Today I have been contemplating karma and trying to reach a better understanding of this universal law and what follows here is my reasoning: I first realized that this law must be intimately connected with the law of causality and from here I began to construct my reasoning. The law of causality states that every event in the universe has a cause and has an effect and that there is no event that can possibly take place on its own without a cause and without an effect. If we are to accept this postulate – which is a central postulate in all scientific theory as well – then we could claim that our actions too have causes and effects. Every action we perform has been caused by something or many things prior to it and, more importantly, has effects in the realm in which it was performed. In this way we can see that our actions have consequences that may be helpful or harmful to the other beings that we share our universe with. Now here is where we begin to enter into slightly murky waters: talking about harmful or helpful. This notion may be misconstrued to imply that there is a universal “good” and “bad” – some sort of list of commandments or other that is embedded into the fabric of the universe. In fact, this is not at all what I mean. What I am saying when I claim that an act is helpful is that it makes the prospect of happiness more viable for the relevant being upon whom the act was performed. Likewise, a harmful act is one which makes the prospect of happiness less viable for the being upon whom the act was performed. This is because I believe that happiness is the aim or goal that we sentient beings all attempt to move towards in life and that suffering is what we all aim to move away from. This is a very important assumption or axiom to start with that lays the foundation for the structure of reason I am attempting to construct. Essentially, what I am saying here is that happiness and the attainment of true and lasting happiness is the goal of all sentient life; it is the aim and the purpose which drives us forward and keeps us acting. Now this word, happiness, can also be misunderstood in a large variety of ways. Perhaps it can be helpful to realize that what I am trying to point to here is not the word itself “happiness,” but an experience that a consciousness can have. This word may be interchanged for: ease, relief, satisfaction, deliverance, nirvana, heaven, etc… It is easy to see the potential pitfalls one can fall into if one clings too strongly to any one of these words. I simply use the word happiness out of a personal convention I have developed, but I don’t really mean happiness; I am talking about something deeper than mere words. And I think all can glean my meaning here. All beings can intuitively sense a rudimentary sort of purpose for life, the ultimate experience of bliss or release. So, any action I perform has consequences/effects which may either be helpful or harmful to sentient beings – i.e. can make it easier or harder for them to attain true happiness. Another way of thinking about this is that my actions can either bring forth happiness in others or they can bring forth suffering in others. The understanding of karma states that all actions arising from a defiled state of mind necessarily yield suffering in both the actor and the acted-upon and that actions arising from an undefiled state of mind yield happiness. Here a defiled state of mind is defined as one which is motivated by greed, hatred, or delusion. These are the three poisons of the mind and any action originating from or motivated by one of these will bring about suffering in the world. This concept seems fairly easy to understand and resonates quite harmoniously with one’s intuitions; if you act out of hatred, there is bound to be suffering, and the same for greed and delusion. The key understanding in the karmic law, however, is that the suffering that arises from an action ripens into a fruit which is to be borne by the actor himself. In other words, all actions derived from a defiled state of mind will, through time, yield consequences for the same mind that intentionally acted and which correspond coincidentally to the relevant act. The story that is frequently recounted to this effect is the story of the Crystal King:
During the generation that preceded Shakyamuni Buddha’s life on earth, many of his Shakya clansmen were brutally massacred by the wicked king, Virudhaka, the so-called “Crystal King”. Why did this terrible event occur? Well, it so happened that near Kapila, the Shakya city in which the Buddha was born, there was a large pond and, on the shore of that pond, there was a small village. Nobody remembers the name of the village. One year a great drought occurred. The crops withered and the villagers couldn’t think of anything else to do but kill and eat the fish that lived in the pond. They caught every fish except one. This last fish was captured by a boy who played with the wretched creature by bouncing it on its head. That’s what he was doing when the villagers took it from him and killed it. Then the rains came again and everywhere in the kingdom life returned to normal. People got married and had children. One of those children was Siddhartha, the Buddha, who was born in the city of Kapila, near that village and pond. Siddhartha grew up and preached the Dharma, gaining many followers. Among these followers was the King of Shravasti, King Prasenajit. This King married a Shakya girl and the two of them produced a son: Prince Virudhaka, the “Crystal One”. The royal couple decided to raise the Prince in Kapila, the Buddha’s city. At first, everything was fine. Prince Virudhaka was a healthy baby and before long he grew into a nice strong boy. But before he was even ready to start school, a momentous event occurred. It happened that one day, during the Buddha’s absence from Kapila, the young prince climbed up onto the Buddha’s Honored Chair and began to play there. He meant no harm – he was just a child playing. But Oh! – when the Buddha’s clansmen saw the prince playing in this sacred place they became very angry and reprimanded the prince and dragged him down from the chair, humiliating and punishing him. How can a child understand the foolishness of zealots? Adults can’t figure it out. It’s really quite mysterious. Their harsh treatment served only to embitter the prince and to cause him to hate all his Shakya clansmen. It was their harsh treatment that started him on his career of cruelty and vengeance. Eventually, the prince, by killing his own father, it is said, was able to ascend the throne of Shravasti. Now, as King Virudhaka, the Crystal King, he was finally able to take revenge against the Shakya clan. Leading his own soldiers, he began to attack the city of Kapila. When the Buddha’s clansmen came to tell him about the impending massacre, they found him suffering from a terrible headache. They begged him to intervene and rescue the people of Kapila from the Crystal King’s brutal attack, but the Buddha, groaning in pain, refused to help. “A fixed Karma cannot be changed,” he said. The clansmen then turned to Maudgalyayana, one of the Buddha’s most powerful disciples, and begged for his assistance. He listened to their sad complaint, and moved to pity, decided to assist the besieged citizens of Kapila. Using his supernatural abilities, Maudgalyayana extended his miraculous bowl to the threatened Shakya and allowed five hundred of them to climb into it. Then he raised the bowl high in the air, thinking that he had lifted them to safety. But when he again lowered the bowl, the five hundred men had turned into a pool of blood. The dreadful sight so alarmed everyone that the Buddha decided to disclose the story of his ancestors, those villagers who had killed all the fish during the drought. “This marauding army of soldiers that are now attacking Kapila had been those fish,” he explained. “The people of Kapila who are now being massacred were the people who killed those fish. The Crystal King, himself, was that last big fish. And who, do you think,” the Buddha asked, holding a cold cloth against his forehead, “was the boy who bounced that fish on its head?” So, for killing the fish, the people suffered death. And for hurting that fish’s head, the Buddha was now plagued with an awful headache. And what about Virudhaka, the Crystal King? Naturally, he was reborn in Hell.
Free e-book Empty Cloud: The Teachings of Xu Yun can be accessed here: http://zbohy.zatma.org/common/downloads/TheTeachingsOfZenMasterHsuYun.pdf As I was reflecting on this idea I began to question how this might correspond to the various events that have taken place in my own life and I realized something quite strange. I started to ask myself what events had taken place in my life lately that had caused me some suffering and I immediately remembered an incident that took place last summer in Thailand. I was driving on a rented motorcycle trying to navigate the slippery, thin, and winding roads of Phuket Island when I lost control of the bike and came crashing into the asphalt below me with my bike slamming into me. My injuries were focused on my arms and in particular my left arm which received a very deep gash on the side of my forearm. Then I started to ask myself if a similar event had occurred in the past where I had acted to cause someone suffering in a similar manner, and within an instant I had recalled a memory of exactly that. It was during 8th or 9th grade when my friends and I were playing on bicycles. One of my friends was riding one and I was running alongside him – his left side. Then, for some strange reason, I had the malicious intent to grab his left handlebar and jiggle it a little in an attempt to introduce a little bit of chaos and annoy him a little. However, as this act was not very well thought-out, he lost control of his bike and came crashing down into the asphalt below and ended up breaking his left forearm. The correlation between this action and my accident in Thailand seem too uncanny to be mere coincidence. Where others would brush this off as chance, I see the workings of the universal karmic law. Our actions are real and they have real consequences, for us and for others. We had best be careful in how we act. One important result of my embracing of the karmic law in this way is that it allows for a venting out of the pressures and turmoil associated with guild and regret. Once I realized that my actions shall return to me and that I shall bear the fruits of my karma, it became possible to finally let go of regretting the past and regretting my actions. For now I can atone for the mistakes of my past by embracing the resultant events that transpire. Now I have come to view every event which brings me suffering that comes from the universe – i.e. a karmic event that is outside of my intentional sphere –as a result of actions committed by a prior me, either in this life or in previous ones. So, no longer do I need to carry around the emotional baggage of guilt over all the horrible actions I can remember committing in the past because I know that I shall inherit my karma. Of course, this is much easier said than done, and guilt does not simply disappear upon the construction of one logical scheme or another. However, this brings me one step closer to atonement and to purification by virtue, and I am grateful for that. Understanding karmic law in this way is the first “step”, if they can be called steps, of the Noble Eightfold Path and represents the mundane understanding of Right View. With more concentration and insight, one can grow to understand Right View as the Four Noble Truths directly perceived and discerned through wielding the sword of wisdom. Until then, I will keep this newfound understanding of karma at no further than arm’s length away from me at all times, as a constant reminder to act with virtue and to cultivate the noble intentions of harmlessness, goodwill, and gratefulness. “All things appear and disappear because of the concurrence of causes and conditions. Nothing ever exists entirely alone; everything is in relation to everything else.”
“Whatever words we utter should be chosen with care for people will hear them and be influenced by them for good or ill.” – Buddha