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Debating “The wrongs other people do to us are the direct result of our past actions.”
August 31st, 2012

illustration (attribution, if any possible, is at the end of the article)

Debating "The wrongs other people do to us are the direct result of our past actions."

In response to "Karma ~ Is It All A Matter Of Perspective ~ Am I The Neighbour From Hell?" (,
I recently stated
"Karma is not a retribution law! [] Karma is the law that says the following, J.Brian: if you want to improve the situation, you have to make a  habit of contributing positively to it. If you keep working on it, with mindfulness of your acts and words, with awareness, it will eventually improve, sooner or later."
However, +J. Brian Waddington  then quoted the Dalai Lama:
"The wrongs other people do to us are the direct result of our past actions."
(A Flash of Lightning In The Dark Of Night explaining stanza 47) 
Am I contradicting the most fashionable monk of our times?

First, may I suggest a look at ?
But maybe this monk is less quotable than the Dalai Lama (has less authority) or has less understanding? In such case, would the Buddha be good enough as a source? Let's have a look at the sūtras themselves.

There are many explicit points in the sūtras that avoid karmic determinism (e.g. SN 42.13 or Dhp 119–120). When there seems to be some sort of determinism, it is in relation to life-long habits, not to one act (e.g. MN 135 or Dhp 117–118 & 121–122).

Note that the Buddha warned us against such debates: "These four imponderables are not to be speculated about. Whoever speculates about them would go mad & experience vexation. Which four? The Buddha-range of the Buddhas [i.e., the range of powers a Buddha develops as a result of becoming a Buddha]… The jhāna-range of one absorbed in jhāna [i.e., the range of powers that one may obtain while absorbed in jhāna]… The results of kamma… Speculation about [the first moment, purpose, etc., of] the cosmos is an imponderable that is not to be speculated about. Whoever speculates about these things would go mad & experience vexation." [AN 4.77]
The "thicket of views" [MN 2] is near.

There are 5 niyamas (or "orders of things") and karma is only one of them: the weather around you does not depend on karma, although karma might influence how you 'experience' it. And that's how karma may feel 'deterministic', in how you perceive or interpret events, not in what events are in and of themselves!
To go back to the Dalai Lama's "wrongs other people do to us," one should now see that the 'wrongs' is defined by 'us' as 'against us' and 'painful to us': it is subjective here, and it is about our experience of life, not necessarily the factual reality.

The Dhammapada was quoted above about non-determinism ([Dhp 117–122]). However, one also finds Dhp 127: "Not up in the air, nor in the middle of the sea, nor going into a cleft in the mountains —nowhere on earth— is a spot to be found where you could stay & escape your evil deed."
So, are consequences of one deed unescapable and will one always 'pay' for any single past karmic-generating act? How does one reconcile these seemingly-contradictory verses?
Well, first, not all acts are karma generators… Even when one intentionally acted (hence generated karma) in an unwholesome way, will he necessarily face a bad consequence? No! Am I here denying that all actions are 'paid' for? No! You might 'pay' for the bad action by not receiving the benefits from a good action. So you'd still pay, but not by 'suffering', not by what we consider 'paying' in the usual Western sense of "suffering in this life or the next"… [AN 3.99 explains how 'advanced' people pay 'faster' (hence 'clear' karma faster)] People visibly pays "for sure" only if they keep doing unwholesome acts, i.e. in case of habits, i.e. in case they do not amend their behaviour.

Note that the lack of determinism / retribution is the key to make Liberation possible. Otherwise we could never get out of a cycle of karma started long ago.
"Monks, for anyone who says, 'In whatever way a person makes kamma, that is how it is experienced,' there is no living of the holy life, there is no opportunity for the right ending of stress. But for anyone who says, 'When a person makes kamma to be felt in such & such a way, that is how its result is experienced,' there is the living of the holy life, there is the opportunity for the right ending of stress." [AN 3.99]

I can see an old debate about 'rules' creeping back in; a search for a deterministic, simple rule… But just like an "empty Self" (or 'anatta' badly translated by No-Self) is not the non-existence of Self, the non-determinism of karma is not the non-existence of karma… One doesn't need a tendency to be deterministic (or to be a 'rule') for it to be an effective tendency.

Moreover, karma directly relates to appropriation, just like the Self. It is because of 'ignorance' that one identifies [creates a sense of identity] with a Self and with 'his' ('her') karma. Both are delusions, but as long as the delusion exists, it makes them 'real':
"If a person immersed in ignorance fabricates a meritorious fabrication, his consciousness goes on to merit. If he fabricates a demeritorious fabrication, his consciousness goes on to demerit. If he fabricates an imperturbable fabrication, his consciousness goes on to the imperturbable. When ignorance is abandoned by a monk, clear knowing arises. From the fading of ignorance and the arising of knowledge, he neither fabricates a meritorious fabrication nor a demeritorious fabrication nor an imperturbable fabrication. Neither fabricating nor willing, he is not sustained by anything in the world. Unsustained, he is not agitated. Unagitated, he is totally unbound right within. He discerns that 'Birth is ended, the holy life fulfilled, the task done. There is nothing further for this world'." [SN 12.51]
"This, monks, the Tathāgata discerns. And he discerns that these standpoints, thus seized, thus held to, lead to such & such a destination, to such & such a state in the world beyond. And he discerns what surpasses this. And yet discerning that, he does not hold to that act of discernment. And as he is not holding to it, Unbinding (nibbuti) is experienced right within. Knowing, for what they are, the origin, ending, allure, & drawbacks of feelings, along with the emancipation from feelings, the Tathāgata, monks — through lack of clinging/sustenance — is released." [DN 1]
(A point I also addressed in
Karma is deterministic only in as much we make it be so by appropriation of 'my' consequences (an appropriation which is biased by a selection of which acts I will interpret as consequences in someone's acts vs. which acts I will ignore).

Now, to conclude this essay, let me finish by one detail: a deterministic view of karma (for all acts) exists, but it is from Jainism and thus the initial quote doesn't really apply. So, obviously, what I wrote above relates to Buddhism and this is not the only spiritual tradition of value. People are totally entitled to believe in retribution if so they wish and if that helps them (I'm not too sure of that point, because resignation to past karma is not creative engagement with the present, but hey! who am I to know?)… Buddha didn't ask them to accept blindly his take on non-deterministic karma, just to enquire about it. The beliefs don't matter: how one acts during one's life is what matters.

Teachings on morality often have used an erroneous perception of karma as a "skilful method" (or "clever means") to get people start practising the spiritual life… What was the intention of the Dalai Lama when writing "The wrongs other people do to us are the direct result of our past actions"? To enunciate an absolute Truth about the Impermanent, Non-Essential world we experience, or to simply guide us toward wholesome acts?
How likely is it that the reader might miss that "the wrongs other people do to us" is a subjective delusion, a case of 'taking personally' what is simply life? Does it matter?
Was he not simply trying to make us stop blaming others for our troubles (a perfect waste of time) and take responsibility for how we act from now on?

[photo from,
 the art of debating is an integral part of monastic training in Tibet…]
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