Why Bad Things Happen to Good People

Our brothers and sisters in the monotheistic religions often struggle with the question of "why bad things happen to good people?" As some of you know my wife, Mary has gone back to school to become a hospital chaplain. She told me recently that in her class - made up entirely of students from the monotheistic religions that they struggled with this very question. If their concept of God is all powerful, all omniscience and all compassion then why would he/she allow bad things happen to good people. Why would he allow a small baby to die a painful death?

Last week one of our member's husband was in a terrible head on car accident. The person in the other car died, and this person's husband was critically injured, but now looks like he will survive. As Buddhists we don't ask "Why did God let this happen?" Of course we may still wonder why it had to occur at all. It occurred as a result of Dependent Origination.

During his enlightenment experience, the Buddha saw that the process of 'becoming', of birth, old age and death was ultimately a circular process consisting of twelve links (nidana), each link is the condition for the one following on from it. This process is referred to as 'dependent origination' or 'conditioned arising'. Dependent origination is one of the more initially difficult concepts of Buddhism.

It refers to much more than just the cycle of life, death and rebirth. At it's basis is the foundation for karma and the idea that all mental and physical phenomena are conditioned, that is everything arises from various causes and conditions. There is nothing that you can't point to that doesn't have some cause or condition for it's existence - not only physical phenomena but also the mental states.

Let us take first an example used by the Buddha Himself. The Buddha has said the flame in an oil lamp burns dependent upon the oil and the wick. When the oil and the wick are present, when the flame is introduced the oil lamp burns. If either of these is absent, the flame will cease to burn. This example illustrates the principle of dependent origination with respect to a flame in an oil lamp.

The fact that the flame ceases in the absence of the wick and oil is important. It relates directly to the 4 Noble truths and the cause of suffering. If we remove the cause of suffering - craving, desire and attachment - then we end suffering.

This is why the Buddha has said that he who sees dependent origination sees the Dharma and he who sees the Dharma sees the Buddha. This is why the Buddha said that understanding dependent origination is the key to liberation.

I would like to spend a little bit of time on another important meaning of dependent origination and that is dependent origination as an expression of the Middle Way. The Middle Way means avoiding the extreme. In that context the Middle Way is synonymous with moderation. It means avoiding the extremes of eternalism and nihilism. How is this so? The flame in the oil lamp exists dependent upon the oil and the wick. When either of these are absent, the flame will be extinguished. Therefore, the flame is neither permanent nor independent.

The fact that the flame ceases without the wick and the oil shows us the truth in the 4 noble truths. When we cease our clinging, attachments and desires (causes) then our suffering will also cease!

If the flame could continue without the causes of the wick and the oil then it would be self existing and eternal (self inherent existence). Likewise if there was no flame regardless of the wick and the oil then that would be nihilistic.

But because the flame is dependent it also shows us that everything in our world is dependent upon causes including ourselves. We are no different than the flame. We can see that this fixed, permanent idea of a self is an illusion because it is also dependent upon causes.

The 12 links are

  1.  Ignorance
  2.  Karmic actions (intentional acts)
  3.  Consciousness
  4.  Body and Mind
  5.  The Senses
  6.  Sense impressions
  7.  Feelings
  8.  Craving
  9.  Clinging
  10.  Becoming
  11.  Rebirth
  12.  Old Age and Death.

It all begins with ignorance. By ignorance we are not talking about stupidity but we are referring to not seeing the nature of reality as it really is. This refers to the fact that most of us blame others for our problems or our unhappiness rather than seeing that the cause (in most cases) is our own mental state.

Each of our lives are woven of karma. Each small thread we see is contained in a matrix of time and causality - a context of billions of threads that are beyond our vision. This leaves us with the responsibility of doing exactly what were the parting instructions of the Buddha:

"Work our your own salvation with Diligence"
- Maha-Para-Nirvana Sutra

Work out your own salvation means to apply the ALL of the Teachings of the Buddha to every circumstance of our lives.

Most of the causes and conditions that yielded this particular life that we lead are based on many previous existences. What we are constrained to do, then, is to take what we are given and practice Generosity and the rest and become a Bodhisattva.

But dependent origination means we have the choice to be stuck in ignorance. Simply reacting to life in knee jerk sorts of way or to practice the Dharma.

If all is conditioned then it is up to us!

We do have choice - every moment - we can act and react in a way that reinforces our idea of fixed permanent self or we can embrace that all things are empty including ourselves and thus, impermanent and work to end the horrific suffering we cause ourselves and others and embrace the virtuous.


So this coming week, realize that we have the choice to live the intentional life. By practicing The Eight Fold Path, the Six Paramitas and cultivating compassion and wisdom in every situation we can become Bodhisattvas as quickly as possible to help and aid our fellow sentient beings.

I pray for your health, long life, happiness and complete success in all of your endeavors with many blessings of the Triple Gem.

May Your Journey Be Gentle.

By Arrangement with The Rime Buddhist Center.
Lama Chuck Stanford is a fully ordained Lama of Tibetan Buddhism. He is married and with his wife directs a Buddhist Center located in Kansas City: The Rime Buddhist Center, Tibetan Institute of Studies and Monastery.


More by :  Lama Chuck Stanford

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Views: 4021      Comments: 1

Comment Dear Lama Stanford,

Thank you for reminding us ( me) of this most profound teaching of the Buddha.
This message of dependent origination, comes to me, at a very trying time in my life, when I am at my wits end in comprehending why so many heart aches- including a broken marriage, deaths of closest members of the family and career upheavals seem to have struck me, all at the same time. This teaching, in may ways, has helped bring my focus back to myself, rather than, on external factors. As a Buddhist practitioner, I feel fortunate to have read your message and feel motivated to be more patient, with myself and with every body around me and to be more mindful in accepting life as it comes-each breath at a time!


25-Apr-2014 16:00 PM

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