Saturday, October 22, 2011


"In our myriad deeds, whatever we do,
We reap our own rewards, it's true.
Who can we blame for our woe in the hells?
Who can there be to blame but ourselves?"
From The Buddha Speaks the Sutra of Cause and Effect in the Three Periods of Time.

E. Ethelbert Miller asks: "How does a Buddhist deal with concepts like fate and destiny?"
The traditional, Buddhist answer to this question is that our "fate" or "destiny" is determined in the strictest cause-and-effect fashion by the karma we create (intentional deeds) in our present and past lives. This is simply another way of saying, "As you sow so shall you reap."

 On my desk in front of me right now is a 20-page pamphlet for Buddhist children, entitled The Buddha Speaks the Sutra of Cause and Effect in the Three Periods of Time. It was translated by the Buddhist Text Translation Society, Dharma Realm Buddhist Association, Talmage, California in 1988. The illustrations are by Lee Fei-meng (Nyou Ge) and Feng Dz-Kai. One of my martial art friends acquired this powerful---and sometimes disturbing---instruction manual on karma for kids when he was attending a Seattle Buddhist temple for lessons in Chinese.

 Everything one reads in this instruction book is correct from a traditional point of view, and applies to the realm of conventional reality (saṁvrti-satya). "All men and women of the world," it says, "whether they are poor and lowly, or wealthy and noble, whether they are undergoing fruitless sufferings or enjoying blessings without end, are experiencing causes and effects from their past lives." In this text, this pre-scientific formula is presented literally, along with illustrations, that supposedly "explain" why certain people are living with certain pleasant or unpleasant conditions. For example:

"Sometimes people have plentiful goods,
The reason, in fact, again is quite fair.
 In the past those people gave food to the poor."

"Others don't have food or drink,
Who can guess the reason why?
Before those people were plagued with a fault:
Stingy greed made them squeeze every penny."

"The well-to-do among us dwell
In tall mansions and vast estates.
The reason is they gladly gave rice,
Lavishing gifts of grain on monasteries."

"Some people's features are fine and perfect.
Surely the reason for such rewards
Is the beautiful flowers they offered to Buddhas."

This book for kids even goes so far as to state "Servants and slaves made that bondage themselves/By neglecting repayment of goodness done them."
With our modern, liberal-humanist and Western eyes we can easily see the inherent problem with this method for interpreting someone's "fate." Thousands of years ago, this inflexible method of interpretation was used in India to not only "explain" but also justify the exclusion of Untouchables from society. Here, on page 10, it is used to "explain" why some people are destined or fated to be slaves and servants. (Obviously, those with a Marxist orientation, who believe that "behind every great fortune there is a great crime," will not buy this explanation for why some are poor and others are not.) This narrow conception of karma gives us a bit of insight into the feeling that lay Buddhists throughout southeast Asia have that they must make "merit." In Thailand, you can buy merit. Venders with birds in cages will, if you pay them, allow you to open the cages and let the birds go free: instant good karma! And, yes, I did that when I was in Chiang Mai. But let's not forget one thing: this book I'm describing is for children.

 Personally, and in terms of my experience, I know nothing about past lives or reincarnation. Nothing! And a wise Buddhist abbot I interviewed in Thailand in 1997 didn't simply tell me not to talk about reincarnation, he urged me to not even think about it. (He saw his people's concern with merit-making as a sad, backward practice. As a philosophy based on change and impermanence, Buddhism itself is clearly obliged to change and evolve beyond erroneous ideas from its early, pre-scientific history.) I believe his suggestion was wise (and it fits well with my own insistence upon epistemological humility, and my certainty that the Other will always to some degree remain a mystery). According to legend, Shakyamuni Buddha saw his past lives during his night of awakening. Good for him, I say. But we, as practitioners today, should forget about the empirically unverifiable proposition of past lives. We should also "let go" thoughts about the future. And devote ourselves 100% to mindfully living in the present moment. If we do that, following the Precepts and the Eight-Fold Path, and if there is any truth to karma (which I am not claiming here), then---according to one poplar argument---it follows that the seeds we plant in the present moment will lead to good results in moments to come (the future). That is one of the beauties of Buddhism---its promise to practitioners that right here, right now, we can through our actions liberate ourselves from suffering past and present, and know happiness. We, and no one else, are in control of our lives and "destiny" moment by moment.

 But listen: even that is beside the point. Even that begs the question. If those seeds planted in the present do not lead to the "reward" we desire, so what? Our actions in the present, those devoted to alleviating the suffering of sentient beings (i.e., the Bodhissatva vow), should be performed free of the desire for personal results and rewards. Selfless doing is its own reward. Furthermore, who or what is this "self" that experiences reward? We know it, of course, to be a fiction. A construct. 

 We also find in the literature of Buddhism (and I was also told this by the abbot in Thailand) the understanding that as we progress along the path, the day eventually comes when we create neither "good" nor "bad" karma. We move beyond the realm of relativity. (And if we still unfortunately cling to that notion of good and bad karma, we can offer our good karma to others to ease their suffering.) Farther along on the path, and in terms of absolute reality (paramārtha-satya) we come to see that there is no doer. And no deeds. And the entire issue of karma---"fate" and "destiny"---becomes moot.

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