The Buddhist Universe – Chapter 3: Karma Tales

The doctrine of karma is one of the foundations of Buddhist thought and practice. The sufferings that beset humans (and all sentient beings), as well as the happinesses they enjoy, are considered to be the results of deeds done in the past. Over the centuries, Buddhists, both monks and laity, have remained preoccupied with karma, generally seeking a magical means of subverting the negative karma of the past and an efficient technique for amassing positive karma in the present. Scholastic works provide detailed expositions of how karma functions, categorizing all manner of good and evil deeds according to the effects they create. Some deeds create individual experiences, others create an environment. Some deeds have both a primary effect and a residual effect: a person who commits murder and is reborn in hell may have a short life when eventually reborn as a human. Other works explore the precise function of karmic causation, where karmic seeds are preserved prior to bearing fruit (which may not occur for aeons in the future), how these seeds are passed from lifetime to lifetime, and how they are destroyed in the process of enlightenment: the initial vision of no-self is said to destroy all the seeds for future rebirth as an animal, ghost, or hell-being.

But the workings of karma are much more than an academic concern. Karma provides both a motivation and an explanation for much of Buddhist practice. Texts from across the Buddhist world explain what deeds must be avoided, and the consequences of not doing so. And they explain what deeds to perform, and the rewards that will eventually follow. Indeed, one of the standard elements of new teachings that appear on the scene throughout Buddhist history is the claim that performing a particular deed, whether it is reciting a particular mantra or making an offering to a particular buddha, creates merit that is equal to all the grains of sand of the Ganges or all the atoms in a universe. But in other circumstances, the calculations were less grand. In medieval China, there developed a genre of karma ledgers, account books that listed hundreds of meritorious and demeritorious deeds, assigning a certain number of positive and negative points to each. Readers were encouraged to pause before sleep each night to take account of the past day’s activities, recording good deeds (and their respective merit) in one column and bad deeds (and their respective demerit) in another.

Karma also explains the strange events of this and other worlds. Even when a catastrophe is ascribed to the machinations of a demon, that demon is believed ultimately to be motivated by the karma of those who suffer. Sometimes the deed that causes a particular pleasure or pain is thought to have been performed many lifetimes in the past.

But more immediate explanations are sometimes more satisfying, and Buddhist literature is replete with tales of the results, both good and bad, of deeds done in this lifetime. In some stories, those who have committed a particular misdeed are allowed to visit hell to see the fate that awaits them, and then return to earth to make amends for their sins and proclaim the benefits of virtue.

A group of such stories from Japan is gathered in a work entitled Record of Miracles of Good and Evil Karmic Retribution in the Kingdom of Japan (Nihonkoku genbo zen’aku ryoi ki, better known by its abbreviated title, Nihon ryoi ki), compiled by Kyokai (also known as Keikai) around 787. They include a story about the benefits of rescuing animals (see Chapter 44); an account of the powers of recognition of Prince Shotoku, the first Buddhist sovereign of Japan; and a cautionary tale about slanderous speech.

Flowers laugh without uttering a sound. Roosters cry without shedding tears. Examining the ages reveals that good deeds are as rare as flowers among rocky peaks while evil acts are as plentiful as the grass on fertile hills. Failing to improve one’s cause and effect [i.e., karma] and committing sins is to be like a man without eyes who walks by stumbling along…. How can people not be more cautious? If you allow this life to pass by meaninglessly, then subsequent repentance will be of no use. How can you expect your momentary body to grow long eyebrows [like those of an immortal]? How can you always trust in fleeting fate? Since the world already has entered an aeon of decline, how can you not strive harder? Speaking faint words of anguish will not spare you from the disasters [of this aeon: famine, war and epidemics]. Merely offering one serving of food to the sangha, however, will cultivate good fortune so that in future lives you will avoid starvation. Observing for one full day the precept against taking life will strengthen your practice of the Buddhist path so that you will avoid wars throughout this aeon of decline.

Once there was a bhiksu [monk] who lived in the mountains and practised sitting Zen. Every day at his noon meal he would give some of his food to the birds. The birds, therefore, always flocked around him. One day after the bhiksu finished his meal, he cleaned his teeth, washed his hands and picked up a pebble to toss. There was a bird on the other side of the fence where the bhiksu could not see him. When the bhiksu threw the pebble, it hit the bird in the head and killed it. That bird was reborn as a boar, which lived on the same mountain. One day the boar happened to climb a ledge above the bhiksu’s hermitage and dislodged a boulder while grubbing for food. The boulder fell down and killed the bhiksu. The boar intended no harm. The boulder killed by itself.

If even an unintentional act [i.e., the bhiksu’s killing the bird] results in an unintentional retribution [i.e., the bhiksu being killed], then how much more so will murders that are accompanied by evil intentions generate baleful retribution! Planting evil seeds and reaping baleful fruit is the behaviour of one whose mind is deluded. Doing good and setting one’s sights on bodhi [enlightenment] is the behaviour of one whose heart is awakened.

The Circumstances by which Sovereign Prince Shotoku Exposed an Extraordinary Countenance

Sovereign Prince Shotoku was the son of the Heavenly Sovereign Tachibana Toyohi [a.k.a. Yomei] who resided in Iware next to a pond and a pair of zelkova trees. During the reign of the heavenly sovereign [i.e., Suiko] who resided in Owarida he acted as sovereign prince [i.e., regent]. The prince had three names: Abundant Ears Stabledoor (umayado no toyotomimi), Holy Virtue (shotoku) and Upper Residence (kami-tsu-miya). Because he was born in a stable, he was called Stabledoor. Because he possessed the innate ability to listen to ten people argue at the same time without missing a single word he was called Abundant Ears. Because he behaved with monk-like dignity, because he wrote commentaries on Buddhist sutras such as the Queen Srimala and the Lotus, because he propagated the dharma to benefit living beings, and because he systematized the hierarchy of court honours, he was called Holy Virtue. Because his house was located above the heavenly sovereign’s residence, he was called Upper Residence.

Once when the sovereign prince still resided at his first home in Ikaruga, certain circumstances caused him to depart for an inspection tour. On the side of the road in Kataoka village there was a hairy beggar lying sick on the side of the road. When the prince saw the sick person, he dismounted, formally greeted him, took off his own cloak and covered him with it. Then the prince continued his inspection tour. Once the inspection tour was completed and the prince returned to that spot, he found his cloak hanging on a tree branch. The beggar was no longer there. The prince took his cloak and wore it. A minister addressed him: ‘That robe is defiled because it has been touched by a commoner. Can you be so impoverished as to wear it?’ The prince replied: ‘Cease! You did not know him.’

Later that beggar died in another location. The prince heard of his death and sent men to perform the temporary burial and to inter his body at a tomb constructed in the Moribe hill, which is located in the northeast corner of Horin Temple in Okamoto village. The tomb was called Human Tree Tomb (hitoki haka). Later when the prince’s men inspected the tomb, they discovered that it had not been opened and that there was no corpse to lay inside. There was only a poem, which had been written and attached to the tomb’s door. The poem said: ‘If the Tomi Creek in Ikaruga runs dry, oh, only then shall my lord’s name be forgotten.’ The men returned and reported [that the corpse had disappeared]. The prince listened to them in silence without saying a word.

Truly know that a holy person knows holiness, but an ordinary person knows not. The [minister’s] ordinary physical eyes saw only a commoner, but the holy person’s penetrating vision saw the hidden body [of an immortal]. It was a rare, strange affair.

Circumstances by which the Purchase and Release of Turtles Produced the Karmic Reward of Being Aided by the Turtles

Zen Master Hung-jae (Japanese: Gusai) was from the kingdom of Paekche. At the time of the wars in Paekche, the ancestor of the ruler of Mitani District in Bingo Province had been sent on a military expedition to aid Paekche. At that time he made a religious vow that if he were to return safely, then he would construct a monastery on behalf of the gods. Since he avoided disaster, he asked the Zen master to return with him. Mitani Temple is the monastery that the Zen master constructed. Priests and laypeople alike looked upon it with awe and reverence.

The Zen master needed gold leaf and other goods to complete the temple’s main buddha image. He went to the capital to sell produce in exchange for these items. He returned via the port of Naniwa. When the master arrived there, a fisherman was selling four large turtles. The Zen master encouraged people to purchase the turtles and to release them. Then he hired a boat, which he boarded, along with two boys, to cross the Inland Sea. In the middle of that night, the boatman decided to go to Kabane Island in Bizen. He grabbed the boys and threw them into the sea. Then he turned to the Zen master and said: ‘Get into the sea.’ The Zen master tried to edify the thief, but the boatman could not be reformed. Thus, the Zen master made a vow and jumped into the sea. The water rose only as high as his waist. He felt boulders under his legs. At dawn he saw he was being supported by turtles. They carried him through the sea to Bitchu and, after nodding their heads three times, left. Could it be that they repaid their debt of gratitude for having been released?

On a subsequent occasion, that thieving boatman and six commoners came to the Zen master’s temple to sell the gold leaf [that they had stolen from the Zen master]. First, the patron came out to calculate the price. Afterwards the Zen master came out and saw them. The commoners were terrified. They did not know whether to stay or to run away. The Zen master, out of pity, did not impose any additional punishment. He [merely instructed them to] make the buddha image, decorate its pagoda and to make offerings.

In later years the Zen master moved to the seashore, where he taught whoever came by. He lived more than eighty years.

If even beasts do not forget acts of kindness and repay their obligations, then how can (so-called) righteous men forget their obligations?

Circumstances by Which a Wise Person Slandered a Manifest Holy Man, Went to King Yama’s Hell, and Suffered

The monk Chiko, originally of Kawachi Province, was a sramana [Buddhist ascetic] at Sukita Temple in Asukabe District. His secular status was Sukita lineage (uji) with Muraji title (kabane) – later renamed Kami lineage, Suguri title. (His mother’s lineage was

Asukabe, Miyatsuko title.) He was innately gifted with a sharp memory and was first in wisdom. He wrote commentaries on Buddhist sutras such as the Yulanpen jing (Japanese: Urabonkyo), the Great Perfection of Wisdom Sutra, and the Heart Sutra, and he taught student monks how to chant the Buddha’s teachings.

At the same time there was a novice named Gyogi. His secular status was Koshi lineage, Fuhito title. He was from Kubiki District, Echigo Province. His mother was from Otori District, Izumi Province, Hachita line, Kusushi title. Gyogi discarded the secular, avoided desires and propagated the dharma to reform deluded people. He was clever, diligent and innately intelligent. Inwardly he concealed his bodhisattva attributes, while outwardly he assumed the form of a aravaka [disciple]. The Heavenly Sovereign Shomu [701-756], awed by Gyogi’s majesty and virtue, trusted him completely. Ordinary people revered him and addressed him as ‘bodhisattva’. For these reasons, during the eleventh moon of the Elder Tree Year of the Monkey, Tenpyo sixteen [744], Gyogi was appointed Great Sangha Prefect (daisojo).

Chiko became jealous. He slandered Gyogi: ‘I am the wise person while Gyogi is a mere novice. Why does the heavenly sovereign not rely on my wisdom? Why does he promote Gyogi alone to office?’ Filled with enmity, he returned to Sukita Temple to reside. Almost immediately, however, he came down with diarrhoea, and after just one month he faced death. Chiko admonished his disciples, ‘After I die, wait nine days before cremating my corpse. If student monks inquire about me, say that I had business elsewhere. Postpone making any offerings [in my memory] and be careful not to let anyone know [of my death].’

His disciples accepted his instructions and sealed the door to their teacher’s room. They did not inform anyone else, but cried tears in secret. Day and night they guarded his home, waiting for the designated period. When student monks came seeking Chiko, the disciples responded as they had been instructed. They postponed the offerings.

[The deceased] Chiko was fetched by two attendants of Yama, the king of hell. First, they took him west [towards the direction of the pure land]. Further ahead on that route Chiko could see a golden palace. He asked: ‘What is that residence?’ They replied: ‘How could the famous wise person from the Land of Reed Plains [i.e., Japan] not know? It is the residence into which the bodhisattva Gyogi will be reborn.’

On the left and right of its gateway there stood two gods. They wore armour and had crimson foreheads. The two attendants bowed to the ground and reported: ‘[Here is the one] you summoned.’ [The gods guarding the gateway] asked: ‘Are you the one from the Land of Abundant Reed Plains with Rice Sprouts [i.e., Japan] who is known as dharma master Chiko?’ ‘Just so,’ Chiko replied. The guards pointed towards the north and said: ‘Go that way.’

Accompanied by the two attendants, Chiko walked ahead. Although he could not see any fire or sunlight, he felt rays of heat burning the surface of his body. While the extreme heat was uncomfortable, nonetheless his mind was drawn towards it. Chiko asked: ‘What is the source of this heat?’ The attendants replied: ‘It is the heat of hell, which will boil you.’ Further ahead on that route there stood an extremely hot iron pillar. The attendants commanded: ‘Embrace it.’ Chiko did so. His flesh melted and burned until only his skeleton remained. Three days passed. Then the attendants came, swept together all of his remains from around the base of the pillar, and said: ‘Live! Live!’ Chiko’s body was reborn. Again they directed him to travel north. There stood a copper pillar, even hotter than the one before. Drawn towards it by his evil deeds, Chiko wanted to embrace the hot pillar. The attendants commanded: ‘Embrace it.’ Chiko did so. His body burned and melted away. Three days passed. As before, the attendants swept around the pillar and said: ‘Live! Live!’ Chiko was reborn. Once again they directed him towards the north.

Fiery heat rose like clouds of mist. It was so hot that if a flying bird had happened upon it, the bird would instantly fall as [its blood] boiled. Chiko asked: ‘What is this place?’ The attendants replied: ‘Avici Hell, where you will be boiled.’ They immediately grabbed Chiko and threw him into the boiling flames. Only by hearing the sound of a bell being struck could Chiko cool off and rest. Three days passed. The attendants pulled Chiko out of hell and said: ‘Live! Live!’ Chiko regained his former self.

They took him back the way he had come until they arrived at the gateway to the golden residence. The attendants announced: ‘We have brought him back.’ The two guards at the gateway said: ‘You were summoned here so that you might eliminate your sin of having criticized the bodhisattva GyOgi in the Land of Reed Plains. After the bodhisattva finishes converting people in the Land of Reed Plains, he will be born in this residence. We are waiting for his arrival. Be careful not to eat any food cooked on the hearths of Yellow Springs [i.e., the netherworld]. Now, return home.’ Accompanied by the attendants, Chiko headed east towards the way he had come.

When the disciples had observed the nine-day period, they heard ChikO call out for them. They gathered around him, overjoyed at his recovery. ChikO sighed heavily, turned towards his disciples, and told them in detail of the lands of Yama. He respectfully decided to tell Gyogi of his jealousy.

At that time Gyogi was in Naniwa, where he directed the construction of bridges, canals and docks. When ChikO physically recovered, he went to GyOgi’s location. The bodhisattva saw Chiko and by means of his penetrating vision instantly knew what ChikO thought. Filled with loving kindness, GyOgi said: ‘Why have we so rarely met?’ ChikO announced his repentance. He confessed: ‘I was jealous of the bodhisattva. I said, “I am a fully ordained, senior monk, with innate wisdom. Gyogi is a novice with shallow intelligence who has never been ordained with the complete precepts. Why does the heavenly sovereign only elevate Gyogi while discarding me?” As a result of this verbal sin, King Yama summoned me and forced me to embrace iron and copper pillars for nine days until I had atoned for the sin of slander. I fear what retributions my remaining sins will engender in my afterlife. Therefore I am confessing. Please excuse my sins.’ Venerable Gyogi, with a kind expression, silently [consented]. Chiko added: ‘I saw the golden residence where you will be reborn.’ Gyogi listened to him and said: ‘How joyful! How valuable!’

Our mouths are entryways for mishaps that injure our bodies, while our tongues are axes that mutilate our goodness. For this reason, the Inconceivable Radiant Bodhisattva Sutra [Japanese:

Fushigi ko bosatsukyo] teaches: ‘Because the bodhisattva Surplus Assets (Nyozai) committed the sin of criticizing the faults of the bodhisattva Noble Divinity (Kenten), for ninety-one aeons he was always reborn in the womb of a whore, who always abandoned him at birth, so that the wild foxes always ate him.’

Translated by William Bodiford from Endo Yoshimoto and Kasuga Kazuo (eds.), Nihon ryoi ki, Nihon Koten Bungaku Taikei, vol. 70 (Tokyo: Iwanami Shoten, 1977).

Source: Lopez Donald S. (2004), Buddhist Scriptures, Penguin Classics; First Edition.

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