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China Academic Lectures

Sponsored by China Institute in America, N.Y. USA

By Dr. C. T. Shen


In last week's discussion of the concept of birth and death, the one-life theory and the multi-life theory were introduced. I also used a familiar natural phenomenon, the multi-form of

H2O, to illustrate my belief that the multi-life theory taught by Hinduism and Buddhisn is closer to the truth than the one-life theory. We found that H2O is a good analogy for the human soul. Then, we observed that H2O is not the ultimate substance of the universe. Modern science is gradually concluding that

energy could be that ultimate. This agrees with Buddha's teaching that the soul is not the ultimate nature of a human being and the Ultimate is something which is incomprehensible: without duality, without boundary, without birth and death, and with no difference from the universe. Original Nature and Buddha- Nature are two popular names given to this Ultimate. The famous statement made by Buddha upon his enlightenment was "Every sentient being has Buddha-Nature".

The vast, boundless, and empty space is usually used as an analogy to Original Nature to signify the lack of duality and discrimination of the latter, its limitlessness in both time and space. Since the ultimate existence of a human being is of such a nature, then when one is enlightened or

recognizes one's Original Nature, the concept of birth and death becomes inapplicable. Since most of us have not been enlightened it does not help us too much to discuss Original Nature at this stage. We first have to establish a clear understanding of the multi- life theory at the mundane !evel, which directly affects our daily lives. To appreciate thoroughly the multi-life theory, one must first answer an important question which is: what causes such

changes from one form of existence, say, a human being, to another form, say, an animal? To help us understand the answer to this question, it is useful to refer to H2O again. Let us first examine the causes of changes in the forms of H2O say, from water to vapor or ice to water. From physics we learn the following chain of causation: physical or chemical action -> intangible form of energy -> change of activity of H2O molecules -> changes in forms of H2O

This illustration is quite obvious and needs no explanation. I will just give you a few examples of physical and chemical actions and you will instantly know that these actions are the causes of water, vapor, snow, ice, or other forms of H2O. Such actions as radiation from the sun, setting a fire, passing electricity through certain metallic wires and dissolving certain chemicals in water are all familiar examples of processes that produce heat in differing

intensities and that ultimately change the form of H2O; According to Buddhism, a similar natural phenomenon is going on in the universe: that is, various actions carried out by a being in the past and present, cause a certain kind of intangible force comparable to heat that causes the being to change from one form of existence to another. That is why we have the different forms of heaven-dweller, human being, animal, ghost, and hell-dweller, which constitute

samsara, or continuous life and death. In Hinduism and Buddhism, these actions bear a common name -- karma. Karma means an action, or combination of actions, by a being or beings, which produces effects. Those effects, which could be good, bad, or neutral, determine the future of that being or those beings. Karmic actions..therefore, are the heart of the multi-life theory, just as physical and chemical actions are the basic causes of the multi-form

nature of H2O. I would like to draw this.. comparison to the above mentioned chain of causation: Karma -> intangilble force called the karmic force -> effects, good, bad, or neutral upon activities of beings -> change in the forms of the being: samsara This concept of karma plays a very important role throughout Asia. Asian religions have established a famous universal moral code, based upon this law, that good deeds produce good effects and bad deeds

produce bad effects. It should be pointed out that Buddhism gives this moral code additional qualifications.. According to Buddhism: (1) The so-called good effect or bad effect is not a judgment nor is it given as a reward or a punishment by a supramundane authority, such as God. The good or bad effect produced by good or bad karma is purely and simply a natural phenomenon governed by natural laws that act automatically, with complete justice. If God has

anything to do with it, then God must also act according to the natural law or path. This cause produces this effect. That cause produces that effect. God would not change the natural path by his Iike or dislike of a person.

(2) The "good" and "bad" referred to here are not defined by any code or law created by human beings, unless such a code or law follows the natural path. For example, when democracy was first devised, women did not have the right to vote.

At that time, women who complied with that status were considered "good" 'and those who fought against it were considered "bad." that judgment was incorrect, however. The "natural path" is that human beings are all' equal, and thus, the system which gives women equal voting rights with men is the truly just one. Therefore, those who opposed the unequal voting system were actually the good ones. This law of karma, or cause and effect, is so powerful

that it governs everything in the universe except, according to Buddhism, the one who is enlightened or recognizes Original Nature. Upon enlightenment, this cause and effect loses its significance, just as samsara, or recurring birth and death, ceases with enlightenment. Since Original Nature is the Ultimate, there is no one to receive the effect, whether it is good or bad, and no one to whom any effect can apply. This unique explanation, taught by

, of the nullification of the law of karma is very important. I will explain it later. With this brief explanation of karma as background, let us now go a step further to see how karma works.

(1) Karmic effects determine rebirth: In Buddhist texts one may find numerous examples telling what cause produces what effect. The karma of present and past lives determines the form of existence in the next life. Generally speaking, we may outline these karmic effects

as follows:

(A) Such karma as honesty, generosity, kindness, compassion, the relieving of others' suffering, or the creation of major benefits for others may produce the effect or result of being reborn in heaven.

(B) Karma such as giving generously to the needy, aiding those in difficulty, making offerings to the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha or saints in other religions, or giving others knowledge or skills that will improve their way of life, may cause one to be reborn as a human being with a wealthy and bright future.

(C) Karma such a saving others' lives, refraining from killing, relieving others' worries, curing others' illnesses, generously helping hospitals and medical research, or aiding environmental improvement may cause one to be reborn as a human being with a long life and good health, a person to be liked and supported by many people!

(D) The karma of studying and introducing Dharma and the right knowledge to others by means of teaching or writing, giving sincere respect to Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha and the saints in other religions, or meditating to concentrate on the mind can produce the effect of being reborn as a human being with wisdom, intelligence, eloquence in speech, and the qualities of a good scholar.

(E) Despite such karma as killing, hunting, fishing, doing harm to others, endangering others' lives, manufacturing or trading weapons, or robbing, one may be born as a human being again; but he will have the possibility of a short lifespan, accidental death, frightening insanity, disastrous illness, etc.

However, if those karmic activities were dominant in the being's life, then the rebirth will be in the form of an animal or ghost or even a hell-dweller. In one of the Buddhist texts it is recorded that someone asked Buddha: Why are some women ugly-looking but rich? Why are some women beautiful

but poor? Why are some people poor but with good health and long life? Why are some rich yet ill and short-lived? The Buddha's answers were: The woman who is ugly-looking but rich was. short-tempered in her past lives--easily irritated and angered but was also very generous and gave offerings to the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha and offered things to many sentient beings. The woman who is beautiful but poor was, in her past lives, very kind, always smiling and

softspoken, but was stingy and reluctant to make offerings or help other people. The person who is poor but in good health and enjoying a long life was in his or her past lives, very stingy or reluctant to make donations, but was kind to all sentient beings, did not harm or kill others, and also saved many other sentient beings' lives . The person who is rich but often ill, or who is short-lived, was, in his or her past lives,' very generous in helping others

but loved hunting and killing and caused sentient beings to feel worried, insecure, and frightened. The above examples give us some idea why people on earth, although all human beings, vary so much in appearance, character, lifespan, health, mental ability, and fate. It is even more interesting to note how much the circumstances in which a person is born can influence his or her destiny. Which race, which nation, which skin color, which era--all these

factors make a great difference. Would it not be more logical to think that something was going on before one's birth that caused all those effects than to say that it is purely accidental or even to say that it is God's will? If a baby has no past life, then on what grounds does God judge whether to reward or punish that baby by causing him or her to reborn under different circumstances?

(2) Karma also affects others and produces effects in the present lifetime

as well as in future lives. "Karmic effect is incomprehensible!" This statement of Buddha suggests not only the complexity of karmic effects but also the difficulty of predicting when a karmic effect will mature. Generally speaking, however, karma is like the action of lighting a candle. The candle will light the whole room immediately and will last until it is consumed. Similarly, karma has the following characteristics:

A) Karma not only affects the doer but also affects others. The magnitude of the karma determines the sphere of its effect.

B) Most of the karma produces an immediate effect and the effect will last until it is "consumed." The nature and magnitude of a karmic action determine the duration of the effect, which may last many years or may not be felt until some other karmic conditions mature.

(C) Karmic effects can combine and accumulate. These three points are rather condensed. I do not have time to give you a detailed description of them. The following examples, however, might assist you to understand better.

(A) The discovery of electricity by Benjamin Franklin and the conversion of electricity into light by Thomas Edison changed the lives of human beings tremendously and the effect is still growing.

B) An action taken by the U.S. Congress to change the tax law will immediately affect millions of American pockets. The effect can be seen by many Americans in their lifetime, and it could also be felt by them in the next life if any of them happened to be reborn as Americans.

C) The combined and cumulative karma of the system of slavery used by many Americans over a long period of time has produced effects which constitute a major domestic problem in the U.S.

D) The theoretical discovery of atomic energy by Albert Einstein and the joint effort of all the participants in the Manhattan Project produced such complicated effects, good and bad, that we are probably just beginning to realize the significance of these developments.

3) Comparison of the magnitude of effects of various kinds of karma: Such comparisons are recorded in many Buddhist scriptures. I would like to give you some examples to enable you to form your own ideas as to how you may create karmic effects of greater magnitude.

(A) One day, while walking on the street, Buddha met a beggar who was a so-called untouchable in the strict caste society of India during his time. Not only was Buddha friendly with him, but he accepted the beggar as a disciple in the ho!y Sangha. This action had a tremendous effect, which was infinitely greater than the acceptance of a prince as his disciple.

(B) When the monk Bodhidharma went from India to China he was welcomed by the emperor Lang. The emperor asked him, "What merit do I have, since I have built so many temples, erected so many pagodas, made so many offerings to Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha, and have done numerous other virtuous deeds?" Bodhidharma's reply greatly disappointed emperor Lang. Bodhidharma said, "Your Majesty, there is none. You have gained no merit. What you have done produces only wordly rewards, that is, good fortune, great power, or great wealth in your future lives, but you will still wander around in samara."

C) In many of Buddha's teachings, he emphasized that to study and explain to others even a few sentences of his teachings that show how one can be rid of samsara creates infinitely greater merit than the effect even of making tremendous offerings to Buddhas all over the universe in a number equal to the number of grains of sand in the great Ganges River.

(D) Buddha also taught: One who makes numerous offerings to Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha, helps many other sentient beings and does many other good deeds, and dedicates all the merit accumulated thereby to a purpose of one's own interest or to the benefit of one's own children or relatives--such as making more money or enjoying a longer or better present life or future lives--produces limited effects. One who does the same good deeds mentioned above but dedicates all the merit produced to helping and saving all sentient beings from suffering in samsara receives much greater merit

the one with selfish purposes. One who does the same above-mentioned good deeds with no specific purpose or desire receives infinitely greater merit than the two cases mentioned above.

4) Karma and free will: This topic has been often discussed. The question is, "Is there any room for free will under the law of karma?" A more penetrating question is, "Might not so-called free will be simply subjective opinion? Free will is still an effect of certain karma." For

example, suppose a daughter goes against her parents' wishes and decides to marry a younger man. The daughter might think that that decision was made by her free will, but under the law of karma that decision could very well be an effect of her past karmic relations with this young man and her parents. That she acts with a free will is only her subjective opinion. In the United States, people have the freedom to vote or not to vote. Is this freedom obtained by

a kind of free will or is it still predetermined by karmic effect? We could find many examples. all of which seem to indicate that there is no room for free will under the law of karma. Does this mean that the fate of a person is predetermined by his or her past karma, that that person has no way to change

it? Is this correct? Buddha said it is not correct. Why and how, then, can one change one's fate? To help you to understand that one's fate is not entirely predetermined by one' past karma, I must ask you to recall what I said before about Original Nature. I said that cause and effect, just like birth and

death, loses its significance at the enlightened level, because with Original Nature there is no one to receive the effect of karma, whether it is good or bad. Therefore, at the extreme, when one is enlightened, the law of karma is not applicable, so all that the enlightened one does, say, or thinks is from

free will or is a manifestation of Original Nature and is not the effect of past karma. All of Buddha's teachings aim at this one goal: that is, to identify oneself with Original Nature. All methods are therefore designed to enable one to be gradually in harmony with Original Nature. Now, Original

Nature possesses all kinds of good human qualities, such as loving-kindness, compassion, joy, and equanimity. All these good qualities could be good karma, which produces good effects. Therefore, during the process ' of cultivating harmony with Original Nature, these good qualities will be revealed bit by bit,

like an occasional ray of sunshine penetrating through a heavy cloud. These revelations are the true products of a person's free will. Because such free will creates good karma and good karma produces good effects, which, in turn, are good karma for the next effect, and so on, a person has the potential to

become enlightened, to recognize Original Nature, and to become a Buddha. One will thus not only be rid of samsara, but will also gain the perfect wisdom and compassion necessary to teach other sentient beings to follow the same path. Karma is such a vast subject that I could talk for hours without exhausting the material. Topics like the following could be very interesting:

(1) Can good karma and bad karma offset each other?

(2) Can karma be erased?

(3) Can the effects of bad karma be minimized by confession or other kinds of repentance? With the general idea of karma I have presented to you today, you may be able to find the answers to those questions. In conclusion, I wish to emphasize two points:

(1) Good or bad karma will inevitably produce its respective effect. Our daily doings, speech, and thoughts will affect our future. A wise person knows, therefore, how to live properly.

(2) Remember that the law of karma stops operating and you become rid of samsara only by identifying yourself with Original Nature. How you may gradually identify yourself with Original Nature, and realize that Original Nature is you, is therefore the essence of Buddha's teaching, and I sincerely recommend that you study and practice it. Among all the hindrances in our cultivation, the greatest one is our concept of self, which is the core of all our ignorance and suffering. Next week, we shall attack that core, and, let me tell you, that core is indeed very, very hard. ---------------------------------