ACCORDING TO BUDDHISM, if we do good we shall be happy; if we do bad we shall suffer. Nice idea, but is it supported by the realities of life? We should always test things instead of merely believing, before inimical people come along and pull the carpet from under us.
We’ve all seen people who lead very good lives, who are kind and considerate of others, but who suffer and undergo so many hardships, have we not?. We’ve also seen people who lead very irresponsible lives, who are virtually criminals, completely disregarding the rights and feelings of others, but who seem to prosper and be happy. What are we to make of this? It is not an idea, but a reality; there are people like this, and not a few, either! Does it not cause us to think and wonder why? Something seems to be wrong, does it not? Why should this be? Should not the good and kind folks be happy instead of suffering, and the cheats, exploiters and criminals suffer instead of prospering? Where is the justice in all this?
If we are not careful, our indignation and sense of right and wrong might cause us to doubt the teaching that ‘if we do good, we shall be happy, but if we do bad, we shall suffer as a result’, and even to abandon the Dharma.
It is not uncommon for people to ask: “Why do bad things happen to good people?” We may have asked it ourselves. Let us examine this question to see what it means; perhaps it will reveal something we were not aware of.
In order to ask it, we must first have an idea that there is such a thing as ‘a good person’. You might say I am good, and I might say that you are, but if we say we are good ourselves, are we? We can’t even think it. On the other hand, if we think or say we are bad, it is also incorrect. We must try to be fair with ourselves as well as with others, and not falsely modest.
During one of my talks to a large audience last year, I asked: “How many good people are there here tonight?” After a few moments, two people raised their hands, though why they did so I don’t know. Then when I asked: “How many bad people are there?”, again two people raised their hands—one of them a Westerner. I was later told that they were a pastor and his wife. It wasn’t surprising, therefore, that they’d raised their hands, as Christians are taught that they are sinners and can only be saved through believing in Jesus. Of course, I do not accept this. If we say we are bad, it is the same as saying we are good, as we’ve been taught not to think of ourselves as ‘good’, so calling oneself good must be bad, and conversely, calling oneself bad must be good. This is false modesty!
While in India last year, I sought out and visited a Jain monastery. Jainism began at the same time and in the same area as Buddhism, and is also non-theistic. I had heard something of Jainism, and had read of what the Buddha thought of it, but had never met any Jain monks until then.
I was not surprised, upon entering the monastery, to find the white robed monks wearing facemasks, as I’d heard that this was one of their customs. One monk spoke English quite well, so I was able converse with them. I was invited to sit—on the floor, of course—but on a lower level than the Jain monks; I noted the distinction, but didn’t object (many Buddhist monks also subject other people to this kind of treatment); I was also asked not to sit too close to them in case I came into physical contact with them, because—one of them said—I was wearing a watch, and the battery that powered it contained life (?).
Saying that I knew something of the Buddha’s opinion of Jainism, in order not to be one-sided, I wished to know how Jains thought of the Buddha. They said that they agreed with most of what the Buddha taught, but not with His meat-eating, which they found unacceptable, as they are meticulous vegetarians, avoiding not only things like onions and garlic (as do many Buddhist vegetarians), but even vegetables that grow in the ground and which have to be uprooted, as that might cause the death of worms and insects in the soil. Many Jains—not only monks, but laity, too—also refrain from eating at night, in case any insects get into their food in the dim light. It is a religion of so many restrictions.
Unlike Buddhism, Jainism did not spread beyond India and become an international religion, as Jain monks won’t use any kind of transport and walk wherever they want to go. They carry a soft broom with them to sweep the way before them, in case they accidentally tread on any insects and cause their death; they also go barefoot for the same reason (feet being softer than shoes). And instead of shaving their heads as Buddhist monks do, they pluck out their hair by the roots, though why they do this, I didn’t discover.
When I asked what they expected to get from their extreme practices, they seemed taken aback and didn’t know what to say. Out of politeness, I didn’t pursue this, but it is a thing I ask Buddhists, too: What do you expect to get from your practices, and are your expectations realistic? Do our practices make us morally any better than people who don’t do such things, or do they make us proud and feel superior? Does shaving one’s head—or plucking one’s hair out by the roots—for example, make one a better person? How? It is without moral values, and cannot be considered good or bad; it is simply amoral, and we lose our way if we think of it as good merely because it is something different. The search for goodness can easily lead to conceit and hypocrisy.
While discussing with the Jain monks, a Hindu scholar joined us, and the situation changed. I did not understand very much of the dialogue between Hindus and Jains, but caught a word here and there, and because I know something of Hinduism, could tell that the Hindu was trying to prove his way better than Jainism. He was talking about Maya—a central Hindu idea—maintaining that everything is illusive and unreal. I found myself taking the side of the Jains, and joined in the debate by saying that things are real in context, at the moment, but because they change, ultimately they are unreal. “But can you say pain is unreal if I pinch you?” I said, leaning over and pinching the Hindu’s leg.
We must resist the tendency to think ourselves better than others because of our practices, and not elevate ourselves; if others elevate us we must be even more careful, because if they can put us up, they can also put us down. “Be humble, if wisdom you would attain; be humbler still when wisdom you have attained”, says The Voice of the Silence. Sit on a high place and you may fall down; sit on the floor and you cannot.
So, if we are not good and not bad, what are we? It helps a lot to ask and answer this question. We are simply people, at a particular stage of evolution, and as such have come a long way in a short time. According to anthropology, humans have existed about five or six million years, which is not very long at all, geologically speaking; we are new comers. Early humans, however, were more like apes than we of today, but even so, they were our ancestors, and we have good reason to be grateful to them, for without them, we would not be here; if the chain of generations had been broken, humans would have followed the dinosaurs into extinction. How did we survive? How did the chain hold? It is really quite remarkable, and means that, as human beings, just as we are, we are tremendously successful. It is useful to try to understand this.
We have not, as some claim, descended, but on the contrary, have ascended; we should think of ourselves as ascendants rather than as descendants. There never was a state of perfection from which we fell—a Garden of Eden—as the Bible says; we have evolved from primitive beginnings, and will continue to evolve if we can refrain from destroying ourselves and our Spaceship Earth.
It is imperative that we look at ourselves in this way; we need such a perspective because we do wonder why things are as they are, of course. But instead of answering the question: “Why do bad things happen to good people?” it will take us beyond, and help us to look at ourselves not as individuals, but as members of our species, as human beings. We will get a feeling of belonging, and a sense of pride in the resilience and accomplishments of the human race.
Without the panoramic vision that reflecting on our ancestry gives us, our understanding of the present cannot be anything but narrow and murky; we will wonder why misfortune happens to us, and why there is so much pain and suffering. With this vision, however, life unfolds and yields up many insights; it does not appear so chaotic or meaningless; we realize how fortunate we are, and instead of asking why bad things happen to good people, we might ask in amazement why so many good things happen to us. It’s not surprising that we should grow old, get sick and die, that we lose things, or that they wear out or get stolen; on the contrary, it’s surprising that we live as long as we do, and are so fortunate. We may look at our situation negatively, and complain about it, as if it is our right to be always happy and have good things and never bad things happen to us; or we may look at it realistically, with gratitude; we have a choice. If we choose to look at it negatively and complain, of course we will suffer, but whose fault will that be?
In 1997, I made a trip up Malaysia’s East Coast. I had done this many times before, so knew many people in the towns there. At one town, someone came to see me and told me that since we’d last met he’d had a heart attack. “Oh, I’m very sorry about that”, I said, “but glad to see you survived”. Heart attacks, of course, are momentous events; they are not things we go looking for, and they don’t happen every day. But to undergo one, and live to tell of it, should—or could—shock one into waking up to the fragility of life, and give one a new awareness of its importance and value; it should open one’s eyes to the wonder and beauty of it, should help one to tread more lightly. I don’t know if this happened with my friend, but he said nothing about it, nor about the many good things that had happened—must have happened—since we last met, nor about the insights or flashes of understanding he had experienced. What a waste of a heart attack! Just as we squeeze juice from oranges, so we should try to extract something from our experiences—especially the painful ones. Everyone has insights; they are not as uncommon as we think; we should just be on the alert for them, and value them for what they are: glimpses of enlightenment. Stay tuned to Dharma.
I presume, of course, while writing this, that the people who may read it are relatively affluent, people with the luxury of time necessary to read and ponder on such things; I do not, at this stage of my life, write for suffering people in places like Zaire, Rwanda, Bosnia or Afghanistan—not that I do not care about people in such woeful countries, but because there is hardly any chance of my books reaching them, or of making any sense to them if they did, when life ― to them ― is simply a matter of survival. I write for lucky people, to remind them that they are so.
What can we possibly have done—you and I and all the other people around us—to have deserved all the wonderful things that we enjoy in such abundance? Have we earned them, in any way? As far as we can recall, we did not invent the TV, radio, telephone, automobile, train, airplane, refrigerator, etc., ad infinitum, yet we use them without thinking much about them, and take them for granted. Someone invented all these things, to be sure, but only a few people, and not all those who use them daily. How does the karma concept account for all this? Have we all done similar deeds to enjoy similar effects? Or is it not a matter of inheritance? We have not earned, but have inherited all these things from people who lived before us, and in turn, shall pass things on to those who come after us. This is the cumulative effect of civilization; our standard of living is part of the result of being alive at this time—part of the package—and may be considered—if we like —our karma, but we should be grateful, nonetheless.
I am not offering palliatives here, or explanations to encourage people in their self-pity; my purpose is to indicate inner resources that will enable us to face with fortitude whatever life throws at us, without feeling sorry for ourselves, complaining and saying things like: “Why me? Why is this happening to me? I’ve never done anything wrong! I don’t deserve this!” You do not need to have done anything wrong; it is not necessarily the result of something bad you did long ago; it might just be part of the price one has to pay for being alive. Try, therefore, to get your money’s worth, because if you get nothing worthwhile out of life after all your suffering, it is really a tragedy! Many people are able to reflect on their lives and say: “Well, without the hard times, I probably would not have learned much”. We may—as we often do—bemoan life, or we may celebrate it. It is much better to focus on the positive things of life than the negatives, because not only will we suffer less, but will be able to use it more constructively, and for the benefit of others, too. The world doesn’t exist for us, but because of us; every moment, every one of us is engaged in the process of creating the world.
When good things happen to us, we seldom question them and say: “Why is this happening to me? I don’t deserve it. I’ve never done anything good!” We accept it, and even ask for more. We’ve been brought up to do so; greed is inculcated and encouraged in us.
A few years ago, in Australia, there was a TV commercial by a lottery syndicate, holding out the attractive bait of millions of dollars in prizes, featuring a bus driver who had just hit the jackpot. A song called “I’ve Got to Break Free” was playing as he drove his empty bus past people waiting under the hot sun at bus stops, out of the town and into the countryside, as if to say: “I don’t give a damn! I’m free now!” Okay, you might not like your job, and winning the jackpot would certainly free you of it, but until you resign, you have a responsibility to do what you agreed to do when you took the job. This advertisement, therefore, was not just encouraging greed, but extolling irresponsibility.
Surely, one of the marks of civilization is to be civic-minded and consider others. I have just been to apply for a tourist visa for India, and would like to tell of the amazing procedure involved. First, before one’s application will even be considered, and after waiting in line for up to two hours, one has to pay RM40 to pay for a telex sent to somewhere in one’s country of residence, to ascertain that one is not an ‘undesirable’. After some days, when ‘clearance’ comes through, one may go to apply for the actual visa, at a cost of RM80 for a three months’ stay. Later that day, one may collect one’s endorsed passport. It’s a bit like trying to get into Fort Knox!
Why do they make it so hard to visit India? They are not afraid that one wants to stay there indefinitely, are they? Would the geniuses who came up with this hare brained scheme like to undergo something similar? It is so inconvenient: three trips for something that could be done there and then (and with computers, it should be possible to do all that needs to be done). Apart from the needless expense (about RM60 if one goes by taxi), it is environmentally unfriendly, wasting fuel and causing pollution. The authorities of neighboring Nepal are much more practical and sensible, issuing visas upon entry there, without bureaucratic b.s. Indians should be happy to have people visit their country and spend money there; they certainly need it! It’s not a highly developed place where everything is convenient, clean, efficient and the people courteous! While Malaysia—for one example—is urging its people to practice austerity and become more efficient during its time of economic hardship, India seems not only insistent on remaining backward, but of becoming moreso! Where are their minds?!
Efficiency begins with putting ourselves into others’ places and feeling how they feel. Would we like to be treated how we treat others? Indians—Hindus, at least—claim to believe in Karma and Reincarnation. What kind of karma and reincarnation may they expect if they don’t care enough to try to make things easier for others, but insist on complicating things? No wonder India is a mess!
Before he died in 1945, Edgar Cayce, America’s most famous psychic—sometimes called The Sleeping Prophet—saw India becoming a nation without friends. Pretty accurate prediction, I would say. Since gaining its independence from Britain in 1947, it has fought three wars with Pakistan, a border war with China, and has had numerous internal conflicts. Cayce also predicted that India would break up. This would also not be surprising.
Recently—11-Dec-97—I came across a short article in Malaysia’s New Straits Times entitled: Many new migrants disillusioned Down Under. It said:
“MELBOURNE—A study by the Ethnic Communities Council in Sydney has found that nearly half of all newly arrived migrants believe they were better off in their country of origin.
“Many said they had high expectations as to their probable standard of living in Australia before leaving their countries.
“About 46.2 per cent believed their lifestyle in Australia was worse than in their home country, compared with 42.9 per cent who thought they were better off in Australia and 9.8 per cent who said their standard of living was the same.
“ECC spokeswoman Pam Gracia said no statistics were taken from Malaysians but many migrants from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh were among those who expressed the highest rate of dissatisfaction.
“The head of ECC, Malaysian-born Dr Tony Pun, was quoted in The Australian newspaper as saying that the inability of many new migrants to find work, combined with a recent Federal Government ruling that immigrants must wait two years before receiving social security, contributed to the dissatisfaction”.
This is unbelievable, but maybe that’s not the right word! Indians, Pakistanis and Bangladeshis complaining the most, as if their countries were like heaven instead of open toilets?! They are probably professionals, like doctors, who had servants in their own countries to do all their housework for them, but in an egalitarian society like Australia, they have to do such demeaning work as washing the dishes, keeping their toilets clean, and even making their own tea, because no-one has servants there. Oh dear, poor things! Maybe they should have stayed in their own countries with their servants, in their big houses, encircled by the squalor, stench, noise, and pollution of cities like Bombay, Karachi and Dacca, and all the inefficiency of the systems there. They may have had Mercedes or even Rolls Royces in their own countries, but on what kind of roads? They may have had all kinds of electrical appliances, but what use would they be during the frequent power cuts? They may have gone shopping in fine clothes, but along the streets among the beggars, mutilants, lepers and syphilitics that abound in their sinkhole cities. They may have eaten in the most expensive restaurants, unaware of the hygiene—or lack of it—in the kitchens or among the staff there. And of course, Australia’s social security system is nothing compared to those of India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, I’m sure! High expectations of life in Australia? Did they expect to find the streets paved with gold? Australia did not disappoint them; they disappointed themselves by their unrealistic expectations, obviously thinking only of what they might get there, instead of what they might contribute. Such people would be disappointed and complain anywhere they went. Better stay home and learn to appreciate what they’ve got there before looking for greener grass on the other side of the hill!
If we do good with the idea of getting a result—or of even trying to ward off misfortune—we are laying ourselves open to disappointment. We may come to the conclusion—If we do not get what we expect to get, when we expect to get it, or get what we don’t want—that ‘these teachings are not true. I’ve been doing good, and still this is happening to me!’ We may give up doing good, thinking it’s no use anyway, and that we may as well do whatever we like.
If this is the way we think—if we become dismayed and decide to give up doing good—it is a clear sign of business mindedness: I’ll do this in order to get that, and if I can’t get that, I won’t do it. This is the danger inherent in doing good. But being good—goodness—is something quite different than doing good. When we allow the goodness in us—and it is there—to operate, we will do good or right just because we have the opportunity and capacity to do it, without thinking of getting anything in return; it is not a business deal, a means to an end, but an end in itself, something natural, complete in itself and without residue, an expression of our understanding of Dharma. Goodness flowers in us no matter what happens, and in spite of misfortune; it also helps us bear cheerfully and with greater fortitude the pains and problems of life; we will not allow anything to sway us into abandoning it.
Different people respond to difficulties in different ways. Some people complain about the slightest little thing and become depressed when things don’t go how they want. Others remain cheerful no matter what happens, taking the misfortunes of life in their stride. Sometimes, quiet and unassuming people display an amazing capacity to deal with things that seemingly strong people are overcome by. We often don’t know what we are capable of until we are put to the test.
To see results from our actions, we don’t need to look far, don’t need to wait months, years or lifetimes. There is no question about actions having reactions; we need not worry that what we are doing will or will not have an effect. Everything has an immediate effect, and with a little awareness and intelligence, we can see it. When we do something good, we get a feeling of satisfaction, knowing that we’ve done the right thing, and contributed something positive to the world, thereby making it a little better; this is an immediate effect, is it not? We can be at peace with ourselves and forget it; it will not bother us or cause us to lose any sleep over it; we won’t lie awake at night thinking: “I’ve done something good. I’m so sorry and wish I hadn’t done it! I hope no-one finds out!” We don’t need a good memory for that.
Some people seem able to go through life without a conscience, doing whatever they feel like doing without remorse or regret. Would you like to be like that? An active conscience can be quite uncomfortable, it is true, but it is a sign of spiritual evolution; it helps restrain us from doing things that we are capable of doing. We can all lie, for example—and in fact, often do—but we know it to be wrong, and so try not to. A liar must have a good memory, because if he forgets what he’s said and says something different, others will know that he can’t be trusted. Telling the truth, however, is otherwise; we may forget all about what we’ve said, and not worry about it, because we would not contradict ourselves later. I don’t claim that I never tell lies—who can claim that?—but if someone says to me: “You said such-and-such”, I might deny it and say, “No, I did not; I could not have said that; you either misheard or misunderstood”, because although I don’t remember everything I say, I know what I would and would not say.
We may answer the question by saying that it’s all a matter of Karma, everything is due to karma. But this is too easy, too convenient, too simplistic. Although it might help us come to grips with our misfortunes, we must—I feel—be very careful with this concept. To say, about our own situation, “It must be my karma”, may be useful, but we should be on guard against setting ourselves up as judges and saying about others: “It’s their karma”, as if we can see and understand all the causes of their circumstances. If we think we know when we don’t know—and we really don’t know, let’s be honest—it prevents further learning, and we come to a halt.
Before I close, I must say that I do not want to leave any-one with the impression that I deny the Law of Karma, for such is not the case; what I am saying is that we should treat the concept with caution, because not everything can be attributed to Karma; there are other forces at work in our lives besides that. As everyone knows, however, there would be no point in planting seeds if one seed sown produced just one seed grown or none at all; there are results from our actions, but sometimes not the ones we expect. And meanwhile, our looking for results prevents us seeing what results are there.
This, though, shouldn’t deter one from planting good seeds, as mentioned above. Different seeds grow at different rates: a mungbean will grow into an edible sprout in a few days, while a coconut will take many years to grow into a fruit-bearing tree. Nor should the harvest be of great concern to us, as it isn’t really ours. Only the seed sowing is ours. Leave the harvest for others, because even if we get it, it will still not be ours, as we will have moved on and changed between the time we sowed the seed and the time of the harvest; we will have become different people. Moreover, we get other people's harvests, do we not?
In 1980, while I was living in the Refugee Camp in the Philippines, the Camp Administration decided to shift people around. Some refugees didn’t want to move, as they had been there some months and had planted gardens, but they had no choice. Before they moved, however, some of them destroyed their gardens, pulling up the vegetables and flowers, cutting down the papaya trees and banana plants, thinking that if they could not have them after they’d planted them, no-one else would! How petty! How shortsighted!
Every day, we reap so many harvests of other peoples’ sowing; we did not grow all the food we eat, make the clothes we wear, build the houses we live in, etc., etc. All these things —in fact, most of what we have and are—have come from others; they are not our harvests, but others’. What do we reap of our own sowing? Really very little, it seems. If we had to depend upon ourselves for everything we needed, we would be in a very sorry state; you see, we are never alone, but depend upon others, and for this we should be grateful, for it allows us to live as we do; we get others’ harvests in great quantity. And what harvests will others get from our planting?
Try, therefore, to see how you fit in and what role you can play in the further development of civilization; use what you have and are. When you criticize or complain, do so constructively, suggesting better alternatives, with the aim of improving things for the whole; complain less about your own situation; try to tahan your personal misfortunes. “Accept the woes of being born”. Take joy in being human and alive.