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Unravelling meaning of life through Buddhism
by Ajahn Brahmavamso, The Buddhist Channel, May 19, 2008
A Wesak reflection on the basics of the Buddha's teachings
Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia -- Today, Buddhism continues to gain ever-wider acceptance in many lands far beyond its original home. The Buddhist Teaching of the Law of Kamma offers our society a just and incorruptible foundation and reason for the practice of a moral life. It is easy to see how a wider embracing of the Law of Kamma would lead any country towards a stronger, more caring and virtuous society.
The Teaching of Rebirth places this present short lifetime of ours in a broader perspective, giving more meaning to the vital events of birth and death. The understanding of rebirth removes so much of the tragedy and grief surrounding death and turns one's attention to the quality of a lifetime, rather than its mere length.
From the very beginning, the practice of meditation has been at the very heart of the Buddhist Way. Today, meditation grows increasingly popular as the proven benefits to both mental and physical well being become more widely known. When stress is shown to be such a major cause of human suffering, the quieting practice of meditation becomes ever more valued.
Today's world is too small and vulnerable to live angry and alone, thus the need for tolerance, love and compassion is important. These qualities of mind essential for happiness are formally developed in Buddhist meditation and then diligently put into practice in everyday life.
Forgiveness and gentle tolerance, harmlessness and peaceful compassion are well known trademarks of Buddhism, they are given freely and broadly to all kinds of beings, including animals of course, and also, most importantly, to oneself. There is no place for dwelling in guilt or self-hatred in Buddhism, not even a place for feeling guilty about feeling guilty!
Teachings and practices such as these are what bring about qualities of gentle kindness and unshakeable serenity, identified with the Buddhist religion for 25 centuries and sorely needed in today's world. In all its long history, no war has ever been fought in the name of Buddhism. It is this peace and this tolerance, growing out of a profound yet reasonable philosophy, which makes Buddhism so vitally relevant to today's world.
What is Kamma?
Kamma means 'action'. The Law of Kamma means that there are inescapable results of our actions. There are deeds of body, speech or mind that lead to others' harm, one's own harm, or to the harm of both. Such deeds are called bad (or 'unwholesome') Kamma. They are usually motivated by greed, hatred or delusion. Because they bring painful results, they should not be done.
There are also deeds of body, speech or mind that lead to others' well being, one's own wellbeing, or to the wellbeing of both. Such deeds are called good (or 'wholesome') Kamma. They are usually motivated by generosity, compassion or wisdom. Because they bring happy results, they should be done as often as possible.
Thus much of what one experiences is the result of one's own previous Kamma. When misfortune occurs, instead of blaming someone else, one can look for any fault in one's own past conduct. If a fault is found, the experience of its consequences will make one more careful in the future. When happiness occurs, instead of taking it for granted, one can look to see if it is the result of good Kamma. If so, the experience of its pleasant results will encourage more good Kamma in the future.
The Buddha pointed out that no being whatsoever, divine or otherwise, has any power to stop the consequences of good and bad Kamma. The fact that one reaps just what one sows gives to the Buddhist a greater incentive to avoid all forms of bad Kamma while doing as much good Kamma as possible. Though one cannot escape the results of bad Kamma, one can lessen their effect. A spoon of salt mixed in a glass of pure water makes the whole very salty, whereas the same spoon of salt mixed in a freshwater lake hardly changes the taste of the water. Similarly, the result of a bad Kamma in a person habitually doing only a small amount of good Kamma is painful indeed, whereas the result of the same bad Kamma in a person habitually doing a great deal of good Kamma is only mildly felt.
This natural Law of Kamma becomes the force behind, and reason for, the practice of morality and compassion in our society.
Teaching of Rebirth
The Buddha remembered clearly many of His past lives. Even today, many Buddhist monks, nuns and others also remember their past lives. Such a strong memory is a result of deep meditation. For those who remember their past life, Rebirth is an established act which puts this life in a meaningful perspective.
The Law of Kamma can only be understood in the framework of many lifetimes, because it sometimes takes this long for Kamma to bear its fruit. Thus Kamma and Rebirth offer a plausible explanation to the obvious inequalities of birth; why some are born into great wealth whereas others are born into pathetic poverty; why some children enter this world healthy and full-limbed whereas others enter deformed and diseased. The fruits of bad Kamma are not regarded as a punishment for evil deeds but as lessons from which to learn, for example, how better to learn about the need for generosity than to be reborn among the poor!
Rebirth takes place not only within this human realm. The Buddha pointed out that the realm of human beings is but one among many. There are many separate heavenly realms and grim lower realms too, realms of the animals and realms of the ghosts. Not only can human beings go to any of these realms in the next life, but also we can come from any of these realms into our present life. This explains a common objection against Rebirth that argues "How can there be Rebirth when there are 10 times as many people alive today than there were 50 years ago?" The answer is that people alive today have come from many different realms.
Understanding that we can come and go between these different realms gives us more respect and compassion for the beings in these realms. It is unlikely, for example, that one would exploit animals when one has seen the link of Rebirth that connects them with us.
No Creator God
The Buddha pointed out that no God or priest nor any other kind of being has the power to interfere in the working out of someone else's Kamma. Buddhism, therefore, teaches the individual to take full responsibility for themselves.
For example, if you want to be wealthy then be trustworthy, diligent and frugal, or if you want to live in a heavenly realm then always be kind to others. There is no God to ask favours from, or to put it another way, there is no corruption possible in the workings of Kamma.
Do Buddhists believe that a Supreme Being created the universe? Buddhists would first ask which universe do you mean? This present universe from the moment of the 'Big Bang' up to now is but one among countless millions in Buddhist cosmology. The Buddha gave an estimate of the age of a single universe-cycle of around 37,000 million years, which is quite plausible when compared to modern astrophysics. After one universe-cycle ends another begins, again and again, according to impersonal law. A Creator God is redundant in this scheme.
No being is a Supreme Saviour, according to the Buddha, because whether God, human, animal or whatever, all are subject to the Law of Kamma. Even the Buddha had no power to save. He could only point out the Truth so that the wise could see it for themselves. Everyone must take responsibility for their own future well being, and it is dangerous to give that responsibility to another.
Ajahn Brahmavamso is the Abbot of Bodhiyana Buddhist Monastery & Spiritual Director of the Buddhist Society of Western Australia, Perth. www.bswa.org.