Monday, March 14, 2011

The Tsunami: A Buddhist View

I wrote this article after the tsunami of 2004. It seemed worthwhile to reproduce it in light of the terrible tsunami of a few days ago.

Buddhism teaches causation, that the whole universe is a web of interrelated causes and effects. There are two types of causation - natural causation and moral causation. Natural causation has nothing to do with people being good or bad, it is simply a matter of the various forces in the universe acting on each other. A rainstorm or crops ripening would be examples of natural causation. Natural causes can of course have an effect on us - being caught in a rainstorm can give us a bad cold. But suffering from a cold has nothing to do with moral or immoral past actions - it would be a natural effect of a natural cause. Moral causation is about how people think, speak and act and how they feel as a result. The Buddha’s teaching of kamma is only concerned with moral causation. Being helpful to someone, having them thank you and feeling happiness because of that; stealing something, getting caught and then experiencing embarrassment or shame, would be examples of moral causation. The person’s happiness or discomfort are a direct result of how they have acted. The person is not being ‘rewarded’ or ‘punished’ for their actions, their happiness or discomfort is simply a result of their actions. Now let us have a look at the recent tsunami in the light of the doctrine of kamma.

A tsunami is an example of an event caused by natural causation. The tectonic plates on the earth's surface move causing an earthquake, the energy released creates huge waves which, if they hit the coast, cause devastation. The people in the area where the recent tsunami hit are experiencing two types of suffering - suffering caused by natural causation and suffering caused by moral causation, i.e., kamma. During the deluge a person might have been hit by a falling tree, cut by a piece of metal or smashed against a wall. These would be examples of the painful effects of natural causes and would have nothing to do with past moral or immoral actions.
Kamma concerns peoples’ intentional thoughts, speech and actions (kamma) and the effects of those reactions (vipaka). I will give examples of different ways people could react to the tsunami and the effects they could have. Lets say there are two people - a man and women - both are injured in the tsunami and loose their home and means of livelihood. The man falls into despair, ‘Why me?’ he cries. ‘If only I had been out of town today,’ he said in anger and regret. By thinking like this he compounds his suffering. But soon his thoughts change. He notices that his neighbor’s home is little damaged and he thinks, ‘That dog, I never liked him, it’s a pity his house wasn’t destroyed.’ He is further compounding his suffering and as well as reinforcing ugly and negative states of mind. Later he thinks, ‘Well, it’s every man for himself,’ and he starts walking around seeing if he can steal anything from abandoned houses. Now the man’s negative thoughts and feelings are leading to negative actions.
Now let us have a look at the woman's reactions. After she recovers from the initial trauma her first thought is, ‘How fortunate I am to have survived.’ She has suffered but she has not added to her suffering by being regretful, despairing or angry. Then she thinks, ‘There must be others much worse off than me. I must see what I can do to help,’ and she starts looking around for injured people. Thinking of others gives her a degree of detachment from her own circumstances and thus, once again, this does not add to her suffering. The next day she manages to get some food which is being distributed by the government and as she walks away she notices a child who did not get any. She comforts the child and shares her food with him. Seeing that the child is all by himself she decides to look after him. After a few days the child's father sees him and is tremendously grateful to the women for having looked after him. The father is now living with his sister in a nearby town unaffected by the tsunami and invites the woman to come and stay with him where she gets food and shelter. The woman's positive thoughts and actions have now had a concrete positive effect on her life.
Now why did the man react in one way and the women in another? Because of how they have reacted to their various experiences in the past, i.e. because of their past kamma. The man’s negative mental habits in the past (kamma) have meant that he has negative mental habits now and these in turn make it more likely that he will have negative mental habits in the future. These mental habits make him suffer more than he would have otherwise (vipaka). The woman (she might be a Muslim, a Buddhist, a Christian or of no religion) has been taught and has always believed that it is important to have a good thoughts and actions and has always tried to cultivate them. Her positive mental habits in the past (kamma) have meant that she has positive mental habits now and these in turn make it more likely that she will have positive mental habits in the future. These mental habits minimized her suffering and led to her being looked after by the father of the child. In other words, her positive past actions (kamma) have had a positive effect (vipaka) now.
So according to Buddhism, the physical pain that the victims of the tsunami experienced is the outcome of various natural causes. How they are reacting to these natural causes is their kamma, the results of their negative or positive reactions in the future (tomorrow, next month, next year, perhaps next life), will be their vipaka. As human beings of finite knowledge and power we have only limited influence over natural causes. We do, however, have the ability to mold and influence our reactions to situations. If we make no effort to develop our minds in positive ways we might, in the future, find ourselves overwhelmed by unexpected and unwelcomed circumstances. If we do make the effort to develop our minds, particularly through meditation, we may be better prepared to endure and even triumph over future adversity.
The news is full of examples of both. People ask, ‘How is it possible to remain free from grief, anxiety and fear under such terrible circumstances?’ But some people do. A man in Sri Lanka lost his wife and two children and of course was devastated. However, being a practicing Buddhist, he recovered from his grief about two days later when he found two children, starving, crying, with their dead parents nearby, and decided to adopt them. Apparently, other people had seen the children but had done nothing to help. When the man was interviewed he said that his two adopted children have given his life new meaning and the strength to go on despite the difficulties. We read other stories of people taking advantage of the disruption to loot, rob and steal. Each of us chooses to act the way we do and we will experience the results accordingly. When a Singaporean man heard of the disaster he loaded up his van and drove to Thailand with the intention of distributing food and water to the victims. Sadly, on the way his van skidded and he was killed. People ask, ‘Why did he suffer despite his good deeds?’ But such a question shows a confusion between natural causation and moral causation. This man’s swift and practical response to the suffering of others shows a great deal of compassion and will have very positive results in his next life. His accident had nothing to do with his good or bad deeds - it was a result of natural causation - a momentary lack of attention, faulty breaks, a slippery road due to rain, etc. Being good does not mean that we will never suffer due to natural causes, it means that when we do suffer due to natural causes we will be less likely to react in negative ways that increase our suffering.
Some uninformed Buddhist might say that the death and injury caused by the tsunami are the result of peoples’ past bad kamma. It need hardly be stated here that this is contrary to what the Buddha taught. In the Devadaha Sutta (M.II,214, also A.I,173 ) the Buddha says that the belief that every experience we have is due to past kamma (sabbam tam pubbe katahetu) is a wrong and false view (miccha ditthi). In the Sivaka Sutta (S. IV,228) he says that the suffering we sometimes experience can be due to kamma but it could also be due to sickness, to weather, to carelessness or to external agents (opakkamikani). The tsunami would be a good example of the third and the last of these causes. All kamma, whether positive or negative, certainly has an effect, but not all effects are due to kamma.
But what of us who have been fortunate enough not to be involved in this disaster? How can the Buddha’s teaching of kamma be relevant to us? Like the man and women mentioned above, our reactions to the tsunami could be either negative or positive. A person might read about the tragedy, shrug his shoulders and then turn to the sports page. When asked for a donation for the victims he might refuse to give anything, saying that he is short of cash this week. Or he might make a donation but then go around telling everyone hoping to get their praise or approval. He has been presented with an opportunity to react differently from how he has always done but the has failed to take advantage of it. He has failed to grown or changes, he has simply allowed himself to be carried along by his old habits of thoughtlessness, greed, pride and lack of compassion. But lets say a person has always been rather uncaring and self-absorbed but when he sees the victims of the tsunami on the television he feels a twinge of compassion. Then, rather than ignoring this flicker of compassion as he has always done in the past, he decides to act upon it. He goes to Red Cross and makes a really generous donation. While there he sees a sign asking for volunteers and on the spur of the moment he signs up and for the next few weeks spends all his free time collecting donations and helping out in other ways. As a result of this he would have weakened his selfish mental habits and strengthened positive ones, he would have grown and changed to some degree. If in the future he continued to act in such positive ways whenever he had the opportunity, he would gradually become a much more pleasant person and probably a much happier one too. Thus even a tragedy like the tsunami can actually have a positive side. Firstly, it can be an opportunity to develop generosity, care and compassion. Secondly it can be an opportunity for us to contemplate the truth of dukkha, the Buddha’s teaching that life in the conditioned world is unsatisfactory. Such contemplation can wake us from our complacency, remind us that no matter how comfortable our life might be, it can change at any time. This can help turn us from frivolous worldly pursuits to meaningful spiritual goals.
You might also be interested in reading God, Buddhism and the Tsunami at


Anonymous said...

Brilliant post. You explain karma so well.

Sam Jerga said...

Thank you Bhante for this sound explanation.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for this article. I think many people (especially lay people) have a very twisted view of kamma that exacerbates the situation in Japan right now. This will hopefully clear the air a little.

Anonymous said...

Dear Bhante,

Thanks for the sound explanation. May I ask on the way we can dedicate the merits (pu~n~na) to the victims/casualties of the tsunami according to the early Buddhist practice?

Like, is it by chanting "Idam vo...", or "Ettavata...", or also by simple meditation on metta and well-being?


Shravasti Dhammika said...

Dear ae2004,
Perhaps when you do metta meditation you could focus on the tsunami victims in place of disliked persons. May I also suggest that you do something concrete, such as make a generous donation to an aid organization helping the victims.

Unknown said...

Dear Bhante,

This post explains "kamma" very clear! In the past I would put "kamma" as a reason behind all bad or good events, not realizing the true meaning of "kamma".

Thank you!

May all beings be well and happy always! May we practice mindfulness and realize the Truth through our daily life :)

Sadhu Sadhu Sadhu! -/\-

Jeffrey Kotyk said...

Bante, you say that pain due to natural disasters and external circumstances is not a result of kamma, but then how does this work in the context of kamma being carried over from past lives? It is generally understood in Buddhist traditions throughout that ones actions in one life do indeed affect the circumstances (particularly external conditions being favourable or not) of future lives.

In that sense, being at the wrong place at the wrong time may be external conditions not related to one's kamma, but can it also not be that being in the wrong place at the wrong time and suffering for it is a ripening of kamma from some past life?

Ken and Visakha said...

What of the kammic consequences for those who knowingly cut corners, covered up, and allowed their greed for profit and power to obscure the true dangers of nuclear power? Natural disasters are unpredictable; the nuclear disaster unfolding in Japan (which is also preventing adequate relief from reaching the quake and tsunami victims) is a true crime.

NorCalGal56 said...

With much appreciation, thank you for providing clarification. We must all pray for Japan and the Tohoku earthquake/tsunami survivors as well as helping in any way that we can, regardless of our faith backgrounds.

Ken and Visakha said...

The Tsu Chi Foundation started relief work almost immediately. They are a remarkable Buddhist NGO, compassionate, efficient, and well organized.

Shravasti Dhammika said...

Dear Jeffrey,
There are several problems with the idea that all kamma in this life without exception will have its effect in the next life, the main one being – this life IS a ‘next life’. Also, we can often actually see examples of deeds done now having an effect now. I suspect that cases of good people seemingly not getting their ‘reward’ and bad people seemingly not getting their ‘comeuppances’ led people in the past coming to believe that they will ‘get it in the next life’. I also suspect that people in the past (and perhaps many even today) came to believe this because they thought of ‘reward’ for good done and ‘punishment’ for bad, mainly in terms of the concrete, visible and material; i.e. if you were generous you will have a big house and lots of money; if you were mean and jealous you will have an ugly face or some hideous disease. Much vipaka is probably psychological, i.e. a clear conscience, inner peace, happiness, a guilty conscience, anxiety, self loathing, worry, etc.
The idea that external factors are or cause our vipaka brings many problems with it too. The biggest of these is that it would require a cosmic super-intelligence that can arrange the whole universe in such a way that this person suffers, that one experiences happiness and in exact proportion to what was done in a previous life, and that it arranges for this decades before it all happens. In short, it would requite positing a God. If someone says ‘The tsunami is a result of peoples bad kamma in their last lives’ this would mean they believe that decades ago some force in the universe arranged that hundreds of thousands of people be reborn in certain villages or be visiting them on exactly 11 March 2011. This force also arranged for huge quantities of water to sweep inland at a particular time and with extreme care, to demolish this house but not that one, kill this person, injure that one and not affect another, that this one lose their wife but not the rest of their family, etc, etc, etc.
If on the other hand we see our kamma as the way our mind reacts to external (and internal) situations, due to how we have used it during the past, including in past lives, and that this conditions how we feel (pleasant, painful, neutral) then kamma starts to make sense and, at least to me, sound plausible and understandable.
And finally Jeffrey, thanks for contacting me because it has led me to your blog which I have read with great interest and found most interesting. Wonderful pictures too.

Ananda See施性国 said...

Dear Bhante

Am I right to say that as you are in the samsara, the life of cycle, you will subject to birth , death etc.. and of course tzunami ?
Hope you have a wonderful trip in

yuri said...

From my experience and glimpses into the way kamma works I fully agree with S.Dhammika that it has no direct connection to purely physical phenomena and works in psychological sphere. Every intention, action and reaction creates and affects our mind patterns of behaviour. These patterns can be selfish and unselfish. Unselfish patterns cleanse our minds and hearts, while selfish ones add to our ignorance. What is usually termed as the ripening of kamma is actually similar situations when such patterns are repeatedly used and get additional kammic energy. Until one day such a pattern, such an attitude - when it is selfish - actually lets us down and causes acute suffering.
As to next lives - kamma affects them too - if we die as jealous persons we will remain jealous in our next lives and suffer for it. If we get rid of animosity, envy and jealousy in these our lives, our next lives will be free from these roots of suffering and our spirituality will have a better chance to grow.

Shravasti Dhammika said...

Dear Yuri,
Welcome back after a long absence.

Dear Ananda,
Yes that is correct.

Cittamutta said...

Dear Bhante,

Can I say that the Japanese actually have very good past kamma as the attitude and their calmness though it was one major disaster. So far I have yet to hear riots, or breaking in to grocery shops or robbing cases (probably minor ones). Where as everything is systematic, people are very resillient and helpful among each other.

Jeffrey Kotyk said...

Venerable, one traditional understanding of vipaka is it either being dukha or sukha (otherwise vedanta). Now, by the Buddha's own admission the results of one's kamma can indeed come to fruition in form of favourable and unfavourable rebirths (realms with dharma, hell realms, etc...). This is what I mean when I suggest that karma can result in external circumstances which facilitate either sukha or dukha. Now that doesn't mean every action will have such results, but simply that it can. Again, by Buddha's own word some actions can even have oneself reborn in high cast. That isn't a mental state at all -- that is an external circumstance.

Shravasti Dhammika said...

Dear Jeffrey,
Again thanks for your thoughtful comments. You are quite correct in saying that the Buddha said good kamma may result in rebirth in a rich or a high caste family and negative kamma might result in rebirth in a poor or low caste family, etc. (e.g. Kammavibhanga Sutta, etc). However, I feel that this is still mainly referring to one’s experience, i.e. that in most people’s imagination rich and high status is thought of as ‘good’ or ‘advantageous’ and poor and low class or caste as unenviable. But of course more careful thought will reveal that it is on often not as neat as this. Belonging to a wealthy well-educated family in Cambodia during the Khmer Rouge regime or during China’s Cultural Revolution was anything but beneficial. Likewise, in India today certain high castes are actually claiming to be dalits so that they can benefit from government benefits and reservations made available to low castes. So my understanding is that the Buddha used ‘rich’ ‘poor’ ‘high class’ ‘low class’ etc as a sort of easily understandable shorthand for ‘pleasant’ and ‘unpleasant’ experience.

Chuntawongso said...

Thank you Bhante. I myself posted something similar when a friend of FB asked me about the Tsunami in japan being Khammic retribution for WW2.I pointed out that not all things are due to Khamma and also that Buddhism does not ascribe to paying for the sins of the father up tp the 7th generation.
With metta, Phra Greg