Karma: Why Do Bad Things Happen to Good People?
My friend’s uncle recently died after a long battle with cancer. He was only forty-one years old and left a wife and three small children. He was a devout Buddhist, a dedicated member of the temple, and a wonderful person liked by everyone who knew him. How can this happen?
Yes, I heard about that. I met him once or twice. He impressed me as a decent and gentle man.
Some Christians would attribute this death to God’s will.
Yes, I’ve encountered that. In Buddhism, we could not say, “It’s Buddha’s will,” because Buddha is not a creator, designer or judge.
Then how do the Buddhists understand this situation?
From my understanding of the Buddhist teachings, there are three categories of cause and effect: 1) objective conditions, 2) personal karma, and 3) Buddha’s karma. I do not see that uncle’s cancer was due to his personal karma! His illness and death can largely be explained within the category of objective conditions.
In this case, objective conditions point to myriad circumstances that contributed to the illness even though he never smoked in his life. These could include a genetic predisposition to the disease, his exposure in the past to some carcinogenic chemicals, his eating habits, and his stressful life-style. But there are numerous other possible contributions. The specific contributing causes usually can seldom be accurately isolated.
So it was not caused by his personal karma?
I believe so. Some Buddhists may cite his personal karma (the second of the above three kinds of causes and effects). If they do, they have an understanding of karma different from mine.
His personal karmic actions did not cause the disease, because by definition personal karma refers to how each of us experiences or responds to a given situation.83 Personal karma concerns how friend's uncle responded to the illness and the kind of spiritual insight he was able to gain through the experience, despite the difficulties and pain brought on by the situation.
Does that mean we have no responsibilities since we have no control over our bodies?
Of course not! If you want to enjoy a healthy life, you need to do everything in your power to minimize the risks of harming your body. That means you would refrain from smoking and eating a high fat diet. You should exercise regularly. All of these measures are now openly recommended by the medical profession and many of the government agencies.
But my point is that these actions do not fall within the category of personal karma. They are not religious actions in and of themselves.
Then which category will these actions fall under?
They would fall under the first, objective conditions. All your health conscious actions become part of the complex and unfathomable matrix of conditions that determine your health. Your actions should contribute positively. But there is no guarantee that your action will allow you to live a long life. Look at your friend’s uncle. He never smoked, and he lead a clean life.
But that shouldn’t stop us from taking responsibility within the arena of objective conditions?
Exactly. This is also true in the case of our environment. Most people would agree that the earth is in trouble. There are, however, those who feel we need not worry because it is all part of a grand design and that eventually some supernatural power will fix it and rescue us from catastrophe. This view is troublesome to most Buddhists who do not accept an intervention of such power in the realm of the physical world. If we humans don’t do something about the environmental deterioration, who else will?
The same sense of responsibility applies to the social problems of poverty, violence, racism, public health, etc. We are inundated with one problem after another. As responsible citizens of a community, we should do whatever we can. Every positive action will contribute to the overall collective improvement.
Don’t these actions have religious implications?
Yes, they can. True Buddhists will be motivated by their desire to actualize dana (giving without conditions and expectations) and caring for others in any way they can. So, although the motivation may be inspired by one’s religion, the actual results in these matters are determined by myriad factors that are far beyond the control of any given individual. Such was the case with your friend’s uncle.
We are dealing in the area of science and social science. Let’s look at the religious arena by turning to personal karma.
Doesn’t “karma” mean fate or predestination?
Well, I often hear people say, “I can’t change my situation because this is my karma.” Or someone used karma to explain why our mutual friend died in a car accident: “Well, it must’ve been her karma!”
They are not using karma correctly. First, “karma” means “action.” This action takes three forms: 1) intentional thoughts, 2) speech, and 3) bodily action. In other words, karma refers to what a person thinks, says, and does; primarily in the religious context.84 At one level, karma is very optimistic in that it encourages us to realize possibilities that affect the course of our spiritual lives. This clearly differs from the notion of fate.
Second, karma is applied primarily to oneself (first person). It should not be a means to judge others (third person), especially to explain why some people find themselves in unfortunate or disadvantaged conditions. For example, the outcasts, untouchables, and slaves were often told to accept their social status because their situation was their own doing, the result of negative karma created in their past lives.
But isn’t karma about cause and effect with regard to what happens to us in our lives?
Yes, but karma has a very special usage. It is the cause and effect in our religious effort to realize enlightenment. Positive cause (=karma) leads to a positive result (=phala). Negative cause (karma) leads to negative result (phala).
So karma is the same as the cause?
Yes. Positive karma leads to positive results.
What constitutes positive karma? How about negative karma?
Positive karma is any thought and its subsequent speech (verbalization) and bodily action that are in accord with the Buddhist teachings leading to enlightenment. For example, being aware of the Four Marks of Existence that I’ve expressed as: life is a bumpy road, life is impermanent, life is interdependent, and life is fundamentally good. Another set of positive karma is to observe the Eight-fold Noble Path, or to fulfill the Six Perfections (see page 202). Negative karma, on the other hand, goes against or ignores the Four Marks Eight-fold Path and the Six Perfections. Of course, these actions are carried out in the arena of our everyday life.
What is the positive result?
A positive result is being closer to enlightenment. This means to experience in one’s life a greater sense of joy, serenity, gratitude and concern for other beings.
Can you cite an example to clarify some of the points?
Perhaps the famous story of Kisagotami and the mustard seed will help. In that story, a young mother loses her infant child due to illness. In grief and agony she carries the dead child in her arms to see Shakyamuni Buddha with hopes he may be able to bring the child back to life. In response to the grief-stricken mother’s pleas, the Buddha instructs her to go around town and collect a handful of mustard seeds from a household that has not experienced a death in the family. The young mother does what she is told with great anticipation that the mustard seeds will bring her child back to life. She knocks on the doors of numerous households without any success, for all of them have experienced the loss of a loved one. With fading hope, she continues to visit the remaining houses, only to encounter the same results.
Suddenly she awakens to the truth that death is universal and she is not the only victim. She realizes that impermanence, manifest as illness, old age and death, is the fact of life. Thus, she is able to see life as it really is and not as she wanted to see it from her “self-centered” perspective. With this awareness, she realizes the Buddha has guided her to find the truth through her own experience. Grateful and inspired to seek full enlightenment, she joins the order of nuns as one of Buddha’s disciples.
I, too, have heard this story many times, but what is the message of karma in this?
She created positive karma by following the Buddha’s instructions, and through that process, gained insight into the truth of impermanence. Her thoughts and actions were in accord with the teachings. Consequently, she came to experience the death of her child with a more enlightened mind of acceptance, understanding and equanimity. Had she, on the other hand, created negative karma by thinking and acting contrary to the truth of impermanence, extreme unhappiness would have resulted from her inability to understand and accept the child’s death.
We can’t blame the child’s karma for the child’s death, can we?
That’s right. Just as it was with your friend’s uncle, the cause of death is due not to the infant’s karma, but to the “objective conditions” mentioned before. So we should not be saying, “The child died so young in his life because he must’ve committed a grave karmic action in his pat life.”
Is this mistaken view of karma something like the idea of bachi (punishment)?
Yes. The concept of bachi is punitive, fault-finding, and backward-looking. It instills fear and does not encourage spiritual growth.
Don’t positive results include being wealthy, healthy or famous?
No. Positive karma is not defined by any of these worldly benefits. It may, however, indirectly foster them by helping to create a conducive condition to realize them. For example, going to the temple to listen to the Dharma could help a person to find greater peace of mind. He is, thereby, better able to focus on his work or to gain the trust of his business associates because he strives to treat people with kindness and equality. Through spiritual cultivation, one fosters positive “energy” that engenders not only vitality in himself but also confidence and attraction of others toward him.
But once again, these are merely possible indirect outcomes or unexpected windfalls. Positive karma fosters spiritual happiness but does not guarantee wealth, health or fame.
If the results of positive karma are not wealth, health or fame, how are such results to be understood?
The original intent of positive karma was one of psychological and spiritual well-being. For example, the famous doctrine of Dependent Co-arising (see page 22) originally dealt with the process of overcoming existential suffering. This doctrine provided a logical explanation of how ignorance and blind passions lead ultimately to unhappiness, and how the elimination of that ignorance leads to the elimination of the unhappiness.
This teaching, however, was later modified to explain future rebirths in the various realms of existence, for example, as heavenly beings, humans, titans, animals, hungry ghosts and hellish beings. But these interpretations reflect a later development and should be seen as provisional teachings for encouraging people to turn to the Dharma. The Buddhist teachers and writers, thus, adjusted their explanations to the dreams and fears of the general populace. In my view, they had to compromise the meaning to some extent.
What about this third category, Buddha’s karma?
This type of cause and effect becomes extremely important in the Mahayana teaching, and particularly in the Pure Land teaching of Jodo-Shinshu. According to Shinran Shonin, as foolish ego-centered beings, we are not able to thoroughly and completely practice positive personal karma. This insight about his spiritual limitations was realized in great measure through Shinran’s twenty years of struggle as a Buddhist monk.
In desperation, he left the monastery to seek the guidance of his teacher Honen, who helped him to awaken to the Buddha’s karma, expressed in Jodo-Shinshu as “the karmic power of the great vow” (daigan goriki) of Amida Buddha.85
I sometimes become depressed when I hear about our karma being evil and hopeless.
Well, I understand your concern, but please try to put all this in perspective. Let me use an analogy. Suppose someone you know is a pretty good little league baseball player, and he was even selected to his district all-star team. So among his friends, he is quite good. But let’s suppose he was asked to play with a major league team. Wouldn’t he feel unquestionably inadequate as a player?
Well, Shinran Shonin was in a similar situation. He was an outstanding monk among his peers, but he had a much higher standard. He wanted to become a fully enlightened person, a Buddha. To become a Buddha through his own power, he had to live up to expectations that were for him impossible to realize, like a little leaguer playing in the majors. He could, for example, not harbor even a trace of pride or hateful thoughts. Shinran Shonin wasn’t ethically evil or incompetent when compared with his peers, but he was when compared to the Buddhas. It is only in this context that Jodo-Shinshu teaching illuminates our motives and actions as ego-centric and evil.
How does the karmic power of Amida Buddha relate to my “evil” personal karma?
There are many ways the Jodo-Shinshu teaching attempts to explain a subject that cannot be conveyed adequately through words. We must each experience this ourselves.
Having said that, however, let me cite some examples. Master Nagarjuna, the first of our Seven Masters, uses an analogy of two paths to enlightenment: waling on land and taking a ship. Traveling on foot is arduous and difficult, just as Shinran Shonin found his personal karma to be. But taking a large ship is much quicker, relaxing and easy on the body. Such is the outcome when one person abandons reliance on one’s personal karma to avail oneself of the ship of Buddha’s karmic power. This is akin to a locomotive switching from a dead-end track to the Buddha’s track, which is connected to the ultimate destination.
In our ocean metaphor, the sailor was awakened to the futility of struggling in the middle of an ocean. Instead, he let go of his frantic efforts to keep afloat and lay facing up and completely relaxed. To his pleasant surprise, he found himself buoyed and supported by the ocean. The ocean that was once the enemy became transformed into a supporting friend. Here, the sailor switched from a futile personal karma to the magnanimous power of the immense ocean (Buddha’s karma).
Isn’t this related to the teaching of Other Power?
Exactly. This idea is central to the Jodo-Shinshu teaching and is expressed in our most important scripture, the Larger Sutra. Its main message is expressed in the sacred story of the Bodhisattva Dharmakara. While the story is expressed in a mythic mode, it speaks to the existence of spiritual help beyond the self so long as the seeker’s ears and minds are opened to this endowed karmic power of the Buddha.
How does Buddha’s karma versus personal karma relate to the idea that we all have Buddha nature? And how does Other Power relate to Oneness?
Let me answer the second question first. Other Power is another word for expressing Amida’s compassionate activity. And Amida is the expressed form of the formless Oneness (see pages 27, 150)
The first question is more complex. But to put it simply, Buddha’s karma is related to Buddha nature. Buddha’s karma is expressed “externally” while Buddha nature “internally.” But in the eyes of the enlightened beings, there are merely provisional distinctions and ultimately refer to the same reality.
How does this all relate to my initial question concerning my friend’s uncle?
We become more at peace with ourselves because fundamentally we are embraced and not forsaken by the cosmic compassion. It nurtured in us the outlook that, despite the ups and downs of life, our existence is valuable and meaningful precisely because we are embraced in the universal compassion. This awakening is immensely more important than the number of years we remain in our physical existence, which is ultimately so fleeting. Rennyo Shonin captured this sentiment in the pastoral letter “White Ashes,” which is commonly recited at Shinshu funerals:
When we deeply consider the transiency of this world, [we realize that] what is altogether fleeting is our own span of life; it is like an illusion from beginning to end ... A lifetime passed quickly. Can anyone now live to be a hundred? Will I die first, or will my neighbor? Will it be today or tomorrow? We do not know ... Hence we may have radiant faces in the morning, but in the evening be no more than white [ashes].86
Rennyo Shonin’s letter is a rather somber, but true, assessment with an urgent call for all of us to realize the answer to the most important question of our lives, that is that we are not forsaken by Amida’s karma to embrace and liberate us.
But this does not help the uncle who’s dead.
We really cannot speak for others. He may very well have had his spiritual life in order, even though his physical life was shorter than most.
You must first concentrate on your own existential question: Have you resolved your own religious questions? Your friend’s uncle’s life and death, a natural part of life, has become a spiritual guide to cause you to think more deeply about your life and its meaning.
Yes, it’s awful what happened to him and to the family who is left behind. This must begin a difficult period of adjusting to his absence. Whatever people can do for the family is always in keeping with the Buddhist ideals. We must not forget the truth of interdependence!
Is the Buddha’s karma most reliable and true among the three kinds of cause and effect?
Yes. The objective conditions only describe how things are, while personal karma falls far short of the goal of full enlightenment. The Buddha’s karma, on the other hand, offers true happiness, expressed by Shinran Shonin:
How joyous I am, my heart and mind being rooted in the Buddha-ground of the universal Vow, and my thoughts and feelings flowing within the dharma-ocean ... My joy grows ever more compelling.
(Teachings IV. p. 617)
With this kind of profound and absolute happiness, “bad things that happen to good people” become the lotus of awakening in the light of Buddha’s caring karma, growing from the mud of pain and confusion.
We covered a lot of ground. I wonder if you could summarize the main points about karma?
1. Karma is to be applied to oneself and not used for judging others;
2. Karma does not mean fate, retribution, predestination or bachi (punishment);
3. Karma means action and refers to my thought, speech and physical activity. Karma has much more to do with the present and the future than the past;
4. When one thinks, speaks, and acts according to the Dharma, he or she is generating positive karma. Anti-Dharma equals negative karma.
5. Karma does not refer to all cause and effect relationships that affect our lives. Karma is one of three kinds of cause and effect relationships, which are: 1) objective conditions, 2) [personal] karma and 3) Amida’s karma. Karma applies primarily in a religious context;
6. Karma does not cause our objective conditions. Karma, however, determines how we experience them. The objective conditions are not absolute but are relative. Such conditions can be experienced as good or bad depending on our karmic attitude;
7. Amida’s karma is available to those who come to realize the futility of perfecting one’s personal karma through his or her own effort;
8. Amida’s karma is none other than Amida’s compassion or Vow-power. Thus, the Jodo-Shinshu teaching is focused on the third of the three kinds of causal relationships.
83 Of course within the long history of Buddhism, we find a wide range of interpretations of karma. Prof. Wendy Doniger O’Flaherty recognizes tow types of karma: passive and active. The former is “passively received fate” and the latter “actively pursued human action.” In her view, the passive interpretation is emphasized in Hindu texts, while the active in Buddhist texts. See her Karma and Rebirth in Classical Indian Traditions, p. xxiii.
is not to imply that there is a religious realm separate from the secular or
mundane realm but rather points to the importance of one’s motivation and manner
in which actions are carried out.
Karma as a belief system is to be framed within one’s attempt to realize spiritual liberation or at least to improve oneself ethically.
85 Westerners who know Buddhism (usually Theravada) for its “ethical,” “empirical,” and “psychological” features are confused and even dismayed by references to “metaphysical” realities which, in fact, make up vital parts of the central teachings in the Mahayana schools. Further, since the Theravada position is that karma is overcome or cancelled when Buddhahood is realized, the doctrine of “Buddha’s karma” constitutes a contradiction. However, in Pure Land and Mahayana teachings “karma” associated with the Buddhas is to be understood as “karma” of a different order, for the Buddha’s activities emanate solely out of a spontaneous, selfless wish to liberate others.
86 Minor Rogers and Anne Rogers. Rennyo: The Second Founder of Shin Buddhism (Berkeley: Asian Humanities Press, 1991), p. 255. I have replaced “bones” with “ashes” in keeping with the common traditional rendering.