If merits and wisdom
are always steadily cumulative
from life to life,
we should be liberated already.
One might be reborn into very favourable physical and material circumstances as a result of past good karma ripening now. However, being ignorant of the Dharma (and karma), one might become evil. But how is this possible when one should have some wholesome mental qualities carried over from the previous life, which were precisely what led to this good rebirth? Well, one’s propensity for evil is determined by the present response to one’s three poisons (greed, hatred, delusion); not by the quality and quantity of one’s past created good karma. Having created good karma in a past life does not ensure there will be goodness of character in the next – unless one is already on a non-retrogressible (non-backsliding) path towards enlightenment. The truth is, most of us are not on this path yet.
While those who do great good and evil have great rises and falls from life to life, the average ones rise and fall similarly, although to lesser extents. As an extreme example, one who created great good karma as a human might be reborn into a heavenly plane. However, the ripening of good karma does not equate to the ripening or growth of wisdom. This is why many gods are complacent about the importance of practising the Dharma to further the spiritual path. This can lead to falling badly into the lower realms when their good karma exhausts – due to it not being topped up in time, and when their remnant bad karma created in the past ripens. In fact, it is said that the anguish gods experience in their last moments on the brink of falling is so terrible that it is similar to that of hell-beings.
At the other end of this spectrum, although relatively rare, one who had created great evil karma might be reborn in a hell. Yet, if one is able to repent and be mindful of the practice of mindfulness of Buddha, with such awakening from complacence of the Dharma, it is possible to swiftly depart for Pure Land, which has more sublime and spiritual bliss than all heavenly planes. As a lesser extreme, a human who had done some good might be reborn into more well-to-do conditions in a future human life. This might lead to a relatively ‘godly’ and complacent life though, due to lack of a strong connection to the Dharma. At the other end of this scale, a human who had done some evil might be reborn into less privileged conditions in a future human life. This might spur one to strive to be a better person though.
As long as we are far from enlightenment, our propensity to alternate between good and evil is not fixed. The way we were, be we more good or evil in a past moment, does not determine that we will continue to be good or evil in a future moment. We should be mindful not to equate the fruition of good karma with the continual tendency of being good. Just because one is enjoying the good fruits of one’s labour does not mean one will continue to labour in doing more good. In this sense, paradoxically, good karma is not always good, as in leading to spiritually good results, just as bad karma is not always bad, as its experience can urge the pulling up of one’s spiritual socks. Realising this dangerous nature of retrogressible rebirth in Samsara, this is why the Buddhas create Pure Lands – as spiritual sanctuaries and schools for us!
Just as spiritual backsliding
is possible in this very life,
with death’s interruption at its end,
it is even more probable from life to life.
Are You ‘Recycling’ Yourself Every Three Lifetimes?
How Even the Gods May Fall
Related Pure Land Course:
Understanding Amituofo Via the Amitabha Sutra (11th Run)