Note: The law of cause and effect has objective existence. The doctrine of cause and effect is the core of the Buddhadharma. Without understanding cause and effect, it is very difficult to understand the Buddhadharma. Without believing in cause and effect, it was difficult to obtain genuine benefit from studying Buddhism. At present, quite a few Buddhists feel that cause and effect is a theory for the ignorant masses, and is not something worth looking into. Great Master Hanshan of the Ming Dynasty, an illustrious member of the Chan School who was greatly enlightened, was a prolific author. His essay, “A Discussion of Responses,” published as an appendix to Ten Treasures in the Ocean of Chan, provides a simple yet insightful explanation of the profound doctrine of cause and effect. I have paraphrased it in colloquial terms for the benefit of the reader.
~by Chang-zhen Shi, Bao Guo Temple, Sichuan, China
The Buddha taught that all good and bad causes have their corresponding retributions without fail, just as a person’s shadow always follows his body. However, people who don’t believe in cause and effect regard this as nonsense. Confucius promoted the idea of being content with one’s lot. Some people, believing in this, constantly get their fortunes told. They only seek to have blessings. They are happy to hear about good things, but don't wish to hear about disasters; this is totally muddled. Actually, one birth and death is just like one day and night. The concept of past and present lives is analogous to that of yesterday and today. To draw an analogy with daily life, consider when you invite guests to your home. You will set out everything you need for the party. If even the slightest thing is lacking, it will be imperfect. In our life, the length of our life span (proper retribution), our family and financial situation (dependent retribution), our career, reputation, and social status--these all depend on the karmic causes we planted in past lives. The things we use and enjoy in this life come not from outside; they are all consequences of our own actions. Thus it's said, "If you want to know the karmic causes from your past lives, just take a look at what kind of retribution you're undergoing now. If you want to know the retribution you'll receive in future lives, take a look at what you're doing now." People think they can use their erudition and talent to gain status and honor. Little do they know that status and honor cannot be gained through talent and intelligence alone; they are gained primarily through the causes planted in past lives, combined with the conditions of talent and intelligence in this life. Therefore, those who rejoice when they obtain these things are mistaken in their attitude.
Also, when someone destroys the the wealth and honor which one is supposed to obtain, one hates that person. One doesn’t realize that one really only has that amount of blessings; the part that is ruined wasn’t due to come to one anyway, and one maybe even owes a debt to that person. Thus, if one grieves and complains, or bears a grudge and cannot forgive the person, one’s attitude is wrong.
From this, we can understand that the Confucian doctrine of “being content with one’s lot” is equivalent to the Buddhist doctrine of cause and effect. If you understand the principle of being content with one’s lot, then you will accept that everything is determined by prior causes. Basically, you undergo the consequences of whatever you do. Whether you are rich or poor, long- or short-lived, is all determined by previous causes. If you understand and believe the law of cause and effect, then you will realize that everything you use in this life comes from causes planted in past lives, and is not give to you by others or obtained through your own talents and intelligence. Even if you obtain something through your talent and intelligence, it is actually part of the blessings you were due to receive.
Therefore, what need is there to suffer by bearing grudges and wearing yourself out worrying about gains and losses, to the point of making enemies? If you are an intelligent person, you should deeply believe in cause and effect and not be attached to what you gain or lose at present. And you should plant blessings for the future as present conditions allow. By analogy, if a farmer chooses a fertile field and plants good seeds, and tills and plows diligently, then clearly his autumn harvest will certainly be bountiful. The only differences will result from the varying degree of fertility of each farmers plot of land.
The Buddha said that making offerings to the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha is called [planting] a supreme field; being filial to one’s parents is called [planting] a field of respect; helping the poor is called [planting] the field of the mind. I hope intelligent people will not worry about past gains and losses, but will simply plant seeds in the field of future blessings. If you reduce useless or excessive expenditures, spend thriftily on food and clothes, and use what’s saved to plant seeds in the three fields of blessings mentioned above, not only will you increase your future blessings, but at present you will enjoy mental and physical peace and be a most blessed person!
If you can plant blessings in these three fields, then you can understand the Buddhadharma. You can then recite the Buddha’s name to get rid of discursive thoughts, overcome anger with compassion, overcome violence with gentleness, and subdue arrogance with humility. That is the conduct of a Bodhisattva who has made a great resolve. If you have true faith, you can be called a supremely courageous hero.
(For Great Master Hanshan’s original text in Chinese, please turn to page 16.)