The Concept of Karma & Retribution
As we so aptly say in Australia, “what goes around comes around” – but Buddhism points out that that doesn’t necessarily literally means that we receive an equal ‘perceptual’ response to our action.
In other words, if it should so happen that you steal one dollar of a man that has nothing, and he wanted to use this money to buy a meal, there are some real consequences that you may have not realised at the time of committing this action.
To you it’s ‘only’ a dollar, but to the robbed man it was his chance to survive another day.
Well… what one’s ‘karmic retribution’ in that case? The consequence of this action will be indeed very difficult to discern. It shows that our intellect has little ability to fathom the sum total of our actions from a societal, environmental and individual perspective. However, generally speaking it is the emotional value that we have to reconcile, not necessarily the material one, as that will naturally follow.
Shakyamuni Buddha has once received an offering made of mud from two children and thus, sensing their sincerity and true intentions proclaimed that they would become great kings in a future life time. He made clear that it is all about intent.
Although the earlier explained interaction is clearly based on cause and effect from a Buddhist point of view (i.e. the robbed has committed the cause to be robbed in the past, whereas the robber committed the cause of robbing) it may be misunderstood of how one should respond to this.
There is a tendency by some who misunderstand the true implications of the mystic law to say, well…both got what they deserved (caused) and that’s that. They may say “It’s their own fault and therefore it has nothing to do with me!” How wrong they are. Knowing that we are eternally interconnected beings, the Buddha knows that the effects concern us all eventually – sooner or later.
It is as if we are saying that our toes don’t concern us because they are too far away from our head. The interconnection of all things will make itself known in the scheme of things, it is only through the illusion of time and space that we feel somewhat disconnected from the ‘perceived other’.
NDB on the other hand would have a very different view as the following example will highlight.
Let’s further assume that it was you who we are talking about here. First of all the effects of you having taken the one dollar will ultimately become your internal cause, and you carry a latent effect (which has not become visible yet, either to you or to the environment). So, when the time is right, an external cause will bring out your internal cause and produce a manifest effect once again (i.e. a point in time will occur were you will be repaying for having committed something that caused somebody else an unpleasant experience). In other words, ‘what you do onto others, you do onto yourself (as so aptly pointed out in the Bible).
Thus, one could say that both, you and the one you have robbed are intrinsically connected through your interactions. Based on that, you will be the one that inescapably has to suffer the consequences of your actions sooner or later (but as pointed out earlier, you can change your karma at any time by taking a different course of action NOW or as soon as you become aware of your ill guided action).
Causality and other religious denominations – conflict resolution through forgiveness
Other religious denominations too identified a link of causality in their teachings. For example Judaism and Christianity made a clear reference to these interactions in the Old as well as New Testament featured in the Bible.
There the Old Testament speaks about ‘who takes a sword in his hands will die through a sword’ and ‘an eye for an eye’ and a multitude of other examples designed to make people aware that their actions have indeed undesired consequences.
The Old Testament is based on the prophet Moses and predominately bases itself on the 10 commandments which are technically designed to please ‘god’, and from a Buddhist perspective correspond to a cause and effect relationship determined by the aforementioned interaction between self, the environment and society we live in.
Noticing that people were no longer aware of the true purpose of Judaism as prescribed by the Old Testimony, and seeing that people would under the guidance of priests misunderstand and even engage into revengeful acts based on its writings (i.e. if you have taken an eye, I now have the right to take yours – thus sparking a cycle of self reinforcing negative consequences), the advent of Jesus Christ brought a new area of change as he proposed the concept of forgiveness.
Forgiveness by its very nature is, according to Buddhism, a lessening of karmic retribution. This applies to forgiveness of self as much as to the forgiveness of others.
To highlight this, let’s suppose someone hits you on the left and you then give him the right instead of responding in the same revengeful fashion (i.e. you are not hitting back), while at the same time keeping in mind that you love that person as your brother/sister, i.e. unflinchingly believing in the others goodness, what would happen to the obvious cause that shows its effect by you getting hit right now?
Well…the person that would dish out that kind of treatment is likely to eventually be convinced of your inner strength and recognise that s/he is of much lesser inner ability than you (even though that person may have much greater physical power). That would initially probably bring out an even more severe reaction on behalf of the aggressor as s/he feels even greater anger over the apparent superiority of his/her victim (as it makes him or her feel inferior).
But eventually that person would want to know how such life condition can be achieved, knowing fair well, on a much deeper level, that great physical strength and dominance in the material world does not hold the all important answers to the mystery of life.
For the one being mistreated that way this provides an opportunity to really confirm his/her belief in ‘the flesh’, i.e. live the truth rather than theorise in abstraction. This does not mean that we should become like sheep between wolfs, but rather use our wisdom to take the right kind of action.
One could argue that this is what Jesus Christ did in the world of Christianity. He was tested to the point of death for his unflinching belief. Only then had those around him the confidence that he really meant what he said. By that, he has given his life to show to himself and others that he is indeed ‘the son of god’ and therefore was able to lead countless others to a greater understanding of the mysteries of their own life.
All great people have been somewhat persecuted and tested for their beliefs. Historically speaking, we are certainly more impressed with people that have great mental/spiritual strength, for they represent something that is so much more powerful than brute physical force.
They seem to have the ability to control their destiny beyond the physical world. They all seem to know that the physical world does not provide true happiness until we have reached true spiritual salvation. Buddhism knows that what is timeless and eternal can only be found deep within our minds. Yet, as NDB points out, it is crucial to understand that happiness is found in the here and now, not in some faraway place like a paradise or nirvana after we die.