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            "What is the difference between the Law of Cause-and-Effect and the Law of Karma?"

            Very often, they are taken to be one-and-the-same-thing, but actually, they are not, and it is useful to clarify this, and some other points of misunderstanding in this area. I should stress, however, before beginning, that this is not meant to be an exhaustive analysis of this subject, which would take an entire book, even if it were within my capacity. But I undertake it in order to try to dispel certain myths and misrepresentations.

            The Constitution of a nation consists of many laws, no single one of which is the Constitution. Similarly, the Law of Cause and Effect is the Law of Karma, but is much more, too; the Law of Karma is not the Law of Cause-and-Effect in its entirety—i.e. the Law of Cause-and-Effect is greater than, and includes the other. And so, when translating the Law of Karma as the Law of Cause-and-Effect, we must qualify it by saying that it is the Law of Cause-and-Effect in the moral realm or the realm of intentional action, as that is the only realm where it applies. It does not apply to inanimate objects, nor to beings who lack the capacity to reason and make moral choices. These latter, and everything that is, however, are governed by the Law of Cause-and-Effect.

            First of all, the word Karma is Sanskrit, and means ‘intentional action’ or ‘premeditated action’, not involuntary or unintentional action. It does not mean the result of action, which is the sense in which many people use it today, saying things like: "Oh, it’s my karma! What can I do about it?!"

            Some people might say—and it is their prerogative to say, of course, which we must respect—that the Law of Karma is just supposition, with no empirical evidence to support it. Alright then, let us treat is as a hypothesis—that is, not as something already proved, but as an idea worth considering.

            By this hypothesis, Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism—all Indian in origin—explain the differences and discrepancies between people: why some are born into rich families, and others into poor; why some are healthy, and others sickly; why some are beautiful, intelligent, famous, etc., while others are not. According to the hypothesized Law of Karma, these and other conditions—upon which happiness and sorrow largely depend—are not accidents or ‘twists of Fate’, but results of actions that people have performed in this or previous lifetimes (but this is another hypothesis).

            Well, we can see that actions do have results or reactions, immediately; there is no question about this. Not everyone would agree, however, that they return to us in the form of happiness and unhappiness. Therefore, we dare not make any definitive statements about this, otherwise, we shall be on as shaky ground as those who attribute everything to ‘God’s will’. If the concept helps us to accept and deal with life, it is useful, but if we find it hard to accept, there is no compulsion to do so; it is not a dogma, and we can live quite responsibly without it; we don’t always need ‘a carrot on a stick’.

            Anyway, let us continue investigating the hypothesis. It is found not only in Indian religions. Even in the Christian Bible—where we would not really expect to find it, as it has been replaced by the overwhelming emphasis on ‘vicarious atonement’ (forgiveness of sins and salvation by belief in Jesus)—there are references to it. In Matthew (7:16), Jesus says: "By their fruits you will know them. Do men gather grapes of thorns, or figs of thistles?" And the words of St. Paul (Galatians 6:7) are often used even by some Buddhists when speaking of the Law of Karma: "Whatsoever a man sows, that shall he also reap". But we should take care with such quotations as the latter, or we might lead people into fatalism and complacency, instead of helping them develop the strength and self-reliance that comes through understanding things clearly.

            So, why is the above quotation to be treated with reservation? Well, let us follow the image it employs—that of sowing and reaping. It involves two aspects of time: the present, when seeds are sown, and the future, when the harvest is reaped. Now, can we say, with certainty, that every seed we sow will grow and come to fruition, as Paul’s words imply? No, we cannot, and would be very surprised if even 70 or 80 percent of them did, would we not? It is not impossible that all of them would grow, of course, but it is highly unlikely. Although we might take great care of the seeds we have planted—watering, fertilizing and protecting them from the birds, etc.—there are other factors involved over which we have little or no control; therefore, we cannot predict the exact outcome of our sowing, and there is a little proverb in support of this: Don’t count your chickens before they hatch.

            We can put it clearer than Paul did: As you reap, that you have sown. Same words, different format. We can easily understand that the fruit we eat has come from seeds in the past, while the seeds in the fruit we are eating now will surely never grow and bear fruit if we cut them or chew them up. We can look back from the present to the past, but not forward from the present to the future.

            We are using seeds and fruit here as an analogy for our actions and their results, in line with the hypothesis that ‘good produces good, and evil produces evil’. It is not sure that we shall get back, in direct proportion, the results of our actions. Sometimes, we get more—as when we sow wheat or rice, and get back many grains for each grain sown (there would be no point in sowing if one grain sown produced just one grain grown, would there?)—and sometimes we get less—as when we expend much time and labor in the garden, but with a poor result; and sometimes, we get nothing, like if we were to plant beans that had been cooked. Much work is required for a productive garden, but weeds flourish by themselves.

            Now, suppose you offend or hurt someone. Would you think: "Well, I’ve done it now, and it’s already in the past, so I’ll have to get the result, as I can’t change it"? If you felt remorse for your action and apologized, that might make a lot of difference, and could result in forgiveness and prevent that person from taking revenge upon you. Yes, we can correct many of our negative actions with positive ones, just as we wash our dirty clothes to make them clean, or just as Iraq’s SCUD missiles were intercepted and destroyed by the Patriot missiles of the U.S. Unfortunately, our efforts to correct negative actions with positive ones are seldom as accurate as the Patriot missiles, as we lack radar, and cannot tell when the fruits of negative actions are about to appear. Nevertheless, for our own peace of mind in the present, it is good to try to atone for our unskillful actions, even if we can’t always prevent reactions.

            Misunderstanding about the Buddha’s doctrine of Karma, some Buddhists become so fatalistic that they are convinced that whatever happens to them is directly the result of something they have done before. This is like thinking, "I must have been a mosquito in a previous lifetime, and went around biting people, as I’ve been bitten by so many mozzies in this lifetime!"

            If we suppose that we are born because of Karma, then everything that happens to us thereafter is, directly or indirectly, due to Karma, because if we had no body, nothing could happen to us. But it is incorrect to attribute every little thing to some specific cause, as one cause produces not just one effect, neither is an effect produced by just one cause. Fire, for example, can be used to cook food, but at the same time it would blacken the pans, warm the house, produce ash and smoke, and—if we were not careful—burn us. All of these effects would be produced by the fire. But the fire, which causes such things, is also an effect—in turn—of many other things, is it not? Indeed, if we were to look for a first cause of anything—an excellent exercise to try in one’s leisure time—we would search and search until we would realize that the whole universe is involved in it, and still would not have found the beginning! There are many things involved in each cause, and in each effect, as I have shown above. Each cause is not merely a cause, but also an effect; they cannot be separated or defined as just one or the other, but are both, at the same time.

            Some years ago, I came upon a pamphlet entitled: THE BUDDHA SPEAKS THE SUTRA ON CAUSE-AND-EFFECT IN THE THREE PERIODS OF TIME. I would like to comment on it, as it is a spurious ‘Sutra’ that has the potential to mislead people and give others the wrong impression of Buddhism. (The Sanskrit word ‘sutra’ means a religious discourse or sermon). This so-called ‘Sutra’ describes the Buddha preaching the Dharma to 1,250 monks on top of ‘Magic Mountain’. Well, the only ‘Magic Mountain’ I know of is an alternative to Disneyland north of Los Angeles, and it wasn’t there while the Buddha was alive, so it couldn’t have been that one! It goes on to give Ananda asking the Buddha to explain the discrepancies between human beings, as if he—and the 1,250 assembled monks, who were all supposed to be enlightened already—had never heard the Buddha speak about this before. Well, the Buddha’s doctrine of Karma is already clearly implied in His very first sermon, when He revealed the Four Noble Truths, and formed an important part of His teachings thereafter, long before He had 1,250 monk disciples! We cannot, for a moment, imagine that Ananda, who had a photographic memory, was ignorant of this!

            Here are some verses from this ‘sutra’, which clearly show why it is spurious:

            "Why are some people officials at present? Because they gilded the Buddhas with gold in their past lives, long ago.

            "Why are some people wearers of satin? This is because in times in the past, they gave gifts of robes to the Sangha.

            "The well-to-do among us dwell in very 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 that they offered beautiful flowers to the Buddhas.

            "Why are some people gifted and wise? In former lives they ate pure food, and remembered the Buddha with grateful regard.

            "Orphans must live without fathers and mothers since before, they shot down birds for sport.

            "In raising children, some really fail badly; it’s because they drowned female infants.

            "Bright are the eyes of some fortunate beings; they offered lamps filled with oil before Buddhas.

            "The blind of this world bear a heavy burden for past failure to tell the way clearly to travelers.

            "Some people’s mouths are very misshapen; they blew out lamps on the Buddha’s altars.

            "How do people get to be hunchbacks? They berated and laughed at those bowing to Buddhas.

            "Most cows and horses were human before—people who didn’t settle their debts.

            "Death by starvation: due retribution for stopping up holes of rats and snakes.

            "The stature of some is extremely short. Before, they read sutras spread out on the floor.

            "Vomiting blood? Believe it’s from first eating meat, then reciting the sutras.

            "People who reek with a terrible stench sold inferior scents and phony goods."

            It goes on to say, in threatening tones: "Those who slander the cause-and-effect in this Sutra will fall, and have no chance to be human", while "Those who uphold this Sutra are supported by Buddhas and Bodhisattvas." So, it is better to "Write out this Sutra, study it hard, and in the future your families will flourish. Uphold this Sutra atop your heads to avert disasters and fatal accidents. Print and distribute this precious Sutra, and reap rebirth as a ruler or king", and so on.......

            Now, how can we help but read such stuff without skepticism? It’s a joke! You cannot give people things like this these days; it is just too silly and offensive to reason! Not to be too biased, though, we can see how, centuries ago, it could have been used as a technique to scare or trick illiterate peasants into moral living. But the problem with such techniques is that, like wet cement, they harden and become dogmas, which, instead of helping, only further bind or alienate people.

            In another way, it smells very strongly of priest-craft, with its emphasis on making offerings to the Buddhas and the monks; Buddhism was/is not exempt from this, unfortunately. To mention just one example here, to show how it is very much still with us: In Penang, there is a temple with a large image of the Buddha in a reclining posture; it is frequented by many local Buddhists, as well as being on the list for foreign tourists to visit. Unless it has changed in the last few years (and I’m not aware it has), around this image are numerous other images, each with a donation box before it bearing inscriptions like: "If you pray to this Buddha, you will be happy"; "If you pray to this Buddha, you will be lucky"; "If you pray to this Buddha, you will be wise"; "If you pray to this Buddha, God will bless you", and so on—all nonsense! I once counted at least forty donation boxes (as well as ‘fortune telling’ machines!) around the main image. Now, gullible people (of which there is no shortage in the world), eager for happiness, blessings, luck, etc., would probably put money in each box, and those who installed the boxes would rub their hands gleefully. But what impression would foreign visitors get of Buddhism thereby? Perhaps they would go there with open minds, not unsympathetic towards Buddhism, but could be excused for thinking of it as a thing of superstition, greed and exploitation!

            With just a little intelligence, anyone can see, from the words of this ‘sutra’, that it was never spoken by the Buddha. And why not? Because, while the Buddha was alive, there were no Buddha images (He did not allow them). For several hundred years after He passed away, He was represented by symbols like a Bodhi tree, a Swastika, a royal parasol or a Dharma wheel, as can be seen on the carvings of the Great Stupa at Sanchi in India and other places. It was only much later that He was first represented by an image.

            There were no Buddha altars in the Buddha’s time, so no-one could blow out oil lamps on them. There were no sutras to be read out (on the floor or otherwise), copied, carried on one’s head, etc.; the Buddhist scriptures were not written down until 500 years after the Buddha’s death. The Buddha could not have said these things, therefore. And, to say that He was referring to times long before, when other Buddhas were alive, doesn’t help, either.

            I once wrote to the City of Ten-Thousand Buddhas in California where this particular ‘sutra’—printed in English and Chinese—had come from, asking, simply, for the original Sanskrit name (the Chinese versions of the Buddha’s sermons were translated from Sanskrit, not Pali), but received no reply; perhaps they considered my request unworthy of one. Let me say, however, that we should be very careful about writings that seem to explain everything; following the Buddha’s advice, we should examine things critically, instead of just believing them.

            It might seem that I’ve rambled on a bit in my reply to the question, but I do not apologize for this, as it has allowed me to touch on several related points. But let me return to the question, before someone complains of my meanderings.

            The great Law of Cause-and-Effect that rules all, has five modes of manifestation; that is, it is made up of five lesser laws, one of which is the Law of Karma. The others I will quote from Ven. Narada’s book, The Buddha and His Teachings:

            "Utu Niyama: Physical inorganic order, e.g., seasonal phenomena of winds and rains, the unerring order of seasons, characteristic seasonal changes and events, causes of winds and rains, nature of heat, etc., belong to this group.

            "Bija Niyama: Order of germs and seeds (Physical organic order), e.g., rice produced from rice seed, sugary taste from sugar cane or honey, and the peculiar characteristics of certain fruits. The scientific theory of cells and genes may be ascribed to this order.

            "Dhamma Niyama: Order of the norm, e.g., the natural phenomena occurring at the birth of a Bodhisattva in his last birth. Gravity and other similar laws of nature may be included in this group.

            "Citta Niyama: Order of mind or psychic law, e.g. processes of consciousness, constituents of consciousness, power of mind, including telepathy, retro-cognition, premonition, clairvoyance, clairaudience, thought-reading, and other such psychic phenomena, which are inexplicable to modern science."

            Venerable Narada goes on to say: "Every mental or physical phenomena could be explained by these all-embracing five orders or processes which are laws in themselves. Karma, as such, is only one of these five orders. Like all natural laws, they demand no law-giver."

            And so, although our hypothesis remains a hypothesis, hopefully I have clarified the matter somewhat. More than this, though, I hope I have hereby stimulated someone to question things more, instead of merely believing.


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Last Updated on:  03/11/2001 07:15 PM