Your Questions, My Answers ~ THE
WHOLE CONTAINS THE PARTS
"What is the difference
between the Law of Cause-and-Effect and the Law of
Very often, they are taken to be one-and-the-same-thing,
but actually, they are not, and it is useful to clarify
this, and some other points of misunderstanding in
this area. I should stress, however, before beginning,
that this is not meant to be an exhaustive analysis
of this subject, which would take an entire book,
even if it were within my capacity. But I undertake
it in order to try to dispel certain myths and misrepresentations.
The Constitution of a nation consists of
many laws, no single one of which is the Constitution.
Similarly, the Law of Cause and Effect is the Law
of Karma, but is much more, too; the Law of Karma
is not the Law of Cause-and-Effect in its entirety—i.e.
the Law of Cause-and-Effect is greater than, and includes
the other. And so, when translating the Law of Karma
as the Law of Cause-and-Effect, we must qualify it
by saying that it is the Law of Cause-and-Effect in
the moral realm or the realm of intentional action,
as that is the only realm where it applies. It does
not apply to inanimate objects, nor to beings who
lack the capacity to reason and make moral choices.
These latter, and everything that is, however, are
governed by the Law of Cause-and-Effect.
First of all, the word Karma is Sanskrit,
and means ‘intentional action’ or ‘premeditated
action’, not involuntary or unintentional action.
It does not mean the result of action, which is the
sense in which many people use it today, saying things
like: "Oh, it’s my karma! What can I do
Some people might say—and it is their
prerogative to say, of course, which we must respect—that
the Law of Karma is just supposition, with no empirical
evidence to support it. Alright then, let us treat
is as a hypothesis—that is, not as something
already proved, but as an idea worth considering.
By this hypothesis, Hinduism, Buddhism and
Jainism—all Indian in origin—explain the
differences and discrepancies between people: why
some are born into rich families, and others into
poor; why some are healthy, and others sickly; why
some are beautiful, intelligent, famous, etc., while
others are not. According to the hypothesized Law
of Karma, these and other conditions—upon which
happiness and sorrow largely depend—are not
accidents or ‘twists of Fate’, but results
of actions that people have performed in this or previous
lifetimes (but this is another hypothesis).
Well, we can see that actions do have results
or reactions, immediately; there is no question about
this. Not everyone would agree, however, that they
return to us in the form of happiness and unhappiness.
Therefore, we dare not make any definitive statements
about this, otherwise, we shall be on as shaky ground
as those who attribute everything to ‘God’s
will’. If the concept helps us to accept and
deal with life, it is useful, but if we find it hard
to accept, there is no compulsion to do so; it is
not a dogma, and we can live quite responsibly without
it; we don’t always need ‘a carrot on
Anyway, let us continue investigating the
hypothesis. It is found not only in Indian religions.
Even in the Christian Bible—where we would not
really expect to find it, as it has been replaced
by the overwhelming emphasis on ‘vicarious atonement’
(forgiveness of sins and salvation by belief in Jesus)—there
are references to it. In Matthew (7:16), Jesus says:
"By their fruits you will know them. Do men gather
grapes of thorns, or figs of thistles?" And the
words of St. Paul (Galatians 6:7) are often used even
by some Buddhists when speaking of the Law of Karma:
"Whatsoever a man sows, that shall he also reap".
But we should take care with such quotations as the
latter, or we might lead people into fatalism and
complacency, instead of helping them develop the strength
and self-reliance that comes through understanding
So, why is the above quotation to be treated
with reservation? Well, let us follow the image it
employs—that of sowing and reaping. It involves
two aspects of time: the present, when seeds are sown,
and the future, when the harvest is reaped. Now, can
we say, with certainty, that every seed we sow will
grow and come to fruition, as Paul’s words imply?
No, we cannot, and would be very surprised if even
70 or 80 percent of them did, would we not? It is
not impossible that all of them would grow, of course,
but it is highly unlikely. Although we might take
great care of the seeds we have planted—watering,
fertilizing and protecting them from the birds, etc.—there
are other factors involved over which we have little
or no control; therefore, we cannot predict the exact
outcome of our sowing, and there is a little proverb
in support of this: Don’t count your chickens
before they hatch.
We can put it clearer than Paul did: As
you reap, that you have sown. Same words, different
format. We can easily understand that the fruit we
eat has come from seeds in the past, while the seeds
in the fruit we are eating now will surely never grow
and bear fruit if we cut them or chew them up. We
can look back from the present to the past, but not
forward from the present to the future.
We are using seeds and fruit here as an
analogy for our actions and their results, in line
with the hypothesis that ‘good produces good,
and evil produces evil’. It is not sure that
we shall get back, in direct proportion, the results
of our actions. Sometimes, we get more—as when
we sow wheat or rice, and get back many grains for
each grain sown (there would be no point in sowing
if one grain sown produced just one grain grown, would
there?)—and sometimes we get less—as when
we expend much time and labor in the garden, but with
a poor result; and sometimes, we get nothing, like
if we were to plant beans that had been cooked. Much
work is required for a productive garden, but weeds
flourish by themselves.
Now, suppose you offend or hurt someone.
Would you think: "Well, I’ve done it now,
and it’s already in the past, so I’ll
have to get the result, as I can’t change it"?
If you felt remorse for your action and apologized,
that might make a lot of difference, and could result
in forgiveness and prevent that person from taking
revenge upon you. Yes, we can correct many of our
negative actions with positive ones, just as we wash
our dirty clothes to make them clean, or just as Iraq’s
SCUD missiles were intercepted and destroyed by the
Patriot missiles of the U.S. Unfortunately, our efforts
to correct negative actions with positive ones are
seldom as accurate as the Patriot missiles, as we
lack radar, and cannot tell when the fruits of negative
actions are about to appear. Nevertheless, for our
own peace of mind in the present, it is good to try
to atone for our unskillful actions, even if we can’t
always prevent reactions.
Misunderstanding about the Buddha’s
doctrine of Karma, some Buddhists become so fatalistic
that they are convinced that whatever happens to them
is directly the result of something they have done
before. This is like thinking, "I must have been
a mosquito in a previous lifetime, and went around
biting people, as I’ve been bitten by so many
mozzies in this lifetime!"
If we suppose that we are born because of
Karma, then everything that happens to us thereafter
is, directly or indirectly, due to Karma, because
if we had no body, nothing could happen to us. But
it is incorrect to attribute every little thing to
some specific cause, as one cause produces not just
one effect, neither is an effect produced by just
one cause. Fire, for example, can be used to cook
food, but at the same time it would blacken the pans,
warm the house, produce ash and smoke, and—if
we were not careful—burn us. All of these effects
would be produced by the fire. But the fire, which
causes such things, is also an effect—in turn—of
many other things, is it not? Indeed, if we were to
look for a first cause of anything—an excellent
exercise to try in one’s leisure time—we
would search and search until we would realize that
the whole universe is involved in it, and still would
not have found the beginning! There are many things
involved in each cause, and in each effect, as I have
shown above. Each cause is not merely a cause, but
also an effect; they cannot be separated or defined
as just one or the other, but are both, at the same
Some years ago, I came upon a pamphlet entitled:
THE BUDDHA SPEAKS THE SUTRA ON CAUSE-AND-EFFECT IN
THE THREE PERIODS OF TIME. I would like to comment
on it, as it is a spurious ‘Sutra’ that
has the potential to mislead people and give others
the wrong impression of Buddhism. (The Sanskrit word
‘sutra’ means a religious discourse or
sermon). This so-called ‘Sutra’ describes
the Buddha preaching the Dharma to 1,250 monks on
top of ‘Magic Mountain’. Well, the only
‘Magic Mountain’ I know of is an alternative
to Disneyland north of Los Angeles, and it wasn’t
there while the Buddha was alive, so it couldn’t
have been that one! It goes on to give Ananda asking
the Buddha to explain the discrepancies between human
beings, as if he—and the 1,250 assembled monks,
who were all supposed to be enlightened already—had
never heard the Buddha speak about this before. Well,
the Buddha’s doctrine of Karma is already clearly
implied in His very first sermon, when He revealed
the Four Noble Truths, and formed an important part
of His teachings thereafter, long before He had 1,250
monk disciples! We cannot, for a moment, imagine that
Ananda, who had a photographic memory, was ignorant
Here are some verses from this ‘sutra’,
which clearly show why it is spurious:
"Why are some people officials at present?
Because they gilded the Buddhas with gold in their
past lives, long ago.
"Why are some people wearers of satin?
This is because in times in the past, they gave gifts
of robes to the Sangha.
"The well-to-do among us dwell in very
tall mansions and vast estates. The reason is they
gladly gave rice, lavishing gifts of grain on monasteries.
"Some people’s features are fine
and perfect. Surely, the reason for such rewards is
that they offered beautiful flowers to the Buddhas.
"Why are some people gifted and wise?
In former lives they ate pure food, and remembered
the Buddha with grateful regard.
"Orphans must live without fathers
and mothers since before, they shot down birds for
"In raising children, some really fail
badly; it’s because they drowned female infants.
"Bright are the eyes of some fortunate
beings; they offered lamps filled with oil before
"The blind of this world bear a heavy
burden for past failure to tell the way clearly to
"Some people’s mouths are very
misshapen; they blew out lamps on the Buddha’s
"How do people get to be hunchbacks?
They berated and laughed at those bowing to Buddhas.
"Most cows and horses were human before—people
who didn’t settle their debts.
"Death by starvation: due retribution
for stopping up holes of rats and snakes.
"The stature of some is extremely short.
Before, they read sutras spread out on the floor.
"Vomiting blood? Believe it’s
from first eating meat, then reciting the sutras.
"People who reek with a terrible stench
sold inferior scents and phony goods."
It goes on to say, in threatening tones:
"Those who slander the cause-and-effect in this
Sutra will fall, and have no chance to be human",
while "Those who uphold this Sutra are supported
by Buddhas and Bodhisattvas." So, it is better
to "Write out this Sutra, study it hard, and
in the future your families will flourish. Uphold
this Sutra atop your heads to avert disasters and
fatal accidents. Print and distribute this precious
Sutra, and reap rebirth as a ruler or king",
and so on.......
Now, how can we help but read such stuff
without skepticism? It’s a joke! You cannot
give people things like this these days; it is just
too silly and offensive to reason! Not to be too biased,
though, we can see how, centuries ago, it could have
been used as a technique to scare or trick illiterate
peasants into moral living. But the problem with such
techniques is that, like wet cement, they harden and
become dogmas, which, instead of helping, only further
bind or alienate people.
In another way, it smells very strongly
of priest-craft, with its emphasis on making offerings
to the Buddhas and the monks; Buddhism was/is not
exempt from this, unfortunately. To mention just one
example here, to show how it is very much still with
us: In Penang, there is a temple with a large image
of the Buddha in a reclining posture; it is frequented
by many local Buddhists, as well as being on the list
for foreign tourists to visit. Unless it has changed
in the last few years (and I’m not aware it
has), around this image are numerous other images,
each with a donation box before it bearing inscriptions
like: "If you pray to this Buddha, you will be
happy"; "If you pray to this Buddha, you
will be lucky"; "If you pray to this Buddha,
you will be wise"; "If you pray to this
Buddha, God will bless you", and so on—all
nonsense! I once counted at least forty donation boxes
(as well as ‘fortune telling’ machines!)
around the main image. Now, gullible people (of which
there is no shortage in the world), eager for happiness,
blessings, luck, etc., would probably put money in
each box, and those who installed the boxes would
rub their hands gleefully. But what impression would
foreign visitors get of Buddhism thereby? Perhaps
they would go there with open minds, not unsympathetic
towards Buddhism, but could be excused for thinking
of it as a thing of superstition, greed and exploitation!
With just a little intelligence, anyone
can see, from the words of this ‘sutra’,
that it was never spoken by the Buddha. And why not?
Because, while the Buddha was alive, there were no
Buddha images (He did not allow them). For several
hundred years after He passed away, He was represented
by symbols like a Bodhi tree, a Swastika, a royal
parasol or a Dharma wheel, as can be seen on the carvings
of the Great Stupa at Sanchi in India and other places.
It was only much later that He was first represented
by an image.
There were no Buddha altars in the Buddha’s
time, so no-one could blow out oil lamps on them.
There were no sutras to be read out (on the floor
or otherwise), copied, carried on one’s head,
etc.; the Buddhist scriptures were not written down
until 500 years after the Buddha’s death. The
Buddha could not have said these things, therefore.
And, to say that He was referring to times long before,
when other Buddhas were alive, doesn’t help,
I once wrote to the City of Ten-Thousand
Buddhas in California where this particular ‘sutra’—printed
in English and Chinese—had come from, asking,
simply, for the original Sanskrit name (the Chinese
versions of the Buddha’s sermons were translated
from Sanskrit, not Pali), but received no reply; perhaps
they considered my request unworthy of one. Let me
say, however, that we should be very careful about
writings that seem to explain everything; following
the Buddha’s advice, we should examine things
critically, instead of just believing them.
It might seem that I’ve rambled on
a bit in my reply to the question, but I do not apologize
for this, as it has allowed me to touch on several
related points. But let me return to the question,
before someone complains of my meanderings.
The great Law of Cause-and-Effect that rules
all, has five modes of manifestation; that is, it
is made up of five lesser laws, one of which is the
Law of Karma. The others I will quote from Ven. Narada’s
book, The Buddha and His Teachings:
"Utu Niyama: Physical inorganic
order, e.g., seasonal phenomena of winds and rains,
the unerring order of seasons, characteristic seasonal
changes and events, causes of winds and rains, nature
of heat, etc., belong to this group.
"Bija Niyama: Order of germs
and seeds (Physical organic order), e.g., rice produced
from rice seed, sugary taste from sugar cane or honey,
and the peculiar characteristics of certain fruits.
The scientific theory of cells and genes may be ascribed
to this order.
"Dhamma Niyama: Order of the
norm, e.g., the natural phenomena occurring at the
birth of a Bodhisattva in his last birth. Gravity
and other similar laws of nature may be included in
"Citta Niyama: Order of mind
or psychic law, e.g. processes of consciousness, constituents
of consciousness, power of mind, including telepathy,
retro-cognition, premonition, clairvoyance, clairaudience,
thought-reading, and other such psychic phenomena,
which are inexplicable to modern science."
Venerable Narada goes on to say:
"Every mental or physical phenomena could be
explained by these all-embracing five orders or processes
which are laws in themselves. Karma, as such, is only
one of these five orders. Like all natural laws, they
demand no law-giver."
And so, although our hypothesis remains
a hypothesis, hopefully I have clarified the matter
somewhat. More than this, though, I hope I have hereby
stimulated someone to question things more, instead
of merely believing.