YOUTH IN FOCUS: Recently there are so many forest fires and a lot of animals have been killed in the flames. Is there bad karma for starting these fires?

Thinley, Thimphu

Well, before we consider whether causing a forest fire has negative karmic consequences, it might be best to first consider the concept of karma and how it affects our lives.

To many people, it might sound unbelievable that acts committed in the past can affect the future. They think that once something is done it is over. Like a TV, you switch it off and the drama stops there.

In reality, this is not the case. As an example, think of your present situation. You didn’t suddenly appear in the room, and the Kuensel didn’t magically appear in your hands, right? First, you had the idea to enter the room and read the newspaper, and that idea was linked to an idea before. In fact, if you retrace your thoughts and ideas, you will find that they are linked together like a chain right back to a beginningless time. In this way, we understand that our past thoughts and action are influencing the present moment.

In the same way, our present thoughts and action will affect the future. As an example, think of a tall building where all the floors were constructed well except for the fourth floor, which was made with substandard material. Now, on the top floor everything appears fine. However, the weakness of the fourth floor affects not only that floor but the entire structure right to the very top, and so one day when an earthquake strikes the building collapses. Obviously, karma is more complicated that this, but the example serves to give a basic idea how negative past action and future results are linked.

Now, to answer your question, it is important to know that karma is related to our mind, not the body, and so it is the intention of an act that defines its future influence.

In this way, it is a little similar to secular law. Think of a case where someone is hit by a car and killed. If the driver deliberately used his vehicle as a weapon to kill the pedestrian then it would be a murder charge. On the other hand, if he was drunk or negligent and knocked over the pedestrian accidently, it might be a case of manslaughter. If the pedestrian himself was drunk and fell in front of the car, then there would probably be no charge at all. In all the cases, the pedestrian died, but the legal consequences for the driver were totally different depending on his motivation.  With karma it is similar, except there is no judge and no court. Instead, it functions as a natural flow of cause and effect.

In the same way that intention defines the karmic consequences of killing a pedestrian, so it is with taking the life of wildlife in a forest fire. If the fire was started with the deliberate aim of destroying life, then the perpetrator will create the negative karma associated with killing. On the other hand, if the fire was started through negligence or to clear the land, then there is no karma of deliberate killing, but there is still the karma of killing – in legal terms it is not murder, but manslaughter. Anyway, I know that this sounds very technical and perhaps you feel it is too complicated to consider.

Simply, it might be better to just deeply understand that we are connected to the world around us. Our planet feeds and nurtures us and so we should also care for our environment. Perhaps we should consider how a bee and flower co-operate.  When the bee takes pollen to make honey it doesn’t destroy the flower, but instead pollinates it. The two mutually help each other. It is a win-win situation.

This is the way we should understand our relationship with the forests and our natural environment. There is a mutual bond between us, and if we break that bond the consequences will be similar to what will happen if the bees start destroying the flowers that feed them. Both the flowers and the bees will die out.

Shenphen Zangpo was born in Swansea, UK, but spent more than 28 years practicing and studying Buddhism in Taiwan and Japan. Currently, he works with the youth and substance abusers in Bhutan, teaching meditation and organising drug outreach programmes.

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