Even an evildoer may see benefit
As long as the evil
Has yet to mature.
But when the evil has matured,
Will meet with misfortune.
A doer of good may meet evil fortune
As long as the good
Has yet to mature.
But when the good has matured,
The doer of good
Will meet with good fortune. (translated by Gil Fronsdal)
Karma is a deeply complex principle. Actions do have consequences, but the connections are often opaque. It is difficult or impossible to attribute specific outcomes to specific actions or words.
Our preference would be that the question “why did this happen?”could be answered arithmetically; we like to be able to see and identify all the factors at work, for example, if you put your hand on the stove, it will burn, immediately. We want to get prompt results for our own deliberate actions, but life isn’t like that. Instead of 2 + 2 = 4 we get quantum physics; there are forces at play all the time, but they interact with each other and have wildly different lag times.
In his classic book, Why do bad things happen to good people?, Rabbi Harold S. Kushner writes: “I don’t know why one person gets sick, and another does not, but I can only assume that some natural laws which we don’t understand are at work. …”
It’s appropriate that Rabbi Kushner suggests that “natural” laws are at work; the mechanisms of karma are as natural as gravity and as complex and interdependent as weather systems.
These Dhammapada verses invite us to take a broader view of karma, of actions and consequences, and in particular to make our own choices based on the understanding that wholesome actions lead to wholesome outcomes, maybe not immediately, but in the aggregate and in the long run. Our own heart experiences a small liberation every time we act with kindness or generosity, and the effects on others cannot be measured, in time or depth. If we do something unwholesome, some of the consequences will be invisible to us but are nonetheless real. We may have harmed our reputation among our companions (and beyond) or strengthened a negative path that we have taken; we may feel a general unease or remorse.
Sometimes there is an obvious answer to the “why” question: if we don’t wear a seatbelt, we are more likely to die in a car accident. That’s a simple statistic. But the deeper “why” question leads in a different direction. Why do we have to die? Because we were born. Why do people suffer? Because this is included in the nature of being human. We often forget it, but we are animals with much in common with the rest of the animal kingdom; all creatures are born, seek food and safety, struggle, enjoy, become ill and eventually die. Humans have a greater capacity for reflection than other species, which gives us the opportunity to investigate, and to train ourselves, and to free ourselves from some of the limitations of this realm.