From last issue:Karma and Cause and Effect
The word karma means volitional activity that is governed by the law of cause and effect. For every good and bad act of body, speech, and mind performed in the present, there is a corresponding result which is experienced in the future. In every moment, we experience the results of our past karma and simultaneously create new karma which will bear fruit in the future. Thus karma is the primary force which keeps us in the cycle of rebirth. The law of karma clearly explains why people undergo seemingly unwarranted rewards and retributions. Everything that happens to us, whether good or bad, has a reason, a cause, in the past.1
Yet acknowledging karmic causes and effects doesn’t mean indulging in useless hypothesizing about the past or the future. The Sutra on Cause and Effect gives some very practical, level-headed advice on how to maintain awareness of karmic causation in everyday life:
If you care to know of past lives’ causes,
Look at the rewards you are reaping today.
If you wish to find out about future lives,
You need but notice what you’re doing right now.
Crucial as the understanding of law of karma is in Buddhism, Buddhism does not assert that everything is due to past karma or past lives. Master Hua says of those externalists who allege that present circumstances are solely determined by the past:
Their concept has some elements of the principle of cause and effect (...) They say that everything that happens in this life is the creation of what was done in the previous life. (...) There is a certain amount of principle to this, for one reaps the fruits of the causes one plants. But to say [existence] is completely determined by one’s past life is also incorrect, for the world cannot be entirely explained according to a single theory, which is what they try to do.
The Buddha refuted the wrong view that all one’s experiences in life—positive, negative, and neutral--are due to previous action. He criticized those who tried to use past karma as an excuse for their present misdeeds:
So, then, owing to previous action men will become murderers, thieves, unchaste, liars, slanderers, babblers, covetous, malicious and perverse in view. Thus for those who fall back on the former deed as an essential reason, there is neither the desire to do, nor effort to do, nor necessity to do this deed, or abstain from that deed.
This statement counters the deterministic belief that all that happens to us can be attributed to karma. Such a fatalistic view is simply a convenient excuse to take no responsibility for one’s life and actions. A proper understanding of karma does not make one lax, indifferent, or irresponsible. On the contrary, one would strive to be vigorous in doing all good deeds, and extremely careful and cautious in avoiding all evil. While taking karmic causes and effects seriously, one should yet be aware that karma is not rigidly fixed. Present virtuous actions can offset previous bad karma and vice versa. Merit and virtue accrued by manifold good deeds can be burnt up in a flash of anger, while a single thought of sincere repentance and reform can eradicate eons of bad karma. The Buddhist concept of karma is not mechanistic or deterministic. Karma is not equivalent to fate or God, and does not predestine human behavior.
To be continued
1. Excerpted in slightly edited form from “Buddhism A to Z” at http://userwww.sfsu.edu/~rone/Buddhist%20Dict/BD%20Contents.htm