The Nature of Karma

Hon Sing Lee, Sep 25 2002

Consider a lighted candle in a cup.  Before it was lighted, the candle is not burning.  Later when oxygen, and heat comes together, then the fire starts.  In Karma terms, the seeds of burning were there, however it is till the ripening of the seeds, then the fire starts.  The fire continues to burn moment by moment.  There seems to be an effortless continuation carried forward from the previous.  However on careful analysis, we realize that the continuation at every moment is not effortless, it is the result of continuing ripening of the seeds.

Karma is perhaps the most powerful force in the universe.  It is the force of cause and effect.  As stated in Dhammapada, the effect follows the cause like an unshakeable shadow.  It is everywhere.  It is present in small phenomenons like burning of a candle, as well as in cosmic phenomenons like planets revolving around the sun.  It lasts as short as a leave falling to the ground, it lasts as long as eternal rebirths of sentient beings.  Karma implements impermanence and emptiness.  Karma is the way of the universe.

Supernatural powers cannot nullify Karma, because the supernatural powers themselves are Karmic in nature.  There was a story to illustrate this.  The King Karli wanted to attack Kapilavastu.  This war would lead to many deaths.  Buddha tried to stop it by sitting at the outskirts of the city.  When King Karli and his soldiers saw Buddha, they respected Buddha by waiting far away.  After three days, Buddha knew there was no way to prevent the war, and hence he left.  His disciple Mugayayana, who is foremost in supernatural powers, tried to do his part by using his powers.  After the city was seiged such that no one in the city can escape, Mugayayana used his powers to transport himself into the city.  He hid 500 people into his alms bow, and then transport himself out of the city.  After he has reached a safe location, he opened his alms bow to free the 500 people.  However in his alms bow, in place of the 500 living people, there was only a pool of blood.  Mugayayana was shocked.  He did not managed to rescue the people.  He realized that Karma cannot be overcome by supernatural powers.

Due to our ignorance, we could not understand fully the workings of the Karma.  Consider the burning candle example again.  Suppose we were scientifically ignorant, and do not know of the existence of oxygen.  Hence we only know that fuel and heat are necessary for fire, but we do not know the sufficient conditions for fire.  From our perspective, sometimes fire seems to burn easily while other times, it is difficult.  As a result, the scientifically-minded people study a probability distribution of obtaining fire, while the superstition-minded people come up with folk tales.  A third group arises and tried to explain in terms of Karma.  This third group is scorned by the science group as superstitious, and ridiculed by the superstition group as alarmists.

Is the above example just a fairy tale?  No, it happens everywhere and every moment.  Spouses come together and break apart, businesses succeed and fail, countries prosper and deteriorate.  There are both science models and superstition models to explain all these, but no one has exactly identified the exact sufficient conditions yet.  Some were arrogant to think they are fully in control of the situation, some thought they can manipulate things to happen exactly the way they want.  All these people did not realize there was the "oxygen" factor that they were ignorant about.  Their false ego finally collapsed, when the "oxygen" factor goes away.  They say it was due to "bad luck".  The wise would say it was really due to Karma.

Karma is too complex to be seen by the naked eye, perceived by the clouded minded, and felt by ego-full self.  However it is always there.  Acknowledging it, is a giant step towards wisdom and lesser suffering.  We still don't know about the "oxygen" factor, but by accepting that our limited wisdom only present us necessary conditions rather than sufficient conditions, we realize Impermanence.  As we further train our mind in mindfulness, we further realize Emptiness.  Finally the perfect application of Emptiness leads to the letting go of Ego.  Only after this point, we are truly at harmony with the force of Karma.

Karma is the most powerful force in the universe.  We must be the most lucky sentient beings in existence, for we are bestowed the ability to use it every day.  Use this ability wisely:

"To avoid all evil, to cultivate good, and to cleanse one's mind -- this is the teaching of the Buddhas."
Dhammapada verse 183.