Why good things happen to bad people and bad things happen
to good people
Reginald Ray, Shambhala Sun, December 2001
In this and the next few columns, I
want to examine the doctrine of karma, one of the most
important yet most misunderstood of all Buddhist
Karma s central place in the
tradition is shown by the Buddha’s own enlightenment, which
consisted of nothing but seeing the full range and extent of
karma, that nothing in the universe stands outside karma’s
domain. Even the concept of the independent, autonomous ‘I”
we so dearly cherish is nothing but the product of karmic
forces. Think of what that means: there can be no such thing
as human autonomy, for the very shocking reason that there
is no one to be autonomous.
To Westerners, the doctrine of karma
can be somewhat off-putting, seeming to be a mechanical law
that exacts full payment from us for our moral infractions.
Yet Buddhism actually takes the opposite view. Only when we
see fully the ramifications of karma can we understand who
we are and why we are here, connect with the warmth and
blessing of the world, arid experience genuine compassion
for other people. Beyond this, to understand that there is
no “I”, but only the operation of impersonal karmic forces,
is to attain the freedom of complete liberation.
Buddhism highlights two types of
karma. The first is the karma of result. This addresses the
age old question of why our life is this way and not some
other. It shows us that every aspect of our lives is the
result of actions we have performed in the past. This
includes our body and its physical condition, our parentage
and other elements of our history, current friends and
relatives, our overall life situation, our general state of
mind, and even the thoughts we think and the emotions we
feel. Nothing is excluded, down to the number of eyelashes
we have and the color of our fingernails and whether we are
having a good or bad day. All of these come about because of
specific actions that we have carried out in the past. They
represent what is given in our lives and, as the fruition of
past actions, stand beyond our ability to make them other
than what they are.
The second type is the karma of
cause, This addresses the question of how or even whether we
influence the future. It says that every action we perform
in the present is going to produce results of some kind
further down the road. Our minds and the actions that
proceed from them are that powerful.
Everything we do affects the future
in ever-widening ripples of cause and effect. If our actions
are virtuous, then the karmic results will be positive,
whereas if our actions are unvirtuous, the results will be
negative. Positive results include fortunate life
circumstances, experiences and opportunities, while negative
results include various forms of suffering, including
poverty, sickness, oppressed circumstances, calamities and
Positive circumstances are desirable
not only because they bring happiness but, more importantly,
because they place us in a favorable position to engage in
spiritual practice, to change ourselves for the better, and
to help others, Negative circumstances are undesirable
because, in addition to the pain they bring, they generate
outer and inner obstacles to the practice of dharma and make
it more difficult to progress along the path.
The teaching on the karma of cause
is a powerful one because it calls into question our natural
tendency to assume that, as long as we don’t get caught, our
actions have no consequences. According to Buddhism,
everything we do, even if it’s just spitting in the dust,
Our own intentions in what we do is
the key factor in determining whether an action will yield
positive or negative results. If we act in a purely selfish,
self-serving manner, then the future fruition of that action
will be negative. By the same token, if our motivation is to
alleviate suffering and bring relief to others, then what we
do will bear fruit in positive karmic results. The late Kalu
Rinpoche illustrated this point with the traditional story
of a daughter who falls into a raging river and is sinking
beneath the waves. Her mother jumps in to save her, but in
trying to save her daughter, the mother begins to founder.
Seeing her mother drowning, the daughter struggles to her
side to try to rescue her. In trying to save one another,
both mother and daughter perish.
Although the outcome is that both
mother and daughter die, Kalu Rinpoche remarked that because
the motivation of each is so entirely selfless, each will
reap immeasurable meritorious karma as they journey through
Assessing intentions is not always
easy because of a natural tendency to hide our actual
motivations, not only from others but also from ourselves.
Many times we convince ourselves that we are acting
generously, only to discover, later perhaps through the
feedback of others, that we were, once again, serving
ourselves and ignoring others’ needs. According to Buddhism,
however, ignorance of our actual motivations is no excuse
and does not relieve us of their karmic consequences.
Therefore, a crucial part of understanding karma is to
become aware of our own inten-tions so that, to begin with,
we know what we are doing.
We create future karma by actions of
body, speech and mind, Examples of demeritorious actions
might include killing an animal (body), speaking abusively
to another (speech), or fanning the flames of our own
jealousy at someone else’s good fortune (mind).
It is perhaps easy to see how the
actions of body and speech produce negative karmic waves: if
we kill an animal or lash out at someone, we are clearly
ignoring the welfare of the other, indulging in our own
aggression, and actually causing harm. In so doing, we make
ourselves harder ai~d more insensitive, and create confusion
and obstacles for them.
But how would the purely mental
activity of jealousy produce negative karma? The Dhammapada,
one of the earliest Buddhist texts, says that what goes on
in the mind is actually the primary determinant of karma.
Why? Because whatever negative actions we perform with body
or speech first appear in the mind in the form of negative
emotions and thoughts. It is not possible to engage in
negative actions of body and speech if we have not first
entertained negative thoughts and emotions. This means that,
as far as karma is concerned, whatever we are doing matters,
whether we are acting, speaking or just thinking.
The Buddhist insistence that there
is ultimately no ‘I” or self” raises an interesting
question: how can there be karmic continuity from life to
life? The answer is that every intentional action leaves a
karmic imprint on our minds. Most often, the trace is so
subtle that we are not aware of it. Yet it remains within us
at an inaccessible level of our mind known as alaya, or
‘universal unconscious.” From there it continues
to’influence how we experience things and think about them.
It is this subtle consciousness, conditioned by all of our
previous karma, that exits the body at death and carries
along with it our entire karmic history.
This is possible because, although
ultimately there is no seli~ relatively speaking each of us
is defined by a “life-stream” of connected moments
(santana). One moment of consciousness, acting as a
principal cause, transfers its karmic burden to the next,
during our life and at our death. It is our very belief in a
“self” that holds this karmic stream intact and enables us
to have the illusion of being a separate, discrete person.
It is this illusury idea, structured according to our karma,
that continues from one lifetime to the next.
Reginald A. Ray, PH.D., is professor
of Buddhist studies at Naropa
University and teacher in
residence at Rocky Mountain Shambhala Center, His new book
is Secret of the Vajra World: The Trantric Buddhism of