Dr K Sri Dhammananda: The Buddhist Explanation of Natural Disasters

In December of 2004 the Asian Tsunami struck struck many countries in SE Asia, and many people blamed it on either God issuing punishment on the faithless, or the results of bad or unwholesome kamma coming back to people.

Neither doctrine gives much comfort, and the latter is not in line with the Buddhist teaching, which never says that everything that happens in simply a result of kamma. In fact it explicitly denies this, saying that it is a wrong view (see here for a translation of a relevant discourse).

So what does cause these great natural disasters? Ven. K. Sri Dhammananda explained in this talk which was given shortly after the event.

the Tsunami about to overwhelm some people on a beach
the Tsunami about to overwhelm some people on a beach

Ven-DhammanandaKuala Lumpur, Malaysia – The Asian tsunami tragedy which struck countries bordering the Indian ocean in December 2004 has in many ways demonstrated the raw power of nature. Many people have questioned the reasons for such a disaster, whether it was a sign of “God’s displeasure” to punish humankind for all the wrong doings wrought on earth.

Before we go and make assumptions that some external power was the cause of such mass destruction, we must learn to underrstand the true nature of existence, especially of human existence.

The word “man” is derived from the sanskrit word “manussa” which means “human beings”. The word “manussa” has its origin in “mana” or mind. Of all the different spheres of existence, human beings are the only ones which have the opportunity to become a Buddha. They have this opportunity because human beings possess the intelligence and wisdom to question their existence, how and why they are born in this world and about the meaning of life itself.

It is through the use of such intelligence that humans can develop insight knowledge about the nature of life, of what constitutes human life and the nature of being itself. Through such investigation, the Buddha teaches us that all living beings and the universe exist as a combination of elements and energy.

These elements of earth, wind, water and heat are governed by natural, universal cosmic laws which go through a perpetual cycle of birth, growth, decay and disappearance. This universe of animate and inanimate objects exists on a basis of conditioning and the occurrence of mental and physical events that are governed by natural laws (dhamma niyama).

The Buddha spoke of five natural laws, one of which is the Law of Energy (utu niyama). Energy, in its two forms of heat and cold, causes many changes within the body and the environment. It is always in a state of flux, of continuous change and is always seeking a balance. It is the law that govern changes in a body, such as old age and illness, or in an ecological context, with respect to such things as climates, seasons and earth movements.

The Buddha has explained very clearly that the operation of this law is not only limited to this physical world, but also throughout the universe. It affects every existing planetary system and all forms of cosmic metaphysics, whether material or immaterial. All these elements are subjected to change, encountering imbalance from time to time.

Even so life, human life, and the earth are guided by natural laws. They decay, disappear and born over and over again, dictated by a never ending cosmic cycle. Disaster takes place from time to time because basic elements like water, earth, wind and fire are always in a constant flux, and needs to find a balance. That is why the Buddha said that a human life is dukkha, because he/she is also subject to such a flux. Regardless of status or species, because of this universal flux, every creature or being experiences dukkha.

While Buddhism teaches us that we are the architects of our own fate and that as human beings we can eventually control our kammic force, Buddhists do not believe that everything is due to kamma. They do not ignore the role played by other forces of nature. As can be seen, kamma constitutes but one aspect of natural law. The simplistic supposition that all life experiences are due to kamma is therefore incorrect.

Understanding these different underlying elements in the physical and psychical spheres helps us to gain a clearer understanding of how a single event may have resulted from more than one cause and how different determinants may synchronously be involved in conditioning certain phenoomena or experiences. Usually, when more than one principle is at work, the more predominant one will prevail.

For example, extreme temperature (utu niyama) may influence the conditions of the mind (citta niyama) and cause one to feel ill at ease. Or strong will power (citta niyama) may temporarily override the effects of negative environments (utu niyama) and the results of kamma (kamma niyama). In the case of natural disasters, kammic energies become inactive due to the overwhelming forces of earth and water movements, such as earthquakes and tsunamis. The cataclysmic result of the Asian tsunami disaster is a powerful demonstration of the law of kamma surrendering to natural laws (utu niyama).

The devastating waves that took hundreds of thousands of lives operated without regard to the merit of the victims. Those with good and bad kamma suffered equally. No one, and nothing, can escape from such energy that assumes impermanency as a constant. The foundation of Buddhism is based upon the acceptance of this universal truth. To have an intimate understanding of such knowledge will enable one to accept with equanimity of what cannot be changed, and therefore allows one to channel their positive energy to more productive, spiritual use.

It is essential for human beings to cultivate compassion and maintain kindness as a means to learn to live with such a flux. Peaceful living does not mean to conquer nature. It entails one having a deep understanding and appreciation of its forces. And this is precisely the reason why it is a fallacy to blame external powers (such as God) for the massive calamity caused by the devastating tsunami. There is no one to blame, and nothing to blame on.

There is no need to rationalize God’s action because the tsunami disaster clearly demonstrated the impermanence of the earth’s elements. It has starkly opened our eyes to nature’s conditionality, their momentariness and their egolessness. It is this very reason that we need to learn not to develop craving in our worldly matters. Such attachhment to our physical self and environment will inevitably lead us to more suffering as future rebirth may subject us to experience the unpredictable forces of such natural laws. We can even use this as a lesson for salvation, and that is to strive to be reborn in a “suitable locality” (patirupadesavaso, from Mangala Sutta, Discourse of Blessings), free from suffering caused by such natural laws.

The disaster is also a timely reminder for us to re-examine how we live, and for us to re-evaluate our relationship with nature. The law of Dependant Origination (paticca samuppada) accounts for the occurrence of the mind and body in a bond of mutual interraction and dependence. What we think, say or do have an impact far beyond our immediate bodily existence. If we poison the ground, the effect will come back to haunt us via polluted waters. If we take the stance of always wanting to conquer nature, thinking that our intelligence is superior, then we must be ready to face the consequences of its wrath.

The disaster is a reminder for us to rejoin in the age old truth of moderation. This is true in these days and times when over-development has caused great ecological imbalance. Studies have shown that if the coral reefs off the shores of Sri Lanka were still intact, it would have played a role as a buffer to reduce the impact of the waves hitting the shores. Along the coast of India, the existence of mangrove swamps has clearly demonstrated that nature’s creation can help to prevent a greater calamity.

Living in moderation in today’s society does not mean to surrender to poverty. It means to have the ability and awareness to live in harmony with the natural surrounding. It means not to destroy nature and create artificial environments in order to pander to our senses. Living in moderation means to encourage one another to be kind and compassionate, so that human values transcend that of material wants.

While the world grieves for the victims, let us cultivate a sense of compassion and transfer merits to the departed ones. We can do this in a number of ways. One, we gain merit when we give ourselves to relief effort, so we can provide direct assistance to those who are suffering. Secondly; we radiate mental positive energy to the departed ones so that they may have a better rebirth. Thirdly, let us also radiate thoughts of loving-kindness to relief workers who are at this moment doing their best to support the victims.

May we all learn to be awakened and be more sensitive to the workings of ourselves and nature so that we can live in harmony among ourselves, with nature and the universe.


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