by Venerable Thubten
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?
Answer: This 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 to understand
1) our actions bring long
term results, many of which occur after we die, and
importance of not creating negative karma and of creating positive
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 the
Answer: Maybe the Buddha knew that people like
you would ask good questions to clarify their doubts, just as you
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.
Similarly, 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
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?
Answer: This 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.
The sutra 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
You 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 light.
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.
Answer: People 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.