A Chat on "How Karma Works"
A Chat on "How Karma Works"
< Ye: Chinese character for "Karma"
Q(uestioner): A friend told me that our suffering in this life is because of the evil we did in the past and we have to repay it in this life - you can't escape.
S(hian): Hmmm... your questions are about the law of karma (law of moral cause and effect.) What mentioned above is not entirely true. Our present suffering is also a result of our present attitude to life. For example, two people are waiting for a late bus. Person A becomes angry and frustrated. Person B takes it easy, seeing that there is nothing else to do but wait patiently. We don't say Person A's karma is worse than Person B, because obviously they are facing the same situation. The difference is in the attitude, the choice of the state of mind. However, a person's habitual attitude is often that carried over by past experiences in this life or the past - but we have the ability to change our attitude to make ourselves suffer less too. In this sense, we can escape suffering.
Q: He also said that when you do something good to someone, it's because you're repaying that person, who did good things to you in your past life.
S: This is also not entirely true, though might be to some extent as a "karmic coincidence." When you voluntarily help someone, you are also spreading unconditonal kindness out of your own free will, which creates good (positive) karma for yourself. There is nothing mystical in the law of cause and effect - when we help others unconditionally, others will tend to help us unconditionally. But it is also true that the person who got your help has good karma in the first place to deserve to be helped. However, even if you do not help this person, this person will be helped by another person, as karma can take fruit in more ways than one.
Q: Similarly, he said that whatever evil you do will be repaid to you in your next life.
S: Once again, this is not entirely true as bad (negative) karma can ripen in this life too. For instance, the short-term karmic effect of smoking might be bad breath, but the long-term karmic effect of smoking might be cancer. The creation of positive karma can also dilute the ill effects of negative karma.
Q: He also said that life is never fair.
S: If you reflect carefully on the above, life is always fair - as we get what we deserve, sooner or later, as according to the karma we created.
Q: Let's say I believe in rebirth.. How could life not be fair if my suffering now is because what I did in my past life was bad? And if I'm bad now and I've many fortunes, how could it not be fair since it's because all the good deeds which I had done in my past life? Afterall, I would have to pay it back in my next life. So, isn't that life is fair for those who believe in rebirth and karma?
S: Responsibility is carried over from life to life, so much so that we should be encouraged to change our attitude now for a better present and future life. Life is fair whether one believes in the karma and rebirth or not, because they are laws of nature which work unceasingly and naturally. We are the result of what we have done (in the past in this life and in a past life), and we will be the result of what we are doing now.
Q: About people eating meat... Is it because the animals had done something bad in their past lives as human, and that now they've to suffer as animals? If they're not too bad, they could be pets? And if they're too bad, they would be eaten?
S: This is not totally true as animals might not have been humans in their immediate past life - they might have been a hell-being, a hungry ghost, another animal or even a god. Yes, animals that suffer and get slaughtered are actually facing the ripening of their negative karma. However, when we voluntarily choose to be part of the process of their negative karma's ripening, we inevitably end up creating some negative karma for ourselves too. The closer we are connected in some way to the deaths of animals through the cycle of supply and demand, the more negative karma we accumulate. For instance, ordering live seafood to be killed for dinner is worse than buying an already dead fish at the market - as it is connected less directly as a condition for the fish's death.
Q: Those who eat animals are those who were the animals' victims in their past lives, and they're repaying it now? If the whole world turned vegetarian, how do these animals repay their bad deeds for their past life since they'll not be eaten or mistreated?
S: In the intricate interconnections of karma from life to life, it is inevitably true that some of those who eat animals were their victims, whether they know it or not. This is exactly why should not further the cycle of eating each other. As mentioned, karma can ripen in equivalent ways in different ways. There is no need to choose to be part of the process of ripening others' negative karma. When we choose to be vegetarians, we choose to perpetuate kindness instead of cruelty. In this way, there will be less and less killing, as the cycle of supply and demand breaks down.
Q: If there's rebirth, isn't it better that we kill the animals right after they were born or purposely mistreat them horribly, so that they can repay everything in this life and become human in their next life? And when we kill/mistreat the animals, is because they owe it to us in our past lives?
S: If someone thinks a baby's karma is very negative, should he kill the baby upon birth or abuse the child as he grows up, to let his negative karma ripen faster? When we think of the above using a human example, it becomes inhumane. Likewise, it is equally inhumane to kill or mistreat animals. We do not know whether a being's karma is such that it deserves any punishment at all. (Some animals even have better karma in some ways than some humans in some ways.) As mentioned, when we voluntarily choose to be part of the process of ripening others' negative karma, we create negative karma for ourselves too. It is a lose-lose situation that should be avoided. We also do not know if killing an animal will result in making it be reborn human in its next life. If an animal dies in great fear, hatred or any other strong negative mind-states, it is not likely to be reborn human in its immediate next life, but will be born as an animal again, or as a hell-being or hungry ghost. Killing animals ourselves can also result in our being born as animals. The win-win situation is thus to be kind to all animals, which is also being kind to ourselves in the short and long run. For four powerful undeniable non-religious reasons to be vegetarian, please visit http://www.viva.org.uk/goingveggie/index.htmlQ: Let's say a person who doesn't eat meat and doesn't care about him/herself whether he/she'll get negative karma in this/next life (selfless), and all he/she want to do is to ripen the animals' negative karma as soon as possible, so he/she choose to kill them. Will this person be judged by his/her deeds as evil, or by his/her intention/heart or the results he/she wants for others? Will he/she gets negative karma as well?
S: It is delusion that leads such a person to be apathetic to the karmic consequences of his actions. Killing animals does not speed up their karma's ripening - all beings experience their just deserts in good time. When a fruit is ripe, it drops. So this person's actions are the result of ignorance of the law of karma, and are unnecessary. Karma can be tricky - if his intentions were good though wisdom of karma is in lack, he ends up creating less negative karma, than one who knows it is wrong and goes ahead to kill. In any case, this is a serious delusion. Just substitute the animals with human beings and we can easily see the immorality of such a notion. If killing can lead to the killed being guaranteed reborn in a better life, we might as well kill each with nuclear bombs right now, wiping out all life on Earth, human and animal.
Q: Let's say I saw some people/animals who need help but I'm not helping - because I think this person/animal will eventually get help if he/she/it deserves it. If no one helps, it means he/she/it doesn't deserves it. And because of that, I didn't do any bad thing, I won't get bad karma, just the same I won't get good karma because I didn't do anything good?
S: When we do not choose to be compassionate, we are choosing to be selfish, to perpetuate our selfishness. The intention of wanting to be selfish creates negative karma and perpetuates our habitual selfishness. While it is true that those who will get help will get it in one way or another, it is a win-win situation for those we help and ourselves when we actively play a part in helping, in letting others' positive karma ripen while we create positive karma.
In Buddhism, when one does not help another human being in a life or death situation, one can be reborn in the cold hells, which is the result of cold-heartedness in letting others die without helping when one could have helped (Yes, there are hot hells, which are the result of burning hatred). Even the act of choosing not to act is an action of intention in Buddhism. Karma is primarily created in the mind through our intentions, which also manifest as speech and deeds. The thought that "I need not help anyway, since he or she will be helped if he or she deserves it anyway" is a delusional and cruel thought. One also does not know for sure if one IS the best means to ripen the person's postive karma to be helped anyway. So why not just follow your heart and do your best to help?
If we are sincere to ourselves and others and look deep into our hearts, we will naturally help without hesitation. This is the Buddha-nature of perfect natural compassion and wisdom in us shining. We should always put ourselves in the shoes of other beings, using the golden rule (of most religions) - "Do not unto others what one does not want others to do unto you." Likewise, "Do unto others what you want others to do unto you." Can you imagine a world where no one helps any other being? I think this world is hell itself. Please see http://moonpointer.com/essays/best/1.htm for an excellent illustrated story on why we actually naturally want to help all beings unconditionally.Q: He showed me a book about the teaching of karma in Buddhism... "You can't talk because you tell too many lies in your past life... You're ugly because you've a wicked heart in your past life... You're poor because you were a thief in your past life, etc." He said this book doesn't represent Buddhism.
S: I think that book is "Cause and Effect Sutra", which is unfortunately a widespread bogus Buddhist scripture - it puts words in the Buddha's mouth. Not everything in it is in line with true Buddhist teachings. To understand the dynamics of karma better, I recommend Liao Fan's Four Lessons, a Buddhist classic on a true case-study of cause and effect at play: http://www.buddhanet.net/liaofans.htm