What is karma? And how does life compensate us for either good or bad karma? As long as there has been a debate about whether it is worthwhile to follow ethical principles, there has also been a debate about whether good people are rewarded for their good karma.
We may ask ourselves why it seems that good-hearted people don’t get rewarded, while those doing bad things seem to benefit from others’ misfortunes.
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The following ancient Chinese story about Bao Zheng, who served as Prime Minister in the Northern Song Dynasty, may shed some light on this question and how karma is given and taken away.
The disabled boy and the stone bridge
There once was a village where a physically disabled teenage orphan lived. He lived a hard life, sleeping with the dogs and surviving by begging.
The village was situated on the banks of a river. In order for the villagers and travelers to enter the village, they had to cross the river. It was a big inconvenience, especially for older people.
After a heavy rain, the river would swell up and become unpassable. But for years, it seemed that everyone just excepted this and no one was willing to do anything to change it.
Eventually, something unusual took place. Villagers began to take note of a boy who would collect stones and assemble them on one side and then the other side of the river. This went on day after day.
Eventually, the villagers became so curious that they approached the boy and asked him: “Why are you stacking up all these stones?”
“I’m building a bridge,” the boy replied. The villagers would tilt their heads and leave the boy with a grin on their faces. Among themselves, they would gossip about the boy and laugh. No one took him seriously and regarded what he was doing as a simple child’s activity.
The boy kept on collecting and assembling the stones every day. Eventually, the stones were stacked up high on each side of the river bank.
The villagers began to observe the boy more seriously. The laughing stopped and people began speaking of the boy with great admiration. “What persistence he has, ” some would say. “Indeed. What a strong spirit he has.”
Soon, the first villagers were so inspired by the boy’s persistence that they joined in and began collecting and assembling the stones together with the boy. And before long, everyone was participating in building the bridge over the river.
Some wealthier villagers even invited masons, who helped professionally finalize the construction of the stone bridge as the disabled boy continued to wholeheartedly devote himself to the project.
The disabled boy devoted himself so wholeheartedly to the stone bridge project that people started warming up to him.
One day, an unfortunate accident took place, and the boy was blinded by a stray piece of stone during some chiseling work.
The villagers became sad and took great pity on the boy. Many felt that Heaven was unfair by punishing him with this misfortune. The boy had been so kind and diligent, yet he still met with such grim retribution.
The boy, however, never once said a word out of spite. Not once did he complain about his fate. Instead, he continued to do whatever he could every day to help at the construction site.
At last. On the evening of a very hot day, the bridge was finally complete. The villagers couldn’t believe their eyes. One after the other, they began to clap and cheer until the cheerful noise filled the evening sky. But simultaneously, like a breeze of fresh air had passed everyone’s face, they turned and looked at the orphaned, disabled boy standing there, lonely and staring into nothing.
The villagers stared at him with pity. “Until recently, he was handicapped on one leg.” Someone said. “Now he’s also blind,” another added. And the crowd silenced their cheers.
Observing the boy, they couldn’t help but notice his radiant smile. The boy couldn’t see a thing. Yet he stood there with the biggest smile ever on his face, like someone who had just won a million dollars in the lottery.
To the boy, this moment was the happiest moment in his entire life. Then suddenly, the evening skies darkened and it began to rain unexpectedly.
The rain washed away all the dust from the bridge, revealing a gorgeous-looking stone bridge.
Suddenly a bolt of lightning struck the boy. He fell to the ground and was killed instantly.
Silence filled the air. Then, everyone poured out their grief and emotions, loudly bemoaning the boy’s fate. Those on their knees looked up to the heavens and cried: “Why”? Others yelled: “Oh Heaven, what injustice”!
As coincidence had it, just that day, Prime Minister Bao Zheng was on an important business trip and happened to pass by the village. The villagers stopped his sedan chair to complain about the child’s fate.
Then one of the villagers asked Bao: “Why do good people get punished and not rewarded for their deeds, and how should good people behave going forward?”
The Prime Minister felt irritated by the villager’s emotions and outbursts. Leaving angrily, he wrote a note saying: “Do evil, rather than good.”
The Prime Minister’s epiphany
After returning to the capital, Bao submitted his report about his business trip to the Emperor. He described vividly what he had experienced with the villagers at the bridge he had encountered.
The Prime Minister was puzzled why such a diligent, good-hearted boy would receive such grim retribution for all his good deeds.
After thinking about his words, the Prime Minister came to the conclusion that his words weren’t very appropriate.
That morning, just after the Prime Minister closed the morning court, the Emperor unexpectedly invited him to have a private conversation in the harem. Ever since the little prince had been born, he cried all day without rest.
The Emperor wanted the Prime Minister to take a look at the child to see whether all was well with him. The little boy’s skin was silk tender and white as snow.
As the Prime Minister observed the baby’s skin, he noticed that the newly born prince had a line of words written on his little hand. The words were what he had written on the paper at the village: “Do evil rather than good.”
The Prime Minister took a step back in fright. His entire face blushed. Immediately, he reached out, attempting to wipe off the words. As he did so, the words disappeared instantly.
The Emperor and others only saw a birthmark on the prince’s hand, while the Prime Minister had seen an inscription that he wiped off.
The Emperor became furious and scolded the Prime Minister. He considered the mark to be a blessing, which the Prime Minister had now removed.
The Prime Minister immediately begged for forgiveness, kneeling down and telling the Emperor about the inscription. But the Emperor only saw an auspicious birthmark and scolded Bao severely.
The Prime Minister knelt down and immediately asked for forgiveness. He told the Emperor about the inscription and what he had experienced in the village. The Emperor felt that this was a profound matter and ordered the Prime Minister down into the underworld to check it out.
Trip to the underworld
And so the Prime Minister traveled to hell where he discovered the truth about what was really going on.
It turned out that the boy had done many evils in his previous life. He had accumulated so much karma that it would take three lives to replay it.
The gods initially arranged for the boy to be disabled, poor, and lonely in his first life, blind in his second life, and struck down by lightning in his third life.
But because the boy had changed his ways and through his humble character endured so much misfortune, while still doing good deeds without complaining about any misfortune, it came that the gods allowed him to repay his entire karma of three lives in just one life.
Doing so much good, only thinking of others, and never acting selfish, his life was reminiscent of one who was in “harmony with the Tao, even without practicing Taoism.” Through his selfless deeds and enduring so much misfortune and inconvenience, the boy had accumulated so much virtue that he was instantly reincarnated as a prince.
In delusion, people can only see a point, a line, or a plane. What they see are all fake or superficial phenomena. However, higher-level practitioners can enlighten and observe things omnidirectionally and grasp their essence.
Those who are enlightened spiritually may observe that things that happen have many layers of meaning to them. The true reward for one’s deeds often expands beyond one life alone.
Translated by Joseph Wu and rewritten by Hermann Rohr