by Wayne Ren-Cheng
Talk given at Buddha Center, Second Life, 011918
The law of nature is the dharma in action; it is karma. It is a reality that once an action is taken the karmic consequences happen. How to view this appropriately is the subject of this parable told by S. N. Goenka (great Vipassana teacher).
The Pebbles and the Ghee (story told by S. N. Goenka)
One day a young man came to the Buddha crying and crying; he could not stop. The Buddha asked him, What is wrong, young man?
Sir, yesterday my old father died.
Well, what can be done? If he has died, crying will not bring him back.
Yes, sir, that I understand; crying will not bring back my father. But I have come to you, sir, with a special request: please do something for my dead father!
Eh? What can I do for your dead father?
Sir, please do something. You are such a powerful person, certainly you can do it. Look, these priestlings, pardoners, and almsgatherers perform all sorts of rites and rituals to help the dead. And as soon as the ritual is performed here, the gateway of the kingdom of heaven is breached and the dead person receives entry there; he gets an entry visa. You, sir, are so powerful! If you perform a ritual for my dead father, he will not just receive an entry visa, he’ll be granted a permanent stay, a Green Card! Please sir, do something for him!
The poor fellow was so overwhelmed by grief that he could not follow any rational argument. The Buddha had to use another way to help him understand. So he said to him, All right. Go to the market and buy two earthen pots. The young man was very happy, thinking that the Buddha had agreed to perform a ritual for his father. He ran to the market and returned with two pots. All right, the Buddha Said, fill one pot with gee, with butter. The young man did it. Fill the other with pebbles. He did that too. Now close their mouths; seal them properly. He did it. Now place them in the pond over there. The young man did so, and both of the pots sank to the bottom. Now, said the Buddha, bring a big stick; strike and break open the pots. The young man was very happy, thinking that the Buddha was performing a wonderful ritual for his father.
According to ancient Indian custom, when a man dies, his on takes the dead body to the cremation ground, puts it on the funeral pyre, and burns it. When the body is half burned, the son takes a thick stick and cracks open the skull. And according to the old belief, as soon as the skull is opened in this world, the gateway to the kingdom of heaven is opened above. So now the young man thought to himself, The body of my father was burned to ashes yesterday. As a symbol, the Buddha now wants me to break open these pots! He was very happy with the ritual. Taking a stick as the Buddha said, the young man struck hard and broke open both the pots. At once the butter contained in one pot came up and started floating on the surface of the water. The pebbles in the other pot spilled out and remained at the bottom. Then the Buddha said, Well, young man, this much I have done. Now call all your priestlings, and miracle workers and tell them to start chanting and praying: Oh pebbles, come up, come up! Oh butter, go down, go down! Let me see how it happens.
Oh sir, you have started joking! How is it possible, sir? The pebbles are heavier than water they are bound to stay at the bottom. The can’t come up, sir; this is the law of nature! The butter is lighter than water, it is bound to remain on the surface. It can’t go down, sir; this is the law of nature!
Young man, you know so much about the law of nature, but you have not understood this natural law; if all his life you father performed deeds that were heavy like pebbles, he bound to go down; who can bring him up? And if all his actions were light like this butter, he is bound to go up; who can pull him down?
The key question in the parable is, “What can I do for your dead father?” In that question the Buddha is opening up the son to his misunderstanding of karma, of human physics in action and its interconnection with death and rebirth. Some view karma as a sort of balance sheet. They hold the notion that one can balance the ledger by engaging in a wholesome act in order to negate the effect of an unwholesome act. Also, that certain rituals can be performed to alter the past of the dead in order to gain them entry into a place of ease and comfort after death or, that through prayer or merit offered that the circumstances of the dead can be eased and the dead will be reborn in better circumstances. That is not how karma, the law of nature works.
Rites and rituals performed by the various Hindi holy men were done with the intent that the dead could enter a heavenly realm, there to be judged according to their karmic condition. The young man beseeched the Buddha to use his power to allow his father permanent residence there, to bypass the law of nature.
The answer to the question of what can be done for the dead is the living can honor them, but the living cannot assist their journey any further. What was done in life, wholesome and unwholesome determines their destination and path to rebirth. The energy of each of their deeds transmigrates into the next birth. From the perspective of rebirth that is why one’s energy during a current life should be spent performing intentional wholesome actions and avoiding the intentionally unwholesome actions.
Having an appropriate view of karma and rebirth will strengthen Buddhist practice. The past is the past and cannot be changed. Whatever the dead did in life, the living cannot change. Whatever the dead are experiencing cannot be altered by the living. No merit ritual or ceremony (puja) can affect their rebirth or their place in any other realm. Their karma is a product of their lives. Their rebirth is on them.
A person commits the murder of another human being. This engenders the very worst of karma. That person chooses to spend the remainder of their life performing only wholesome deeds. That engenders good karma. Do these combined actions balance out the karmic sheet? No. A human life was still taken. While the good done is a factor, so too the negative is a factor in rebirth.
A practitioner might come to the conclusion then that if wrong is done during a life then why try to atone for it by doing good if it isn’t going to have an effect on rebirth? Engaging the bodymind in a transformation from unwholesome thought and action to one of wholesome thought and action results in energy that carries forward into the next rebirth. The idea is do better in the next rebirth.
From an appropriate view of practice there is a critical point to make here concerning karma and rebirth. Focusing on performing wholesome acts in order to ensure a good rebirth misses entirely the intent of the Four Noble Truths. We do good because it is the path to the alleviation of discontentment, anguish and unsatisfactoriness (suffering) in ourselves and others. The possibility of a better rebirth is a bonus. The possibility of a worse rebirth is a warning.
During this session one of the sangha asked what my own view on rebirth is, do I believe or disbelieve. For any of us walking the Noble Path this is an important consideration because it points to our view and intent.
Trained in the contemporary Pragmatic Buddhist tradition my view of rebirth is not belief or disbelief. I’ve never experienced undeniable, unassailable evidence of the reality of this concept so I am, well let’s call it an agnostic when it comes to rebirth.
I choose to perform wholesome acts with wholesome intent in order to alleviate the suffering of myself and others, not with the idea of procuring a better ‘next life’. Focusing on doing acts of intentional good in this life does act as a sort of spiritual insurance I will admit. If rebirth is a reality then I am covered. If it is not then I will leave a legacy of wholesome thought and action as an example for others in their lives.
I bow with respect,