China Academic Lectures
Sponsored by
China Institure in America, N.Y. USA
By Dr. C. T. Shen
     In last week's discussion of the concept of birth and death, the
one-life theory and the multi-life theory were introduced. I also
used a familiar natural phenomenon, the multi-form of H2O, to
illustrate my belief that the multi-life theory taught by Hinduism and
Buddhisn is closer to the truth than the one-life theory. We found
that H2O is a good analogy for the human soul.
     Then, we observed that H2O is not the ultimate substance of the
universe. Modern science is gradually concluding that energy could be
that ultimate. This agrees with Buddha's teaching that the soul is not
the ultimate nature of a human being and the Ultimate is something
which is incomprehensible: without duaity, without boundary, without
birth and death, and with no difference from the universe. Original
Nature and Buddha-Nature are two popular names given to this Ultimate.
The famous statement made by Buddha upon his enlightenment was "Every
sentient being has Buddha-Nature".
     The vast, boundless, and empty space is usually used as an
analogy to Original Nature to signify the lack of duality and
discrimination of the latter, its limitlessness in both time and
space. Since the ultimate existence of a human being is of such a
nature, then when one is enlightened or recognizes one's Original
Nature, the concept of birth and death becomes inapplicable. Since
most of us have not been enlightened it does not help us too much to
discuss Original Nature at this stage. We first have to establish a
clear understanding of the multi- life theory at the mundane !evel,
which directly affects our daily lives.
     To appreciate thoroughly the multi-life theory, one must first
answer an important question which is: what causes such changes from
one form of existence, say, a human being, to another form, say, an
     To help us understand the answer to this question, it is useful
to refer to H2O again. Let us first examine the causes of changes in
the forms of H2O say, from water to vapor or ice to water.
From physics we learn the following chain of
physical or chemical action -> intangible form of energyc -> change of
activity of H2O molecules -> changes in forms of H2O
     This illustration is quite obvious and needs no explanation. I
will just give you a few examples of physical and chemical actions and
you will instantly know that these actions are the causes of water,
vapor, snow, ice, or other forms of H2O.  Such actions as radiation
from the sun, setting a fire, passing electricity through certain
metallic wires and dissolving certain chemicals in water are all
familiar exanples of processes that produce heat in differing
intensities and that ultimately change the form of H2O;
     According to Buddhism, a similar natural phenomenon is going on
in the universe: that is, various actions carried out by a being in
the past and present, cause a certain kind of intangible force
comparable to heat that causes the being to change from one form of
existence to another. That is why we have the different forms of
heaven-dweller, human being, animal, ghost, and hell-dweller, which
constitute samsara, or continuous life and death.
     In Hinduism and Buddhism, these actions bear a common name --
karma. Karma means an action, or combination of actions, by a being or
beings, which produces effects. Those effects, which could be good,
bad, or neutral, determine the future of that being or those beings.
Karmic actions..therefore, are the heart of the multi-life theory,
just as physical and chemical actions are the basic causes of the
multi-form nature of H2O.
     I would like to draw this.. comparison to the above mentioned
chain of causation:
Karma -> intangilble force called the karmic force -> effects,
good, bad, or neutral upon activities of beings -> change in the forms
of the being: samsara
     This concept of karma plays a very important role throughout
Asia. Asian religions have established a famous universal moral code,
based upon this law, that good deeds produce good effects and bad
deeds produce bad effects.
     It should be pointed out that Buddhism gives this moral code
additional qualifications.. According to Buddhism:
(1) The so-called good effect or bad effect is not a judgment nor is
    it given as a reward or a punishment by a supramundane authority,
    such as God.  The good or bad effect produced by good or bad
    karma is purely and simply a natural phenomenon governed by
    natural laws that act automatically, with complete justice. If God
    has anything to do with it, then God must also act according to
    the natural law or path. This cause produces this effect. That
    cause produces that effect. God would not change the natural path
    by his Iike or dislike of a person.
(2) The "good" and "bad" referred to here are not defined by any code
    or law created by human beings, unless such a code or law follows
    the natural path. For example, when democracy was first devised,
    women did not have the right to vote. At that time, women who
    complied with that status were considered "good" 'and those who
    fought against it were considered "bad." that judgment was
    incorrect, however. The "natural path" is that human beings are
    all' equal, and thus, the system which gives women equal voting
    rights with men is the truly just one. Therefore, those who
    opposed the unequal voting system were actually the good ones.
     This law of karma, or cause and effect, is so powerful that it
governs everything in the universe except, according to Buddhism, the
one who is enlightened or recognizes Original Nature. Upon
enlightenment, this cause and effect loses its significance, just as
samara, or recurring birth and death, ceases with enlightenment.
Since Original Nature is the Ultimate, there is no one to receive the
effect, whether it is good or bad, and no one to whom any effect can
apply. This unique explanation, taught by Buddha, of the nullification
of the law of karma is very important. I will explain it later.
     With this brief explanation of karma as background, let us now go
a step further to see how karma works.
(1) Karmic effects determine rebirth:
    In Buddhist texts one may find numerous examples telling what
    cause produces what effect.  The karma of present and past lives
    determines the form of existence in the next life. Generally
    speaking, we may outline these karmic effects as follows:
(A) Such karma as honesty, generosity, kindness, compassion, the
    relieving of others' suffering, or the creation of major benefits
    for others may produce the effect or result of being reborn in
(B) Karma such as giving generously to the needy, aiding those in
    difficulty, making offerings to the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha or
    saints in other religions, or giving others knowledge or skills
    that will improve their way of life, may cause one to be reborn as
    a human being with a wealthy and bright future.
(C) Karma such a saving others' lives, refraining from killing,
    relieving others' worries, curing others' illnesses, generously
    helping hospitals and medical research, or aiding environmental
    improvement may cause one to be reborn as a human being with a
    long life and good health, a person to be liked and supported by
    many people!
(D) The karma of studying and introducing Dharma and the right
    knowledge to others by means of teaching or writing, giving
    sincere respect to Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha and the saints in
    other religions, or meditating to concentrate on the mind can
    produce the effect of being reborn as a human being with wisdom,
    intelligence, eloquence in speech, and the qualities of a good
(E) Despite such karma as killing, hunting, fishing, doing harm to
    others, endangering others' lives, manufacturing or trading
    weapons, or robbing, one may be born as a human being again; but
    he will have the possibility of a short lifespan, accidental
    death, frightening insanity, disastrous illness, etc.  However, if
    those karmic activities were dominant in the being's life, then
    the rebirth will be in the form of an animal or ghost or even a
In one of the Buddhist texts it is recorded that someone asked Buddha:
Why are some women ugly-looking but rich?
Why are some women beautiful but poor?
Why are some people poor but with good health and long life?
Why are some rich yet ill and short-lived?
The Buddha's answers were:
     The woman who is ugly-looking but rich was.
short-tempered in her past lives--easily irritated and angered but was
also very generous and gave offerings to the Buddha, Dharma, and
Sangha and offered things to many sentient beings.
     The woman who is beautiful but poor was, in her past lives, very
kind, always smiling and softspoken, but was stingy and reluctant to
make offerings or help other people.
     The person who is poor but in good health and enjoying a long
life was in his or her past lives, very stingy or reluctant to make
donations, but was kind to all sentient beings, did not harm or kill
others, and also saved many other sentient beings' lives .
     The person who is rich but often ill, or who is short-lived, was,
in his or her past lives,' very generous in helping others but loved
hunting and killing and caused sentient beings to feel worried,
insecure, and frightened.
     The above examples give us some idea why people on earth,
although all human beings, vary so much in appearance, character,
lifespan, health, mental ability, and fate. It is even more
interesting to note how much the circumstances in which a person is
born can influence his or her destiny.  Which race, which nation,
which skin color, which era--all these factors make a great
difference.  Would it not be more logical to think that something
was going on before one's birth that caused all those effects than to
say that it is purely accidental or even to say that it is God's will?
If a baby has no past life, then on what grounds does God judge
whether to reward or punish that baby by causing him or her to reborn
under different circumstances?
(2) Karma also affects others and produces effects in the present
    lifetime as well as in future lives.
"Karmic effect is incomprehensible!" This statement of Buddha suggests
not only the complexity of karmic effects but also the difficulty of
predicting when a karmic effect will mature.
      Generally speaking, however, karma is like the action of
lighting a candle. The candle will light the whole room immediately
and will last until it is consumed. Similarly, karma has the following
A) Karma not only affects the doer but also affects others. The
   magnitude of the karma determines the sphere of its effect.
B) Most of the karma produces an immediate effect and the effect will
   last until it is "consumed." The nature and magnitude of a karmic
   action determine the duration of the effect, which may last many
   years or may not be felt until some other karmic conditions mature.
(C) Karmic effects can combine and accumulate.
     These three points are rather condensed. I do not have time to
give you a detailed description of them. The following examples,
however, might assist you to understand better.
(A) The discovery of electricity by Benjamin Franklin and the
    conversion of electricity into light by Thomas Edison changed the
    lives of human beings tremendously and the effect is still
B) An action taken by the U.S. Congress to change the tax law will
   immediately affect millions of American pockets. The effect can be
   seen by many Americans in their lifetime, and it could also be felt
   by them in the next life if any of them happened to be reborn as
C) The combined and cumulative karma of the system of slavery used by
    many Americans over a long period of time has produced effects
    which constitute a major domestic problem in the U.S.
D) The theoretical discovery of atomic energy by Albert Einstein and
   the joint effort of all the participants in the Manhattan Project
   produced such complicated effects, good and bad, that we are
   probably just beginning to realize the significance of these
3) Comparison of the magnitude of effects of various kinds of karma:
     Such comparisons are recorded in many Buddhist scriptures. I
would like to give you some examples to enable you to form your own
ideas as to how you may create karmic effects of greater magnitude.
(A) One day, while walking on the street, Buddha met a beggar who was
    a so-called untouchable in the strict caste society of India
    during his time. Not only was Buddha friendly with him, but he
    accepted the beggar as a disciple in the ho!y Sangha. This action
    had a tremendous effect, which was infinitely greater than the
    acceptance of a prince as his disciple.
(B) When the monk Bodhidharma went from India to China he was welcomed
    by the emperor Lang.  The emperor asked him, "What merit do I
    have, since I have built so many temples, erected so many pagodas,
    made so many offerings to Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha, and have
    done numerous other virtuous deeds?" Bodhidharma's reply greatly
    disappointed emperor Lang. Bodhidharma said, "Your Majesty, there
    is none. You have gained no merit. What you have done produces
    only wordly rewards, that is, good fortune, great power, or great
    wealth in your future lives, but you will still wander around
    in samara."
C) In many of Buddha's teachings, he emphasized that to study and
   explain to others even a few sentences of his teachings that show
   how one can be rid of samsara creates infinitely greater merit than
   the effect even of making tremendous offerings to Buddhas all over
   the universe in a number equal to the number of grains of sand in
   the great Ganges River.
(D) Buddha also taught:
      One who makes numerous offerings to Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha,
   helps many other sentient beings and does many other good deeds,
   and dedicates all the merit accumulated thereby to a purpose of
   one's own interest or to the benefit of one's own children or
   relatives--such as making more money or enjoying a longer or better
   present life or future lives--produces limited effects.
      One who does the same good deeds mentioned above but dedicates
   all the merit produced to helping and saving all sentient beings
   from suffering in samsara receives much greater merit than the one
   with selfish purposes.
      One who does the same above-mentioned good deeds with no
   specific purpose or desire receives infinitely greater merit than
   the two cases mentioned above.
4) Karma and free will:
     This topic has been often discussed. The question is, "Is there
any room for free will under the law of karma?" A more penetrating
question is, "Might not so-called free will be simply subjective
opinion?  Free will is still an effect of certain karma." For example,
suppose a daughter goes against her parents' wishes and decides to
marry a younger man. The daughter might think that that decision was
made by her free will, but under the law of karma that decision could
very well be an effect of her past karmic relations with this young
man and her parents. That she acts with a free will is only her
subjective opinion.
     In the United States, people have the freedom to vote or not to
vote. Is this freedom obtained by a kind of free will or is it still
predetermined by karmic effect?
     We could find many examples. all of which seem to indicate that
there is no room for free will under the law of karma. Does this mean
that the fate of a person is predetermined by his or her past karma,
that that person has no way to change it? Is this correct? Buddha said
it is not correct. Why and how, then, can one change one's fate?
     To help you to understand that one's fate is not entirely
predetermined by one' past karma, I must ask you to recall what I said
before about Original Nature. I said that cause and effect, just like
birth and death, loses its significance at the enlightened level,
because with Original Nature there is no one to receive the effect of
karma, whether it is good or bad. Therefore, at the extreme, when one
is enlightened, the law of karma is not applicable, so all that the
enlightened one does, say, or thinks is from free will or is a
manifestation of Original Nature and is not the effect of past karma.
     All of Buddha's teachings aim at this one goal: that is, to
identify oneself with Original Nature.  All methods are therefore
designed to enable one to be gradually in harmony with Original
     Now, Original Nature possesses all kinds of good human qualities,
such as loving-kindness, compassion, joy, and equanimity. All these
good qualities could be good karma, which produces good effects.
Therefore, during the process ' of cultivating harmony with Original
Nature, these good qualities will be revealed bit by bit, like an
occasional ray of sunshine penetrating through a heavy cloud. These
revelations are the true products of a person's free will. Because
such free will creates good karma and good karma produces good
effects, which, in turn, are good karma for the next effect, and so
on, a person has the potential to become enlightened, to recognize
Original Nature, and to become a Buddha.
     One will thus not only be rid of samsara, but will also gain the
perfect wisdom and compassion necessary to teach other sentient beings
to follow the same path.
     Karma is such a vast subject that I could talk for hours without
exhausting the material. Topics like the following could be very
(1) Can good karma and bad karma offset each other?
(2) Can karma be erased?
(3) Can the effects of bad karma be minimized by confession or other
    kinds of repentance?
     With the general idea of karma I have presented to you today, you
may be able to find the answers to those questions.
In conclusion, I wish to emphasize two points:
(1) Good or bad karma will inevitably produce its respective effect.
    Our daily doings, speech, and thoughts will affect our future.  A
    wise person knows, therefore, how to live properly.
(2) Remember that the law of karma stops operating and you become rid
    of samsara only by identifying yourself with Original Nature.  How
    you may gradually identify yourself with Original Nature, and
    realize that Original Nature is you, is therefore the essence of
    Buddha's teaching, and I sincerely recommend that you study and
    practice it.
Among all the hindrances in our cultivation, the greatest one is our
concept of self, which is the core of all our ignorance and suffering.
Next week, we shall attack that core, and, let me tell you, that
core is indeed very, very hard.
This lecture converted from printed to digital format and included in
the MOUNT KAILAS BBS TEACHING Library with permission from
Dr. C. T. Shen
Copyright and all rights reserved by Dr. C. T. Shen