Was the Tsunami Caused by Karma?
A Buddhist View
by Kusala Bhikshu

The world is filled with so much pain and suffering and now a Tsunami kills over 170,000 people. Why did so many people have to die, was it their karma?
I was watching the news, listening to a famous American Buddhist scholar say the death and destruction caused by the Tsunami, "Was karma." A simple answer and a great sound bite to a complex question, but to say the reason behind this tragic event was simply karma appears glib and indifferent.
I've never found the cause of anything in Buddhism to be just one thing. Saying the reason for a complex chain of events is the result of one action-- whether it's God, sin or karma-- doesn't seem like a viable option for a Buddhist. Buddhist cosmology is non-theistic and lacks a first cause. I admit some Buddhists feel karma can replace God as a first cause, because Buddhism has a moral code and lacks a divine law giver... But is it fair to say that a Tsunami is the moral consequence of unskillful intention, speech and action?
The Buddha was clear on this. We lack a realistic world view because of lust, greed, hatred and delusion. Science can add some clarity and meaning, but the Buddha warned us about this world of ours (samsara) being unsatisfactory, it's the place where birth, death and change occur. We experience pain because we have a body/mind, and suffer because of desire and impermanence.
Sickness, injury, aging and death are simply the signs of flux in an insufferable world.

Early Buddhism gives us something called the five Niyamas, or the five aspects of cosmic order. These Niyamas can deepen our understanding and give meaning to why things happen. Niyama is a Pali term (language of early Buddhism) for cosmic order. The Niyamas show how certain conditions, laws of nature, work at different levels of cause and effect.

The First Niyama (Utu Niyama) is the law of physical matter. It is the physical, inorganic order of existence. Seasonal changes, earthquakes, floods, gravity and heat are some of the many examples. It roughly embraces the laws of physics and chemistry.

The Second Niyama (Bija Niyama) is the law of living matter, the physical organic order, like cells and genes, whose laws are similar to the science of biology.

The Third Niyama (Kamma Niyama) is Karma. Karma is the activity of transforming energy through intention, speech and action. The result of this energy transformation is only considered wholesome or skillful if less suffering or no suffering is produced. Karma is the cause, and Vipaka (Pali) is the result. It is the principle of conditionality operative on the moral plane. This sequence of cause and consequence replaces a divine law giver. In Buddhism there is a moral law, but no lawgiver and no one to administer it. This Niyama pertains to the world of ethical responsibility.

The Fourth Niyama (Dhamma Niyama) is the Spiritual or transcendent. This principle of conditionality operates on the spiritual level. The natural phenomenon that occurs with the birth of a Buddha, and the reasons for Buddhist Practice are in this group. This Niyama has to do with the spiritual laws that govern ultimate reality.

The Fifth Niyama (Citta Niyama) is mind. This Niyama implies mental activity such as consciousness, perception, conception, etc. Mental phenomenon arises because of conditions; the mind is not an independent agent. This is like the science of psychology.

The Utu, Bija, Kamma, and Citta Niyamas are types of conditionality in the relative sense, the cause and consequence of everyday life. Dhamma Niyama has to do with the spiritual laws that govern ultimate reality, like emptiness, not-self or our progress through the different stages of the Buddhist path.
These ever changing physical, biological, psychological, ethical and spiritual components give life to our pain and suffering. Our existence, and ultimately our death and rebirth depend on a complex combination of aggregates. There is no 'One Thing' that determines anything in Buddhism it is always the interconnected and interdependent flux of 'Many Things.'