Whoever uses violence to harm
The nonviolent and innocent
Quickly goes to one of ten conditions:
Intense pain or great loss,
Bodily injury or insanity,
Serious illness or vicious slander,
Oppression from rulers or the loss of relatives,
Houses consumed by fire or wealth destroyed.
And with the breakup of the body
The unwise one falls to hell. (translated by Gil Fronsdal)
We might wonder what the karmic consequences of “evil actions” really are. This verse presents graphic images of possible conditions that might come to us if we cause intentional harm, physical or verbal, to others. It’s a comprehensive list of the the worst things that can happen to anyone, and we would wish for none of these outcomes, but they are all things that can and do happen to ourselves and others.
In all Buddhist traditions there is the idea that the karmic results of our words and deeds, both beneficial and harmful, can lie dormant for a long time, even for lifetimes, before the conditions are right for our actions to bear fruit. So for those of us without the Buddha’s powers of perception it’s impossible to connect a specific experience with a the karmic effect of a specific cause.
Of course, we might feel instant remorse if we recognize that we’ve done something that harmed someone else. It’s possible in such cases to make amends with an apology or remedial action. Most people are quick to forgive if the apology is genuine, and we are likely to remember the experience and make an effort to avoid the same type of mistake in the future if the exchange is sincere.
People who suffer some of the fates catalogued above bear them with differing degrees of grace. We might feel that life is entirely unfair and resent the inconvenience and pain that illness or loss brings, that no one should have to suffer “like this”. If we know that the Buddha’s first truth is the truth of dukkha, we will not take our difficulties altogether personally; we’ll know that no one is invulnerable. If we’re familiar with the concept of karma, we can accept that we may have done something in the deep past that brought this particular misfortune to us, though it’s also possible that we were swept up with random events. Natural disasters and political upheaval can’t be causally linked to every individual affected.
What is implied by the last two lines is that our next destination (in this life or the next) is determined by our actions in the present. We can generate more misery for ourselves or go in the opposite direction. We may end up in one of the heavenly realms! The difference will be determined by whether we make the effort to subdue our darker impulses and give space and nourishment to our best instincts. If we are kind and generous now, the future will take care of itself.