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A Man of Yet a Few More Words - by Swan Morrison

Keeping Karma

I opened my front door in response to the doorbell.

A man with a shaved head and wearing a saffron robe stood upon the doorstep.

‘Mr Morrison?’ he said, in a tone of enquiry.

‘Yes,’ I replied.

‘My name is Dharmadhara. I’ve come to respectfully request the return of the water buffalo that you borrowed from Mr Baharupa Sakyamuni of Sarnath, Uttar Pradesh, India.’

‘I think you must be mistaken,’ I replied. ‘I visited Sarnath many years ago, but I didn’t borrow any water buffalo. I was travelling by air, and I wouldn’t have been able to take it on the plane.’

Dharmadhara withdrew a sheet of paper from inside his robe and consulted it. ‘It happened in 1863, I believe.’

‘I wasn’t born in 1863.’

‘It was during one of your previous lives.’ Dharmadhara looked again at the piece of paper. ‘You were an Indian farmer in Sarnath and Mr Sakyamuni was one of your neighbours.’

I looked puzzled.

‘Perhaps I should explain,’ said Dharmadhara. ‘I work for a Buddhist debt reparation agency called Keeping Karma. We specialise in resolving debts from previous lives.’

I was intrigued. ‘You had better come in,’ I said.

I made tea for us both and then resumed our discussion.

‘Even if I did forget to return a water buffalo to Mr Sakyamuni in 1863,’ I began, ‘both Mr Sakyamuni and the water buffalo would be long since dead.’

‘That is indeed correct,’ Dharmadhara agreed. ‘The animal passed away in 1863 following your experimental attempt to use it to plough your fields at night, rather too near the cliff edge.’ He again referred to his notes. ‘An incident that, regretfully, also led to your demise. Mr Sakyamuni was killed at around the same time, crushed to death during his nighttime stroll on the path that ran along the cliff bottom.'

‘Oops,’ I remarked. ‘Nevertheless,’ I continued, ‘how could I now return a long deceased animal to a long departed owner.’

Dharmadhara took a sip of his tea. ‘That’s the clever thing about reincarnation,’ he explained, ‘not only do beings become reborn, but their karma links them to those with whom they have unfinished business from previous lives.’

‘Where is Mr Sakyamuni, now?’ I enquired, beginning to see where this conversation was going.

‘John Farmer at number 54.’

‘Well, I’ll be damned,’ I said. ‘And the water buffalo?’

‘Rosemary Bull at number 50.’

‘Fascinating,’ I said, recalling how she had helped me to dig my allotment. I also remembered her telling me of her fear of heights.’

‘You’re good friends with both of them, aren’t you?’ said Dharmadhara.


‘Well, they’re both on their own and both want to get to know each other better, but don’t know where to start.’ Dharmadhara stood and walked towards the door. ‘Thanks for the tea,’ he said. ‘I have to be going, but I think you’ve got the idea about how to repay your debt.’

From my very basic knowledge of the Buddhist concept of Karma, I had somehow always imagined that compensating for past errors involved some kind of penance. It was, however, very pleasant inviting John and Rosemary over for dinner. I was very happy to lend them my caravan for a summer holiday and was, indeed, honoured to be best man at their wedding.

Throughout, however, I thought it prudent not to raise the topic of peasant farming in mid nineteenth century India.

Given the way things had worked out, I was rather pleased when, some months later, my door bell rang and Dharmadhara once more greeted me.

‘Hello again, Mr Morrison,’ he said. ‘I need to talk to you about an elephant…’