There is a very funny commercial comparing a cable TV service with a satellite dish company. It starts out with a man watching TV and his reception is poor. The narrator then tells us that the man starts to get angry and desires to do something about feeling helpless. He ends up taking up hang gliding. As he takes off from a hill, he finds he’s heading toward electrical lines. His crash into the lines ends up taking out the entire power grid in the area, which sets off incidents of riots, looting and hoarding of food supplies. Then we see the man as he walks down a street. We see an old man in a store, who is identified as the father of the man who started everything. The old man is picking up a can of beans, only to be punched in the stomach by a hoodlum who snatches the can from his hand and knocks the man over. The narrator then says: “Don’t let your Dad get punched in the stomach for a can of beans, get rid of cable and get (such-and-such) satellite dish.”

I find these commercials hilarious, mainly because the chain of events that seem to start so innocently become so outrageous. The outrageousness of the conclusion being related to the initial cause is part of the humor. But there are some people who may perceive that such a chain of events represents “fate” linked to the first “karmic” act of the man getting upset about his TV reception. Unfortunately, such a simple “cause and effect” perception of karma is popular. It is also inaccurate – in Buddhism.

The Buddha did not deny a relationship between some actions and some results in people’s lives. However, I haven’t read anywhere that clearly states that such a simple philosophy is actually a doctrine of the Buddha Dharma. People during his life already had their own concepts of “cause-and-effect” much of which was superstitious and semi-magical. The Buddha tried to correct or clarify the deeper truths beyond just a superstitious linking. For instance, he always maintained that the sacrifice of animals was not the way to improve one’s spiritual development, and that only by application of clear thought and proper behavior could one improve. The Sutras tell us:

People have worldly passions which lead them into delusions and sufferings. There are five ways to emancipate themselves from the bond of worldly passions.

First, they should have right ideas of things, ideas that are based on careful observation, and understand causes and effects and their significance correctly. Since the cause of suffering is rooted in the mind’s desires and attachments, and since desire and attachment are related to mistaken observations by an ego-self, neglecting the significance of the law of cause and effect, and since it is from these wrong observations, there can be peace only if the mind can be rid of these worldly passions.  (Majjhima Nikaya 2, Sabbasava-sutta)

I find it encouraging that of all the world’s religions, Buddha Dharma emphasizes “careful observation” over “blind faith” as the means by which we can eliminate delusion and suffering. What this means is that even though we follow the Mahayana tradition of bodhisattvas, we are not expected to develop the capacity for Absolute Compassion – which accepts and embraces all in order to “save” other sentient beings, through just believing it is so.

When we speak of “faith” in Jodo Shinshu it is different from just believing something is true because we are told it is true. According to the Buddha, we are encouraged to question our assumptions and emotional ‘feelings’ about things. We are encouraged to develop an understanding of Careful Observation, since it is through “wrong” observations or mistaken observations by an ego-self, that we ignore the true laws of cause and effect. When we ignore the laws of cause and effect, we create wrongful opinions that lead to wrongful actions and ultimately to the creation of an entire false world of passions and desires. It is these falsely based passions and desires that consequently result in how and why we create suffering and sorrow for ourselves and others.

The very first “step” on the Eightfold Noble Path is Right Thought. This means that we strive to have the “right ideas of things, ideas that are based on careful observation.”  While the Right Thought primarily refers to the recognition of the Four Noble Truths, it also includes the careful consideration of causes and effects that led the Sakyamuni Buddha to his own Enlightenment Awakening.

If we look at the verse said to be uttered by the Buddha upon his Awakening we can see that he was able to recognize his own wrong assumptions about himself and the world around him.

“I sought the builder of this house of suffering, but I was unable to find him. The wheel of samsara turned around and around, and I repeated lives of suffering again and again. But you, builder of the house, I see you now. You will not build the house again. All the rafters are broken and the ridgepole is destroyed. My mind takes leave of craving and attains nirvana.”

Because the Buddha realized the true causes and effects behind the creation of his own “house of suffering” he was able to end the process which caused “repeated lives of suffering.” It was not through ‘blind faith’ that this became clear to him, but through Careful Observation that he discovered the true causes and conditions behind human suffering and sorrow (Skt. duhkha).

In the same manner we are asked to examine our lives with Careful Observation. This means that when we hear something about someone, we do not blindly believe or take part in re-telling the story to others as if it were true. We should first check out whether or not something is true, speak to those actually involved, attempt to understand true causes and conditions. In that way, we would truly be ‘practicing’ the teachings of the Buddha and the Compassion and Wisdom of the Amida Buddha. namoamidabutsu.