Melody Ermachild Chavis is a private investigator, a longtime Zen practitioner at Berkeley Zen Center, and a writer. She is the author of two wonderful books that more people should know about: Altars in the Streets: A Courageous Memoir of Community and Spiritual Awakening and Meena: Heroine of Afghanistan.
In her role as a private investigator, she has worked on trials and appeals for inmates on Death Row in California, including Jarvis Jay Masters. In this excerpt from her essay, “Seeking Evil, Finding Only Good” (found in the anthology Not Turning Away), Melody reflects on the complexities of “guilt” and karma:
At first, my new client might seem guilty of something terrible. But that first impression gets complicated as the story of his life unfolds. I go out to interview witnesses, and in the listening, I become a witness. I find some more people who are “guilty” too — perhaps parents whose love failed.
As I work, the guilt in my client that seemed so solid begins to come apart in my hands. All I can find in the end are causes and conditions in an endlessly tangled web. Investigating any life, one sees how currents coming from very far away can meet within a person: echoes of a long-ago massacre, hurts barely spoken, then a dark street, a shout, a bullet — a lethal moment.
Does this mean that responsibility lies nowhere? No. We are each responsible for what we set into motion. Yet we can never isolate one current of karma from the ocean of creation.