Staying in the Present

One of the teachings given by Nyima Dakpa Rinpoche at the construction ceremony of the Tara Great Stupa in Hua Hin was that we should constantly be at the present moment. The past is already passed. We can’t bring the past back. The future does not yet happen. So if we keep on thinking about either the past or the future, then we are actually living in a dreamworld. Only the present is real. It is only in the present, the ‘now,’ that we are totally alive and that we are capable of doing anything. It is only in the present moment that we do exist, that we can make any changes, any transformations.

This is a simple yet profound teaching. We need to ponder what it means to say that only the present is real. We may begin by considering the past and the future first. Beings that are wandering in samsara do not live in the present. They are compelled by their past, by their worries, by habitual tendencies that cause them to perceive things in ways that are conditioned by their traces of karma. For example, we have a tendency to get angry when things do not go the way we want. Perhaps we get stuck in a traffic jam and we get annoyed and angry. We become angry because we are conditioned by our habits of wanting to satisfy ourselves and then when what we want does not come fast enough, we get frustrated, angry.

The karmic traces work at a very deep level, and most of us are unaware of it. We believe that we have an “ego” — our own selves — our “I’s”, that need to be taken care of and satisfied. This trace goes back a very long way. We long for satisfying this “I” and when we do not get it, the “I” gets frustrated, bringing about suffering. But when it is satisfied, the “I” does not stop there. It then longs for another thing, and another, and another, and so on without end. That is why beings wander about in the life cycle of birth and death. In fact the life cycle or samsara is nothing but the projections of our own minds which is conditioned by past action or karmas.

Likewise, when we think about the future, we are really thinking of what does not exist. We make plans and when the plan is not realized, we also gets frustrated. Some may be so obsessed with future plans that they become neurotic, losing touch with the real world. Rinpoche said that those who habitually think about the future include those want to procrastinate because they fall under the spell of their egos which want things to remain the way they are. Since dharma practice has a direct effect on the ego, the ego does not want us to do that. So it keeps telling us of all sorts of excuses so that we don’t start practicing. The ways of the ego are so wily.

So what do we do? We remain focused in the present all the times. At least that is the goal. By doing this we do not follow any thoughts and lose ourselves in those thoughts. In fact those who stay in the past or the future are those who lose themselves in their thoughts. They are being led around by their own thoughts, which they believe to be really meaningful and tangible. But thoughts are only thoughts. They are fabrications created by the ego to “make sense” of the world. The problem is that by “making sense” one ironically loses sense of the real reality, which just cannot be said of through words.

Which comes to another of Rinpoche’s teachings that day. One should learn how to say it without actually saying it. This sounds paradoxical, but Rinpoche asked us to ponder its meaning. This is a way of practicing the Dharma itself.

Ten Wholesome and Ten Unwholesome Actions

I am now translating Deshung Rinpoche’s oral commentary — The Three Levels of Spiritual Perception, which is published by Wisdom Books into Thai. The process has taken quite a long time because I am so busy with other commitments, so I can spend only a few minutes each day for the task. Nonetheless I plan to do it everyday (as far as possible) so that the completion is not too distant in the far future. This is my usual working plan — when you do a big task, try to pare it down into manageable chunks and do it one by one. Sooner or later the big task will be completed.

This is what I have been doing. The book is a long one, more than 500 pages, consisting of more than fifty chapters. I have now completed around 25 chapters. So this is almost half way, so at this rate the whole book should be finished not many months from now.

What I would like to write about here is Deshung Rnpoche’s teaching on the ten wholesome and unwholesome actions. This is a very important set of teachings by Lord Buddha which many in Thailand do not seem to pay much attention to. In Sanskrit it is kusalakarmapatha (minus the diacritical marks), or the path of wholesome action. This consists of ten items that those who practice the Dharma need to do in order to achieve the goal of Enlightenment.

For those who did not this already, here are the ten unwholesome actions (the wholesome ones are just opposites of these):

  1. Killing
  2. Stealing
  3. Committing Sexual Misconduct
  4. False Speech
  5. Divisive Speech
  6. Harsh Speech
  7. Idle Speech
  8. Covetousness or Envy
  9. Ill Will
  10. Wrong View

The ten unwholesome and wholesome actions are often taught in the context of karma. That is, those who vow to achieve Buddhahood in order to be able to help furry sentient beings across need to perform all the wholesome actions and avoid the unwholesome ones. This is absolutely necessary. Also, Theravadins also need to do the same, for without the wholesome karmas incurred by performing these wholesome actions, achieving nirvana is absolutely impossible.

Deshung Rinpoche taught that the results of performing the unwholesome actions are of three kinds, namely the fully ripened result, the result that is similar to its causes, and the prevailing, or dominant result. The first one is easy to understand. Doing the unwholesome actions can be a contributing cause to being reborn in one of the lower realms, i.e., as a tenant in hell, as a hungry ghost, or a non-human animal. The second type of result is quite interesting. By committing the unwholesome actions, one is likely to experience the same type of action over and over again. Suppose you steal something from somebody, a result of your action will be that the likeliness will increase that you will be in an environment that is conducive to your performing the same type of unwholesome action again, such as an environment where you will be encouraged to steal. Furthermore, you will also experience the inclination to perform the same type of action again. Suppose you stole something rather frequently in your past lives, chances are that in this life you will find yourself in a situation that makes it likely that you will steal again. This will only perpetuate the unwholesome karmic pattern, so that it will become more and more difficult for you to get out of this.

The third type of result is rather scary. By committing the unwholesome actions, you will find yourself in a situation where the physical environment itself is a cause of suffering. By committing the unwholesome acts, it is likely that you will be reborn in a desolate place where there is little food or drink, where the land is very harsh, and so on.

To underscore the importance of performing the wholesome actions and its role in achieving Liberation, Deshung Rinpoche has the following to say:

If the practice of these ten wholesome deeds is conjoined with the special Mahayana practices of bodhicitta (the bodhisattva’s vow to win enlightenment for the benefit of all beings), it will become not only a cause of higher rebirth but a cause of attaining perfect enlightenment as well. Similarly, if the practice of these virtuous deeds is conjoined with meditation on emptiness, which sees the true nature of phenomena, so that you perform such deeds with insight into the empty nature of everything, then you will accumulate transcendent merit, which becomes a cause not merely of rebirth in the higher realms but of buddhahoold itself.

This shows clearly that the ten wholesome/unwholesome deeds are very important indeed, and as such they function as a necessary stepping stone toward Nirvana and Enlightenment, as eventual Buddhahood. Deshung Rinpoche also recommends that you dedicate the merit obtained through performing the ten wholesome deeds to the enlightenment of all sentient beings. This will much expedite the journey.

The Lankavatara Sutra

Yesterday I went to the office of the Thousand Stars Foundation and found that there were a number of new books waiting to be cataloged and arranged on shelves. The books were given to the Foundation by Anne Tuech, a friend of the Foundation who had helped us with a lot of things. She gave the books to the Foundation so that more could benefit from them. As we say in Thai, we “anumodana-ed” with her merits — that is, we rejoiced sympathetically with her good merits. 🙂

Now one of the books was a copy of D. T. Suzuki’s translation of The Lankavatara Sutra. It turned out that I was looking for this important text for some time and in fact I had been using the online text of this version for quite some time. Thus finding the book at the Foundation office was indeed a blessing.

Bodhidharma

The main idea behind the Sutra is that everything that we perceive is but a manifestation of our own mind. That is, when we perceive things around as being the things that they appear to be to the untrained, unpracticed eyes, we are in fact see our own projections. This is corroborated by a teaching on karma by Deshung Rinpoche, whose oral teaching on The Three Levels of Spiritual Perception I have been reading very closely. In that book, Deshung Rinpoche teaches that one of the results of the karma we did is that the environment in which we live is conditioned by that very karma that we did. This is very startling to me. The idea seems outrageous at first. In what way could it be the case that my own environment is conditioned by the karma or the action that I did?

But when one thinks about it, one begins to see how this is possible. Suppose somebody is full of anger all the time, his mind would then be filled with all the defilements and all the malices that go with anger. So he will very often meet with all these ill wills and hatred and things like that. This is just another way of saying that his environment is conditioned by his karma. Suppose you are full of anger, chances are that you will associate yourselves with those who share the same anger, or the same habit of mind that leads to anger and ill will. This is your environment.

On the other hand, it is quite easy to imagine that one whose mind is directed toward benevolence and compassion will find another environment which is very different from the one mentioned above. Moreover, our karma does more than that. It conditions the kind of life and the kind of world we are born into. Our environment then is conditioned by the karma.

The point is that the idea that the objectively existing environment is conditioned by the karma, which is action performed with intention, shows that there is an intimate connection between the subject and the object, so much so that it does not make much sense, ultimately speaking, to say which is which and how to distinguish among the two. This is also the message of the Lankavatara Sutra. In a way, the mind creates the world. In as much as our karma does condition the kind of environment we find ourselves in, our mind does create the world. Everything we perceive — rocks, trees, mountains, cars, traffic lights, and so on — are nothing but pictures that play itself out before our conceiving mind.

Moreover, deep down behind these pictures is what Suzuki calls “Mind” itself. This is neither subjective nor objective, since it is the condition by which both the subject and the object become possible in the first place. This Mind (with the big M) is not an individual mind, nor is it the case that ordinary things are made up of it in the Berkeleian sense. It is that the conception of the subject and the object itself owes its dependence to this primordial being which is self existing and has no beginning. Thus, when it is said in the Sutra that every individual objects are projection of the Mind, it should be understood as a projection of this universal, individual-transcending Mind, and not as individual minds in the Berkeleian sense. In Sanskrit the subject-object transcending Mind is the Alayavijnana and the individual, discriminating and conceptualizing mind is the manas.

Let us look rather closely at the text itself. On page 40 of the Suzuki version, which is on Section IX of Chapter Two, the Blessed One is speaking to the Bodhisattva Mahasattva Mahamati thus:

Then the Blessed One again speaking to Mahamati the Bodhisattva-Mahasattva said thus: The reasons whereby the eye-consciousness arises are four. What are they? They are: (1) The clinging to an external world, not knowing that it is of Mind itself; (2) The attaching to form and habit-energy accumulated since beginningless time by false reasoning and erroneous views; (3) the self-nature inherent in the Vijnaya; (4) The eagerness for multiple forms and appearances. By these four reasons, Mahamati, the waves of the evolving Vijnanas are stirred on the Alayavijnana which resembesl the waters of a flood. The same [can be said of the other sense-consciousnesses] as of the eye-consciouness. This consciousness arises at once or by degrees in every sense organ including its atoms and pores of the skin; the sense-field is apprehended like a mirror reflecting objects, like the ocean swepa over by a wind. Mahamati, similarly the waves of the mind-ocean are stirred, uninterruptedly by the wind of objectivity; cause, deed, and appearance condition one another inseparably; the functioning Vijnanas and the original Vijnana are thus inextricably bound-up together; and because the self-nature of form, etc., is not comprehended, Mahamati, the system of the five consciousnesses (vijnanas) comes to function. Along with this system of the five Vijnanas, there is what is known as Manovijnana [i.e., the thinking function of consciousness], whereby the objective world is distinguished and individual appearances are distinctly determined, and in this the physical body has its genesis. But the Manovijnana and other Vijnanas have no thought that they are mutually conditioned and that they grow out of their attachment to the discrimination which is applied to the projections of Mind itself. Thus the Vijnanas go on functioning mutually related in a most intimate manner and discriminating a world of representation.

The basic idea is that the physical things arise (this is only a metaphorical speaking, for the Sutra does not say that the individual mind has the power to create physical things ex nihilo) because of the discriminating and conceptualizing function of the five sense consciousnesses and one mental, discriminating consciousness. What is really important is that the consciousnesses or the vijnanas here are mutually dependence on each other. There can be no recognition and conceptualization of this as, say, a table without the conceptualizing mind or consciousness, and this conceptualizing mind itself would have no object to conceptualize if there were no object for it to do that. So both the mind (ordinary one) and object do indeed depend on each other. Without the mind, no object is even possible, and without the object, the mind has no content, which then means that it ceases to function as what it is, namely as a conceptualizing mind.

Emptiness of Karma

Talking about karma and empitness, Nagarjuna says that ultimately speaking there is no karma — no perpetrator, no action, no recipient of action. So karma is empty. This is one of the most difficult teachings in the Fundamental Verses on the Middly Way. But we can unpack the difficulty as follows:

First of all, for karma to take effect, there must be the perpetrator of the karma (let’s not forget that karma is just Sanskrit for ‘action’). And since there is the doer of the action, there also has to be the action itself and the benefiary or recipient of the action. These follow logically. So for example, I am offering a flower to a monk. I am doing a karma. There is the I who offers the flower; there is the action of offering, of putting the flower inside the monk’s almbowl, and so on, and there is the monk who receives the flower and gives me blessings. So far, so good.

However, the main doctrine of the Fundamental Verses is that everything whatsoever is empty of its own inherent characteristics. Ultimately speaking, there is just no thing. Everything that seems to exist, be it flowers, monks, laypeople, etc., are results of conceptual imputation – the act of naming things and thus apparently grasping the names things as if they exist by themselves. So at this ultimate level there is no giver, no thing given, and no receiver.

But if that is the case, then how could Nagarjuna explain the fruits of karma? In the Tipitaka there are a lot of stories of people who are reborn in heaven because of their merit making activities in their past lives. So who gets reborn as gods in heaven? Nagarjuna argues that karma has neither existence nor non-existence, and this is his standard way of arguing in the Fundamental Verses. Since karma has neither existence nor non-existence, we can put karma in either way. So it is wrong both to say that karma does exist and also wrong to say that it does not exist. This is a very difficult and mind boggling point.

I think Nagarjuna’s point is this. In arguing that karma does not exist, Nagarjuna is saying that we can’t just get rid of the concept and go on as if there is no karma. In that case, no action would bear any fruit and all the stories about reincarnation and being reborn in heavens and hells would make no sense. This is of course totally wrong. So karma does exist. But it does not exist in its own substantial being. To say that karma exists is just to say that there are some causes and conditions that let to the karma existing. Without these causes and conditions there is no karma.  Karma exists because the perpetrator believes that things have inherent characteristics. Believing that by offering the flower to the monk, a person who has not realized the whole truth still has some grasping to his constructed self, so in a way that self is reborn in heaven. But strictly speaking it is not *he himself* that is reborn because there is no substantial soul in Buddhism. But the god who is reborn is a result of that person’s merit making nonetheless. All this is possible because of the ingrained belief (a false one) that there is a self, and that things exist on their own. And since being a god is just being in samsara, so we see the process of samsaric circle going on here.

Here is Nagarjuna’s point:

Defilements, karma, bodies,

Those doing karma, those receiving fruits of karma

Are like the city of Gandharvas,

Illusionlike and dreamlike.

Vajrasattva

VajrasattvaOne of Phakchok Rinpoche’s teachings next week will focus on the Buddha Vajrasattva. In fact he is going to give those attending an empowerment of the Buddha so that we know how to practice the deity properly and receive the blessings of the lineage of all the masters who practiced this very practice before.

Vajrasattva is the Buddha of purification of previous karmas. This is why his empowerment is coupled with the talk on accumulation of merit, since accumulation of merit won’t be fully effective if one’s previous karmic results and karmic traces are not purified and cleansed away. Vajrasattva specializes precisely on this task.

The picture you see on the right is a status of Vajrasattva found in Cambodia. It dates back to the 11th century C. E., during the height of the Khmer empire. During that time Cambodia was a stronghold of Mahayana and Vajrayana Buddhism, together with Hinduism. It only became Theravada after the fall of the Empire in the fifteenth century. There are still quite a large number of artifacts and statues in Mahayana and Vajrayana Buddhism that can be found in Cambodia and the northeast of Thailand. (The picture is from the website Sundial-Isan, to which I am very thankful.)

Now back to Vajrasattva himself. When we think of Vajrasattva and are constantly mindful of him through the mantra, either the short one or the very long, 100-syllable one, we are then doing a meditation on purifying our past karmic effects. One might suspect whether it is really possible to purify one’s karmic effects. After all, the law of karma seems to be iron clad. If you did something, you will get the result. But if you can purify all that, then where is the force of the law of karma?

This is a very important point. A key teaching in Buddhism is that we always have a choice. It is not that all of us are always predetermined totally by our previous action. Otherwise there would not be any sense in practicing the Dharma in order to become liberated, attaining nirvana or attaining Buddhahood. On the contrary, there is a teaching in some Mahayana Sutras, such as the Avatamsaka, that everyone of us — every being within samsara — will eventually become a Buddha. This means all of us are in fact predetermined to become a Buddha eventually, and the Vajrasattva practice will greatly expedite that process.

Any way, the picture is *not* that whenever we did something wrong we can ask Vajrasattva to purify our action so we are freed and then we commit the same act again. That is totally not the picture. When you seek to purify your own karmic effects, you always do so out of the genuine and intense feeling that you have that what you did was wrong and that you are very deeply sorry and you are committed not to do that again, ever. In meditating on Vajrasattva, all of your previous karmas are open like an open book; there is nothing that you can hide from his eyes. You fully open up yourself and expose all of your misdeeds, both the ones that you know and also the ones that you do not know, and you make a commitment, a vow not to do any misdeed or unwholesome karmas again, either through the bodily, verbal or mental action. You genuinely and sincerely ask for the blessings of Vajrasattva so that his nectar comes to cleanse and purify your body, speech and mind. Vajrasattva, representing the power of all the Buddhas to help sentient beings in samsara, has all the power to do that. All we only need to do is to open ourselves up to him.

So his practice is very useful for everyone. In Buddhism, the most important thing is the mind. “The mind is chief; among all the things in the world, they are made by the mind,” taught the Buddha Shakyamuni himself in the Dhammapada. One result of unwholesome karmic action is that our minds become cloudy and defiled. A symptom of this is that we might be easily irritated, greedy, harboring harmful thoughts such as wanting to injure others, and so on. These are all defilements. They are called “defilements” because they “defile” the mind, making the mind dirty, and in fact our minds have been dirtied repeatedly for an incalculably long time. This is why we all need Vajrasattva’s blessings, but we also need to be constantly aware that without our own willingness to purify ourselves and without the sincere determination to be able to help all sentient beings through achieving Buddhahood, his blessings won’t be effective at all.

The mind is chief amongst all, so it has to start at your own mind.

Here is another photo of Vajrasattva, found in the northeast of Thailand.

Vajsattva in Thailand

Is it me that exist in the past lives?

Well, I used to be advised not to title a post (or an essay or a paper) with a question sentence, but somehow I could not resist it here. I kind of don’t agree with the advise anyway. Continuing from the previous posts about karma, it seems that there is something that is still left unsaid or unclarified. That is, what is the identity of the persons who existed in one’s previous lives? Are they one and the same as the one who is living now, or are they different persons?

The doctrine of reincarnation is a very old one and it certainly predated Buddhism. The simple picture of the theory is that there is a soul which transmigrates. It changes the bodies as if it is changing its clothes. So in this sense my previous lives essentially belong to me, because there is this *me* that travels around in various “clothing” or bodies. This is subscribed by the Hindus and Jains and I think in some way this belief did penetrated into Greek thinking also (viz. Pythagoras and some others).

However, the Buddha did deny that doctrine. Since he emphasizes that there is no such thing as an ego, there is nothing that transmigrates and there is certainly nothing that remains the same in these various “clothings.” However, the Buddha did not deny that past lives exist either. Which makes the whole thing much more difficult. The usual explanation of this is through an analogy. Let us look at a flame on a candle. In one way it is one flame, because it is there. We can see it. But on a closer look the flame is strictly speaking not a thing at all. It is an appearance of a rather complex chemical phenomenon when oxygen is entering into some other elements in the candle such as carbon and water and gives out heat, light and carbon dioxide (well, I am not a chemist, as you can see but you get the point). Since this is a process, we had better call this an event rather than a thing. It is “flaming” rather than “a flame.”

According to the Buddha, the picture is the same for our bodily and mental composition that we usually call our body or our “self.” First of all, we are all breathing every moment we are alive (we are just not aware of this all the time). The oxygen enters our lungs and sparks the very same kind of process that is taking place on the candle. Each cell in the body is also a chemical factory, consuming energy and oxygen and gives out enzymes, or whatever that is needed for the survival of the body. So everything is a process. We can also look deeper than the chemistry and get into the physics of it, to the basic physical structure of the atoms that make up the body, and then we see the process picture will be more pronounced.

Now let’s look at our mental episodes. Right now I am typing on this editor in WordPress, trying to say what I would like to say. The doctrine of the soul would have it that there is a soul, a ‘homunculus,’ one might say, that ultimately does the thinking and the directing of the movements of the fingers on the keyboard to type out all these words. However, this is not borne by empirical fact. All there is is the brain and the brain is nothing but a very huge collection of nerve cells, none of which can lay claim to being the soul that is mentioned in the theory.

So perhaps the soul might be something immaterial. Perhaps it is something that is purely in the mental realm in the Cartesian dualistic sense. Or perhaps in the Hindu sense of the immaterial soul that animates this body. Or perhaps it is there in the Kantian sense of the “Transcendental Unity of Apperception” (oh how I love these high sounding words) that does the binding together of all these disparate mental episodes so that they make sense.

But then Buddhist would say something like — are we putting the cart before the horse here? It is because we (or most of us) tend to have this sense of our selves that we devise all these fanciful ways of accounting for them? What if there is no such sense at all? Would that make any difference in terms of how the body is functioning or how the mind works? It is clear that such a self does not exist in bodily or physical terms and in mental terms since all our mental episodes are changing rapidly and we do not remember everything so there is no thing that stays the same in all the memory episodes that substantially connect all our episodes either. (The picture is more like there is a thread in the memory that links up with other threads and one usually gets a sense of who one is by remembering only some of these threads rather than the whole thing. But this means that there has to be something deeper that tells us that these threads are enough and we are now “convinced” that we are one and the same.)

It is precisely this sense of believing that there has to be something, some enduring thing, that answers to the pronoun “I” that is the root cause of our wanderings in samsara, the root cause of all the defilements. More on this later. But the point here is that, if this is the case, then strictly speaking we cannot say that the person who existed in the past was or is the same person as I am right now. Even though there might be some connection, some cause and effect relations, between a particular person and myself, still it would be wrong to say that that person is ‘me.’ This is because that person had to exist in a context — his society, his community, his circle of friends and relatives and so on — and within that context he had an identity, which is definitely not ‘me’ at all.

So he (or she) is his own person, and I am my own person, although what he did did have some effects on me. So on the one hand, it is not me who existed in the past, but that does not mean that there is no cause and effect relation either. Past karmas do have some effects on our present constitution, but that is not the point. The point is for us to realize the truth that the sense of there being an ego, a self, is the root cause of defilements that are binding us within this samsara. And we need to get away from that.

Tsunamis, Cyclones, Earthquakes and Karma

There is a prominent teaching in Buddhism, which it also largely shares with other Indian religions such as Jainism and Hinduism, and that is the belief in the law of karma.

Basically what the law says is that your present condition is the result of your post actions, and that your future condition will be the result of the combination between past and present actions. The law of karma explains, for example, why you were born in such and such a place and enjoy doing certain things (such as playing the piano) rather than others (such as bowling). It explains the character of who we look for in a mate and many other things.

The law of karma works because our mental continuum is receptive and sensitive to a large variety of influences and has the tendency of carrying over these influences. In a type of Mahayana thought, that of the Yogācāra, there is the teaching on the Ālayavijñāṇa (now I have to force myself to do the diacritical marks), or “store consciousness.” This is a type of consciousness that underlies the workings of the other six types of consciousness that are known in the early teaching, each corresponding to the five senses and one “inner” or mental sense, so to speak. It is the store consciousness that keeps record of our doings in the past and when time is appropriate, or the condition is ripened, the result bears fruit. All these records are kept in the store consciousness, and each individual who is not liberated has his or her own store consciousness that keeps records of everything that person has ever did through bodily, verbal or mental actions.

This is the usual explanation of how karma works. There is a saying that in Buddhism nothing exists by chance, because everything that happens does so as a result of a combination of causes and conditions. So when one wants to have an explanation for natural disasters like the 2006 Indian Ocean Tsunami or the recent cyclone in Burma and the earlhquake in China from a Buddhist, the typical answer would be that of karma.

This immediately brings about discomfort among I think Westerners who are not used to this kind of idea. Asian Buddhists have a much easier time understanding and accepting this. The question that springs up is: If it is karma, then is it ultimately these people’s fault that they have to suffer the Tsunami? What kind of teaching is that? In fact many blogs here in WordPress are reeling after Sharon Stone made a comment referring to the earthquake victims as suffering from “karma.”

Don’t get me wrong on this. Stone is utterly wrong when she said that the Chinese earthquake victim suffer because of their wrongdoings, or because of the wrongdoings of their political leaders. That is very wrong indeed and definitely not a Buddhist thing to say at all. The meaning of Stone’s remark is something like: They deserve it because of what they have done. But that is NOT the Buddhist teaching on karma. So Stone is giving karma a bad name.

Since everything that happens, happens because of causes and conditions, so do earthquakes and cyclones and other events. There are causes and conditions that all together explain why such things happen, even though right now we do not understand them all, since earthquakes and cyclones are extremely complex phenomena. And what about those people who happened to be there when the quake occurred? They clearly do not deserve their death at all. Nobody, absolutely nobody, deserves such a fate. Let me repeat. Buddhism does not teach that victims of earthquakes (or tsunamis, etc.) deserve their fate because of their “bad” karmas.

Before going further let me digress. In the 18th century (I don’t remember exactly the year) a huge earthquake took place in the Atlantic ocean quite close to the Portuguese shore. The quake sent off a huge tsunami rushing to Portugal. I did not look this up, but perhaps around 30,000 people or so died. Being Christians, Portuguese and other Europeans raised this question: What could ever justify such a calamity? If God were a thoroughly compassionate and all powerful being, then how could he let such a thing happen? This is known in theology as the problem of theodicy. The thing is that the people who died were devout Catholics. If anything there were not sinners who might have “deserved” to die. But if they were so faithful, why did they suffer such a fate?

The people in the Irrawaddy delta or in the Chengdu area are not sinners either, at least they are not singled out by a supreme and all powerful being because of their common characteristics. There is no more feature in common among them than in any group of people living together in any other geographical area in the world. So God, being infinitely powerful and loving, did something totally incomprehensible. We mortals cannot fathom His mind; all we can do and have to do is to remain faithful and be mindful that such a calamity could one day strike ourselves too. We can’t help with that, but we can help ourselves because faith does arise within ourselves.

Well, that seems to be the Christian answer, and I am not of a Christian theologian to give any more precise answer to that. But at least it seems to me that way. Now back to Buddhism. I have just said that it is wrong to say that these people deserve to die. That is as bad as saying that the Portuguese Catholics who perished because of the 18th century tsunami were sinners and God punished them. Who are we to judge that these people have sinned? I mean what are the differences between them and us??

So the Buddhist response to this would be something like this. Causes and conditions that explain the occurences of things in the world are so complex that not even a hugely powerful supercomputer (let alone a finite human mind) could comprehend it. Perhaps there might be some reason, or some explanation, as to why this particular person happened to be at the area where the quake hit. But what is the significance of that? Why do we need to single this out and point our fingers at them as Stone seems to be doing? Suppose we find a patient suffering from a serious illness, do we point our fingers to him saying “You deserve it because you did something bad”? What bad manners! And worse, saying things like this means that you feel that you are somehow superior to others. It is this kind of attitude that will quite likely bring you down to the lower realms in your future life. Things just happen. It could happen to you too.

So instead of saying things like Stone does, the Buddhist would extend compassionate hands to the victims and help every way they can. They also take this event as a reminder of how impermanent things are. Human life is so short and so fleeting. There is no time to fool around because no one knows what lies ahead of us in the next life and if we don’t practice the Dharma (which includes helping others in need), then there is a big chance of not being born a human being again. And once you are born as an animal, then you have to wait a LONG time before coming back as a human again….