Why do good people die?

by Lee Yu ban, The Buddhist Channel, Aug 31, 2009

Petaling Jaya, Malaysia -- Why do good people die?

This is an age old question which seems to equally baffle the pious, the ignorant and not-so-ignorantly-pious. Coming on the heels of the death of three Malaysian Dharma workers in Ladakh, India, Lee Yu Ban examines the "four most asked questions" currently circulating in cyberspace.

His take on the four questions are as follows:

  1. Is it foolish to travel during the hungry ghost month as the ghosts are let loose from Hell? [Editor's note: Aug 20 - Sep 19 2009 is also the 7th month of the Chinese lunar calendar. Traditionally, this month is regarded as the "hungry ghost month")
  2. If they are doing so much good merit, why did they die so soon?
  3. Why didn't their good karma protect them?
  4. Is it bad to go to funerals of such tragic deaths in case the bad "qi" also affects me?

Hungry Ghost month

This is a peculiar question as the Hungry Ghost month belief is alien to Buddhism. As far as I know,  Theravada Buddhism does not teach anything about any ghosts or demons coming out of hell to visit the human realm in any month or at any time.

The closest relevance will be the Ullambana Sutra of the Mahayana Buddhists. All this sutra says is that Ven Moggalana visited Hell and saw his mother there. Note that she was not released from Hell.  Feeling great sadness, the Ven then visited the Buddha who advised that as the full moon day of the 7th month was approaching, he should make an offering to the assembled sangha and dedicate the merit to his mother. This he did and his mother took a good rebirth.

Again, there is no mention of beings released from Hell in this Sutra.  My guess is that this Hell month release is an ancient Chinese folk belief which was pre-existing and was then carried over by Chinese converts to Buddhism.  So what should present day Buddhists make of this?

First of all I would say that if anyone is to do a statistical study, I'm quite sure that there would be no indication of more deaths or accidents during this time. Not in the world, not among the Chinese population and not among motor vehicle drivers.

Buddhism is a religion that teaches us to free our minds from fear and superstitions and to develop wisdom. In the absence of evidence or good reason, such belief is irrational.

In Dhammapada verse 188 the Buddha describes this situation when he says people driven by fear will seek out trees and shrines. He says that these are not secure and does not offer freedom from fear. Real security is only found when one takes refuge in the Three Jewels and understands the Four Noble Truths.  You may wish to call yourself a Buddhist but if you continue to subscribe to beliefs which fall outside the Dhamma, you will continue to be plagued by fear.

If you take Refuge in the Three Jewels, then please do so with sincerity. Take the Buddha as your teacher, not your Uncle or Aunty who would plant irrational fears in your minds. Keep your refuge pure and untainted from non-Buddhist teachings. Ask yourself, between this Auntie and the Fully Enlightened Buddha, who should I believe?

In the Kitagiri Sutta, the Buddha advises that we should reflect thus:

"The Blessed One is the Teacher, I am a disciple. He is the one who knows, not I"
So if you consider yourself to be a Buddhist, then put his Dhamma in your heart, and not make something up yourself or those made up by your Auntie, your neighbour or your colleague.

Why did they die?

People die for various reasons at different ages. That is just the way it is and it is pure foolishness to think that good people must die in old age and bad people will die young. Any child can observe that this is not the case. Ajahn Chah told a story of how he observed that after a storm, the forest floor will be covered with fallen leaves. However, not all leaves are old and brown; many are green and fresh. This is simply nature at work.

"But why didn't their good karma protect them?"

The workings of karma are deep and only a Buddha can fully comprehend their intricacy. But we can ask "Is it not possible that if not for their good Dhamma work, their lives may have ended even earlier?  Or is it not possible that their lives will be cut short regardless of their actions?" If so it is to their immense good fortune that they encountered the Dhamma and took it wholeheartedly into their lives in the limited time they had, so that their karma fully enriches their future.

The Bahiya sutta describes a situation with some similarity.  In this Sutta, Bahiya was persuaded to seek out the Buddha. He did so and upon meeting the Buddha asked him to teach the Dhamma. Twice, the Buddha turned down the request, but on the third time, the Buddha consented, taught Bahiya who then became an arahant. When Bahiya was leaving  this meeting he was attacked by a cow and gored to death. 

Those who were ignorant of the events in Bahiya's life would think he was unfortunate, but those who understand the sutta would know he was immensely fortunate.  It may seem to many that it was unfortunate for our sisters to have died that day in Ladakh. But we should consider that it is only unfortunate if anyone dies without the Dhamma in their hearts.

What counts then, is not the number of days in one's life but what one does with those days.  The Buddha teaches "Better it is to live one day seeing the supreme Dhamma than to live a hundred years without ever seeing the supreme Dhamma" ~ Dhp 115

Is it bad to go to funerals of such tragic deaths in case the bad "qi" also affects me?

One should be mindful of the good one does at funerals - Blessing the deceased, comforting the bereaved and supporting the community. Such intentions are meritorious.  On the other hand, thinking of protecting oneself from bad qi is selfish, unskillful and just plain superstitious.  Again, please don't listen to your uncle or auntie. They are far from enlightened.  If you have taken refuge in the Three Jewels, then honour your refuge.

Build a sold refuge. If your refuge is full of holes, then expect to get wet when fear rains down. 

Remember Kitagiri sutta  - "The Blessed One is the Teacher, I am a disciple. He is the one who knows, not I."

Dhammapada 79 - "He who drinks deep the Dhamma lives happily with a tranquil mind. The wise man ever delights in the Dhamma made known by the Noble One."

I have encountered such questions before. People who consider themselves Buddhists had doubts and fears after listening to various gurus, fung shui teachers and such. I see it this way.  If you have taken refuge in the Three Jewels, then keep your refuge pure.  If you start making things up or taking non-Buddhist teachings, then like the Buddha described in Dhp 188, you are running out of your safe secure house to worship at trees and shrines. You can expect to get wet when it rains.

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