Sometime in the nineties, I started noticing tip jars (often just plastic cups) sitting near the cash registers at certain casual restaurants… specifically, tip jars bearing cute little signs to the effect of, “Tip! It’s good for your karma.” I still see them around, and I always think to myself that if someone is going to use a religious concept as a charming way to get people to leave optional tips, why stop at eastern religions? One could just as easily frame it in western religious terms: “Tip! All your sins will be forgiven,” or “Tip! You’ll go to heaven.”
But I know the answer to that. Western religions aren’t hip and trendy in the western world the way eastern religions are, so the lure of “good karma,” it is. Moral causality. Throw money into the jar, and the act will work in your favor.
It’s a much more serious matter to talk about sin and heaven. Whether or not we Americans believe in karma, seeing the word “karma” on a tip jar isn’t going to pack the same psychological punch as the words “sin” and “heaven.” We’re largely a nation of people hard-wired to react strongly to those words in one way or another. The notion of karma just isn’t culturally ingrained in us in the same ways.
Where “karma” on a tip jar is cute, clever and cool, the words “sin” and “heaven” on the same jar would come across as preachy, flippant or even sacrilegious, and the effect would be adverse because of it. No matter how many ribbons and rainbows and flowers and smiley faces you put on it, a jar labeled with holier-than-thou signage isn’t going to work.
So, fine… it’s cool, cute, hip and trendy to decorate your tip jar with the word “karma.” Here are some examples I found online:
Karma: the new currency!
Instant karma. Just add hot water and stir.
Remember this guy? I couldn’t resist putting him here, since he was all over the internet at about the same time the “karma jars” were also popping up everywhere.
It’s light and fun and people dig it. I get that. I myself use the word “karma” lightly, every time I park somewhere and think, good parking karma! because I scored a prime parking spot. Here’s the thing, though. Here’s why “karma” on a tip jar bugs me. It’s one thing to remark and laugh about “parking karma,” but another thing entirely to use the word in an attempt to influence peoples’ actions.
Moreover, there’s this: I usually see the “karma jars” in trendy eateries where you order and pay for your food at the counter. Tips at these kinds of establishments are optional and gratuitous, since you’re not receiving table service. Tipping gratuitously at a counter in this case is simply giving.
Giving, in eastern religions such as Hinduism and Buddhism – to simplify, let’s just default to Buddhism, since that’s the trendiest of the eastern religions, and that’s the one I know the best – is dana, which is a Pali word that indicates “selfless” giving. I shall be helpful to others. To give selflessly means that you don’t want or expect anything in return. You give without thinking of what you might get back.
I grew up spending Sunday mornings sitting in a Jodo Shinshu church (Jodo Shinshu is a type of Japanese Pureland Buddhism on the Mahayana side) listening to dharma talks (sermons) and going to dharma class (Sunday school), and I’ve heard countless lectures on what it means to be selfless. From what I understand, putting a sign on a tip jar that says, “Tip! It’s good for your karma” is actually anti-Buddhist in nature. Dropping money into a jar thinking of what you’re going to get out of it later isn’t Buddhist. It’s the opposite of Buddhist. It’s selfish, not selfless, because you’re putting money into the jar thinking of yourself.
I just can’t see it as cute or cool or hip or whatever. All I can do when I see these “karma” tip jars is try to be a good Buddhist and have compassion, but it’s hard when I’m inwardly rolling my eyes and biting my tongue. I am not a good Buddhist. I’m always trying, but I see where I need to tweak my meditation practice in an attempt to improve.
The proliferation of tip jars asking for money with the promise of something good in it for me has always irked me, as the general cultural appropriation of eastern religions by westerners has irked me (please note that I’m differentiating between earnest students and converts to eastern religions and those who just dig certain aspects of the religions to the point of, say, slapping a “karma” sign on a tip jar while not actually knowing what that means, much less studying and practicing said religion). Buddhism seen as a hip and trendy cultural thing just confounds me. I don’t know what to make of it, really.
I’m confounded by those tip jars.
I’m confounded when people think that being Buddhist means that you have to be a vegetarian. (Unless you’re a monk in certain temples, you can eat whatever you want.)
I’m confounded when someone claims to be Buddhist, yet speaks authoritatively of having a soul. (Buddhists don’t believe in the existence of souls.)
I’m confounded when someone claims to be Buddhist, yet speaks of sin. (Buddhists don’t believe in the concept of sin.)
Buddhist philosophy is difficult and complex, and I’m certainly no one to judge when Buddhist-curious people or admirers of Buddhism or actual converts display ignorance. I’ve been working toward the realization of a higher prajna (wisdom) my whole life, and I can tell you, it’s not easy. I have a stack of books, some of which I’ve had as long as I can remember, as they were passed down to me by my Grandmother, filled with my questions scribbled in the margins, post-its with more questions marking pages, hundreds of my questions that haven’t yet been answered. Karma is just one of many challenging concepts in eastern religions, so the sight of those tip jars with their blithe karma signs written by people who (probably) aren’t Buddhist acting like they care about the welfare of my karma so they can get money just annoys me if I see them when my patience levels are low. What do you know about karma? I want to ask on the days I’m cranky when I see the karma tip jars. Please enlighten me, because I was raised Buddhist, I am still Buddhist, I’ve been studying Buddhism/Buddhist philosophy/eastern religious philosophy all of my life, and I still don’t fully grasp the doctrine of karma.
My Butsudan (altar/shrine) with my 20+ books and pamphlets (some not shown) on the subject of Buddhism, ranging from ancient spiritual texts to college-level textbooks.
The truth is, I probably have a decent grasp on eastern religious philosophy, but its complexity is such that some aspects of it seem to elude my understanding the more I study it, and at this point in my life, I just want to enjoy the feeling of serenity and peace I experience when I release my mind during my practice. So I don’t study it as much anymore. I just do my practice and try to live by Buddhist principles as best as I can. I try to “practice intention with detachment from outcome.” I try to practice mindfulness and gratitude, saying “thank you” freely and often, and really feeling it. And I try to be patient, but as you can see from this post, I still need a lot of work in that area. A part of this is that I tend to be impatient by nature (in some contexts).
This tip jar at one of my favorite local restaurants is a welcome breath of fresh air every time I see it:
Tips! Why? Because WE LIKE THEM. Thanks for keeping it real, Chop Shop Tempe!
I’m going to happily continue partaking of their somewhat luxurious fare every once in a while, because the Chop Shop Tempe guys are honest, and honest is what’s cute, cool and clever… plus, their raw vegetable salad with grilled tofu (which I order without cheese) is delicious and vegan and therefore good for my karma! (If you know me well, you know that I’m giggling as I write this.