Common questions

Can a great practitioner take on the karmic retribution of others?

 Some have said that it’s possible for a great practitioner to take on the karmic retribution of others with whom they have karmic affinity. For instance, during the Yunmen Monastery incident in 1951, revered Master Xuyun (1840– 1959) was severely tortured and beaten during interrogation by Communist troops. He was near death with cuts and bruises all over his body, and some people said that his suffering was for all of the people in Mainland China. It has also been said that when a certain great reincarnated lama died from such-and-such disease and suffered such-and-such pain, it was to take on the karmic retribution for all mankind. Or a certain great ascetic had lain in snow, sat under scorching sun, or afflicted his own body to seek peace and good health for certain peoples or for all people. These interpretations sound right but are actually wrong; at least it is not the orthodox view of Buddhadharma.

 The cause and effect of karma that Buddhadharma talks about applies equally to all sentient beings. Individual committing separate deeds would receive individual retribution; group of people collectively committing the same deed would receive collective retribution. Committing bad karma would incur negative effect, while committing good karma would result in positive reward. For example, when everybody has food to eat, everyone will be full; when no one has food to eat, everyone will go hungry. When only one person gets to eat, it won’t make others full, and when one person does not eat, it won’t make others hungry. Therefore, nobody can work on transcending birth and death on behalf of others; and each person is responsible for dissolving his or her own misdeeds. The Kshitigarbha Sutra says: “Father and son are close yet they take separate paths, and even when they meet again, one won’t take retribution in the other’s place.” 

 A great practitioner’s power can definitely affect others. When a great practitioner lives in a certain area, everyone in that area benefits from his or her presence. And when there is a great practitioner in a certain era, everyone living in that era benefits. The great practitioner’s will power, as well as their persuasive speech and deeds, leads the masses to do good and avoid evil; the great practitioner will even soften the spirits and ghosts to accommodate and cooperate. However, the appearance of a great practitioner is the reflection of the virtuous blessings of sentient beings during that time period and location. It should not be taken as the great practitioner appearing to take on karmic retribution for others. 

 When a great practitioner encounters misery and illness, there are two possible explanations: First, a sage or saint appears in this world as an ordinary person and lives as an ordinary being, and their sufferings make them relatable to ordinary beings. It is also through their sufferings that they can move and touch ordinary beings. Second, their plights are the results of their own karma. Even buddhas and arhats receive retribution in their final stage of life, not to mention a great practitioner who is still an ordinary sentient being in his or her stage of practice.

 Of the second reason, in some cases the bad fortune that great practitioners encounter might be due to their diligence in practice, causing demons to fear them. Or some old nemesis and debtors from a previous life who had fallen into the realm of spirits and ghosts might become worried as a result, fearing that the great practitioner will be liberated, and they would lose control of him and not get their debts repaid. This could lead to disaster and disease for the great practitioner. It could also be that the power of a practitioner’s practice was such that, instead of rebirth in the hell, hungry ghost, or animal realm, they were reborn as a human, and had calamities and diseases common to humanity; this is called “heavy misdeeds, light retribution.” So, the miseries and diseases suffered by great practitioners are useful phenomena, but not for the purpose of eliminating karmic effects for others. 

 The notion of accepting retribution and dissolving karmic obstructions on behalf of others has its source in theistic religions. For instance, in Christianity, Jesus accepted crucifixion to redeem the sins of men. In Chinese folk belief, bodhisattvas can dissolve karmic obstructions on behalf of others. For example, since the Medicine Buddha has the epithet “one who helps to avert disasters and prolong life,” he must presumably be able to dissolve karmic obstructions on behalf of sentient beings. Likewise, they believe that Kshitigarbha Bodhisattva entering the hell realm to deliver sentient beings is also an act of dissolving karmic obstructions on behalf of others. Some people take vegetarian or monastic vows, or vow to reduce one’s own lifespan and “loaning” it out in order to help their parents or family members to avert disasters and prolong life. These actions and ideas are well-intentioned, but they have no relevance to the cause and effect principle which is fundamental to Buddhism. 

 We can only benefit sentient beings by doing virtuous deeds, upholding precepts, and practicing diligently to transfer the power of our merits to all sentient beings. It is like a mirror reflecting sunlight into the darkness, thus transforming the dark. But the blind still cannot see because they lack the sense of sight; only those with functioning vision can see the reflected light. Likewise, only those who have virtuous roots have the capacity to receive help from great practitioners. Therefore, Buddhism disapproves of meaningless asceticism and superstitions such as “loaning lifespan to” others. 

 Some believe that great practitioners or psychic mediums connected to spirits can help others to dissolve karmic retributions, heal the sick, ward off ghosts and demons; these beliefs are accepted at the level of folk religion. But Buddha stated that fixed karma cannot be changed, and any deserved retribution has to be accepted. Although the power of folk religious belief has a certain influence, they cannot solve the fundamental problem at all. 

 Using the power of mantras and spells or of mind power, practitioners may temporarily block off the effects of another’s bad karma; however, when trying to do too much or doing it with great difficulty in marginal situations, the performer may encounter reaction which may lead to illness, or even death. It is like using flimsy plywood panels to seal off a flash flood, and instead, being washed away by the flood. This certainly is not dissolving karmic retribution on behalf of others; instead, they suffer the retribution of their own actions. Although the intent was to help others put off retribution, one is actually attempting to violate the cause-effect principle; while the net of heavenly justice seems to have a large mesh, it still lets nothing through, as no bad deed can be made without corresponding retribution. To violate the law of nature is to violate the karmic principle of cause and effect. 

 Whether through mind power or incantation, a positive result requires the source of external power and the receiver to cultivate virtuous roots and transform their mind. This convergence can lead to resonating effects which can be reasonably explained in principle, but it is not just a matter of one person dissolving karmic retribution on behalf of another.