BUDDHISM IN OUR DAILY LIFE
A series of lectures delivered at The China Institute in America
New York, New York
Lecture 2: THE TRUTH OF KARMA
In last week’s discussion of the concept of birth and death, the one-life and the multi-life theories were introduced. I also used a familiar natural phenomenon, the multi-form of H20, to illustrate my belief that the multi-life theory taught by Hinduism and Buddhism is closer to the truth than is the one-life theory. We found that H20 is a good analogy for the human soul.
Then, we observed that H20 is not the ultimate substance of the universe. Modern science is gradually concluding that energy could be that ultimate substance. This agrees with Buddha’s teaching that the soul is not the ultimate nature of a human being. Rather, the ultimate nature is something which is incomprehensible; without duality, boundary, or birth and death, and with no difference from the universe. ‘Basic nature,?‘original nature,?and ‘buddha-nature?are some of the names given to this ultimate quality. The famous statement made by Buddha upon his enlightenment was “Every sentient being has buddha-nature.”
The vast, boundless, and empty space is usually used as an analogy to basic nature, to signify its lack of duality and discrimination, and its limitlessness in both time and space. Since the ultimate existence of human being is such, the concept of birth and death becomes inapplicable when one is enlightened or when one recognizes one’s basic nature. But since most of us have not been enlightened, it does not help us too much to discuss basic nature at this stage. We first have to establish a clear understanding of the multi-life theory at the mundane level, which directly affects our daily lives.
To appreciate thoroughly the multi-life theory, one must first answer an important question: What causes the change from one form of existence, say, a human being, to another form, say, and animal?
To help us understand this, it is useful to refer to the H20 model again. Let us first examine the causes of changes in the forms of H20, from water to vapor, or ice to water.
From physics we learn the following chain of causation:
physical or chemical action -> intangible form of energy called heat -> change of intensity or activity of H20 molecules -> change in
form of H20
This illustration is quite obvious and needs no explanation. I will just give you a few examples of physical and chemical actions and you will instantly know that these are the causes of water, vapor, snow, ice, or other forms of H20. Such actions as radiation from the sun, the setting of a fire, the passing of electricity through metallic wires, and the dissolving of chemicals in water are all familiar examples of processes that produce heat and ultimately change the form of H20.
According to Buddhism, a similar natural phenomenon is going on in the universe: that is, the various actions carried out by a being in the past and present which produce a kind of intangible force that causes the being to change from one from of existence to another. That is why we have the different forms of heaven-dweller, human being, animal, hungry spirit, and hell-dweller. These various existences constitute samsara, or the continuous round of life and death.
In Hinduism and Buddhism, such actions bear a common name – karma. Karma means an action, or combination of actions, by a single being or group of beings which produce effects. Those effects, which could be good, bad, or neutral, determine the future of the being who performed the action. Karmic actions, therefore, are the heart of the multi-life theory, just as physical and chemical actions are the basic causes of the multi-forms of H20.
I would like to illustrate this comparison of the above mentioned analogies:
physical or chemical action -> intangible form of energy called heat -> change of intensity or activity of H20 molecules -> change in
form of H20
karma -> intangible force called the karmic force -> good, bad, or neutral effects upon activities of the being -> change in the form of
the being = samsara
This concept of karma plays a very important role throughout Asia. Asian religions in general have established the famous universal moral code based upon this law, that good deeds produce good effects and bad deeds produce bad effects. However, it should be pointed out that Buddhism places additional qualifications on this code:
1. The so-called good effect or bad effect is not a judgement nor is it given as a reward or punishment by a supramundane authority such as God. The good or bad effect produced by good or bad karma is purely and simply a natural phenomenon governed by natural laws that act automatically, with complete justice. If God has anything to do with it, then God must also act according to this natural law. This cause produces this effect. That cause produces that effect. God would not change this natural path because of his like or dislike of a particular person.
2. The good and bad referred to here are not defined by any code or law created by human being unless such a code or law follows the natural path. For example, when democracy was first established in the United States, women did not have the right to vote. At that time, women who complied with that status were considered good and those who fought against it were considered bad. The judgement was incorrect, however. The natural path is that human beings are all equal, and thus the system which gives women equal voting rights with men is truly the just one. Therefore, those who opposed the unequal voting system were actually the good ones.
This law of karma, or cause and effect, is so powerful that it governs everything in the universe except, according to Buddhism, the one who is enlightened or who recognizes basic nature. Upon enlightenment, the round of cause and effect loses its significance, just as samsara, or the round of birth and death, ceases with enlightenment. Since basic nature transcends all duality and is ultimate, there is no one to receive the effect, whether it is good or bad, and no one to whom any effect can apply. This unique explanation by Buddha of the nullification of the law of karma is very important. I will discuss it below.
With this brief explanation of karma as a background, let us now go a step further to see how karma works.
1) Karmic effects determine rebirth.
In Buddhists texts one finds numerous discussions on what cause produces what effect. Generally speaking, the karma of present and past lives determines the form of existence in the next life. We may outline these karmic effects as follows:
a) Such karma as honesty, generosity, kindness, compassion, the relieving of others?suffering, or the creation of major benefits for others may produce the effect of being reborn in heaven.
2. Karma such as giving generously to the needy, aiding those in difficulty, making offerings to the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha or saints in other religions, or giving others knowledge or skills that will improve their way of life, may cause one to be reborn as a human being with a wealthy and bright future.
3. Karma such as saving others?lives, refraining from killing, relieving others?worries, curing others?illnesses, generously helping hospitals and medical research, or aiding environmental improvement may cause on to be reborn as a human being with a long life and good health, a person liked and supported by many people.
4. The karma of studying the Dharma, introducing right knowledge to others by means of teaching or writing, giving sincere respect to Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha and the saints in other religions, or meditating on the mind can produce the effect of being reborn as a human being with wisdom, intelligence, eloquence in speech, and the qualities of a good scholar.
5. Despite such karma as killing, hunting, fishing, doing harm to others, endangering others?lives, manufacturing or trading weapons, or robbing, one may be born as a human being again, but with the possibility of a short lifespan, accidental death, frightening insanity, disastrous illness, etc. Further, if those negative activities were dominant in the being
‘s life, then the rebirth will be in the form of an animal or hungry spirit or even a hell-dweller.
In one of the Buddhist texts it is recorded that someone asked Buddha:
Why are some women ugly but rich?
Why are some women beautiful but poor?
Why are some people poor but with good health and a long life?
Why are some rich yet ill and short-lived?
The Buddha’s answers were:
One who is ugly but rich was short-tempered in past lives ?easily irritated and angered ?but was also very generous and gave offerings to the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha and made contributions to many sentient beings.
One who is beautiful but poor was, in past lives, very kind, always smiling and soft spoken, but was stingy and reluctant to make offerings or help other people.
The person who is poor but in good health and enjoying a long life was, in his or her past lives, very stingy or reluctant to make donations, but was kind to all sentient beings, did not harm or kill others, and also saved many sentient beings?lives.
The person who is rich but often ill, or who is short-lived, was, in his or her past lives, very generous in helping others but loved hunting and killing and caused sentient beings to feel worried, insecure, and frightened.
The above examples give us some idea of why people on earth, although all human beings, vary so much in appearance, character, lifespan, health, mental ability and fate. It is even more interesting to note how much the circumstances in which a person is born can influence his or her destiny. Which race, which nation, which skin color, which era ?all these factors make a great difference. Would it not be more logical to think that something was going on before one’s birth that caused all those effects than to say that it is purely accidental or even to say that it is God’s will? If a baby has no past life, then on what grounds does God judge whether to reward or to punish that baby by causing him or her to be born under different circumstances?
2) One’s karma also affects others and produces effects in the present lifetime as well as in future lives.
“Karmic effect is the incomprehensible!” This statement of Buddha suggests not only the complexity of karmic effects but also the difficulty of predicting when a karmic effect will mature.
Generally speaking, however, karma is like the action of lighting a candle. The candle will light the whole room immediately and will last until it is consumed. Similarly, karma has the following characteristics:
a) Karma not only affects the doer but also affects others. The magnitude of the karma determines the sphere of its effect.
2. Most karma produces an immediate effect which will last until it is consumed. The nature and magnitude of a karmic action determine the duration of the effect, which may remain many years, or may not even be felt until some other karmic conditions mature.
3. Karmic effects can combine and accumulate.
These three points are rather condensed. I do not have time to give you a detailed description of them. The following examples however, might help you to understand these points a bit more:
a) The discovery of electricity by Benjamin Franklin and the conversion of electricity into light by Thomas Edison changed the lives of human beings tremendously, and the effect is still growing.
2. An action taken by the U.S. Congress to change the tax law will immediately affect millions of American pockets. The effect can be seen by many Americans in their lifetime, and it will also be felt by future generations of Americans.
3. The combined and cumulative karma of the system of slavery used by many Americans over a long period of time has produced effects which constitute a major domestic problem in the U.S.
4. The theoretical discovery of atomic energy by Albert Einstein and the joint effort of all the participants in the Manhattan Project produced such complicated effects, good and bad, that we are probably just beginning to realize the significance of these developments.
3) A comparison can be made of the magnitude of effects of various kinds of karma.
Such comparisons are recorded in many Buddhist scriptures. I would like to give you some examples to enable you to form your own ideas on how you may create karmic effects of greater magnitude.
a) One day, while walking on the street, Buddha met a beggar who was a so-called untouchable in the strict caste society of India during his time. Not only was Buddha friendly with him, but he accepted the beggar as a disciple in his order of the Sangha. This action had an effect which was infinitely greater than the acceptance of a prince as his disciple.
2. When the monk Bodhidharma went from India to China he was welcomed by the Emperor Liang. The emperor asked him, “What merit have I gained since I built so many temples, erected so many pagodas, made so many offerings to Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha, and did numerous other virtuous deed?” Bodhidharma
3. ‘s reply greatly disappointed Emperor Liang. Bodhidharma said, “Your Majesty, there is none. You have gained no merit. What you have done produces only worldly rewards, that is, good fortune, great power, or great wealth in your future lives, but you will still be wandering around in samsara.” Buddha often emphasized that to study and explain to others even a few sentences of the teachings that show how to be rid of samsara creates infinitely greater merit than making tremendous offerings to as many Buddhas all over the universe as there are grains of sand in the great Ganges River.
4. Buddha also taught these principles:
One who makes numerous offerings to the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha, helps sentient being, and does many good deeds, and yet dedicates all the merit accumulated thereby to one’s own or one’s relatives?interest such as making more money or enjoying a longer or better present or future life produces limited effects.
One who does those same good deeds but dedicates all the merit to saving sentient beings from suffering in samsara receives much greater merit than the one with selfish purposes.
Finally, one who does the same good deeds with no specific purpose or desire at all receives infinitely greater merit than the two cases mentioned above.
4) Karma and free will.
This topic has been discussed often. The question is: “Is there any room for free will under the law of karma?” A more penetrating question is: “Might not free will be simply subjective opinion? So-called free will is also an effect of karma.” For example, suppose a daughter goes against her parents?wishes and decides to marry a younger man. The daughter might think that the decision was made by her free will, but under the law of karma that decision could very well be an effect of her past karmic relation with this young man and her parents. That she acts with a free will is only her subjective opinion.
In the United States, people have the freedom to vote or not to vote. Is this freedom obtained by a kind of free will or is it predetermined by karmic effect?
We could find many examples, all of which seem to indicate that there is no room for free will under the law of karma. Does this mean the fate of a person is predetermined by his or her past karma, that a person has no way to change it? Buddha said this is not the case. Why and how, then, can one change one’s fate?
To help you to understand that one’s fate is not entirely predetermined by one’s past karma, I must ask you to recall what I said before about our basic nature. Cause and effect, just like birth and death, lose their significance at the enlightened level because at the level of basic nature there is no one to receive the effect of karma, whether it is good or bad. Therefore, at the extreme, when one is enlightened, the law of karma is not applicable. All that the enlightened one does, says, or thinks is through free will, a manifestation of basic nature, and not the effect of past karma.
All of Buddha’s teachings aim at this one goal: that is, to identify oneself with one’s basic nature. All his methods are designed to enable one to gradually come into harmony with that basic nature.
Now, basic nature possesses all kinds of good human qualities, such as loving-kindness, compassion, joy, and equanimity. All these good qualities could cause good karma, which produces good effects. Therefore, during the process of cultivating harmony with basic nature, these good qualities will be revealed bit by bit, like an occasional ray of sunshine penetrating through a heavy cloud. These revelations are the true products of a person’s free will. Because such free will creates good karma, and because good karma produces good effects which in turn are good karma for the next effect, and so on, a person has the potential to become enlightened, to recognize basic nature, and to become a Buddha.
One will thus not only be rid of samsara, but will also gain the perfect wisdom and compassion necessary to teach other sentient beings to follow the same path.
Karma is such a vast subject that I could talk for hours without exhausting the material. Topics like the following could be very interesting:
1. Can good karma and bad karma offset each other?
2. Can karma be erased?
3. Can the effects of bad karma be minimized by confession or other kind of repentance?
With the general idea of karma I have presented to you today, you may be able to find the answers to those questions.
In conclusion, I wish to emphasize two points:
1) Good or bad karma will inevitably produce its respective effect. Our daily doings, speech, and thoughts will affect our future. A wise person knows, therefore, how to live properly.
2) Remember that the law of karma stops operating and you become rid of samsara only by identifying yourself with your basic nature. How you may gradually identify yourself with basic nature, and realize that it is yourself, is the essence of Buddha’s teaching. I sincerely recommend that you study and practice it.
Among all the hindrances to our cultivation of enlightenment, the greatest obstacle is our concept of self. This is the core of all our ignorance and suffering. Next week, we shall attack that core. I can assure you that it is indeed very, very hard.