Translated by Andrew Yang
Hundreds and thousands of kalpas will not obliterate karma once it is committed.
The person responsible takes the reward or retribution when conditions assemble.
— The Great Treasures Collection Sutra
Karma may determine the fortune and misfortune in human life, but how does it come about? In Sanskrit, the word “karma” means action completed, and that could mean personal conduct, social activities or operations of the universe. Individually, a person causes karma with action, speech, and thought specifically related to their “body, mouth and mind”. The karma thus emanated from any or all of these three principal forms of human activity determines our blessing and joy, or our misfortune and misery, because whether good, evil or neutral, it will generate a karmic force that drives us onto completing new action, which will further produce a new karmic force and so on. In this way, these karmic forces keep evolving into and being a condition for newer karma, eventually forming an incredibly potent karmic matrix. As Mulasarvastivada Vinaya says in Volume 46, “The forces of inconceivable karma even afar are intertwined. After all, once reward or retribution ripens, it is hard to avoid.”
Karma involves an individual’s lives in a continuum: of the past, present, and future. Past karma induces reward and retribution for the present, and present karma invokes further reward and retribution for the future.
Everything in this world, then, including richness and hardship, lives long- and short-lived, appearances dignified and less-than-pleasing, and smarts and stupidity, all follows the rule of cause and effect. They are not any part of fate pre-determined by heaven, nor of reward or reprisal by gods, but a consequence of karma, good and bad, made previously by each individual’s own thought, speech and action.
As ancient sages have warned us, “Not until impermanence strikes does one know that he has lived in a dream. And then he takes nothing with him except karma.” Mortal people may realize life as a dream no sooner than the day impermanence (i.e., death) arrives. In fact, by then it is rather late, because what they did not know is the fact that upon death, they cannot take anything once they owned along with them, with the exception of the karma they made when alive. Good or evil, the karma will propel them to transmigrate among the six pathways of existence (see Note 1).
This principle of karma is no fatalism. The latter holds that all personal gains and losses are controlled by the god overseeing one’s destiny, and thus making a personal effort is pointless. However, the concept of causality entails that all reward and retribution, of either good or evil karma, are made by an individual’s own action, and thus each individual is in control of their own destiny, and can chart the course of their own life.
Having understood the principle of karma with its reward and retribution, we should strive to do good and accumulate virtue, while refraining from doing evil, for otherwise, once we taste the retribution of karmic evil, it will be too late for us to make amends. Below, I have selected two stories of karma to share with you, both with a remarkable message.
A silver dollar
During the Guangxu reign of the late Qing dynasty (1644-1911), the Eight-nation Alliance invaded China. At the time, Buddhist master Mingcan had not yet become a monk. As a soldier in the Northern Expedition revolutionary army, he was fighting the coalition forces in the eastern coastal provinces of Jiangsu and Zhejiang.
One day, in passing by a river, he saw a woman crying while gripping a silver dollar in her hand. Somewhat concerned, he went up to console her. It turned out when the woman, from the local village, found no more rice left in the house, she had sold the family’s remaining two hens for a dollar, thinking of using the dollar to buy some rice. Never did she expect that the silver dollar paid was fake. Not only could she not buy any rice with it, she was afraid when she returned home, she would be beaten up by her husband, who had a bad temperament. She was thus sobbing and was about to drown herself in the river.
The soldier said to her, “I might be able to tell you whether your money is indeed fake. Let me take a look.”
As soon as he took the fake silver dollar, the man turned around and took out a real silver dollar from a cloth bag on the left side of his chest, switched it for the fake dollar, and handed it back to her. “Don’t kill yourself,” he said to the woman. “There, this silver dollar is real. If you don’t believe me, go try to buy some rice again. No one will turn you down this time.”
The village woman broke into a smile, and the trooper thought to himself, “Saving a life is better than building a seven-tier pagoda. I’d rather lose a dollar, for the life of a villager. It’s such a good deal!”
Before long, the soldier went back to the frontline, and in the heat of a battle one day, amid the rain of shells and bullets, he was shot in the chest, and thought he was about to die. Yet, the soldier had not expected the pain to be slight, and when he touched where the bullet had hit him, it turned out to be where his fake dollar was. He took out the coin and saw a deep dent on it. Immediately, he realized that it was the very fake silver dollar that had saved his life, and understood it to be a consequence of doing something compassionate in saving someone else’s life. Seeing through the true workings of the mortal world, the soldier later became a monk and was given the Dharma name of Mingcan.
This real story is told in a collection of speeches by Master Zhuyun (1919-1986).
Saving people and prolonging one’s own life
During the Daoguang reign of Qing lived a merchant in Xiuning county of eastern China named Wang. He had chartered a passenger boat home from an end-of-the-year trip to collect money from accounts payable. In the snow storm, he saw someone gesticulating to hitch a ride. The boatman thought it would be too much trouble to take him along, but seeing the storm was raging Wang took pity on the stranger, and told the boatman to dock the boat and let the man board. And then he treated him to a meal complete with wine. The new companion thanked him and they started chatting.
Asked Wang, “Where’re you from? Why do you have to cross the river in such a bad storm?”
Replied the man, “Actually I’m not a human being. I am the Town God’s soul reaper.”
Wang was taken aback, “So whose soul are you going to harvest, Your Honour?”
There upon, the angel of death took out a logbook that contained thirty-three names, the first of which happened to be none other than Wang himself. Astonished, the merchant knelt before the messenger and begged for mercy. The soul reaper said, “This is an edict from the Hades, and so even the Town God himself dare not disobey it, let alone myself. However, I now know that you’re a kind man. You took me on in the storm and treated me to a warm, rich meal. I could perhaps take a risk by moving your name to the very end of the list. That way I could postpone your death for a few days. Now you had better hurry home to prepare your own funeral. In three days, I will meet you in front of the Town God’s Temple.”
Having said that, the death angel went ashore and disappeared amidst the wind and snow.
And as soon as Wang himself arrived on shore, he hurried home when suddenly he spotted a peasant couple weeping by the roadside. Unable to repay their debt, the husband was forced to sell his wife as a maid. At the moment, the couple were kneeling towards each other moaning and were contemplating to kill themselves by jumping into the river together. When Wang saw it, knowing that he had only three more days to live, and all his money would soon become meaningless, he wanted to help the man and woman pay off their debt and put them on their own feet. Without thinking, he thus gave them all the money he had collected on the business trip for them to repay their debt. The day after Wang got home, which happened to be the New Year’s Day, he called all his family to come and made arrangements with them for when he was gone. Then he assembled all his relatives and neighbours too for a big feast before he bid them all a final farewell.
On the third day of the new year, as promised Wang went to the Town God’s Temple. Sure enough, the death angel was waiting for him. But looking somewhat upset, he revealed to Wang, “Three days ago, out of leniency I couldn’t bear to reap your soul then, and so I pushed your name to the end of the log and for doing this I was reprimanded yesterday by the Town God. He said it’s true you earned some good karma by saving a couple’s lives, but the incident had to be reported to the Hades. It came to pass that the God of the Underworld ordered to have your name checked and found that Wang the man had already been dead. But it didn’t make sense that a dead person could have saved the lives of a man and a woman, and so once more he instructed the Town God to investigate the matter. That’s how they found out that I had placed your name to the end of the log and thereby had disclosed a divine secret. The Hades was livid and banished me to the south-western-most province of Yunnan, while you, you’ve had your lifespan increased by twenty years, and besides, your children and grandchildren will also enjoy added blessing. So now you’re going to enjoy the reward of good karma, while I’ll be demoted and deported. In twenty years, I will see you here again”. So saying, the soul reaper disappeared.
After that, the merchant evaded death and gave birth to two more sons, who were both smart and virtuous. Twenty years later Wang the man died a natural death.
This episode is detailed in Records of Karma Taken in the Sitting among Flowers Atelier compiled by Wang Daoding in the Qing dynasty.
Note 1: The six pathways of existence include hell, beasts, ghosts, humans, asuras and heaven, separated by different levels of karmic good and evil. Roughly speaking, the evillest people are reborn into to hell, and the second most evil into the beast pathway or realm of existence. The best of the good people, on the other hand, go into heaven, and the second best are reincarnated into the humans or asuras.