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If I recall correctly, the term karma is used to explain the concept of dependent origination and how one thing leads to another, consequently creating every event that happens in our lives. It is also emphasized in Buddhism that we should conduct wholesome deeds to obtain good karma, which will lead to good things as a result.

However, when we face unfortunate events like natural disasters and terrorist attacks, can karma explain the causes of these events and why seemingly innocent people suffer because of it? Furthermore, if we accept the notion that karma is behind everything in our lives, is that equivalent to saying those who die in these unfortunate events DESERVE it?

Much appreciated.

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    This topic may be a duplicate of Expaining The Holocaust & karma to a non-Buddhist, i.e. perhaps the answers to that question and relevant to this question. – ChrisW Apr 23 at 5:16
  • Not sure if "deserve" is the correct word to use. As you already said, kamma is just the natural law of dependent origination, so it's just cause/consequence without any emotional connotation like deserve or un-deserve. For example, while one'd feel very bad if a child touches a stove and got burned, but to the hot stove, there's simply no emotion involved. Whether it's an adult or a child, if one touches it, the burn will just be the same. – santa100 Apr 23 at 22:00
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In the Sivaka Sutta (quoted below), the Buddha stated that some events that happen to us are a result of karma. But other things are caused by other causes including bile disorders, phlegm disorders, wind disorders, change of climate, careless behaviour, assault etc. The belief that all that happens to you is due to past karma is contradictory to Buddhism.

Elsewhere in the suttas, we find the Jain belief that in order to become liberated, one has to do penance to "burn" accumulated bad karma. This is contradictory to Buddhism.

Another belief that is contradictory to Buddhism is that karma is a system of universal justice, whose purpose is to mete out punishment on the wicked and reward the good.

In Buddhism, karma is the expression of our volition. Basically, by the expression of our thoughts, words and deeds, we try to fulfill our craving towards sensual things (of the six senses including the intellect), and to fulfill our craving towards becoming something. This is our response to greed.

However, if we do not receive what we crave after, or if what we are enjoying is suddenly taken from us, we may become angry or unhappy. In this case, we may express our thoughts, words and deeds as a reaction to our aversion.

In general, how we think, talk and act, would somehow influence our future. It's not hard to see how that works. If we act virtuously, the world responds to us positively and vice versa. It's not like if I donate exactly 10 dollars, in future, somebody will give me exactly 10 dollars in return (or the equivalent future value). Rather, it's like if I am a kind person who likes to help people, this will attract other kind and helpful people to trust me and help me too. And similarly for bad karma.

If you intentionally knock your head on the wall, you will feel pain. That's karma too.

If a change in climate causes you to catch a cold, that's not karma. That's just caused by a change in climate.

The result of karma and the result of other causes, based on the Sivaka Sutta, seem to be quite "natural" and in accordance with our experience of the world.

Of course, the "supernatural" aspect of the result of karma is rebirth. But we should not care too much about how we were born into our present life. That's not skillful or useful. What is skillful or useful is to use our volition to minimize suffering and increase happiness in future.

Also, it's useful to think of rebirth not as the rebirth of a person, but rather, as the continuation of suffering that can be ended only by Nibbana, and not by physical death.

As written by Thanissaro Bhikkhu in "To Suffer Is an Active Verb":

This is one of the reasons why the Buddha doesn’t have us try to go back into the past and ask, “What did I do to deserve an illness, a mental state, a situation in life?” He said that if you tried to trace all those things back, you’d go crazy. In fact, he said, you can’t trace back and find a beginning point for the ignorance that underlies suffering. But you can see what you’re doing to sustain it now.

The Sivaka Sutta:

Moḷiyasīvaka:
“Master Gotama, there are some ascetics and brahmins who hold such a doctrine and view as this: ‘Whatever a person experiences, whether it be pleasant or painful or neither-painful-nor-pleasant, all that is caused by what was done in the past.’ What does Master Gotama say about this?”

Buddha:
“Some feelings, Sīvaka, arise here originating from bile disorders: that some feelings arise here originating from bile disorders one can know for oneself, and that is considered to be true in the world. Now when those ascetics and brahmins hold such a doctrine and view as this, ‘Whatever a person experiences, whether it be pleasant or painful or neither-painful-nor-pleasant, all that is caused by what was done in the past,’ they overshoot what one knows by oneself and they overshoot what is considered to be true in the world. Therefore I say that this is wrong on the part of those ascetics and brahmins.

“Some feelings, Sīvaka, arise here originating from phlegm disorders … originating from wind disorders … originating from an imbalance of the three … produced by change of climate … produced by careless behaviour … caused by assault … produced as the result of kamma: that some feelings arise here produced as the result of kamma one can know for oneself, and that is considered to be true in the world. Now when those ascetics and brahmins hold such a doctrine and view as this, ‘Whatever a person experiences, whether it be pleasant or painful or neither-painful-nor-pleasant, all that is caused by what was done in the past,’ they overshoot what one knows by oneself and they overshoot what is considered to be true in the world. Therefore I say that this is wrong on the part of those ascetics and brahmins.”

  • Nice answer. I like the comment that this wrong view arises from 'overshooting' experience. Or, in other words, imagining one knows more than one does. . – PeterJ Apr 27 at 10:27
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Before, answering this question, it is important to understand there are two types of Buddhism:

(i) supramundane/ultimate truth;

(ii) mundane/worldly. Refer to MN 117.

Dependent Origination is supramundane. Karma is mundane. In other words, karma is only a "generalisation" about the results of actions in an imperfect world. It is not absolutely true.

The above said, the term karma does not explain the concept of Dependent Origination. Its the opposite. Dependent Origination can be used to explain karma.

This Dependent Origination also explains how good karma may not necessarily lead to a good result. For example, if you are a perfect parent & bring up your children perfectly, you may obtain the good result of having a perfect family but if your family suddenly die in an accident, disaster, war or terrorist attack, because you are attached to your perfectly good family, Dependent Origination says suffering will arise.

Therefore, when we face unfortunate events like natural disasters and terrorist attacks, the personal karma of the innocent victims cannot explain the causes of these events. Buddhism teaches beings are the heirs to their actions. It does not say beings are heirs to the actions of others.

However, Dependent Origination can explain why innocent people suffer because of these events. They suffer because of attachment to things as "I", "me" & "mine" (aka "acquisition").

Dependent Origination explains suffering occurs due to death of loved ones; and that death of loved ones occurs due to "birth" of loved ones. The word "birth" means "birth of self or social identity". In brief, SN 12.66 says:

Here, bhikkhus, when engaged in inward exploration, a bhikkhu explores thus: ‘The many diverse kinds of suffering that arise in the world headed by aging-and-death: what is the source of this suffering, what is its origin, from what is it born and produced? When what exists does aging-and-death come to be? When what does not exist does aging-and-death not come to be?’

As he explores he understands thus: ‘The many diverse kinds of suffering that arise in the world headed by aging-and-death: this suffering has acquisition as its source, acquisition as its origin; it is born and produced from acquisition.

To conclude, karma is not behind everything in our lives. Therefore karma is not equivalent to saying those who die in these unfortunate events DESERVE it. The cause of these synthetic terror events is the ignorant evil New World Order. Dependent Origination explains, according to ultimate truth, these events arise due to the ignorance of the doers (rather than due to the past unknowable karma of the victims). Buddhism teaches there are "innocent" victims, as follows:

  1. He who inflicts violence on those who are unarmed, and offends those who are inoffensive, will soon come upon one of these ten states:

138-140 Sharp pain, or disaster, bodily injury, serious illness, or derangement of mind, trouble from the government, or grave charges, loss of relatives, or loss of wealth, or houses destroyed by ravaging fire; upon dissolution of the body that ignorant man is born in hell.

Dhammapada

  • How'd you interpret the last point in the last sentence in Dhp 138-140 "Upon dissolution of the body? Is it in your opinion a conventional teaching? – Val Apr 23 at 8:51
  • In the Pali, the word for "bodily" ("sarīrassa") injury is not the same as dissolution of "the body" ("kāya"). "Kaya" means "group" or "collection". It is the collection of mental & physical actions that comprise of an act of kamma. So when the violent man is confined in prison, those violent aggregates dissolve and the new aggregates experience the hell of prison, for example. Regards – Dhammadhatu Apr 23 at 10:37
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If I recall correctly, the term karma is used to explain the concept of dependent origination ...

No, it doesn't. Dependent origination is a different thing altogether. It is about the gradual semiotic development of subjectivity.

...and how one thing leads to another, consequently creating every event that happens in our lives. It is also emphasized in Buddhism that we should conduct wholesome deeds to obtain good karma, which will lead to good things as a result.

Correct, karma is basically a teaching about 1) subtle causal influences that condition and shape future possibilities. It is also a teaching about 2) the fundamental principle of subjective experience and how it relates to ethics.

  1. subtle causal influences that condition and shape future possibilities:

    • Things happen for a reason, nothing just happens randomly.
    • Things happen because of many factors and conditions coming together in just a certain way, not just one cause.
    • Many factors do not play active roles but create boundaries that condition the influence of the active factors, thereby shaping development of the situation.
    • When we act in the present, many of our choices do not create coarse/active factors, but do create these subtle latent conditioning factors.
    • Such subtle factors that have been created but have not yet came to play, are what's colloquially known as "karma".
  2. fundamental principle of subjective experience and how it relates to ethics

    • Conflict is subjectively painful, harmony is subjectively peaceful.
    • Whenever there is conflict -- whether an internal conflict of ideas, or external conflict of people (which underneath is again a conflict of ideas) -- there is (often? always?) suffering.
    • This is because the nature of mind is integrated information, and in integrated information the two conflicting facts pertaining to the same referent clash, they can't peacefully co-exist (unless they are integrated into some sort of higher-level theory that would make this conflicting situation into a higher-order harmony)
    • Therefore, all behavior that leads to such conflict, whether short or long term, leads to suffering.
    • From this general principle we go down to specific instances that create conflict of information, such as lies, divisive speech, taking others' property, violence etc. - to give some more obvious examples, but also countless other behaviors that create subtle factors that eventually shape experience in such way as to increase division and conflict.

So, based on the above you should understand that according to Buddhist ethics a broad class of behavior should be avoided because it conditions long-term "division" and "conflict of information" which subjectively manifests as suffering. Instead, behavior that leads to cessation of conflict and establishment of peace and harmony is to be cultivated. Makes sense, right?

However, when we face unfortunate events like natural disasters and terrorist attacks, can karma explain the causes of these events and why seemingly innocent people suffer because of it? Furthermore, if we accept the notion that karma is behind everything in our lives, is that equivalent to saying those who die in these unfortunate events DESERVE it?

It depends. Some of these events are results of previous behavior done long time in the past. "Sentient beings are heirs to their karma" - as a whole. So, if the ancestors did something stupid like destroyed the planet ecologically, the descendants have no choice but inherit the fruits of that behavior.

Terrorist attacks are a result of a clash of ideas in people's minds. Specifically, the attacks of radical religious fanatics, are a result of the clash between the religious ideals of the past era, with the consumption-centric paradigm pioneered by the western society. Both of these sets of ideas are something we (humans, all of us in general) pass down to our next generation. So in some sense we (all of us in general) are responsible for these ideas and the results they bring.

Once the social paradigm evolves in such way that humanity has a new ethical theory that would both satisfy the idealistically inclined members of society AND support economic development, then the need for expressing the conflict between the two would have been resolved and the terrorism of this kind will go away.

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I gather -- e.g. from Expaining The Holocaust & karma to a non-Buddhist and elsewhere -- that:

  • Karma doesn't cause everything (e.g. a tsunami)
  • A person's karma even doesn't cause everything that's conventionally considered to be "a person", e.g. people are also caused by "a seed", and "food", and so on
  • People's karma does affect how and whether they perceive and react (to whatever happens)

I think we're also warned that "unfortunate" events (or maybe "coincidences") are normal -- sabbe sankhara dukkha -- almost inevitable, natural.

And then there's e.g. the four noble truths, which I think say that suffering arises and ceases, that there's a Way toward the ending of suffering, and and so on -- e.g. changing the amount suffering by reducing "craving" and "attachment" (and "identification" etc.).

So I guess it's not especially that people deserve it, but it's what happens, and Buddhism tries to help people understand that and maybe find some alternative (a different view, set of habits, reactions, etc.).


But I guess people also seem to deserve things -- e.g. if they're harmful or helpful, silly or wise, there are consequences.

And there are bits in the canon which explain that something which happens now is a consequence of an action in a previous life. I'm not sure what good that does though, i.e. how to act on that doctrine -- so I rarely think about that theory (and the canon says that being able to see and understand the details, of how karma works out, is a supernatural ability of the Buddha) -- apart from being careful in this life, and maybe not complaining when things happen, e.g. "oh the world is so unjust!".


It is also emphasized in Buddhism that we should conduct wholesome deeds to obtain good karma, which will lead to good things as a result.

Not always so, see e.g. Kamma & the Ending of Kamma -- some people are taught the ending of kamma -- and, perhaps, find "good things" unsatisfactory and not a goal.

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Everything does not happen due to Karma, but it is the principal cause of experiences in life. Good Karma causes pleasant experiences, bad Karma causes unpleasant experiences.

Having said that, the word 'deserve' is not a word used in Buddhism to describe the workings of Karma. Because it can imply that you approve or recommend someone's misfortune.

“Beings are owners of their deeds. Whose[if not theirs] is the choice by which they will become happy, or will get free from suffering, or will not fall away from the success they have reached?” - Visuddhimagga

This is how Buddhists use the understanding of Karma to develop equanimity(Upekkha). To give an analogy, if a friend of you smokes and get lung cancer, you don't take delight in it or approve of his misery. But you still say that it happened due to his wrong choices in life. This keeps the mind from giving into sadness.

Even the perfectly enlightened Buddha had to face the consequences of his past bad Karma. So what more to talk about "seemingly innocent" people?

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It's foremost good to replace "we" and "our" with "I" and "mine" since it is hard enough to look after yourself.

You, one who might be interested, may like to read "Wisdom over Justice" and "Justice vs. Skillfulness" to get a good understanding about the distinction of "causes have effects" and ideas of "deserving something" (punishment). Its also good to get a good understanding about what kamma (action) act-ually "is".

Much growing by exploring with good mind ahead.

(Note: not given for trade, exchange, stacks and entertainment that keeps you bond in this wheel of it but as a tiny door out.)

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At least in the Therevada tradition, it is widely understood and taught that:

'I am the owner of my actions (kamma), heir to my actions, born of my actions, related through my actions, and have my actions as my arbitrator. Whatever I do, for good or for evil, to that will I fall heir'

But, do NOT mistaken this to something like..."You deserve it !" or "Serves you right hahah !". People who say this are either ignorant of the Dharma, ignorant of Kamma, or simply purely ill-willed, which is exactly opposite of any Buddhist teachings.

The central teaching is always about controlling your actions, be wholesome, at every single present moment. And Kamma will manifest according to your actions.

The "Algorithm" of Kamma is extremely complex and only the Lord Buddha is able to decipher it 100%.

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