Common questions

Does Buddhism believe in the saying, “One cannot escape one’s predestined fate”?

 Buddhism does believe in the principle of karmic cause and effect, but it does not believe in predestined fate (jieshu). Cause and effect can be altered: the causes created in the past aided by the deeds and conditions of the present can change the effects. However, Buddha said, “Certain types of fixed karma cannot be altered, and serious karma cannot be salvaged.” Fixed karma is created by committing extremely bad deeds, such as the five heinous sins: killing one’s father, killing one’s mother, killing an arhat, shedding the blood of a buddha, and disrupting the harmony of sangha. Slandering the Three Jewels, murder and robbery, arson and breaching dikes, raping, etc., are all also serious crimes; the consequences cannot be changed. Because these misdeeds not only destroy others’ lives, but also affect the long-term stability of the society, they must subject to retribution.

 There is the ancient saying, “To understand the kalpa of killings and wars, just listen to the cries from the slaughterhouse in the middle of the night.” Too much killing inevitably leads to wars; killing and fighting among people leads to turmoil and the chaos of war, resulting in abandoned buildings and cities, and a land swarming with famished refugees. 

A kalpa involves an enormous time span measuring in eons. When bad deeds accumulate to a certain level, certain kinds of disaster will occur, some regional, some national or even worldwide, depending on the number of people who had committed the deeds and the severity of the deeds. Misdeeds committed in this life won’t necessarily incur retribution in this life. For example, people who commit certain misdeeds in a previous life could experience retribution for those misdeeds in some future life, but the retribution would be in a similar environment, and similar to what they would have received in the previous life. 

 As for the word “shu” in “jieshu,” it is not a Buddhist term. By itself, shu originally meant “number” or “count” but has been used since antiquity to imply divination or predestination. In the chapter on “Buju” of the anthology Chuci from the Han Dynasty (206 BCE–220 CE), the poet Quyuan wrote: “Shu, divination of destiny, has things it cannot predict, and divinities have at times been not quite omnipotent.” In The Book of Documents, the chapter “Dayu Mo” says: “The heavenly mandate (lishu) has fallen upon you.” In addition, in his essay, “Letter to Cao Changsi” from the anthology titled Wen Xuan, Yingqu said, “Things that grow in the spring will prosper, those that flourish in the fall will wither; it is the natural cycle (shu). Of what use is regret?” These are all doctrines of natural or heavenly principles or justice, fate, or simply the flow of energy. Combining these kinds of notions with the Sanskrit term “kalpa” or jie, prefigured the development of the concept of jieshu.

 In Chinese jie means “kalpa,” a time span of many eons, which can be small, medium, or great. Proportionally, for example, assume that the longest lifespan of human kind is 84,000 years and the shortest is ten. If from the lifespan of 84,000, we reduce one year with the passing of every 100 years to reach the lifespan of ten, and then reverse the process, increasing one year of lifespan every 100 years, to reach the lifespan of 84,000 again, the elapsed time is a small kalpa. A period of twenty small kalpas is a medium kalpa. The world that all sentient beings inhabit can be divided into the four stages of formation, stasis, dissolution, and nothingness. If each stage lasts a medium kalpa, the four medium kalpas then form a great kalpa.

 According to Buddhist scriptures, only during the stage of stasis are there active sentient beings; during the other three stages, sentient beings would have moved to other worlds. Yet before they relocate, at the beginning of the dissolution stage, there would be natural disasters of fire, floods, and wind. These are called “kalpa catastrophe” (jienan), predestined catastrophes that can totally destroy the material world as well as the realms of meditative abiding. 

 The sentient beings that have not departed from this world before the dissolution stage arrives are thus entrapped in the kalpa and cannot escape from the catastrophes. After the kalpa catastrophe, the consciousness of beings who have not completely received their karmic retribution as a vessel of life will be reborn into another world to continue receiving retribution. If one has completed receiving their retribution, then they will move on to the Buddhist Pure Land before the arrival of another kalpa; they will forever transcend the three realms of samsaric existence, and will never be subject to the suffering of the kalpa catastrophe again. This is called “departing the ocean of suffering.” Of course, without practicing Buddhadharma, it would be impossible to break away from this kind of kalpa catastrophe. 

 As to the folk beliefs about jieshu or predestined catastrophe, though they are somewhat related to Buddhism, most people only know that they will be some catastrophe, but do not know what they really are, or why; people know that it is impossible to escape from them, but don’t know how to transcend them. After enjoying a period of peaceful and stable life, people would lose the sense of vigilance against calamity and develop a lifestyle that is luxurious and corrupt, with declining morality and decaying ideology. Then, some prophecies would spread, forewarning the public that there would be natural disasters and man-made atrocities and wars, that there would be many deaths, and so forth. There would be even more alarming statements claiming that only very few would actually survive the catastrophe. 

 Some prophecies would indicate that these are irreversible. However, there would also be some prophecies urging the public to immediately rectify their attitude and habits, exhorting them to avert evil and embrace good, repent and be saved, in order to save the world from the approaching kalpa catastrophe. These prophecies will likely come mostly from conscientious advocates of folk religions, and there would be some that come from Buddhists as an expedient way to educate the public. 

 Some people, based on the concept of the kalpa-predestined event, would argue that it would make sense to have demonic mass murderers. They rationalize that it is not the murderers who want to kill; instead, it is because the murdered need to be “taken care of.” Otherwise, there would be no other way to complete the cause-effect retribution of good and evil karma. This kind of argument needs to be corrected. Saying that a demonic killer’s existence is in response to people’s fate of destined catastrophe is to liken it to an executer’s carrying out the law by terminating a criminal’s life. [In other words, the demon killer’s deeds are not a violation of the law and are not a crime.] However, the fact that the killer is deemed demonic indicates that he or she is committing crimes, not carrying out some sort of divine order. Only natural disasters and a kalpa catastrophe that is beyond human control can be called “divine destiny.” Therefore, demonic killers commit very severe bad karma and will be subject to very severe retributions. 

 Natural disasters generated from fire, flood, and wind, though harmful to people, are considered natural retributions; they contain no demonic psyche or bad intention from human beings. The suffering from natural disasters is considered direct retribution to those with corresponding karma. Therefore, in Buddhist scriptures there are accounts of natural disasters of fire, flood, and wind, but no statements about a devil or devil’s representatives carrying out the retribution on sentient beings. While some victims of the demonic killers may have deserved the retribution, it was also likely that they were victims of the demonic killers’ momentary anger or extreme emotional state. Worse yet, such a theory may lead people to trample and harm others in the name of divine justice. This is not only unjust, but is also an excuse for common criminals to commit crimes. Thus, Buddhism does not agree with the argument that demonic killers kill people in the place of natural phenomena. 

 In order to escape from kalpa catastrophes, people need to practice Buddhadharma. By upholding the five precepts and the ten virtues, one can avoid sufferings in the three lower realms and that of armed conflicts and wars, fire and flood, and hell. Meditation practice can temporarily relieve one’s vexations. If one attains enlightenment and gains wisdom, one will be able to transcend the desire, form, and formless realms, and avoid the painful cycles of birth and death.

 Those who lack the confidence to consummate the practice of the five precepts and ten virtues, as well as to cultivate samadhi and wisdom, should still often recite the name of Amitabha Buddha, and vow to be reborn in his Pure Land. Unfortunately, sentient beings tend to only fear the results of cause and effect, while not knowing how to keep away from bad causes. The best way forward is to avoid doing bad deeds and doing good deeds in the here and now, broadly cultivate the field of blessings, practicing Dharma, generating bodhi-mind, and striving towards buddhahood. By doing so, one then can avoid the kalpa catastrophes in the future.