People are always assigning blame for other’s present suffering by citing kamma. After the tsunami, hours of TV programing blamed the victims for being fishermen, or tourists, or poor, ignoring the obvious fact that there are millions of fishermen, tourists, and poor who were not swept away by a tsunami. Actually an observant Buddhist monk countered the prevailing television view by mentioning the movement of tectonic plates deep below the surface of the ocean.
When someone is struck down with a dread disease, others may nod knowingly and attribute it to kamma, although that is certainly not the only cause as taught by Lord Buddha. In the Discourse to Girimananda Thera, a multitude of different causes of illness are mentioned, of which kamma is but one: “Many are the sufferings, many are the disadvantages of this body since diverse diseases are engendered in this body, such as the following: Eye-disease... headache, mumps, ... tooth-ache, cough, asthma, catarrh, heart-burn, fever, stomach ailment, fainting, dysentery... cancer, ... from conflict of the humors, from changes of weather, from adverse condition, from devices practiced by others, from kamma-vipaka (results of kamma), and cold, heat, hunger, thirst, excrement, and urine.”
Kamma is not a simple matter. Even the most ordinary situations in human life are deceptively complex. The net of kammic conditioning and interactions are so intricate that the Buddha declared that kamma-vipaka is one of the four “unthinkables,” warning his followers that speculating on kamma and the results of kamma can lead to madness!
“The precise working out of the results of kamma is an unconjecturable that is not to be conjectured about, that would bring madness and vexation to anyone who conjectured about it.”
– Acintita Sutta (Anguttara Nikaya, Book of Fours)
The Buddha also warned that we must not fall into the view that kamma must always bear the same result. If intentional actions always produced fruit of the same magnitude and if the modification and even cancellation of the results were impossible, there could be no liberation from Samsara. The Buddha said: “If one says that in whatever way a person performs a kammic action, in that very same way he will experience the result–in that case there will be no possibility for a religious life and no opportunity would appear for the complete ending of suffering.
“But if one says that a person who performs a kammic action with a result that is variably experienceable, will reap its results accordingly– in that case there will be a possibility for a religious life and an opportunity for making a complete end of suffering.” – Anguttara Nikaya 3:110
In the Tittha Sutta (Three Sectarian Tenets, Anguttara Nikaya III 60) three wrong views are set forth. The first is that everything we experience is caused by our own past kamma. If we fall into that wrong view, we will be rendered just as helpless and inactive, without moral purpose, as if we believed in predestination with an omnipotent god.
“There are, O monks, three sectarian tenets which, if they are fully examined, investigated and discussed, will end in a doctrine of inaction, even if adopted because of tradition.
“What are these three tenets?
“There are, monks, some ascetics and brahmins who teach and hold this view: ‘Whatever a person experiences, be it pleasure, pain or a neutral feeling, all that is caused by past action.’
There are others who teach and hold this view: ‘Whatever a person experiences ... all that is caused by God's creation.’ And there are still other ascetics and brahmins who teach and hold this view: ‘Whatever a person experiences ... is uncaused and unconditioned.’”
When Lin Zi Yi suggests that the Buddhist monks of Cambodia are “getting abused, tortured, and controlled” all because of their own past kamma, he seems to be justifying a lack of compassion, and a cold, unsympathetic justification of the status quo. It is true that the world runs on because of greed, hatred, and delusion. It is also true that we are all of us heirs of our kamma. Those facts do not preclude our taking a calm, principled stand against human brutality and injustice, nor should they prevent us from acting generously and kindly wherever we can.