Why Bad Things Happen To People? – Dialectic Two Step

Posted by in Dialectic Two-Step, Writings

Question: Did The Buddha Explain Why Bad Things Happen To People? I have read teachings of Buddha (Karma) that state that “Nothing ever happens to us unless we deserve it”. How is it possible that when a new born child dies in accident, they could deserve this?

Response: I will not speak for the Buddha on this question. My feeling is that the Buddhist idea of Karma is frequently and seriously muddled. I don’t want to contribute more confusion. I’ll simply apply a little logic to make the point that the statement “nothing ever happens to us unless we deserve it” can’t be true.  The statement is a result of a simple logic error. Here is the bad argument.

This part works

  • I act
  • All actions have consequences

The next part is a little sketchy, but feels right

  • I participate in the consequences of my actions

But it gets shaky here

  • I am only affected by the consequences of my actions

And finally, this can’t be right

  • Because I am only affected by my own actions I deserve everything that happens to me.

I think it’s fairly obvious that we share in the consequences of the actions of others and that we don’t directly “deserve” everything that happens (or doesn’t happen) to us.

Superimposing a theory of moral causation onto the workings of the universe usually leads to nonsense Click To Tweet

Expanding our view, even just a little, brings home the point. In what way can we trace the causes of a tornado to its victim; or an ant to its demise underfoot? There are more obvious and relevant causes to be found.  Superimposing a theory of moral causation onto the mechanical workings of the universe usually leads to unverifiable nonsense like this:

  • I act
  • My actions cause everything good and bad that happens in the world.
  • I deserve credit for all good things and I am at fault for all bad things.
When bad things happen to good people, karma isn’t broken, it’s just that our concept of karma isn’t… Click To Tweet

The Buddha had much to say about the causes and conditions that lead to our suffering. But he was careful to distinguish between what we have control over and what we don’t. An overwhelming majority of events in this universe arise independent of our actions and intentions.  When bad things happen to good people, karma isn’t broken, it’s just that our concept of karma isn’t big enough to make sense of it.

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Dialectic Two-Step  is an ongoing series of my thoughts on questions that come my way.

Wisdom lies neither in fixity nor in change, but in the dialectic between the two. - Octavio

Dialectic Two Step, Modern Koans, Verse Us, Say What?, and Minute Meditations all copyright Andrew Furst

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Andrew Furst

Author of two books, Poet, Meditation Teacher, Buddhist blogger, backup guitarist for his teenage boys, lucky husband and technologist
Andrew Furst
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