Q: In the Sutra on the Merits of the Fundamental
Vows of the Master of Healing, the Lapis Lazuli Radiance Tathagata (Medicine Buddha),
under the section saving those on the brink of death or disaster, it says, "Then,
while his body lies in its original position, he is seized by the messengers of
Yama who lead his spirit consciousness before that King of the Law. The inborn
spirits attached to all sentient beings, who record whether each being's record
is good or bad, will then hand down these records in their entirety to Yama, King
of the Law. Then the King will interrogate this person, and he will sum up the
person's deeds. According to the positive and negative factors, he shall judge
My question is: Doesn't Buddhism teach selflessness? Why does this
speak of a spirit consciousness? Doesn't Buddhism say that karma is a system of
cause and effect, and there is no one to judge us after we die?
is an example of a passage requiring interpretation; it should not be understood
literally. According to Buddhism, there is no spirit consciousness. There is no
Yama or Lord of Death who judges us. I believe this section was included in the
sutra because it corresponded with the way ordinary people saw the process of
death and rebirth in ancient times. Remember most common people during those times
were illiterate. They had heard many folk beliefs as they were growing up, and
the ideas of Yama and spirit consciousness were familiar to them. Common people
were not educated and did not know philosophical vocabulary such as "selflessness,"
"dependent arising," "emptiness," and other concepts needed
to express how karma actually functions.
Thus using the kind of language and
concepts uneducated people were used to help them to understand more easily the
idea of karma. The purpose of the Buddha saying this was twofold. He wanted people
1) our actions bring long term results, many of which occur after
we die, and
2) the importance of not creating negative karma and of creating
Question: If that is the case, couldn't some people accuse
the Buddha of lying, because everything the he said is supposed to be true. Won't
this cause some people to lose faith in Buddhism? Shouldn't the Buddha know that
in the future people like me, without profound knowledge of Buddhism, would misunderstand
Answer: Maybe the Buddha knew that people like you would ask good
questions to clarify their doubts, just as you have done!
After the Buddha's
life, great sages, scholars, and practitioners debated the meaning of many sutra
passages because the Buddha said different things to different people on different
occasions. What they noticed more than anything was the Buddha's great skillfulness
as a teacher. He knew the cultural, educational, psychological, and spiritual
backgrounds of the people in the audience and spoke in the way best suited to
the particular audience he was addressing at the time. For example, a good math
teacher teaches differently when she's teaching young children in pre-school,
when she's teaching in secondary school, and when she's teaching in college.
when children are little and are not able to understand things in a sophisticated
manner, do parents explain things in a detailed, precise way? Or do they explain
things in a way that the child can understand this is not a good action? As the
child grows up, parents will explain the same situation differently, according
to the child's ability to understand at that particular time.
The Indian sages
wrote commentaries to the sutras. In them they delineated sutra passages that
could be taken literally from those that required interpretation. They said that
because the Buddha taught people what was appropriate for their particular level
or way of thinking, he was not lying when he said different things to different
people. These sages then set out guidelines so we would know what to understand
literally and what required interpretation. They also taught guidelines for how
to discern the difference between passages that gave the definitive meaning of
emptiness and those that set forth the stages of the path and the variety of phenomena,
and thus were interpretable.
For example, the sutras describe the world as
being flat. We do not take this literally because scientists have proven that
the world is round. The Buddha said this because this was the predominant view
of society at his time.
Q: In the sutra mentioned above and in several other
sutras, it says that many evils and much negative karma can be purified by copying,
reciting, or making offerings to the texts. Is this true? Couldn't someone think
that he can do many wrongs but purify at the end and thus not suffer? Also, isn't
this unfair to the victims of that person's harmful actions?
does not mean that just by copying, reciting or making offerings to a sutra, all
of a person's negative karma will be gone. Any positive action we do has good
results, and thus copying sutras and so forth, when done with an altruistic motivation
or with trust in the Three Jewels, can help to purify negativities. However, just
reading or writing a sutra without focusing on its meaning or with a good motivation,
doesn't have much good effect because it's simply a rote activity.
talked about the good effect of copying the sutras and so forth to encourage people
to purify their negative karma rather than to spend the rest of their lives feeling
guilty and not practicing the Dharma because they feel so bad.
The fact that
karma can be purified does not mean it's okay to create negative karma. For example,
a broken leg can be fixed, but does that mean breaking your leg is fine to do?
seem to think that for the perpetrator of a harmful action to suffer is fair to
the victims. As Gandhi said, "An eye for an eye would make everyone blind."
A victim's pain is not alleviated by the perpetrator suffering. In fact, rejoicing
in another's suffering only creates more negative karma.
Question: I read
in a book that bad deeds and good deeds can offset each other. For example I did
2 good deeds and 2 bad deeds today, so in the end I did nothing good and nothing
bad. Is this correct?
Answer: Karma is very complicated; it's not as simplistic
as stated above. It's true that constructive actions help to purify destructive
karmic imprints, but many other factors are in play to determine the strength
of any particular action (karma). We shouldn't think that we can do a very harmful
action and then a small positive one that will cancel it out. Instead, we should
do our best to abandon all harmful actions, or at least minimize their strength.
In The Great Treatise on the Stages of the Path to Enlightenment, in the chapter
on karma, Lama Tsongkhapa explains some of the factors that make karma heavy or
Question: I read that we should not expect a reward when we do a good
deed, but most of the time when I do something good, deep inside my heart I am
hoping to get something good in return. Is it alright? It seems that I do good
deeds just to get good rewards and not out of a pure heart.
may be different in this regard. The first person may start out thinking, "I'm
doing this to benefit all sentient beings (or at least to benefit one other person),"
but their self-centeredness may sneak in later thinking, "I'm creating positive
karma and will get something good as a result of this action." The second
person may start out with the motivation of self-benefit, "I'm creating good
karma. Now happiness will come my way in future lives." The third person
may not think at all about future lives and simply have the motivation, "If
I do this for someone, he'll like me and will do something nice for me later on."
Clearly, the purest motivation is bodhicitta, doing the action for the benefit
of all sentient beings. But when self-centeredness sneaks it - as it will because
we are ordinary beings - we should try to correct it. The first person should
think, "It's true, I may get a good result in the future, but when that happens,
I will use that opportunity to increase my Dharma practice for the benefit of
all." The second person, although lacking a bodhicitta motive, at least has
faith in karma and is dedicating his good result for a future life. That much
is positive, for he's not thinking just of his own personal happiness in this
life. That person can rejoice for that part of his motivation and then try to
expand it, first generating the determination to be free from cyclic existence,
and then the aspiration for enlightenment (bodhicitta). The motivation of the
third person is basically selfish, just thinking to get something good for himself
as soon as possible. He needs to meditate on impermanence and death and the disadvantages
of cyclic existence in order to improve his motivation.