HUMAN BEINGS HAVE LONG ASCRIBED TO FATE, destiny or even God’s will problems they felt powerless to resist, resigning themselves to these perceived forces. The ancient Greeks envisioned three elderly goddesses—the Fates—who controlled people’s lives. The goddess Clotho determined birth, spinning the thread of human life; Lachesis dispensed that thread, steering the path a person would follow in life; and Atropos cut the thread thus determining an individual’s moment of death.
This attitude—that all in life is predetermined or inalterable—is not limited to people of old; it exerts an influence on the hearts and minds of many living today. Expressing frustration over this tendency, British author and essayist George Orwell wrote: “For the ordinary man is passive. Within a narrow circle . . . he feels himself master of his fate, but against major events he is as helpless as against the elements. So far from endeavoring to influence the future, he simply lies down and lets things happen to him.”
The idea that something other than ourselves controls our destiny can in one sense be seen as a form of avoidance—a rationalization to escape facing and challenging real problems and suffering. It may also be an expression of a deep, subconscious sense of helplessness.
Buddhism teaches the solution to human suffering and provides a way to overcome or transform this sense of helplessness. Ultimately, it teaches that the cause of misery lies not with any external force or circumstance, but with ourselves. Buddhism looks nowhere beyond the sufferer for both the cause and the solution to suffering.
According to Shakyamuni Buddha: “If a person commits an act of good or evil, he him-self becomes the heir to that action. This is because that action actually never disappears (Udana).”
The Sanskrit word karma means action. And Buddhism divides the actions that constitute karma into three categories: actions of the body (behavior), actions of the mouth (speech, language) and actions of the mind (thoughts).
The latent force of both our good and bad actions remains in our lives.
ONCE committed, any human action, whether good or bad, does not simply vanish into the past with time. Each act remains in one’s life at the present as a potential force or energy, influencing the course of one’s existence from the point of that action forward. In this sense, rather than simply viewing karma as “action,” it may be more appropriate to think of it as action plus that action’s potential influence on one’s life. Or, in simpler terms, karma may be seen as life’s ingrained habits, leanings or tendencies—actions that tend to repeat themselves, or that we tend to repeat.
Buddhism teaches of the eternal or unending nature of life as a cycle of birth and death. So when people speak of “past karma,” they really mean the present influence on one’s life of actions taken in the past (in past lives). Buddhism also teaches that actions (karma) can be either good or bad; good actions (good karma) give rise to happy, positive effects, and bad actions (bad karma) give rise to unhappy, negative effects.
Further, some actions yield specific results that will appear at a set time—this is known as fixed or immutable karma. Other actions yield results that are not set or specific in their nature or timing—this is non-fixed or mutable karma. Immutable karma is often used to describe a person’s life span, because the time of one’s death is viewed in Buddhism as fixed or set by the influence of past karma.
What kind of actions form immutable karma? In the Buddhist scripture A Treasury of Analysis of the Law (Jpn. Kusha Ron), they are described as:
Actions arising from strong earthly desires (delusions, illusions); or conversely, actions arising from a very pure heart and mind.
Actions that are continually repeated over time.
Actions taken toward the correct teaching of Buddhism.
Actions taken toward one’s mother or father.
While human beings cannot avoid the results of their actions in past lives, Buddhism does not teach that we should simply resign ourselves to the effects of karma, be they good or bad. Submission to fate, to “one’s lot in life” or to some will outside our own is not a correct Buddhist view. Rather, Buddhism is correctly understood as a forward-looking, empowering teaching that stresses personal responsibility and hope. “If I am the one who made myself what I am today, then I am the one who will create the ‘me’ of the future,” is the ideal attitude of a Buddhist.
Karma, then, does not so much apply to our circumstances as to our thoughts, words and deeds. Things do not happen to us, we make them happen—or we act in a habitual way when they do happen that leads us to habitual situations. We made what we are and experience now, and we are at this moment making what we will be and experience in the future. That is karma. So to change karma means to change our lives right now; that is, the way we think, speak and do things. The best way to positively transform the effects of our past bad karma, enjoy the effects of past good karma, and create good karma for the future is to inform our actions with fresh life force and wisdom.
In Nichiren's treatise "Rissho Ankoku Ron" (on Securing the Peace of the Land through the Establishment of the Correct Law), He tells us that when the philosophy and religion upon which people base their lives become distorted and confused, and if this situation continues without people awakening to the the true nature of life, that distortion will without fail be reflected in the nation and society.
Shakyamuni which conveys his essential outlook of Buddhism on the nature and cause of suffering. When Shakyamuni ascended a mountain summit together with his recently converted disciples. Gazing at the view below, Shakyamuni began to expound, "Indeed, this world is burning with many and various fires. There are fires of greed, fires of hatred, fires of foolishness, fires of infatuation and egoism, fires of decrepitude, sickness and death, fires of sorrow, lamentation, suffering and agony."
What he was trying to convey was his understanding that the phenomenal world that we inhabit is engulfed in the "flames" of suffering originating in deluded impulses. It is the fires of greed, hatred and ignorance, raging fiercely in the hearts of people, that are the basic cause of the suffering of human existence. Therefore, Shakyamuni urges us first and foremost to come to a clear understanding of the root cause of suffering.
Here, the deluded impulse of "greed" indicates uncontrolled desire for, and attachment to, material comforts, for wealth, power or fame. Desires of this kind grow and multiply without cease, and since their fulfillment, cannot bring true and lasting happiness, a person in their grip is condemned to endless torment and frustration.
The deluded impulse of "hatred" describes such emotions as resentment, rage and envy which are triggered when our egocentric desires are not fulfilled. Unless controlled, this escalates into various forms of destruction and violence. Simply put, the deluded impulse of hatred is the violence that grows from an egocentric view of life.
"Ignorance" refers to willful ignorance of reality, or the true nature of life and the cosmos. Thus it is the deluded impulse that generates discord and rebellion against the principles that govern the functioning of the cosmos. The wisdom which illuminates and reveals the true nature of the cosmos is referred to as "enlightenment," while this kind of willful ignorance is referred to as "fundamental darkness" because it clouds and obscures the light by which we might see things in their true nature. Of all the deluded impulses, Buddhism considers ignorance the most fundamental.
Buddhism views these impulses--greed, hatred and ignorance--as poisons inherent in life; together they are sometimes referred to as the "three poisons." What Shakyamuni sought to teach his disciples in his sermon is that the flames of the three poisons and of all deluded impulses originate in, and spew forth from, the inner lives of individuals to engulf families, ethnic groups, nations and eventually the whole of humanity.
We see this in the world today, when the impact of uncontrolled greed goes far beyond the individual level; it creates economic disparities among racial and ethnic groups, and between countries on a global scale. The avarice of the industrialized nations has deprived people in developing countries of the conditions by which their basic needs can be met. And the greed of the human race is undermining the right of other living beings to exist.
Violence is rampant within families, in the educational environment and in local communities. Deep hatreds that trace back to distant historical events give rise to intractable ethnic and racial conflicts. In some cases, such historical hatred is bound up with religious causes or identities, and finds expression in terror and random killing.
Willful ignorance of the true nature of existence signifies a state of rebellion against, and denial of, the basic principles of life and the cosmos. As such, it distorts all aspects of life, from individual life-styles to family, ethnic and national values. In other words, this kind of willful ignorance can be found in all value systems, ways of life, and views of nature that put one into rebellious conflict with the very principles that support one's own existence, which, ultimately, govern the functioning of the living cosmos.
By sharing his enlightened understanding with others, Shakyamuni sought to help people minimize the destructive effects of these deluded impulses and in fact to transform them into the impetus for happiness.
In India, the equivalent of "peace" is "santi" which means the highest state of inner tranquillity. It also means the enlightened condition attained by Shakyamuni sometimes referred to as "nirvana."
A Buddhist scripture describes the state of inner peace as follows:
"Tranquillity of mind comes from having successfully transcended greed, hatred and ignorance."
As this passage makes clear, the Buddhist approach to peace starts from the fundamental act of surmounting these deluded impulses or inner poisons. The state of having brought these impulses under control, however, is not a static and private inner peace. Rather, it is limitlessly dynamic, expansive and evolutionary in its nature.
The 13th-century Japanese Buddhist Nichiren expressed this as follows: "Burning the firewood of deluded impulses, we behold the flame of enlightened wisdom."
In other words, through spiritual practice the energy inherent in our deluded impulses can be transformed in its entirety into the illuminating "flame" of enlightened wisdom. Thus, the three poisons can be subdued so that they no longer produce confusion and disruption; they can no longer drive us to act in a bizarre and destructive manner. It is for this reason that this transcendence of deluded impulses is known as inner tranquillity.
In the state of tranquillity, the light of enlightened wisdom shines brilliantly, unblocked and unhindered by the clouds of deluded impulses.
If one surveys the Buddha's teachings, from the earliest scriptures through the subsequent Mahayana tradition, one can see that the core of Shakyamuni's enlightenment was his awakening to the "law of dependent origination." The essence of this concept, which has been expressed in various ways and was developed in great depth and detail in Mahayana Buddhism, is the interdependence of all living beings and indeed all phenomena. It teaches us that all things occur and exist only through their interrelationship with all other phenomena and that this fabric of relatedness is of infinite extent both temporally and spatially. Herein lies the theoretical basis for the principle of the mutually supportive coexistence so central to Buddhist thinking.
Each human being exists within the context of interrelationships that include other human beings, all living beings and the natural world. In other words, each person is sustained by the interdependent web of life. By awakening to this principle we are able to expand instinctive self-love into an altruistic love for others; we are able to nurture the spirit of tolerance and empathy for others.
The doctrine of dependent origination serves as a theoretical foundation for peace. In terms of concrete action, it manifests itself as the practice of compassion. In Buddhism, compassion indicates the practical ethic of always maintaining an empathetic connectedness with others, sharing their sufferings and unhappiness, working alongside them to overcome the deluded impulses that are the root cause of suffering, transforming these into happiness, benefit and joy.
It is these deluded impulses that drive human beings to act counter to the law of dependent origination. Ignorance is considered fundamental among these deluded impulses precisely because it blinds people to the reality of dependent origination, the unavoidable and all-encompassing interrelatedness within which we live.
This ignorance gives rise to the greed that drives people to seek the fulfillment of their desires even at the cost of the suffering of others. It also leads to the kind of uncontrolled rage that seeks the destruction of a situation in which one's desires are frustrated. It is for this reason that the deluded impulse of ignorance is considered equivalent to a fundamental egocentrism. It is, however, a blind and finally self-destructive egocentrism because it violently severs the strands of the web of life that supports one's own existence.
The state of mind of one who ceaselessly strives to transcend this fundamental egocentrism is that of inner peace and tranquillity. The heart of such a person is lit with the wisdom of dependent origination, and overflows with the spirit of compassion.
Buddhism's principal contribution to peace is to be found in the struggle against the deluded impulses that, rooted in the depths of the inner life of the individual, cause so much suffering and destruction in the whole of human society. In Shakyamuni's Lotus Sutra, the destructive effects brought about by deluded impulses are described as "defilements," and classified into five stages, from the innermost and most personal to that which stains an entire age or era. These are: defilements of desire, of thought, of the people, of life itself and of the age.
T'ien-t'ai, a Buddhist philosopher active in China in the sixth century, described the five defilements in the following manner:
"The most fundamental of these five are the defilements of thought and of desire, which result in the defilements of the people and of life. These in turn give rise to the defilement of the age."
"Defilement of desire" points to deluded impulses such as the three poisons themselves. "Defilement of thought" refers to excessive and unreasoning attachment to specific ideas or ideologies. According to T'ien-t'ai, the defilements of thought and desire are the most fundamental and, through their impact on individuals, bring chaos and disruption to families, nations and states. Passed on from one generation to another, these defilements give rise to the "defilement of life," instilling historical hatred and violence among different peoples, ethnic groups and nations. These defilements finally influence all people living in that era, resulting in the "defilement of the age."
Modern civilization increasingly exhibits the aspects of what Buddhism would term the "defilement of the age." Signs of this include: rampant materialism, the ruthless domination and exploitation of nature, and unbridled consumption. Since the end of the Cold War, our world has been spared major outbreaks of conflict stemming from attachment to ideology (defilement of thought). However, the kinds of conflicts that are flaring up are rooted in the irrational passions that Buddhism would classify as "defilement of desire," which are considered even more deeply rooted in people's lives and therefore even more difficult to control.
In a world where deluded impulses cast the pall of their negative effects in the form of the five defilements described above, Buddhists have, I believe, a particular mission to contribute to the realization of peace on all planes. In other words, we should not be content with our inner peace of mind but should broaden our horizons and extend our endeavors to include abolition of war--that is, peace of the global human community--as well as truly sustainable development and harmonious coexistence with the global ecosystem--that is peace with the natural world.