Why do bad things happen to good people?

8.5 mins read.

Often when things go wrong in our lives, we cast about for someone to blame and/or conclude that life is unconscionably unfair. Maybe we think there is some arbiter of our fate, some supernatural law-giver who is punishing us, and we feel guilty.

We ask, “Why me?” There are actually two questions we can ask: (1) Why is this happening? (2) Why is this happening to me?

For example, I just had my second COVID vaccination. I am very grateful, especially given what is happening in India and Brazil, and wish everyone could be safe from this seemingly endless pandemic. But I am also waiting for the well known side effects to start kicking in … some people have none, others are laid up for a few days. Although monumentally better than catching (and spreading) COVID itself, nonetheless, like I said, I am waiting ….

If I do start feeling fatigued and feverish, by understanding karma I can accept (1) that this is happening because causes were created, and (2) it is happening to me (as opposed to somebody else who got the same shot but is getting off symptom-free) because I was the one who created these causes.

Following on from this article.

A natural law

Just to reiterate the basic teaching on karma: Buddha observed that if an action is motivated by a good intention, such as compassion, an experience of happiness results; but if an action is motivated by an intention that is out of whack with reality, aka deluded, it is the substantial cause of a suffering experience. Also, there are neutral actions that give rise to neutral experiences, such as wondering what work shirt to wear today above our sweatpants.

Karma is a natural law that governs us, like the law of gravity. It is not the same as fate or predestination because we can change our karma by understanding how it works. That wisdom gives us free will.

Buddha didn’t invent karma any more than Sir Isaac Newton invented gravity. At some point in our life we learn about the earth’s gravitational pull — big things like this planet attract small things like me. And from then on, to protect ourselves from unwanted suffering, ideally we act in accordance with this natural law, such as by not jumping off the top of the Empire State Building.

Nor is there any capricious supernatural lawgiver. Everything depends upon our own minds and intentions. As Geshe Kelsang says in The Mirror of Dharma:

No-one has the power or authority to say to living beings, ‘You should go to the human realm, the animal realm, the hell realm, or the god realm.’ Because of our previous different actions, or karma, accumulated since beginningless time we all take different rebirths and experience different sufferings.

Just as there is no one who is casting us off the Empire State Building, so according to Buddhism there is no one who is punishing us for our transgressions or rewarding us for our good behavior.

Suffering is created by our own actions or karma – it is not given to us as a punishment. ~ How to Transform Your Life

Therefore, there is no need to feel guilty. However, there is a need to understand. 

Why do bad things happen to good people?

When talking with other people about karma, it is important to do so sensitively. This is because when explained skillfully, it is very empowering and releases people; but when it is not, it can do the opposite — although logical, it can sound brutally unfair. For why do bad things happen to good people?

At a day course on karma recently a friend noticed a participant with his head in his heads and, asking him if he was ok, saw that he was crying. He told her he had a disabled son and was very upset by the teaching for suggesting that it was his son’s fault. His son is gentle and kind and he couldn’t bear to hear people suggesting that he somehow deserved this suffering. It was heartbreaking.

What would you have replied?

My friend said that we needed to take past lives into account — that it was not his son but a perfect stranger, really, in his son’s mental continuum who had created the causes for disabilities in this life. She also tried to explain how precious it is to have a human life and the story of the turtle and the golden yoke, meaning that someone in his son’s continuum must also have done many wonderful things, even more so to be born to such a loving father.

Other suggestions in response to my friend’s post on Facebook were to understand that all our negative actions are caused by our enemies, the delusions, and we are not our delusions, meaning that no intrinsically bad person created the karma. It was not his fault but the fault of delusions.

Moreover, there is no judgment – not just because it is our delusions that are to blame, but because all of us samsaric beings are in the same boat and have created a long history of similar deluded actions. They just haven’t ripened for us yet.

Far from feeling that this man’s son is inherently bad or deserving of his disability, taking karma into account can deepen our compassion (and our renunciation). This is because we develop a wish for ourselves and others to be freed not just from whatever is ripening to hurt us now, but from the causes of our suffering, delusions and karma. These are the chains that will bind all of us in all realms to suffering perpetually until we learn how to dismantle them.

Internal locus of control

Another person replied that on the other hand it can be a relief to understand about karma being created in previous lives as an explanation for their suffering now. Otherwise if we suffer a trauma or continuous ill health we just think we’re unlucky or being punished. We now have a ‘scientific’ explanation for it, which can be healing to hear and allow us to do something practical.

Some social scientists say that one thing we can do to ensure success is to take responsibility for everything that comes our way—big and small. To take the reins of our life, they believe it’s important to maintain an “internal locus of control.” This refers to the belief that our own ability and efforts contribute directly to our success. Conversely, when something doesn’t go our way or we encounter adversity, we don’t hold factors beyond our control as responsible.

In an article from Inc. titled “Here’s How Highly Successful People Make Little Choices Different From the Rest of Us,” Christina DesMarais explains:

When you believe you alone are responsible for your circumstances [ie, an internal locus of control], you’ll make necessary changes in your life to achieve success. If you sit around blaming everyone else for your problems an—’external locus of control’—your situation will remain as it is.

This makes sense to me, but it may not work so effectively if we evaluate our actions in only a short-term way when effects seem far more random, such as good things happening to bad people and vice versa. But it is very effective to take ownership of our intentions and actions by taking karma into account, if we are ready to do that.

This isn’t fair!

Bad things happening to good people and vice versa leads a lot of people to shrug that it doesn’t matter what we do, what is the point of going out of our way to be kind? Don’t we live in some kind of a haphazard world where things happen accidentally, meaninglessly?

Truth is, nothing happens accidentally and there’s no such thing as co-incidence. Events happen systematically according to the definite albeit illusion-like laws of cause and effect, including certain laws of nature; and one such ubiquitous law is the law of karma. Because it has such a tremendous impact on every aspect of our lives, we are very much kept in the dark by trying to live without an in-depth understanding of its workings. We end up floundering in this life too, not understanding “Why is this happening!”, just as we have been blundering around in all our previous lives.

As I talk about in these articles,  this is not our first much less our only life – we have had countless lives, repeating the same mistakes that come from not understanding this natural law. By keeping an open mind to Buddha’s explanations, we can finally break free and create the future we want.

It’s karma so I won’t do anything about it

If misunderstood, observing the law of karma can even provide a false excuse to preserve the status quo, such as in the caste system in India. Or it can lead to a general lack of motivation to do anything practical to help ourselves and others because we think, “Oh it’s our karma, there’s nothing I can do.”

Related to this, earlier in the pandemic I heard some people say, “I’m not going to wear a mask because it is my karma whether or not I get COVID. I will take my chances.” More recently I have heard people say they won’t receive a shot for the same reason. Is this true?! What do you think?

This is what I think: understanding karma does NOT mean that we do nothing practical to help ourselves or others. I would argue the exact opposite — that it becomes even more compelling to work to end suffering, injustice, disease, cruelty, and so on, preferably motivated by wisdom and positivity and without attachment to results.

Moreover I think it’s just common sense to observe the valid conventions of our world, including its laws of cause and effect, because we are part and parcel of this world, not immune to pandemics or anything else. I could be wrong – happy to discuss — but to me it’s a bit fatalist, like someone smoking cigarettes saying they don’t need to quit because it’s their karma whether or not they die of lung cancer.

(At the very beginning of the pandemic, even before we all knew it was that serious, the person who seemed to be encouraging us the most to observe the COVID protocols was Geshe Kelsang himself.)

Over to you: would love to discuss this all with you. Per my earlier question, how would you explain to yourself or others how good things can happen to “bad” people and vice versa?

Related articles

Making karma work for us 

Living beings have no faults 

Precious human life  

Toward an empowered sense of self

5.5 mins read.

Buddha is not saying that we don’t have faults and limitations because of course we do (well I do); and we need to identify what these are if we are to have any hope of getting rid of them.

Carrying on from this article, Being kinder to ourselves and others.

If we are honest with ourself, we will recognize that at the moment our mind is filled with defilements such as anger, attachment, and ignorance. These mental diseases will not go away just by our pretending they do not exist. The only way we  can ever get rid of them is by honestly acknowledging their existence and then making the effort to eliminate them. ~ How to Transform Your Life

Identify our faults without identifying with them

self-criticismHowever, there is a world of difference between identifying our faults and identifying WITH them. Sure we need to improve, but we can’t improve at the same time as feeling bad about ourselves, or guilty, because this is creating a negative self-fulfilling prophecy.

Try picking up a glass of water. How heavy is it? Not very? Okay, hold it for 5 minutes. How heavy is it now? Hmmm.

In the same way as water becomes heavy if we don’t let it go, similarly our bad feelings become heavy and guilty if we don’t know how to let them go. It is possible to admit to our mistakes without feeling guilty. Guilt holds on. It keeps us stuck. It comes from a fundamental lack of self-acceptance.

We need to let go of our delusions not because they are inherently bad or because they make us inherently bad, but simply because they make us and others unhappy. As Geshe Kelsang says:

Just as mud can always be removed to reveal pure, clear water, so delusions can be removed to reveal the natural purity and clarity of our mind.

Spiritual bypassing

Geshe Kelsang talks all the time about our innate purity, our Buddha nature, and our need to identify with it; but sometimes people don’t pick up on this, which is partly why I’m writing these articles. The other day someone in Germany pointed out, accurately I think:

Western people are different. Like you described it in the article, we learned always to put the blame on ourselves. Perhaps because of that Christian tradition (or what the church made of it), you’re guilty, small, and so on. I don’t really know. When we follow the Buddhist spiritual path we learn so much about delusions, uncontrolled minds, negative karma, and so on; and we are always told to purify our bad baaad karma, to tame our monkey mind. This is all clearly necessary. But I often ask myself, how can we love others honestly if we don’t take the first step to accept ourselves? We need more teachings on self-compassion.

burdenWithout skill, spiritual practitioners can indeed beat themselves up with guilt and feeling small while “pretending” to be good Buddhists or Christians or whatever – and this disconnect eventually leads to hypocrisy, or burnout, or abandonment of their spiritual practice. People can even use their Tantric practice as pure escapism from an unworthy sense of self, completely missing the point. It is no accident that one of our commitments as trainee Bodhisattvas is to “avoid pretension and deceit;” and I would argue that this is highly useful when it comes to talking to ourselves.

Buddha has covered this lack of self-worth from every angle. For example, I think renunciation is deep love and compassion for ourselves; we want true and lasting happiness and freedom for ourselves. However, here we are talking about our pure potential-filled self — not the painful, fixed, limited self held by self-grasping and self-cherishing, which in any case can never be made happy because it doesn’t exist.

And Geshe Kelsang is very clear about never identifying with our delusions, but always with our pure nature so that we can feel happy with ourselves while overcoming our faults. For example, as it says in How to Transform Your Life:

While acknowledging that we have delusions, we should not identify with them, thinking, “I am a selfish, worthless person” or “I am an angry person.” Instead we should identify with our pure potential and develop the wisdom and courage to overcome our delusions.

self-likingHow could it be put more clearly? Moreover we come to experience extraordinary self-confidence and happiness with ourselves as a Bodhisattva and blissful Tantric Deity, if we learn how to do it right. In Tantra, we totally identify ourselves with the result of our spiritual practicereality itself, the bliss and emptiness of a Buddha’s mind — and work to overcome our faults in that light, never while identified with a small intrinsically ordinary self that doesn’t even exist.

Becoming someone we like

From letting go of our painful thoughts in breathing meditation, as mentioned in this article, we can then go onto see that there is nothing fixed or immutable about us — through changing our thoughts, choosing better, wiser ones, we can become whom we want to be. Buddha and his followers have been saying this forever, and research abounds these days on the impact of positive vs negative thinking on ourselves and others, and the fact that we have the potential to transform ourselves by changing our habits of mind.

We can, for example, ask ourselves what advice we’d give to a good friend if they were suffering from the same low self-esteem, and then start to take that advice ourselves. We can even observe ourselves through the eyes of enlightened beings and Bodhisattvas who know the truth, that we are not our delusions, that we are basically great and full of potential – as it says in How to Transform Your Life:

It is because they distinguish between delusions and persons that Buddhas are able to see the faults of delusions without ever seeing a single fault in any living being. Consequently, their love and compassion for living beings never diminish.

A healthy sense of self

empowered selfWhat we really need to do is to reidentify who we think we are, which is called in Buddhism “changing our basis of imputation.” We can change our sense of who we are from someone who is inadequate to someone we really like and respect. Then we can enjoy our own company all day long, encourage ourselves to do great things, and like and respect other people more.

We need to develop a healthy sense of self, an empowered sense of self, based on something genuine.

To do this, it’s really very helpful to understand the relationship between our experience, sense of self, intentions, actions, and life. That next installment is here, How to stop being so down on ourselves.

Meanwhile, over to you! Please keep the feedback coming, it’s been helpful. 

Related articles

Silencing the inner critic

How much can a person really change? 

The relevance of inner peace