Why do virtuous people sometimes encounter great misfortune? The reason is that our actions in this lifetime bear fruit in future lifetimes, and “bad luck” in this life is just residual karma from previous lives. This is the law of cause and effect. The Compassionate Samadhi Water Repentance Sutra, written by Dharma Master Wu-Da,1 explains it this way:
During the Tang Dynasty, a monk named Zhixuan was traveling from temple to temple when he met another monk whose whole body was riddled with festering sores. This monk had been very ill for a long time, and most people dared not go near him.
Zhixuan could not bear to see this monk suffer. So he stayed with the monk and washed him and cared for him. After the monk recovered, he said, “I am very grateful. I want to repay you. If you ever encounter difficulties, please come to Jiulong Mountain. You will find me by two pine trees.”
Young Zhixuan thought, “I only wanted to ease your suffering. How could I ask for anything in return?” But he merely said, “If I ever need help, I will come to Jiulong Mountain.”
Time passed and Zhixuan remained diligent in his spiritual practice. He mastered the teachings of the Buddhist canon and meticulously upheld the precepts. Word of his virtue reached Emperor Yizong, who invited him to expound the Dharma. After hearing Zhixuan, the emperor gave him the title “Imperial Dharma Master Wu-Da.”
To express his supreme respect for Imperial Dharma Master Wu-Da, the emperor presented him with a sandalwood Dharma-throne to sit upon while lecturing. When Master Wu-Da saw this throne, a trace of arrogance arose in his heart. As he joyfully approached the throne, he struck his knee on the chair. A bruise appeared. Then the bruise became inflamed. Then the inflammation became a boil shaped like a human face, with a nose and mouth. The emperor summoned famous physicians to treat Wu-Da to no avail.
Wu-Da suffered tremendously, and he reflected on his predicament. He knew that it was karma, but how could he eliminate this karma? As he pondered, he remembered the sick monk. Suddenly the monk's parting words took on a profound meaning. And so he set off on a journey to Jiulong Mountain.
When Master Wu-Da arrived, he dismissed his attendants and walked up the mountain. Between two pine trees he saw a towering, dignified temple and the monk, standing there radiantly, waiting to receive him.
After they greeted each other, Master Wu-Da explained that he was suffering from a human-faced boil. “Don’t worry,” the monk said. “It is late. Tomorrow you can wash, and you will be fine.”
Early the next morning, a young novice brought Wu-Da to the foot of the mountain. There was a pond of exceptionally clear water with which the novice instructed him to wash.
Master Wu-Da quickly bent down to fetch water when all of a sudden he heard a voice. It seemed to be the human-faced boil speaking.
“Wait. Listen to me first. You are a well-read scholar. You must know the story of how Yuan Ang had Chao Cuo executed?”2
“Yes, I know the story. It happened a long time ago.”
“Did you know that you were Yuan Ang and I was Chao Cuo? Do you remember that you had me killed in the East City?”
Master Wu-Da remembered the record from the ancient books of how Yuan Ang had deceived Chao Cuo. As Wu-Da stood there lost in thought, an image flashed before his mind: as the executioner's blade came down, Chao Cuo opened his mouth to curse, but his body had already fallen to the floor. A rock landed in his mouth and was crushed to pieces by the force of his resentment.
The human-faced boil said, “At that moment, we formed a karmic connection of great hatred. I vowed revenge. But right afterwards you dedicated yourself to spiritual practice, and for the next ten lifetimes you upheld the precepts with such precision that I had no chance. Then, when the emperor presented you with the Dharma-throne, a hint of arrogance crept into you. The gate of karma opened and I seized this opportunity. I have followed you for the last ten lifetimes. I myself could not be free of this entanglement. I have suffered unspeakably. But now, Venerable Kanaka has taught you to use the Samadhi-water to wash yourself, and it has loosened the knots in my heart. From this day on, the hatred between us will be eliminated completely.”
To Master Wu-Da, this all felt like a dream. Collecting himself, he quickly washed himself with the water. As he did so, the pain was so excruciating that he fainted. When he awoke, the human-faced boil had disappeared. Filled with gratitude, he went to thank the monk. But when he returned to the temple, neither the monk nor the temple was there.
The sick monk was actually a manifestation of the Venerable Kanaka, one of Buddha’s great disciples who, foreseeing that Zhixuan would face this karmic retribution, appeared as a sick monk to test Zhixuan’s compassion and so resolve his karma.
The teachings of Venerable Kanaka were like pure water. Not only did they heal his wound, they also cleansed his accumulated karma. From then on, Master Wu-Da stayed at Jiulong Mountain, where he built an abode and engaged in peaceful spiritual practice. With utmost reverence, he created the Compassionate Samadhi Water Repentance Sutra, which teaches us how to purify our hearts.
All thoughts and actions of sentient beings become karma. We often hear people say, “I understand; I will change.” But if they only change their behavior and not their minds, their karma cannot be eliminated. If a highly-accomplished monk of ten lifetimes still had to be wary of karmic retribution, how much more cautious must we ordinary people be? The teachings tell us that when we face our karmic retributions, they will be exhausted. Therefore we should joyfully accept suffering in life.
1. The Compassionate Samadhi Water Repentance Sutra （慈悲三昧水懺）was written by Dharma Master Wu-Da （悟達國師）in the
ninth century, during the Tang Dynasty (618 - 907 AD). “Samadhi” is the Buddhist concept of mental concentration.
2. Yuan Ang and Chao Cuo were rival advisors to an early emperor of the Han Dynasty (206 BC – 220 AD). They lived approximately one thousand years before Dharma Master Wu-Da.