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Home > Fundamentals of Tibetan Buddhism > Level 2: Lam-rim (Graded Stage) Material > Questions Concerning Collective Karma and Natural Disasters

Questions Concerning Collective Karma and Natural Disasters

Alexander Berzin in dialogue with Jonathan Landaw
January 2010

Jon: Many people nowadays ask, “Could collective karma cause something like an earthquake, for instance the one that just devastated Haiti?”

In answer to that, it is generally explained that the collective karma of all the beings on this planet is responsible for the general characteristics of this planet and the elements that make it up. With these elements in place, the impersonal laws of physics take over. For example, heat rises and various motions result, such as the shifting of continental plates, and so forth. One manifestation of such motion is earthquakes. From this point of view, earthquakes are the inevitable outcome of our planet’s having arisen as it is; and it has arisen as it is as the result of the very broad collective karma of all the beings who have ever lived on this planet. Could you comment on this?

Alex: Karma, or more specifically, positive or negative karmic forces (bsod-nams or sdig-pa) and karmic tendencies (sa-bon), whether individual or collective, ripen into various types of results. One of these results is a dominating result (bdag-po’i ‘bras-bu). A dominating result is our experiencing of the type of environment or society in which we are born or enter, and the way it treats us, or objects such as our possessions, and what happens to them.

[See: The Mechanism of Karma: The Mahayana Presentation Except for Gelug Prasangika, Session Three.]

In the case of the dominating result of the collective karma – the technical term is actually “shared karma” (thun-mong-gi las) – of a group of limited beings, this refers mainly to their shared experiencing of environmental or societal situations or occurrences when this group experiences them. However, we can also say that the dominating result of collective karma also refers to the environmental or societal situations or occurrences that provide the circumstances for this group to experience them.

[See: A Discourse on The Autocommentary to “A Root Text for Mahamudra – His Holiness the Fourteenth Dalai Lama, Session Two.]

This last statement does not imply that the collective karma of this group is the only cause for the environment, for instance, that they experience when they experience it. The environment they experience, such as the make-up of the earth or the universe, is the result of innumerable other causes and conditions. In the case of the universe, its obtaining cause (nyer-len-gyi rgyu) – namely that from which we obtain the universe as its successor and which ceases to exist when its successor arises – is the Big Bang. We could subdivide the obtaining causes into those that occurred a long time ago, such as the Big Bang, and those that happened immediately preceding the present moment, such as the shift of a tectonic plate being the obtaining cause for a resulting earthquake. The moment-to-moment minor changes in the environment once it has arisen, however, such as the falling of a particular leaf from a tree, are the result of the laws of physics and so on of that universe. Nevertheless, there are also man-made results (skyes-bu byed-pa’i ‘bras-bu) concerning the environment, such as air pollution as the result of human actions. In addition, the constituent elements at a specific moment, such as the matter and energy of the universe at that moment are the simultaneously arising causes (lhan-cig ‘byung-ba’ rgyu) for the universe at that moment.

[See: Causes, Conditions, and Results.]

The collective karma that causally contributed to the formation of the earth and the physical laws that pertain to it refers to the karma shared by not only all the beings who have lived on the earth before now, but also those who are presently living on the earth, and those will live on it in the future. But since the earth is part of our entire universe and the laws of physics apply to not just the earth, but to the entire universe, we need to look at a larger scope collective karma – the collective karma of all those who have lived, are presently living, and who will live in our universe. After all, the physical nature of the universe is such that an enormous number, if not all planets made of solid matter are at some point unstable and subject to earthquakes.

Since we are talking now about the formation of the universe, the collective karma that contributed to its formation and to a large number of beings experiencing this universe would have to have been built up before the Big Bang of this universe by all the beings with the karma to be born in this universe.

Jon: But what about those people who are living in the exact place where a violent earthquake strikes, such as in Haiti this past week? To understand this, it is important to remember that (1) not everyone on this planet experienced the devastating effects of this earthquake and (2) even in Haiti itself, not everyone died or was injured in the quake. Even though it caused widespread devastation, not everyone in the devastated area was injured or killed. This indicates that those who were seriously harmed had collected the karma, both individual and collective, to experience the harm at that time, while those who were relatively unaffected had not collected such karma.

This does not mean that those who were killed were somehow “worse” people than those who escaped. We all have vast collections of karma on our mind streams, both positive and negative, and the conditions that determine which karma will ripen at what time are many and various. Someone may have “miraculously” survived the big quake, only to be killed in some other large disaster the next day, next year, or next lifetime. Can we make a distinction, then, between “broad” collective karma, which we share with all the beings on the planet, and relatively “narrow” collective karma, which we share only with a certain population from among all these beings?

Alex: Yes, we can make that distinction. There is the broadest collective karma that has contributed to the formation of a universe. This is shared by everyone who will live in that universe. Within that set, there is the subset of those with the collective karma to live on the earth. This has contributed to the formation specifically of the earth. Within that subset, there is the sub-subset of those with the collective karma to experience the earthquake in Haiti, which in a sense contributed to the occurrence of the earthquake.

Although each person within that sub-subset experienced the earthquake differently as a result of their individual karma (thun-mong ma-yin-pa’i las; unshared karma); nevertheless, we can still find further subdivisions of collective karma shared by ever smaller groups of individuals among them. For instance, some people died and some survived. Those who died had a collective karma to die in the earthquake, not just to experience being in the earthquake. Among those who died, some may have had the collective karma shared with several other people to die in the collapse of the same building. So when we speak of individual karma, it refers to experiencing something unique, not shared with anyone else, such as dying after fifteen minutes by being hit on the head by a specific beam.

Jon: To get cosmic for a moment, beings who purify their karma sufficiently and cultivate strong faith can be reborn in a so-called “pure land” or “Buddha-field,” such as that of Amitabha Buddha. They then find themselves in a world that is not subject to such violent upheavals. It is said that everything in such a pure-land rebirth, such as the sound the wind makes as it blows through the trees, imparts Dharma teachings bringing the beings in that pure land closer to enlightenment. I cite this just to underscore the point that there is a correspondence between the properties of a place and the qualities of the minds of the beings living in such a place.

In brief, beings whose minds remain under the influence of the three poisons – ignorance, greed and hatred – find themselves living in a world filled with all manner of harm, while those who have gained a degree of freedom from these poisonous delusions experience an environment where such harm is less common or even, as in the case of a pure-land rebirth, completely absent.

Alex: In the case of a pure land, such as Amitabha’s, the obtaining cause for its arising would be the positive force that Amitabha built up before he became enlightened and the prayers he offered also before he became enlightened. These would have been prayers dedicating the network of positive force he built up to be able to teach, in Nirmanakaya forms, non-aryas with the karma to receive teachings from a Nirmanakaya Buddha and, specifically, with the karma to be born in a Nirmanakaya pure land to receive those teachings. In addition, his prayers would have been to teach, in Sambhogakaya forms, arya bodhisattvas with the karma to receive teachings from a Sambhogakaya Buddha and, specifically, with the karma to be born in a Sambhogakaya pure land to receive those teachings. Since Amitabha would have offered those prayers as a bodhisattva long before becoming a Buddha, his pure land could also be considered a dominating result of his enlightening network of positive force.

A simultaneously acting condition (lhan-cig byed-pa’i rkyen) for the arising of Amitabha’s pure land would be the suffering of all limited beings, which would have motivated Amitabha to have compassion and make such prayers before he became enlightened. A simultaneously acting condition is an item that exists prior to the arising of something and which assists in making the arising happen, but which does not transform into what arises.

The purification practices of someone who will be reborn in Amitabha’s pure land that are done in the lifetime immediately preceding that person’s birth in that pure land cannot be considered a cause for the arising of Amitabha’s pure land. This is because Amitabha’s pure land would already have existed at that time that person engaged in those purification practices. The purification practices done by someone in the lifetime immediately preceding a pure land rebirth, plus the prayers offered in that lifetime to be reborn in Amitabha’s pure land, would be like the final drop in the network of positive force built up by that person over an enormous number of lifetimes that would result in his or her rebirth in that pure land. Only the prayers to be born in a pure land in general that all the beings with the karma to be born in Amitabha’s pure land have offered in their lifetimes while Amitabha was still a bodhisattva could function as causes to ripen into the arising of Amitabha’s pure land as their dominating result. This, however, would only be the case in conjunction with Amitabha’s prayers made before he became a Buddha. Only if these persons knew Amitabha when he was a bodhisattva and prayed to be born specifically in his pure land after he became a Buddha could their prayers ripen into Amitabha’s pure land as their comprehensive result.

Jon: I read in some Dharma text about earthquakes being related to imbalances in the earth element of sentient beings. This is interesting, but I don’t know how to interpret that statement. Any help?

Alex: I have not come across this statement, but I think we can understand it in terms of the Kalachakra presentation of karma. According to this presentation, there are innumerable universe, with each going through a cycle of eons of formation, eons of endurance, eons of disintegration, and empty eons. When one universe is in the phase of its eons of formation, another could be in the phase of its eons of disintegration. The cycles that universes undergo are not necessarily synchronous with each other.

During the empty eons between the presence of universes, the five elements of each universe have collapsed into a space particle (nam-mkha’i rdul-tshan). This space particle is reminiscent of a “black hole,” though of course there are differences. The five elements are space, wind, fire, water, and earth; or we can perhaps think of the five as space, gas or energy, heat, liquid, and solid. Specifically, the space particle consists of a trace of the grosser elemental particles of a universe which are not longer joined together. In this situation, the ordinary laws of physics of that collapsed previous universe are no longer operating among those traces. The space particle for a universe that has not yet happened functions as the basis for the grosser particles of the five elements of that universe that will subsequently arise.

Kalachakra also speaks of the winds of karma (las-kyi rlung), which refer to the subtle energies that carry the karmic forces and tendencies of individuals. At the end of the empty eon, for instance, prior to the Big Bang that formed our universe, the winds of the collective karma of the beings with the karma to be born in our universe affected the space particle for our universe. They caused that space particle to explode with the Big Bang and evolve into our universe with its specific characteristics and laws of physics.

At the time of the Big Bang, those beings with the karma to be born in our universe, and whose collective karma was influencing the formation of our universe, would have been situated in other universes. As samsaric beings, the five elements of their bodies would have been out of balance. Consequently, the winds of their collective karma would have affected the space particle for our universe in such a way as to cause the five grosser elements of our universe that would evolve from them also to be out of balance. In this way, we could explain that an imbalance of the earth element in the beings with the karma to be born in our universe contributed to the imbalance of the earth element on this planet, resulting in an earthquake.

[See: Taking the Kalachakra Initiation, chapter 3.]

Jon: The Kalachakra teaching explains the relation between collective karma and the fact that rocky planets in our universe are subject to instability and earthquakes. But what would be an example of the collective karma that would result in a group of people experiencing a specific earthquake together? Is it something that these beings have actually done, as in the often cited case of the villagers who threw sand at some monks and were later buried in a sandstorm? Or is it something more subtle and pervasive than that?

Alex: This is, of course, a very difficult question to answer. A group of beings experiencing together a specific imbalance of the earth element of this planet would need to have built up the collective karma for that by them all participating in a specific act. That act would need to have been causing an imbalance of the earth element of an area, which others experienced and were harmed by. For instance, that destructive act could have been a group of people working together on a project that damaged the environment and caused hills to collapse or mud slides to happen. Or the group could have been involved with blasting operations in conjunction with mining.

Remember, however, samsaric beings have lived on innumerable planets in innumerable universes. The collective karma of the beings who experience a specific earthquake on a specific planet would not necessarily have been built up by a shared destructive act that they committed together on that planet. They could have committed that act on some other plant at any time in the past. Because of greed and naivety, I am sure that samsaric beings have destroyed the environment on innumerable planets innumerable times. But only a Buddha would know which specific karmic act ripened into which specific karmic result. Karma, after all, is the most difficult topic of all to understand fully in all its details.