illustration (attribution, if any possible, is at the end of the article)
« If we interact with another living being in conventional reality and help them from their temporary suffering, are we 'prolonging' the natural arising of their karma, and will they simply experience it again in future lives? »
Such a question can be applied to mercy-killing (a difficult ethical question) but also in relation to palliative care, poverty and really any other form of suffering…
I previously wrote about it (gplus.wallez.name/1v4J66ZXnJw in relation to prostitution) as well as discussed it in relation to confused medical students with (who then wrote www.wildmind.org/blogs/on-practice/karma-confusion).
Without falling for the temptation to water down the teachings (which might be seen a bit "too demanding" on this question) for fear that you might drop Buddhism if it 'asks' too much of you, I'll try to be clear about how rebellious against the status quo Buddhist teachings are.
Interpreting the karma of others, in order to justify our lack of intervention (i.e. in order to justify the status quo), usually is a cover-up —by our ordinary (self-centric) tendencies— to avoid doing what we know to be wholesome but not self-advantageous.
A now-classic example is given by how most Japanese people treated sufferers from Hiroshima's and Nagasaki's bombings: the rest of the population basically ostracised the victims, on the basis that they were just 'paying' for their past bad karma and that one should let such karma burn out as quickly as possible rather than prolong the agony… The problems with this assertion of course start with:
1. one is limiting causality to karma only, which is erroneous (e.g. the speed of light and the associated consequences in physics are not related to karma… there are five causal laws identified in Buddhism, and karma is only one of them);
2. one is turning an impermanent event (which might be karmic, but maybe not…) into a permanent discrimination (therefore conveniently rejecting another key teaching of Buddhism);
3. one is turning selfless reality into person-based judgement: the fact that maybe the victims had some seeds of their karmic streams justifying such deep suffering does not mean the victims only had negative seeds! Judging karmic seeds might be valid (even if extremely difficult without the Buddha's 'omniscience') but generalising from karmic seeds to persons (i.e. from a few seeds to a whole larger group of seeds) is erroneous;
The list can go on. Interestingly, many (including some Japanese) were concerned that such an attitude might continue today… to justify ostracising the victims of the Fukushima accident.
Similar copouts are found the world over, of course, and are routinely given to justify not to provide healthcare or education, not to share one's wealth (be it behind veils of 'competitiveness' or other economic-zero-sum-game fallacies), not to support teachers, not to manifest any compassion or loving-kindness towards particular groups (based on race, gender, sexual-orientation, health, wealth, age…), etc. It is routinely used to let Tibetans burn, wars and ethnic massacres go on (as long as a safe distance is maintained from us), and beggars beg.
I personally believe all this is just a cop-out for the 'lucky' ones to
• separate themselves from 'ambient' suffering,
• cling to their separateness (with a way to alleviate the associated guilt),
• cling to self-appropriated resources, refuse sharing, refuse paying attention, refuse giving one's time…
The reasoning behind such an assessment is not dramatically complicated: if it is true that past karma might explain why a particular victim is among the victims, then it is also true that past karma would explain why someone who has the resources to help is among the people who can help here&now! In which case, refusing to help basically is akin to wasting good karma and a good cultivation ground/opportunity.
Refusing to help in the name of karma is thus refusing to cultivate wholesome karma (when and where an opportunity to do so is present!) in the name of karma: a contradiction in terms!
You may note this is not just a personal interpretation: this reason is basically what's behind "why the human life is judged to be the best realm of rebirth in order to Awaken".
It is said that cultivating good intentions in hell is horrendously hard when overwhelmed by extreme suffering, and that cultivating good intentions in the higher realms is also very hard when becoming indifferent because suffering (including by empathy) is not strong enough to trigger "wholesome effort".
Of course, higher rebirth might well be enjoyable while it lasts, but it is not a Liberation from suffering, precisely because the good karma will at some point be exhausted (if it is not cultivated) and the next rebirth will go "back down"!
Being among those who can help rather than those who need help is totally similar to karma-induced higher rebirth: either you cultivate even more wholesomeness by helping others, or you waste good karma (and will later come back down and suffer yourself)! Good karma (or "good fortune") doesn't entitle you to do less for the benefit of others; instead, it is an encouragement and practical opportunity to do more!
The four brahmaviharas offer clear guidance:
• loving-kindness (wanting others to be happy),
• compassion (wanting others not to suffer),
• empathetic joy (rejoicing of the happiness of others) and
• equanimity ([in the context of this post:] the resolve —towards the previous three— being unaffected by one's own circumstances).
It has been discussed —even if there's no consensus— that the four brahmaviharas were initially considered an actual gate into Nirvāṇa
(cf www.ocbs.org/images/documents/gonda.pdf). The teachings might have been later modified, for the self-serving benefit of the monastics in charge of preserving the teachings, who needed to make their cultivation special (with more meditation and less lay-compatible love, compassion, joy) to justify donations, etc. Anyway, whether you consider the brahmaviharas as a direct gate into Nirvāṇa or solely as a supportive ground, it should be clear that helping others is called for, and letting them sort it out on their own is not called for.
« To put an end to that suffering would just cause it to arise in the next life » is ignorant of how causality works.
Things arise and cease, in relation to conditions and circumstances [that is one of the most fundamental buddhist teachings, the basis for impermanence and selflessness! gplus.wallez.name/Z38n35NGvyB]
Whatever particular suffering you're taking about, it arose and will cease. To "put an end to that suffering" might just be how its cessation was 'meant' (was "causally linked") to manifest! The karma of the victim of suffering might have been configured so that you would be the one conditioning the cessation of suffering! Karma doesn't just drive how suffering arises but also how it ceases in a particular context (which you might be an integral part of). Thus refusing to put an end to that suffering might be "prolonging it" even when it was ripe for cessation! And prolonging suffering around you is a great recipe to prolong your own suffering!
Do you see how it is easy to give an erroneous narrative in order not to help others, in order not to take on the responsibilities of compassion, love, joy, equanimity?
Helping others is (at least) a supportive ground and (maybe) even a direct gate into nirvāṇa! Don't let mental fabrications (about karma, nirvāṇa… or equanimity becoming confused with 'indifference') blind you from this! When you can, do help!
Post Scriptum: I mentioned mercy-killing being a difficult ethical question. I won't pretend to offer a definitive answer on it (I previously mentioned the free "practical ethics" course at coursera.org/course/practicalethics) but, in terms of "buddhist framework" to think about it, may I remind the readers that the first precept is not "do not kill", but it is "refrain from killing".
In practice, there's virtually nothing preventing killing when it's the "right thing to do"… while there's an awful lot against killing when it's out of greed, lust, hatred, aversion, or ignorance. Given our 'natural' ignorant tendencies, it is on the safe side to interpret "refrain from killing" as "do not kill", being honest that we're unlikely to be beyond the noxious trio (even momentarily). But while picking the safe side might be wise most of the time, in terms of cultivation, it doesn't really solve the ethical question. It replaces a nuanced Middle-Way context-sensitive precept into a black&white context-less caricature; this isn't intrinsically, always the right thing to do. Greed for context-less 'certainties' isn't wholesome; the right question is « how do I cultivate the cessation of ignorance? » rather than « what rule should I cling to? »