Tao Sheng (360-434) was an important figure in the history of Chinese religion. He was a younger contemporary of Kumarajiva and of Hui Yuan and he spent time with both of them as well as at his home temple further to the east. He wrote a number of important essays and commentaries, some of which met with sharp rejection at the time but which had a profound impact upon the later evolution of Buddhism.

One of these essays was called “Good Deeds Attract No Retribution”. In it he made the highly controversial observation that good karma ties one to samsara just as much as bad karma. All karma is, therefore, retribution, and Buddhas are beyond this.

This point is still worth airing today. Most people tend to think that accumulating good karma brings one closer to enlightenment and some believe that enlightenment is simply the result of accumulating a sufficient amount of good karma.

Certainly, there are plenty of Buddhist texts that tell us that those who reach enlightenment have served innumerable Buddhas throughout untold ages of time. According to Tao Sheng, however, this is not a matter of accumulating positive karma. Such service does not attract any kind of karma at all.

Enlightenment is not an extension of, nor the pinnacle of, worldliness, even good worldliness. It is something different altogether. This is a point that Dogen also makes in his essay Genjo Koan which is, in many ways, a restatement of Tao Sheng’s idea eight hundred years later.

There is a vitally important subtlety here and it is one of the reasons that the Dharma is often stated to be difficult to grasp. We might say that it is non-intuitive. No amount of good deeds will, of itself, yield enlightenment, and although the enlightened do many things that we shall ordinarily designate as “good” they have no intention of doing good as such.

By extension, this also means that no amount of meditation, chanting, ceremonies, prostrations or other merit accumulating activity will produce enlightenment either. These things may yield good consequences of various kinds, but these consequences all lie within and keep one enmeshed in samsara.


So, if Buddhas are not doing good, what are they doing? To understand this it is helpful to distinguish the outside and inside view. Observing the Buddha interacting with Kisogotami, one could say that he is doing her good in that he triggers her into a genuine grief for her dead child that ultimately results in her leaving behind the state of madness in which she initially approached him. This is the outside view. It is what the observer would see and what we, looking from a great distance of time and space, notice.

Considering the inside view, however, Buddha is not so much trying to help the woman as bringing her to an understanding of what is true. In effect, he says, Go round the village and talk to people and you will find that everybody has lost a dear one. Grief is everywhere. She does so and discovers that this is so. This enables her to let go of her child, have her own grief, and then move on.

What karma does Buddha get for this good deed? None whatsoever, says Tao Sheng, because he never had a karma generating intention. He merely pointed out what is true. He did what was appropriate to the encounter, nothing more. If you ask me, do I have two arms and I say yes, there is no karma. If I were to lie and say I have three or only one, then there would be karma if, as is likely, there had been some self-serving intention behind the lie. Or, if I said yes proudly, there would be karma because there would have been some self-serving intention behind the pride. But a simple statement of fact does not carry such intention and only intentional action yields karma.


Tao Sheng is relying upon a distinction between what we could call ordinary good deeds and truly good deeds. Ordinary good deeds create good karma. Truly good deeds create no karma. The latter are part of a life of liberation that is not tied to samsara. They are paramita. Paramita means that things are viewed from the Buddha’s eye view, not the ordinary view: they are “from the other shore”.

Ordinarily good deeds are done with some sense of credit or merit involved. One does something good expecting a good outcome in two ways. The first way is that one has an aim to bring about some good in the world - one aims to get results. One often only notices the emotional force of this in retrospect on those occasions when things do not go according to plan and one feels disappointment or chagrin, or suffers a loss of motivation to carry on. It is at that point that one realises, perhaps, how attached one was to outcome.

The second way is that one hopes to keep or improve one’s own good standing. Tao Sheng is saying that Buddhas do not do things in this spirit. The Buddha’s good reputation is not contrived. He did not set out to become a celebrity. The good results that he brings about in the world are a natural consequence of living in the Dharma, not an appeal for votes. This means that truly good deeds are done for love, with no thought of reward. The Buddha is not goal oriented.


Another way of looking at this is that when one does something on one’s own account, there is karma, but when one simply does the Buddha’s bidding, there is no karma, neither good nor bad. Buddha action and Buddha mind are outside the ambit of karma. Buddha is not trying to be a good person nor trying to live a good life. He is just conforming to the truth, inconvenient or not.

This is why Dogen says that the person in satori becomes a mirror. They reflect the truth. They are not trying to change the truth. The mirror does not change what reflects in it.

Much modern discussion of spirituality and religion is moralistic. It is concerned with the question “What should one do?” and this is related to the idea that one has a duty to change the world and make it better. This way of thinking involves an element of hubris that generates karma and so makes the whole enterprise self-defeating. I am often asked questions in which a hypothetical situation is posed and I am asked “What should one do in that situation?” The Buddhist answer will always be, Do or say what is true, insofar as the hearer or audience is open to receiving it. Sometimes revealing the truth involves paradox, but this does not change the principle. Saying that one has three arms might be a way of awakening the questioner to the fact that she knew the real answer - two - all along, before she asked the question.

A Buddha is doing whatever expresses the truth of the situation in hand. This is the epitome of faith. It has no element of self. It generates no karma. There is no accumulation (alaya). In this sense, we can say that the Buddha is clean and empty. Each situation is, as it were, completely used up in situ. The Buddha might set out to do something - build a temple, say - and the effort fails for various reasons. The Buddha does not lament, he moves on.


It might be asked, But what if the Buddha is a gardener? He plants the seed with an intention to get a plant later on. Is this not a karma generating activity? The answer is negative. When the Buddha plants a seed, or goes to the supermarket, or sets out on alms round, he does so with an open heart and mind. The seed might grow, the supermarket might sell what is needed, something might or might not be put in his bowl. Buddha-mind is straight forward. If we are out of spagetti one can either go to the shop or go without. If one goes to the shop they might not have any and one might buy potatoes instead. Or, perhaps the shelves are bare, nothing is put in one’s bowl and one goes hungry. The Buddha is worthy (outside view) but has no sense of entitlement (inside view).

There was an occasion when there was a dispute in the sangha between vinaya monks and sutra monks. Tempers ran high. Buddha called the groups together and pointed out the truth and consequence - If you carry on like this it will end in tears. It made no difference. The conflict continued unabated. Buddha tried three times. Still no change. The Buddha took up his robe and bowl and left and went into the forest. A while later he arrived at a different group of monks who were living in harmony. He stayed with them. Some time later the disputing monks realised their folly and came to make amends.

Enlightenment is profound acceptance. It is not earned. It is not a matter of always getting what one wants. Things still go wrong or go right according to the laws of the universe. It attracts no karma. From the inside view, the merit of Buddha is zero; from the outside view, and for this very reason, it is infinite. The good deeds of the Buddha are not like ordinary good deeds. They are paramita. They attract no retribution.

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