(For an introduction to this series, read Part 1.)
“I am the owner of my karma. I inherit my karma. I am born of my karma. I am related to my karma. I live supported by my karma. Whatever karma I create, whether good or evil, that I shall inherit.”—The Buddha, from the Upajjhatthana Sutta (part of the Pali Canon of Theravada Buddhism)
“Not in the sky, nor in the middle of the ocean, nor in the cave of a mountain, nor anywhere else, is there a place, where one may escape from the consequences of an evil deed.”—The Dhammapada, verse 127
“He does not treat us as our sins deserve or repay us according to our iniquities. For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is his love for those who fear him; as far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us.”—Psalm 103:10-12
Trapped by our actions
Many Easterners, whether religious or not, believe in the doctrine of karma (Sanskrit for “deed” or “action”). This concept refers to a universal law of cause and effect in which every volitional act brings about a certain result (vipaka)—evil actions produce punishments, and good actions produce rewards. Different schools and traditions say different things about how the fruits of karma are dispensed—whether naturally, or by some divine being—and what those fruits actually are. But the main idea is that karma locks you into a continuous cycle of death and rebirth (samsara). When you die, you die with a combination of good and bad karma—merit (punya) and demerit (papa)—resulting from your actions in all previous lives. In order to uphold justice, you must be reborn into another body so that your good actions awaiting reward can receive it, as can your bad actions awaiting punishment. The souls of those with higher merit are reincarnated in higher forms.
Getting out, the Buddhist way
I had always thought that the goal of Buddhism was to accumulate enough good karma to outweigh your bad so that you can experience increasingly higher forms of rebirth. But really, that’s not it at all. Buddhists don’t want to be reborn; unlike Westerners, who tend to romanticize the doctrine and conceive of it as a second chance for a life with no mistakes, Easterners consider reincarnation a punishment, and they want to eliminate it entirely. The only way to break the cycle of samsara is to escape the law of karma, and the only way you can do that is to become a buddha, or an “enlightened one.”
So how does one become a buddha? Well, for one thing, you must refrain from both bad and good deeds. This sounds odd to me, and I still don’t really understand it, but here’s my best shot: The Buddha taught that even good deeds are almost always tainted by ignorance and craving, so although good deeds are admirable, they still produce a karmic effect. Only a deed that is free from desire, hate, and delusion is without karmic effect. When you become a buddha, your willful actions are no longer subject to the law of karma, because you act without desire. You have liberated yourself from samsara; you are free.
Another way: the way of grace
The Bible does not uphold the doctrines of karma or rebirth, but it does teach that in the afterlife, we will reap what we sow (Galatians 6:7-9), because it is then that God will administer final justice to all people (2 Timothy 4:1). Recognizing this small point of connection, the Christian missionaries, in writing the Jesus Sutras, affirmed these doctrines that undergirded the Chinese worldview, rather than uprooting their entire belief system.
- “Whatever you do in life will have its karmic impact upon your soul and will affect the physical life of the soul.” (Sutra of Cause, Effect, and Salvation 4:6)
- “All creatures should know that the karmic consequences of what is done in this life will shape the next life.” (Sutra of Cause, Effect, and Salvation 4:22)
Rebirth was a real fear for the Chinese, so the missionaries addressed it with due sensitivity. However, the solution proposed by the Jesus Sutras is radically different from that proposed by the sacred texts in China at that time, and that solution is this: you can escape samsara only by being reborn in Jesus Christ, whose grace completely undoes the law of karma; it is he and he alone who provides the way out of the endless wheel of earthly existence. The Sutra of Jesus Christ says that “God suffered terrible woes so that all should be freed from karma, for nobody is beyond the reach of this Buddha principle” (2:26). In this Chinese-specific retelling of the gospel story, God, who has always existed outside the cycle of samsara, willingly plunges into it in order to liberate those of us who cannot find our way out.
Samsara is recast in the Jesus Sutras as the curse of sin which, since the time of Adam, has spun us around and around in an inescapable wheel of suffering. This unbroken line of sin which every man inherits not from his previous lives but from his forefathers was broken by Christ. He threw a wrench into the cycle by performing one great cosmic act on the cross, an act devoid of all desire, hate, and delusion, and then saying “It is finished.” We can now enter into the rest of Christ’s finished work (Hebrews 4:9-10).
Whereas Buddhists rely on self-effort to escape samsara, Christians know that we need only place our faith in Christ’s atoning work to liberate our souls. Christianity is based on the law of grace, which, in direct opposition to the law of karma, says that if you are God’s child, all of your bad actions will be forgiven, because God is a loving Father; you will not have to reap the consequences of your actions in the next life, because they have already been reaped by Jesus on your behalf.
Saved by the fruits of Christ’s merit
Buddhists don’t use the word “sin”; they talk instead of “negative seeds” that we plant in our hearts every time we act in an unenlightened way. These seeds bear fruits of suffering in future lives.
The fruit-bearing tree is also a familiar image in Christianity: good works bring forth good fruit, and bad works bring forth bad fruit. Buddhists and Christians would agree that even our good deeds often stem from selfish motives; Isaiah 64:6 says that all are righteous acts are as filthy rags. However, Buddhists believe that all the resources they need for righteous fruit-bearing are within themselves; they hold the seeds, they water the tree, and, through rigorous adherence to the Eightfold Path, they grow the fruits. Christians, on the other hand, acknowledge that they cannot act with true righteousness apart from Christ. That’s why Jesus planted his Spirit in us, so that that Spirit will yield wholesome fruits within us. Philemon 1:11 says that God fills us with “the fruits of righteousness, which are by Jesus Christ.”
In the passage below, “sin,” “flesh,” and “law” can be reimagined as “karma” or “samsara”:
For sin shall not have dominion over you; for ye are not under the law, but under grace. . . . For when we were in the flesh, the motions of sins, which were by the law, did work in our members to bring forth fruit unto death. But now we are delivered from the law, by dying to that which bound us. (Romans 6:14, 7:5-6)
The Dhammapada says that there is nowhere to go to escape the consequences of an evil deed. The Jesus Sutras, though, posit that there is: our refuge, Jesus Christ, who conquered sin on the cross and will one day destroy all the evil and suffering associated with it.
This is the only life
One might wonder whether the teaching of reincarnation undermines the urgency of the gospel call to repentance. It must be noted that even Buddhists place high value on this present life. To be born in the human realm is regarded as the best existential state, because only humans can achieve nirvana. Human birth is therefore a precious opportunity, and one not to be wasted. It’s not as if Buddhists live careless lives, knowing they will have opportunities to get it right the next time. No, most Buddhists try their best to be upright and blameless.
The Jesus Sutras emphasize the importance of taking immediate action in response to the gospel message. Chapter 5 of the Sutra of Cause, Effect, and Salvation says repeatedly that you can do good deeds and worship God only in this world, not in the next:
This is the only world in which you can perform good karma. Don’t think about any other world. All acts of merit and benevolence must be performed in this world, not the next. Be charitable here because in the other world you can’t be. . . . You will reap the consequences of this life in the next world, but can do nothing once you are there. This will bring happiness—it is how the One Sacred Spirit designed things and left it for us to choose. (Sutra of Cause, Effect, and Salvation 5:4-7, 15-16)
What do you think about Jesus being presented first and foremost as mankind’s savior from karma and rebirth (rather than his more orthodox role as savior from sin and death)? The intention of the missionaries was to present the gospel in terms that the Chinese would have readily understood, but is anything lost in translation? Are any Christian values compromised?
Read Part 7: Mindfulness.