Namo tassa bhagavato arahato samma-sambuddhassa (three times)
The difference between karma of fatalism and karma of Relevant Influencing
Spoken by Ven. Bhikkhu Vūpasama in Chinese
(From the “Saddhammadīpa”, the monthly journal of Original Buddhism Society, No. 10, p.14~18, 2011)
What are we going to talk about today? I bet it's something that will cause you great concern. How have I become what I am now? I'm going to talk about Karma.
The word Karma was originally not a Buddhist term. It dates back between the twelfth and tenth century B.C. in the Upanishads. It was composed seven hundred years before Buddhist scriptures. The concept of karma in the Upanishads refers to determinism, which claims that whatever happens now is predestined by what you have done before.
It's quite absurd if the present situation is prefixed by whatever was done in the past or in previous lives only. For example, if you came across a beggar on the way out of this class and under a generous impulse, you shell out fifty Malaysian Ringgits, would it be too much? Yes? Maybe it's because your mind is filled up with dharma teaching from being here and is full of compassion at the moment. Anyway, you give away the fifty dollars and it sure is a very charitable move.
However, from the point of view of determinism, it was something that was destined to happen. It was the right moment and the right person. It was so late yet that particular beggar was still loitering, waiting for you. It was meant to be. That is the idea of determinism or fatalism. If it is so, then it means that he must have helped you before. In other words, you owe him some kind of favor and now it is time to return that favor. If it's just about returning a favor, it's your liability. In that case, will it generate any merit if you're just returning a favor to pay back your debt? Shouldn't that be a responsibility that you are expected to fulfill? Yes, you ought to pay back. Let me ask you then will there be any merit at all? Of course not. If it's destined that your time is up, it's the universal law to pay. Does he need to say thank you for the donation? Probably not. He may even feel entitled to complain that why it took so long to pay him back.
Here is another example: While you're walking down the street, a man walking in front of you is hit by a car. It may be explained again that the timing, the place, and the persons were all pre-set. There must be some connections between the hitter and victim! The victim might be hurt or even owe the hitter a life in previous lives. Now they're even. In that case would the hitter be guilty of the crime? It then seems so justified to hit and run.
That's determinism or fatalism in India, not Buddhism. The hitter is not guilty at all. The determinism or fatalism emphasizes that the present situation is predestined by the past actions only. It could cause great damage when the unknown past is used as the excuse to justify wrongdoing and waive off merits of decent behaviors. All the charitable good deeds might be just an incident to pay off the debt. All the wrongdoings can be forgiven because you never know who has a right to claim a share that he deserves. The law and order of right and wrong is this thus lost. Do you understand? Why do we bother to put any effort at all? If I'm destined to drop dead, let it be. If I'm destined to survive, I'll live. To put it in a more simple way, if you're destined to be enlightened, you will be enlightened. If not, why bother to sit here and pay so much attention to this? You don't need to practice anymore. Therefore, this kind of argument is really a heretic doctrine in India. It's absurd and denied by the Buddha.
But the Buddha proposed a different kind of concept of karma. If the concept of karma in Buddhism is different, then why do we still use the same term? It's out of respect towards tradition, but the connotation is completely new. It's the same as how the term nibbana was already in the Jainism before Buddhism. However in Jainism, nibbana means an existence that will last forever, which was also rejected by the Buddha. It's the same term with a different meaning in Buddhism. Therefore when we refer to karma or nibbana, we have to keep in mind that these traditional terms have already developed a new connotation in Buddhism. The core of the Buddha's teaching is relevant influencing. When it comes to the interpretation of karma and nibbana, it's based on the concept of relevant influencing, too.
Now how do you explain karma with this idea of relevant influencing? Now you must pay attention to what I'm going to say. Relevant influencing refers to any occurrence that comes to change because of the interrelated influence within its related conditions. Take a look at what's under your nose. What's the relation among them? Obviously what is there at the present moment is influenced by what happened before. Notice that it's influence, but it's not solely decided by the past. If it's decided by the past only, then it's determinism.
Whatever happens now is not only influenced by the past but also goes along with the intentions and behaviors of the body, speech, and mind at the present moment. Again these elements only have certain impacts on the present moment; they cannot control everything. There are other factors: people you deal with, situations that arise with all kinds of shifting conditions surround you. All of these could play an important role in your present moment without your permission.
It's like three guys who are trying to lift a table. All of them contribute. Each of them may have his own pace and strength, but when they work together, each one is influenced by the other two so that they may keep the table at the same level and stride at the same pace. Do you get it? It's an interrelationship that continuously makes adjustments of how high they keep the table, how fast they walk, and how much strength they should use. The body, speech, and mind that formed your past actions interrelate with your present body, speech, and mind which go along with the present conditions that are formed by others.
All of these have a mutual influence on one another. Your past and present mental state and behavior would and will change your surroundings. It's the same the other way around. What I like to point out is that no matter what situation that you're in right now could also change the way that you developed from the past. Get it?
For instance, let's say you bought a bottle of milk yesterday. So this bottle of milk is the result of your action from yesterday. However, you open it, have a sip, and don't like the taste of it. You can't return it anymore. It's like how you can't remove what you've done and start all over. All you can deal with are the facts at the present moment. Let's see: you bought a bottle of milk that you don't like. It is irritating. It's a fact that you cannot remove now. It is an irritating influence, but that doesn't mean you have to drink it. So the past does have certain impact on the present but not crucial enough to dominate the situation. Is the taste of this bottle of milk a determinant factor in your life? No, it's not. What can we do in a situation like this? We can mix it up with some orange juice. Understand? We can change the situation by pouring in some orange juice. This idea, this move will change the taste of milk that was bought yesterday. It will change the influence from the past. On the other hand, this orange juice, which was made from oranges that were farmed by others, becomes another factor in your life journey. The act of mixing milk with juice is done by you, but the oranges were supported by others. So what's the taste now? The milk is affected by the juice. What's the taste of milk now? It's affected by the milk you bought yesterday, by the taste of orange juice, and also by the amount of juice that you pour in. That's the taste of this orange milk. This is karma. This is the karma of present relevant influencing, not the karma of fatalism.
This is the interpretation of karma in Buddhism. It's different from the karma theory in the Upanishads, which was rejected by the Buddha. Karma in Buddhism lies on the factors from the past, the manifestation of the present moment, and the influence other than oneself. All these three aspects influence each other mutually; none of them is solely in control to determine the fate. This is the karma of relevant influencing, not the fatalistic karma. We will not accept the fatalistic karma. There is no such karma. Understand?
Now, let me ask you, if the present situation depends upon what happened in the past and upon the state of body and mind at the present moment and upon what's going on in the general environment, would the present situation always be the same or changing all the time? Yes, it's changing all the time. That's why it's impermanent. Correlative conditions are changing all the time.
Is there a dominant force that forms what's going on now? Is it something that you've done in the past? Is it your intention and behavior at the moment or is it something initialized from others? Can any of these factors decide your fate? No, the answer is none of the above. That's why there is non-self. If anyone can claim that he's fully in charge of everything in this world, then we call him God. But none is really in charge of everything. That's why we say impermanence and non-self. This kind of karma is referred to as relevant influencing. If it's the fatalistic karma, which is solely determined by the past, then it has nothing to do with the relevant influencing.
Now that you understand the difference of these two kinds of interpretation of karma, what has it to do with us? If we believed in the fatalistic karma, then we'd have to accept whatever is happening now. Whether it's good or bad, we'd just have to take it. We'd obey the rules without any resistance because that's what we are supposed to do. This kind of attitude will discourage people from changing and pursuing a better situation when they come across any kind of difficulties in life. It will lead to pessimistic futility and end with a bunch of losers. Who are the advocates of this kind of karma theory? People who like to take advantages of others with inappropriate schemes often embrace this kind of theory to justify their evil doings. They behave badly yet expect you to tolerate it because it's your karma. Do you understand? It's all about political tricks that the ruling class used to abuse the people in a feudal society. In the old times, ordinary people were trodden yet they accept it without complaint because they believed that it was their karma.
Fatalism is for slavery. Understand? It will turn you into a slave. Your mind and attitude will be brainwashed and put up with any kind of unfair treatments like a slave. Not only that, while taking in all these difficulties, you probably will tell yourself, I should totally surrender and do my best so that I may have a chance to have a better life next time. The point is that when facing an unfair treatment, instead of improving the situation, those karma believers sheepishly indulge the evil doings by acting like a slave.
That's not what the Buddha taught us. The Buddha's teaching is that we cannot start over again. However, by putting in more efforts and care for people and our society, we may change the present moment from the residual of the past. We can say “no” to any inappropriate treatments. We can face the mistakes that have been made in the past and try to correct them. That's a courageous attitude to embrace life. That's also a wise, sincere and modern positive attitude. That's definitely not an attitude of a slave.
Ladies and gentlemen, which one would you choose? A Fatalistic karma or a karma based on relevant influencing? Which one do you think is closer to the truth? Which one is the doctrine to believe? What do you think? Here is the point: We do believe that bygones can never be changed. However it's never too late to do something now to change the momentum of the past behaviors. Does this make sense to you? We can never change the past but we can change what's left over from the past and make it a better present. This is what we believe. It's a much more positive, wise, brave, and diligent way of living. If we Buddhists mix the meaning of karma with a fatalistic view, we are doomed to be weak whenever there is difficulty. Or whenever we get unfair treatment, we'll tend to cover our cowardice with karma as a convenient excuse, pretending that everything is fine by cheating ourselves.
My younger friends, you really need wisdom to lead you on a positive road in life journey. You have to keep in mind that whatever you do will change the environment that you live in and, just as well, that your environment has a great impact on you too. You need the wisdom to see through this. A man cannot survive without any connection toward the environment he lives in. So don't just think about yourself, pay more attention to your environment too. When you become a better person, your environment should also improve. That's a normal and healthy attitude and way of living. A civilized human being is expected to know this.
My dharma friends, what the Buddha was concerned about was not that he should have a group of earnest followers to believe what he said. The purpose of dharma teaching is not to attract more Buddhists to propagate the religion. What the Buddha was concerned about was to make a better person, a wiser person who goes through life journey in a more wholesome way. My friends, right now, this moment is not decided by the past. What's happening now cannot decide your future either. There is only influence. Other than that, it's still up to how much effort you put in and the interrelationship among the people and environment that you deal with. That's why it's impermanent.
What we practice now does not guarantee that we will be enlightened and liberated at a certain point in the future. No, it doesn't work that way. No one can be sure that at certain time and place, Tom will get enlightened or Harry will be liberated. Even the Buddha himself would not predict this. It's not that the Buddha does not have the wisdom to see this. It's just how life is. Everything is changing constantly based on correlative conditions. Nothing is permanent. Therefore, it's impossible to foretell a hundred percent of anything. What we can say at most is to put the possibility on a scale and make a reasonable inference. But no one can be really sure until it happens. It's just impossible to know. That's why the Buddha never told anyone that he or she would be enlightened at certain time or place. He had the wisdom not to make such a prediction. Let me repeat this. It is because of his wisdom that the Buddha would never make such a prophecy. He would only tell you that it's hard to say. That is a fact.
There is a very beautiful legend in Buddhism. It is said that before Shakyamuni Buddha became the awakened one, he was predicted as the future Buddha by another Buddha. The time and place was specified too. It's a very romantic and beautiful story. But the story was told to those who believed in determinism or fatalism in India. They could not understand relevant influencing. It was much easier for them to take in fatalism. That prediction certainly made the Buddha a sublime figure in the eyes of these fatalists. The Buddha was destined to be the great one. However, that kind of propagation was only a skillful mean to spread the religion. That's all. It's just like the make-up that you put on your face. The powder, the blush, and the lipstick all add up to the healthy glowing look. If you put on high heels, you'll certainly look taller and slimmer. That's all. It's like the girl next door turning into a big movie star after a makeover. It's really no big deal. But people adore movie stars. The fatalists in the ancient India worshiped these god-like omnipotent holy figures. That was Buddhism at the time. That's why some of the followers started to making up anecdotes about the Buddha after the Parinibbana. These stories were not told by the Buddha himself at all. We are not against these romantic stories. It cannot be denied that even now in this world there are people who do have a need to rely on these holy figures. They won't believe in the Buddha unless the Buddha was a God-like holy man. It's sad that their wisdom could not be further enhanced to appreciate the truth, the true treasure of the sage. A man of wisdom will not care about the appearance of the Buddha. It's the standard of a movie star fan.
There are a few wise men and a lot more ordinary people in this world. That's why we do need some beautiful stories, yet we need more dharma teachings of wisdom for the wise men too. Now the point is, do you need a Buddha who looks like a movie star? Or do you need his true wisdom? It's all up to you. In my mind I would say the Buddha's wisdom is more refined than those descriptions of his features. It's much more bright and ornamented, much more brilliant and glorious.
At last, I'd like to spend a couple of minutes to brief a short history of Buddhism. Three months after the Buddha's Parinibbana, the First Buddhist Council was held. It was 387 years B.C., the same year that the Buddha passed away. During the First Buddhist Council, it was Rev. Ananda who recited all the teachings that Buddha had given. Rev. Upali was the one who collected all the Vinaya (discipline codes).
After the First Buddhist Council, Buddhism was split into two schools or teaching traditions. The lineage of Rev. Ananda mainly focused on the teaching while the lineage of Rev. Upali strictly observes the Vinaya codes. One hundred and sixteen years after the Buddha's Parinibbana, these two schools no longer see eye to eye. After that, the Sangha community kept spinning off and developed into eighteen sects by the first century B.C. Still we can divide them up as two lineages: lineage of Rev. Ananada and lineage of Rev. Upali. Within the lineage of Rev. Upali, there are two divisions, the Mahāsānghika School and the Vibhajjavāda School, which is the Theravada Buddhism at the current time.
There is a lot of difference between their doctrines and teachings, and they just couldn't find a common ground to be unified. The schism of all of these schools really left the Buddhists of later generations in great perplexity. Who is teaching the right path? Or maybe everyone is right, and we just need to find the one that fits our level of understanding? Yet how could it be that everyone is right, when most of their theories contradict one another? Obviously this is just an excuse to cover up all the differences since the great schism took place around 271 years B.C. That was the time when the Buddha had already passed away for about one hundred years. Then which lineage are our teachings based on? It's none of these schools. What I introduce here is based on the oldest sutras passed on by both lineages of Rev. Ananda and Rev. Upali. I have made a careful comparison between the classics of these two lineages and found the common teachings from both sides. There are differences that were added on by each school which we don't really need to learn. The common ground is the part that was collected in the First Buddhist Council, which means they are the authentic teachings from the Buddha.
Therefore, the teachings on meditation or dharma that we've discussed here are purely from the original teachings before the great schism, and they were preserved almost in all schools. Many of these teachings are different from the doctrines composed by adepts or patriarchs of later generations. All of these patriarchs have their own ideas of practice, which is different from one another and contradicts the original teachings of the Buddha most of the time too. Otherwise how could there be eighteen different schools? The current terms of Mahayana or Theravada are actually just different sects in Buddhism. Can anyone of them claim to be the right one? It's really hard to say. Every school has its own ideas of practice and they all claim that they are on the right path. It's unavoidable to deny or even criticize other schools when there is a difference. The truth is: none of these schools is completely right.
That's why what I like to introduce the original teachings from before the schism. It's something that is recognized by every school. It's the oldest teaching passed down from the Buddha. We are not going to discuss doctrines from any specific school, so that you may hear the dharma in its original sense. It's neither Mahayana nor Tibetan Buddhism. It's not Theravada either. There is difference between the original Buddhism and the Theravada tradition too. There are lots of mix-ups and add-ons in the Theravada tradition. Those are the points that we like to leave behind. We'll only pick up the oldest and the most original one. This you'll have to keep in mind. That will be all for today.
Buddham saranam gacchami
Dhammam saranam gacchami
Sangham saranam gacchami
Silam saranam gacchami
Dutiyam'pi, Buddham saranam gacchami
Dutiyam'pi, Dhammam saranam gacchami
Dutiyam'pi, Sangham saranam gacchami
Dutiyam'pi, Silam saranam gacchami
Tatiyam'pi, Buddham saranam gacchami
Tatiyam'pi, Dhammam saranam gacchami
Tatiyam'pi, Sangham saranam gacchami
Tatiyam'pi, Silam saranam gacchami
以此聖功德 輾轉利一切 我等與眾生 正向於菩提