When I read in the newspaper about slashers, random murderers, and children killed in traffic accidents, I feel terrible. Can Buddhism dismiss all such incidents as the result of actions in a previous life? It seems too cruel to me.
I share the pain you feel about innocent children who are murdered for no reason. Such incidents always wring my heart. However, I cannot go along with the dissatisfaction you express by asking, “Can Buddhism dismiss this, too, as the result of actions in a previous life?”
As you surely know, Buddhism consists of the lifelong teachings of Śākyamuni Buddha. A look at the Complete Sutras will show that the root and trunk of his teachings is the law of cause and effect, which permeates the Three Worlds and the Ten Directions.
The law of cause and effect means that seeds that are sown will always sprout, and unsown seeds never will.
Moreover, it is universally true that the relationship between cause and effect is threefold: good causes yield good effects, bad causes yield bad effects, my causes yield my effects. Buddhism solemnly teaches that the law applies not just in the present world, but that it permeates the past and future worlds as well. Here is how Buddha expressed it, as written in a sutra.
If you want to know past causes, look at present effects.
If you want to know future effects, look at present causes.
If you want to know what seeds you have sown in the past, look at the results that appear in this life. If you want to know your future destiny, look at the seeds you are sowing now.
“Seeds” are actions, and your “destiny” is the result of your actions. The present world is the outcome of seeds sown in the past world, and seeds sown in the present world will determine outcomes (destinies) in the next world. This is known as “cause and effect permeating the Three Worlds.” To believe in Buddhism means to believe in “cause and effect permeating the Three Worlds.”
But it is important to know that what we usually refer to as the law of cause and effect is more properly known as the law of cause, condition*, and effect. Buddhism teaches that all outcomes are produced by the combination of cause and condition.
As one example, seed rice is the cause producing the outcome of rice. Temperature, air, and soil are some of the conditions. Rice cannot be produced solely by its cause, seed rice. Nor can it be produced only by the conditions of temperature, humidity, air, and soil.
Only when the cause and conditions are all in place can the outcome of rice come about. Please do not forget that conditions are always included in the word “cause” in “law of cause and effect.”
Not long ago a street slasher in Tokyo killed several people. Shockingly, one of the victims was an infant in a baby carriage being pushed by its mother.
People grieved for the loss of the innocent child, and you too must have felt that it was cruel to write the incident off as the infant’s karma from a past life. I do understand your feeling.
Yet nothing unconnected to that child could possibly happen to it. Other infants were present at the scene, but they did not have the same outcome. Why did it happen only to that one child?
The cause of the infant’s outcome lay in its passing by that place at just that time. The ultimate cause for that undoubtedly lay in the child’s own past. That cause, when combined with the condition of the random killer, led to the tragic outcome.
Plenty of other people were present at the same time and place, but they did not meet with any misfortune. That’s because although the presence of the random killer formed an evil condition, there was no cause in their case.
Naturally, such evil conditions as random killers must be severely dealt with, and we must do all in our power to eradicate them.
“Writing off something like this as karma from a previous life is cruel! It’s coldhearted! This is a philosophy of resignation.” Such misunderstanding of Buddhism comes about, I would say, by confusing “cause” with “condition.”
While encouraging deep self-reflection, Buddhism neither pushes people away coldheartedly nor does it urge resignation. Rather, please know that Buddhism is taught so that people may quickly encounter Amida’s absolute salvation and change their lives of suffering into lives of rapturous joy.
*Condition: Something that helps the cause to produce a result.