind stream that can influence us unexpectedly. If we are not observant of these patterns of thought, we are likely to repeat the kinds of actions we have performed in the past. Because the force of karma can be very strong, "overnight" spiritual and moral transformations are comparatively rare. On a Buddhist reading, the end of A Christmas Carol is where the spiritual journey for Scrooge actually begins.
This underestimation of the force of karma on Dickens's part was, of course, a necessary case of artistic license, but is somewhat conspicuous given that a realization of the law of karma plays a critical (albeit unnamed) role in the story of Scrooge's putative enlightenment. Scrooge's transformation begins with a visit from the ghost [End Page 25] of his deceased business partner, Jacob Marley, a man who was as miserly and selfish as Scrooge himself. Marley's ghost is weighed down by a heavy chain, which represents his regret for having lived such a greedy and shortsighted life. "I wear the chain I forged in life. I made it link by link, yard by yard: I girded it on my own free will, and of my own free will I wore it."1 He warns that Scrooge will be visited by three spirits whose lessons he must heed in order to redeem himself. "Without their visits," Marley declares, "you cannot hope to shun the path I tread."2 Upon Marley's departure we are then treated to a Dickensian image of the Buddhist "lower realms." Scrooge looks out the window into the cold night air and sees a swarm of unfortunate ghostly forms, suffering and encumbered by heavy chains of remorse: "The air was filled with phantoms, wandering hither and thither in restless haste, and moaning as they went. . . . The misery with them all was, clearly, that they sought to interfere, for good, in human matters, and had lost this power for ever."3 Later, Scrooge's nephew Fred makes this pithy karmic observation: "Scrooge's offences carry their own punishment. . . . Who suffers by his ill whims? Himself, always."4
Throughout the remainder of the night Scrooge is visited sequentially by the three spirits representing the Christmases past, present, and future, who, like helpful bodhisattvas, show him scenes from his life in order to awaken him to a realization of the law of karma. By the Ghost of Christmas Past Scrooge is presented with painful images of his childhood suffering as well as the kindness shown to him by others in the past, and learns how the present direction of his life has been shaped by these experiences. The Ghost of Christmas Present reminds Scrooge of the precious opportunities all around him to do good by his fellow...