By Wilson Hurley

                                    (Secretary of International Buddhist Committee of Was. D.C.)

             The logic of Lord Buddha’s teachings begins with his observation that the world is full of suffering.  He taught that all compounded phenomena are impermanent and that all contaminated phenomena are of the nature of suffering.  Contaminated phenomena arise from actions that are stained by mental afflictions like ignorance, hatred, and desire.  When we act with our bodies or when we say something, we do so with a mental motivation as the cause.  Karma translated as action and refers to the actions of the body, speech and mind.  If we act with an afflicted state of mind, it plants a causal seed in our mind that is non-virtuous.  Actions planted with an afflicted state of mind cannot give rise to anything but suffering.  Whereas, actions planted with virtuous states of mind cannot give rise to anything but happiness.  Therefore, the sufferings in the world are not created by a divine being; they are created by us, through our mental afflictions and the resultant negative actions of body, speech and mind.

             In order to fully understand how this works, we must comprehend the Buddhist view of past and future lives.  The Buddhist logician, Dharmakirti, held the stance that the mind and body are of different natures and different substances.  He argued that for anything to come into existence, it must be produced by a substantial cause of a similar nature.  For instance, an apple tree can grow from an apple seed but not from an unrelated cause like a piece of metal or a rock.  Using this logic, he then asserts that any moment of mind can only be produced by a previous moment of a similar substance (mind).  And, since any moment of mind to cause it, no first cause for mind is possible.  The logical conclusion from this line of reasoning is that mind has no beginning, no first cause.

             Perhaps the best scientific research supporting a point of view is that of Ian Stevenson, M.D.  He has rigorously investigated close to 3,000 cases of children with memories of a past life.  Such cases are more frequently reported in South Asia, parts of Western Asia, West Africa and some other areas of the world.  In one random survey in northern India, one person in every 500 claimed to remember a previous life (Barker&Pasricha, 1979).  The subjects studied by Stevenson and others often show behaviors, for example phobias, preferences or play that are unusual in their birth families but in accord with behaviors of the previous personality.  They also often show accurate memories of events, places, names, etc. in the previous personality’s history.  There are cases on record in which birth marks correspond to traumas endured by the body of the previous personality.  Stevenson has also researched children who demonstrate the ability to understand a language from a previous existence.  The research of Stevenson and others constitute an impressive body of evidence suggesting that the mind is a continuum with its own form of causality.

             The Buddhist view of the mind is that it is not something that can be seen, tasted, heard, smelled or touched.  It has no shape or color.  Its essential qualities are clarity and cognition and it takes on the characteristics of whatever other mental factors it contacts.  In itself, the mind is not inherently good or bad, but rather it is colored by the dispositions, thoughts, and feelings with which it associates and with which it has become accustomed.  Anger, aggression, and vengefulness can make it cruel.  Love and compassion can make it gentle, brave and noble.  Desire binds and enslaves it.  Insight makes it wise and free.  Ignorance leaves it confused and bewildered.  Therefore, from this perspective, we have no inherent nature, but rather, we become that with which we habituate ourselves.  The actions we do are recorded in our minds where they grow like seeds that eventually mature into habits and determine what we become.

             From such a perspective, it is easy to understand why people have such different dispositions and capacities from the time they are born.  It is not just a matter of genetics and nurture.  This view also accords with the way that observable trends in children develop into habitual life-styles in adults.  The science of mind within this perspective is to determine which mental factors bring suffering versus which mental factors promote well-being; and then, to rid oneself of the former and to cultivate the latter.  Buddha said, ‘Mind is the fore-runner of all conditions.  Mind is chief, and they are mind-made. If, with an impure mind, one speaks or acts, then pain follows one even as the wheel follows the hoof of the ox.  Mind is chief; and they are mind-made.  If with a pure mind, one speaks or acts then happiness follows one even as the shadow that never leaves.’

             Clearly, rebirth and karma are extremely hidden phenomena.  Buddhists concede that only a fully enlightened being can fully perceive the subtle and complex workings of karma.  But it is asserted that as ardent practitioners develop on the path to enlightenment, their minds become more clear and focused.  And it is said that eventually this leads to a point where hidden phenomena, like rebirth and karma, can be directly observed during meditation.  In this way, the closer one comes to seeing reality clearly, the more one sees how karma operates, and therefore, the more ethical one naturally becomes.  In this way, Lord Buddha’s view is realistic and it offers hope.  Because suffering has identifiable causes that can be reduced and eliminated, suffering itself can be ended.  Once the causes for any phenomenon have ceased, that phenomenon itself ceases to be.  Our cycle of suffering can be stopped by eliminating the causes of suffering.  At the core of the cause of suffering is our tendency to grasp at a self.  This mistaken notion of a self and our tendency to grasp at it as if it were real gives rise to desire and hatred, jealous and pride, and the myriad associated afflictions of the mind.  If we can eliminate our false notions about the self, we can stop the arousal of afflicted states of mind; and by totally purifying the mind, suffering and its causes can end for us forever.  This is Nirvana, which we can achieve by following the Eight-Fold Noble Path.  From the Buddhist perspective, each of us must accomplish this goal ourselves by finding, following and mastering a true spiritual path.

             If we look around us, we can see that there are many beings, who like us, are suffering in the round of birth and death.  It would be selfish for us to leave them in suffering while working only for our own liberation.  Therefore, Lord Buddha also taught the path of the Bodhisattva: a being who strives for full enlightenment in order to liberate all beings from suffering.  By seeing that all beings have been kind to us in our infinite previous lives, and as our mothers, have nurtured us again and again, we develop a deep gratitude towards all beings.  With intense loving kindness, seeing that they are equal to us in their wish to avoid suffering and final happiness, we can exchange our self-preoccupation with a mind that cherishes others.  The intense compassion that arises from seeing the sufferings that others endure propels us to seek their welfare, seeing that only by reaching full enlightenment will we be able to provide for the temporal and ultimate needs of all beings.  This quest for enlightenment in order to liberate all beings leads to the path of the bodhisattva, in which we work to perfect generosity, morality, patience, effort, concentration and wisdom.  This is the highest purpose of life, and it is open to everyone.