Why Do Bad Things Happen to Good People?

In the last post, I talked about dukkha as the First Noble Truth and one of the three seals. I talked about how it is not the only factor of Samsara (the continuous cycle of birth, life, death, and rebirth), and more importantly that there is a way that leads to the ending or cessation of dukkha. However, sometimes it seems hard to reconcile the realities and hardships of dukkha with principles such as karma. One can’t help but wonder how seemingly good people encounter such hardships and misfortune, while seemingly corrupt and bad people can profit from the excessive greed and misery present in the world. Trayvon Martin, the recent shooting at the Oikos University, the plane crash in the Siberian city of Tyumen, the murder of two Thai Buddhists in Pattani’s Thung Yang Daeng district, the self-immolation of so many Tibetans, on and on and on – the news is rife with such disheartening stories. Sometimes, it may seem very difficult to reconcile such events with principles such as karma.

Too add insult to injury, some people will even write it off by just saying, “that’s just the way things are” – or worse, saying things like “it can’t be helped, its just their karma” as if karma was simply some kind of cosmic retribution. However, if the present condition is simply the result of past karma, then no amount of present action would have any effect on present experience. Therefore, this fatalistic view would render practice and cultivation completely pointless and useless in the first place. Things can certainly change – after all, anicca is a factor of all conditioned phenomena as well. It may not necessarily always have to be so, but sometimes unfortunate things do happen.

The Buddha answers why bad things happen to good people and good things happen to bad people in the Lonaphala Sutta, or the Salt Crystal Discourse, which gets its name from this parable:

“There is the case where a trifling evil deed done by a certain individual takes him to hell. There is the case where the very same sort of trifling deed done by another individual is experienced in the here & now, and for the most part barely appears for a moment.

“Now, a trifling evil deed done by what sort of individual takes him to hell? There is the case where a certain individual is undeveloped in [contemplating] the body, undeveloped in virtue, undeveloped in mind, undeveloped in discernment: restricted, small-hearted, dwelling with suffering. A trifling evil deed done by this sort of individual takes him to hell.

“Now, a trifling evil deed done by what sort of individual is experienced in the here & now, and for the most part barely appears for a moment? There is the case where a certain individual is developed in [contemplating] the body, developed in virtue, developed in mind, developed in discernment: unrestricted, large-hearted, dwelling with the immeasurable. A trifling evil deed done by this sort of individual is experienced in the here & now, and for the most part barely appears for a moment.

“Suppose that a man were to drop a salt crystal into a small amount of water in a cup. What do you think? Would the water in the cup become salty because of the salt crystal, and unfit to drink?”

“Yes, lord. Why is that? There being only a small amount of water in the cup, it would become salty because of the salt crystal, and unfit to drink.”

“Now suppose that a man were to drop a salt crystal into the River Ganges. What do you think? Would the water in the River Ganges become salty because of the salt crystal, and unfit to drink?”

“No, lord. Why is that? There being a great mass of water in the River Ganges, it would not become salty because of the salt crystal or unfit to drink.”

“In the same way, there is the case where a trifling evil deed done by one individual [the first] takes him to hell; and there is the case where the very same sort of trifling deed done by the other individual is experienced in the here & now, and for the most part barely appears for a moment.

An action which is taken by one person can lead to future states of deprivation and detriment (apaya) such as hellish states (Naraka or Niraya), whereas the same action can be undertaken by another individual but the misfortune will be experienced in the here and now – and will not lead to any further states of deprivation. In the Maha-kammavibhanga Sutta, Buddha asked his attendant Ananda that if one were to see a “bad person” experience states of deprivation such as hellish realms after death, would a person assume that bad people always goes to hell? Or, if one were to see a “bad person” reappear, after death, in a happy, heavenly world – one could infer that bad people always go to heaven. Likewise, if one sees a “good” person reappear in a heavenly realm, one would assume that good people go to heaven. Yet, if one was to see a “good person” go to a hellish realm after death, one might think that even good people will always experience states of perdition and deprivation. This is easily misapprehended, as it is only grounded in partial experience. This is because the minds of people are complex, and people make all kinds of different karma in one lifetime, with a variety of intentions and motives (cetana) – some skillful (kusala), and some unskillful (akusala).

In fact, in the Ariyamagga Sutta Buddha described four types of karma which “have been directly realized, verified, and made known by me. Which four? There is kamma that is dark with dark result. There is kamma that is bright with bright result. There is kamma that is dark and bright with dark and bright result. There is kamma that is neither dark nor bright with neither dark nor bright result, leading to the ending of kamma.”

In more detail, the four types of karma can be described as:
1. Dark (negative) with a dark (negative) result;

There is the case where a certain person fabricates an injurious bodily fabrication, fabricates an injurious verbal fabrication, fabricates an injurious mental fabrication. Having fabricated an injurious bodily fabrication, having fabricated an injurious verbal fabrication, having fabricated an injurious mental fabrication, he rearises in an injurious world. On rearising in an injurious world, he is there touched by injurious contacts. Touched by injurious contacts, he experiences feelings that are exclusively painful, like those of the beings in hell. This is called kamma that is dark with dark result.

2. Bright (positive) with a bright (positive) result;

There is the case where a certain person fabricates a non-injurious bodily fabrication … a non-injurious verbal fabrication … a non-injurious mental fabrication … He rearises in a non-injurious world … There he is touched by non-injurious contacts … He experiences feelings that are exclusively pleasant, like those of the Beautiful Black Devas. This is called kamma that is bright with bright result.

3. Dark (negative) and bright (positive) with a dark (negative) and bright (positive) result;

There is the case where a certain person fabricates a bodily fabrication that is injurious & non-injurious … a verbal fabrication that is injurious & non-injurious … a mental fabrication that is injurious & non-injurious … He rearises in an injurious & non-injurious world … There he is touched by injurious & non-injurious contacts … He experiences injurious & non-injurious feelings, pleasure mingled with pain, like those of human beings, some devas, and some beings in the lower realms. This is called kamma that is dark & bright with dark & bright result.

4. Neither dark (negative) nor bright (positive) with a neither dark (negative) nor bright (positive) result.
This is the karma which leads to giving up the attachment to, and interest in, the other three, leading beyond the range of karma. This nothing else but the Noble Eightfold Path which leads to the highest happiness (sukha) of Nirvana.

Right view, right resolve, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, right concentration. This is called kamma that is neither dark nor bright with neither dark nor bright result, leading to the ending of kamma.

Buddha taught past karma is not the sole determining factor of present conditions – instead, it is a mixture of both past and present karma. The very variable of present karma may seem insignificant at first, but it opens up a lot of room for free will and overcoming the unavoidable consequences of past karma. Also, the exact timing of the result (vipaka) of karma is not very easy to discern. There are essentially three types of karma-vipaka according to its timing: karma resulting in the present life (ditthadhamma-vedaniya-kamma), karma resulting in the next life (upapajja-vedaniya-kamma), and karma resulting in later lives (aparapariya-vedaniya-kamma). Adding complexity to the karmic process is the fact that karma is but only one of five natural laws (niyamas) that govern physical and mental processes, determining the state of existence of all sentient beings. Therefore, everything that happens in the world is not only due to karma.

In short, bad things happen to good people because they aren’t going to suffer much longer, for they are going to experience the ripening of the result or “vipaka” of karma in the here and now. Good things happen to bad people, sure, but they will have their own karma to work with. The timing of karma isn’t something that is easily known – as we do not really know what each other has experienced. We can only better our own condition by following the Noble Eightfold Path, which leads beyond the range of karma to the highest happiness of Nirvana.

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About bodhipunk

Just another anarcho-commie dhamma punk.

Posted on 04/03/2012, in dharma, dukkha, four noble truths, heaven, hell, karma, samsara, suttas, three seals and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. Very nice thoughts… really liked your last paragraph that summarizes why we thing bad things happen to good people and vice versa… we only perceive by what meets the eye of the public. But effects of karma is beyond all that. Life is a zero sum game. If there are balances either positive or negative we have to enjoy or suffer that.

  2. Thank you. You are right, what we perceive is only a partial experience. People live complex lives, making all kinds of different karma, and karma itself isn’t linear. What we put into life will certainly condition what we get out of it – but there is usually a lot of different input and variables to work with.

  3. Actually am not sure you are familiar with this TV program in the US. It is called ‘my name is earl’ it is was a good program. You can call it a TV serial on modern day karma. I had wrote about that in my blog am not sure you noticed. It is presented in a funny way but conveys the essence of Karma.

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