Friday, June 29, 2012

The influence of past karma and the impossibility of becoming a Buddha in this life

The doctrine of karma is extremely important in Buddhism. Not only that it explains how things work in the world, why we are what we are, why we have this form (body), but it also assures us of our free will. We are what we think (karma of thinking), what we say (karma of speech) and what we do (karma of action or body) and we can always change this karma and thus create a more peaceful and pleasant way of life.

Apparently, by saying that sentient beings cannot free themselves from birth and death by their own power, it seems that Jodo Shinshu misinterprets or does not totally accept the doctrine of karma. However, Jodo Shinshu accepts fully the teaching of karma, just that it sheds light on a very important aspect that many Buddhists usually tend to forget.
Yes, generally speaking, we can change our karma and thus decide to act in such and such a way, influencing our own destiny, but do we really always act as we wish? Suppose a person who drinks a lot since childhood and has now 40 years of alcoholism, can he give up alcohol just like that, by a simple act of will? Or someone who smokes since early childhood, can he really give up smoking over night?

We see from experience that many smokers, alcoholics or drug abusers cannot give up their bad habits so easily, some of them even ending their lives without being able to stop their harmful behavior. How much more is the influence of the past habitual karma!

This habitual past karma is not what we did in a habitual manner in a single lifetime, but what we did and were concentrated on in many lifetimes. If it is hard to put an end to the habitual karma of smoking which lasts only for twenty or thirty years, how much harder or even impossible would be to stop the various bad karmic tendencies of many lifetimes!

So, Jodo Shinshu doesn’t deny free will in changing karma, but it insists on the truth that this will is so much weakened by the habitual karma of past lives that it becomes almost incapable of really changing something.

When we have became accustomed for many eons and long kalpas with living in ignorance, hate, greed, jealousy, attachments, how could we not be influenced by this habitual evil karma also in this life and how could we end all these perpetual miseries just by force of will? We all know that a long time of drug abuse leads to dependency, a state in which the personal will of change is extremely limited and one needs immediate help from a specialist. But we took the drugs of delusion for many lifetimes since the beginingless past!

Jodo Shinshu teaching and method doesn’t start by staring at the ideal: we all have Buddha-nature and we can all become Buddhas, or at least do pure deeds and gain merits, but from the state of mind in which we dwell in the present moment.

Entering the Jodo Shinshu path is like saying: “Hello, I am Josho Adrian and I am an alcoholic”. The Jodo Shinshu Buddhist doesn’t say: “Hello, I am Josho and I have Buddha-nature”, but “Hello, my name is Josho and I am ignorant and full of blind passions, incapable to heal myself (attain Nirvana)”.

So, first in Jodo Shinshu we recognize our own incapacities and then we accept the medicine, which is the Primal Vow of Amida Buddha. We recognize that we are so sick that we can no longer rely on ourselves. We agree to apply the only treatment that works in dependency cases like ourselves.

Someone who says, “I can become a Buddha in this lifetime because my true nature is Buddhahood itself” is someone who “fails to understand the influence of good and evil karma of past lives” and “that every evil act done - even as slight as a particle on the tip of a strand of rabbit’s fur or sheep’s wool - has its cause in past karma.”, as Shinran said in the thirteenth chapter of Tannisho.

In the same way as someone who abused drugs for many years thinks that he can give up immediately his dependency, and after a few tries he ends up taking a super dose, also “a person may not wish to harm anyone and yet end up killing a hundred or a thousand people”. This is the heavy influence of karma from past lives. And this is exactly why we need Amida’s salvation.

This salvation, as promised in his Primal Vow, doesn’t depend on our own will, which is influenced by our good or bad karma from past lives, but it depends solely on Amida’s Power of curing our illnesses and transforming us into Buddhas: “it is by the inconceivable working of the Vow that we are saved”.

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