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Does Self-Reward Resulting from Another’s Acts Violate the Law of Karma?

Mogao Cave 217, Dunhuang, China. From
Mogao Cave 217, Dunhuang, China. From

Amitabha’s deliverance through his Vow Power is also governed by the law of cause and effect

All Buddhists should believe in the karmic law of cause and effect. However, some practitioners may try to refute the concept of “Amitabha’s to Build, Ours to Enjoy,” as laid out in my previous article, through karma.

First of all, such critics neglect the fact that the concept of “Amitabha’s to Build, Ours to Enjoy” represents the effects of Amitabha’s cultivation for sentient beings in the causal ground. Dharmakara Bodhisattva, the former body of Amitabha Buddha, made great vows and practiced myriad virtues for the sake of sentient beings in the ten directions.

Amitabha Buddha genuinely dedicates all his merit and virtue to all those who recite his Name to pay off their karmic debts and bestow upon them other unconditional benefits. So clearing karmic offenses through Amitabha-recitation matches the law of cause and effect, as it represents the karmic fruits of Amitabha Buddha’s dedication of merit and virtue.

Secondly, some people do not accept that an “evil” person can attain rebirth in the Land of Bliss and receive no karmic retribution for a lifetime of wrongdoing. Of course, all buddhas ask us to do good and refrain from evil, but by the logic of these critics, the buddhas should not pay the karmic debts of the evil person, otherwise it is unfair to “good” people.

This criticism is based on a belief that the Law of Cause and Effect applies only to the mundane world, a conditioned realm of impermanence. It also holds a discriminative view of blessings and offenses, good and evil, and so on, within this world of relativity.

However, Amitabha’s deliverance is equal and unconditional. It means that any person who recites Amitabha’s name, whether he is good or evil, can naturally receive Amitabha’s merit and virtue to clear his own karmic offenses accumulated in past lives. Most importantly, it also means he can become a fully enlightened buddha through rebirth in Amitabha’s Pure Land.

Yet some critics may still feel unsatisfied: how can such unconditional deliverance not violate the law of karma? Let us look at the issue more deeply.

Augmentative condition/cause: strong, dominant, and unimpeded factors

As a Buddhist, one should know that when a cause leads to an effect, there must be a condition that facilitates this process. It is a unique concept in Buddhism, known as the law of causal conditions. Philosophically, this concept is derived both from the law of dependent origination and the law of cause and effect.

According to the teaching of the mere-consciousness school of Buddhism, there are four kinds of conditions or factors that give rise to all dharmas or phenomena. They are:

(1) Causal condition (Skt: hetu-pratyaya), which directly relates to the cause.

(2) Uninterrupted recycling condition (Skt: samanantara-pratyaya), which is an unceasing cycle of causes and conditions.

(3) Condition to be conditioned (Skt: alambana-pratyaya), which refers to the dependent relationship between the six roots, the six dusts, and the six forms of consciousness.

(4) Augmentative condition (Skt: adhipati-pratyaya), which is a strong factor that can, without any karmic obstruction, dominate and override the effect of a particular cause. In this way, it can act as a cause, although it is really an external condition. Thus, it is also known as augmentative cause.

In his Commentary on the Contemplation Sutra, Master Shandao defines the Path of Great Vow:

The Path of the Great Vow, according to the Larger Sutra (The Infinite Life Sutra): “All good and evil ordinary beings will not attain rebirth [in the Pure Land] without recourse to the karmic power of Amitabha’s Great Vow as an augmentative cause.”

The Great Vow refers to Amitabha’s 18th Vow, which is the vow of rebirth through Amitabha-recitation. It is also known as the Fundamental Vow.

Three conditions and relationships through the embrace of Amitabha’s Light

In his explication of the Ninth Contemplation – Contemplation of Amitabha’s Real Body, Master Shandao poses a rhetorical question:

Regarding the cultivation of various practices, all practitioners should be reborn if they can dedicate [merit and virtues for rebirth]; why, then, does Amitabha’s light, though shining universally, embrace only those who exclusively recite his name? Is there any particular meaning?

Master Shandao goes on to explain that exclusive Amitabha-reciters have three kinds of relationships with Amitabha Buddha that lead to their constant embrace by Amitabha’s unimpeded and infinite light.

The first is the intimate relationship. Because Amitabha’s mind is omnipresent in the Dharma realm, Amitabha Buddha can see, hear, and know immediately when an Amitabha-reciter bows, recites his Name, and thinks of Him.

The second is the close relationship. Because Amitabha’s body is also omnipresent in the Dharma realm, Amitabha Buddha can appear immediately in front of the Amitabha-reciter if they wish to see him.

The third is the augmentative relationship, which Master Shandao explains as follows:

Augmentative causal condition—sentient beings who recite [Amitabha’s] Name will immediately clear their karmic offenses of many kalpas. Moreover, near the end of life, they will be welcomed by the Buddha and a multitude of sacred beings, without needing to invite them. Those sentient beings will not be impeded by various deviant, evil, or negative karmic forces [preventing them from being reborn in the Land of Bliss].

Therefore, an exclusive Amitabha-reciter should not worry about being obstructed by karmic offenses near the end of their life and falling into hell. All of our karmic offenses accumulated in countless past lives will be cleared away and paid off by Amitabha Buddha to secure our rebirth in the Land of Bliss.

The greatness of Amitabha’s Power and the ease of Amitabha-recitation

Master Yinguang, another great Pure Land patriarch, says that many Buddhists misunderstand the Pure Land teaching, especially in the beginning. They cannot perceive the greatness of Amitabha Buddha’s power and the ease of the practice of Amitabha-recitation, especially compared with the weakness of their own power and the difficulty in practicing various merits and virtues.

Thus, they take a teaching of deliverance and turn it into a teaching of cultivation. Instead of relying on the other-power teaching of exclusive Amitabha-recitation, they take up the self-power approach of dedicating the merit of various practices toward rebirth. That is the reason why so many find themselves confused with doubts and subsequently lose the great benefit of rebirth in Amitabha’s Land of Bliss.

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