illustration (attribution, if any possible, is at the end of the article)
(intro to the series at gplus.wallez.name/h9qNiAafYx4)
Question 3, and its answer provided by the spam:
If our present suffering is the result of bad karma from a prior life, what is the real present remedy for suffering in this life?
Can all suffering be alleviated in this life through our efforts with the Eight Fold Path? Why engage in any effort related to the Eight Fold Path, if the only true benefits are to be realized in the next life?
First, Buddhism doesn't assert that our present unsatisfactoriness solely is the result of bad karma from a prior life: it might also be the result of bad karma from this life ;-)
Can all suffering be alleviated in this life, through our efforts with the Eight Fold Path? Well, yes! The Buddha guided a substantial number of people towards Awakening… According to the suttas, we're speaking of hundreds of people having becoming arahant ! That's the whole point of this path.
And if nibbāna is not attained by someone in this life, then it might be in the next, or some life after that… It might involve only lives in higher realms (the attainment of non-returner), it might involve returning among humans once (the attainment of once-returner), it might involved returning among humans up to seven times (the attainment of stream entry). And these lower attainments are not condemnations: if you attain stream entry, you might still attain (later in this life ) higher attainments, up to Awakening in this life.
Buddhism certainly does not teach that "any effort related to the Eight Fold Path" will see its "true benefits (…) realized [only] in the next life".
On the contrary, the benefits tend to be immediate: not necessarily 'complete', but immediate.
And the reason for this is that, once one understands causality or simply has faith in the teachings (even 'blind' faith!), one trusts that benefits will eventually come… therefore the future immediately appears 'brighter': anguish is then reduced, anxiety as well! Being less troubled with worries about the future, it becomes easier to attend the present and continue engaging wisely with reality, thus kicking a virtuous circle (hence why stream entry is possible really: it's nothing magical, it's just a virtuous circle in which benefits of the practice support further attainments and therefore further benefits!).
But to go back to the spammer's question, rather than his misleading 'answer', bad karma from a previous life can only be relinquished now, it can only be amended now, shaping a context in which some consequences will become less painful can only be done now… simply because no one can act in the past or in the future, we can only act now (or 'postpone' now, but it's still some behaviour we embody now —and based on present expectations/views about the future). So…
If our present suffering is the specific result of some specific bad karma from a prior life, what is the present remedy in this life? Well, that's when Buddhism becomes a richer philosophy than mere caricatures and certainties: karma is not deterministic!
Consequences from previous deeds will arise (in due time) within a context; and by shaping the context, one might seriously affect how a consequence is 'experienced' / 'felt'!
Let's assume you're angry one day, and as a result you throw kitchen utensils on the floor in a fit of rage, thus damaging some. That's the past deed.
Now let's assume that, in due time, a sharp knife will break while you're using it, as a result from the damage created by this past fit of rage. If you were again yielding this knife while lost in angry thoughts, fuming in anger, etc., then it's more likely you'll hurt yourself when the knife breaks than if you were yielding this knife in full awareness, carefully, mindfully, being present to small variations in sensations, without unnecessary force… The past deed is the same, but your current behaviour massively impacts how the consequences of the past deed will unfold.
[the simile that the Buddha used was about adding a bit of salt to some water: if you have a lot of clear water, a bit of salt will probably not even be felt… but if you only have a bit of clear water, or the water already had some salt in, then adding some salt is likely to be felt or to make it worse… (AN 3.99)]
Well, a behaviour which minimises the impact of past bad deeds and maximises the impact of past good deeds is… embodying the eightfold path: by putting an appropriate effort in (as opposed to negligence / complaisance / delusions / conceit), by paying attention / being concentrated on how one acts (in body, in speech, in thoughts), by being mindful (which is not just being present, but also includes remembering lessons from the past which are relevant in the present), by living virtuously, by maintaining and cultivating wholesome intentions and constructive views, one can gradually affect how the past will unfold in the present… and what 'seeds' planted in the present might unfold in the future.
If you only plant wholesome seeds, even if there's no determinism and you don't know which seeds will bear fruits, or when, it doesn't matter much: the fruits will be wholesome anyway!
If you shape the context so that past deeds cannot unfold in wildly destructive fashion, then non-determinism doesn't matter much either: the fruits will remain unwholesome but they'll be manageable anyway!
You don't need to be able to "fix the past" to free yourself from bad karma born in the past.
You don't need determinism to engage with the eightfold path.
You don't need any of these delusions and caricatures.
But what you need to relinquish is the desire for a warranty: "I'll only engage wisely with reality, if I have a warranty that reality will then comply with my wishes and respond to my efforts when I want it, how I want it" No, following the path doesn't offer you a shortcut by which you can force reality to be as you want it to be! Causality is at play, and it doesn't cease just because you decide to behave nicely all of the sudden.
You can take responsibility though, you can 'own' the past, you can amend some processes, you can apologize, acknowledge mistakes and avoid giving a bad example to others, fix things, learn, shape a constructive context (think of how sometimes putting out a fire requires preemptively removing whatever the fire could spread to)… and you can let go too, you can avoid carrying burdens that are not lessons or regrets (i.e. motivations to avoid repeating mistakes) but merely guilt, you can stop taking things personally, you can stop considering you're the center of the world and over-dramatising whatever happens to you when so much more (and worse) happens around!
God forbid, you might even stop voting Republican just because your family has always voted Republican, once you're ready to question habits (i.e. behaviours already manifested in the past), once you're ready —and intellectually honest enough— to review whether previous votes would still be appropriate in the current situation or not, would still be helpful or not, instead of merely defining yourself by inherited habits (past karma!) and hardened tendencies, just because questioning naïvely makes you fear some loss of identity (as if realising that you were wrong would make you vanish in thin air, or condemn you forever to some hell??)!
There's a lot you can do in the present to engage wisely with the consequences of the past… and the present is the only time you can act in, anyway!