This one was passed on to me this morning by a reader who had spotted it on Facebook.
It’s all over the web, and in several books as well.
The earliest occurrence of it that I’ve seen in a book is from 1992, in Tarot of the Spirit, by Pamela Eakins, page 314. Rather handily, Eakins gives a reference, and points us toward the late Roshi Philip Kapleau’s The Three Pillars of Zen. The page she gives as a reference (294) doesn’t contain the quote, but the glossary at the end of the book contains the following in its definition of “karma.”
“Thus our present life and circumstances are the products of our past thoughts and actions, and in the same way our deeds in this life will fashion our future mode of existence.” (p. 408)
I don’t know how Eakins came to take this to be a quote from the Buddha, but it’s not, to the best of my knowledge, something that the Buddha said.
The Buddha is often hard to quote, and that’s especially the case when it comes to technical points like the operation of karma. So I’ll offer you here some words from Bhikkhu Thanissaro, who explains the Buddhist teaching of karma in relation to the past and present in an introduction to his translation of the Devadaha Sutta:
The general understanding of this teaching [on karma] is that actions from the past determine present pleasure and pain, while present actions determine future pleasure and pain. Or, to quote a recent book devoted to the topic, “Karma is the moral principle that governs human conduct. It declares that our present experience is conditioned by our past conduct and that our present conduct will condition our future experience.” This, however, does not accurately describe the Buddha’s teaching on karma, and is instead a fairly accurate account of the Nigantha [Jain] teaching, which the Buddha explicitly refutes here. As he interrogates the Niganthas, he makes the point that if all pleasure and pain experienced in the present were determined by past action, why is it that they now feel the pain of harsh treatment when they practice asceticism, and no pain of harsh treatment when they don’t? If past action were the sole determining factor, then present action should have no effect on their present experience of pleasure or pain.
In this way, the Buddha points to one of the most distinctive features of his own teaching on kamma: that the present experience of pleasure and pain is a combined result of both past and present actions. This seemingly small addition to the notion of kamma plays an enormous role in allowing for the exercise of free will and the possibility of putting an end to suffering before the effects of all past actions have ripened. In other words, this addition is what makes Buddhist practice possible, and makes it possible for a person who has completed the practice to survive and teach it with full authority to others.
It’s not uncommon, actually, for people to present as “the Buddhist teaching of karma” things that the Buddha explicitly refuted. Many times I’ve seen Tibetan Buddhists, in particular, make claims like “everything that happens to us is the result of karma,” even though that’s a teaching explicitly refuted in the Devadaha Sutta. For example, Lati Rinpoche talked about the Jewish Holocaust of the Second World War as follows:
“The victims were experiencing the consequences of their actions performed in previous lives. The individual victims must have done something very bad in earlier lives that led to their being treated in this way.”
I’ve seen other Tibetan teachers with more nuanced views, but this idea of everything that we experience being the result of our own past actions is a common one.
There’s an expanded version of this quote, which goes:
If you want to know the past, to know what has caused you, look at yourself in the present, for that is the past’s effect. If you want to know your future, then look at yourself in the present, for that is the cause of the future.
This is commonly attributed to the Majjhima Nikaya, or Middle Length Sayings, which is a Buddhist scripture, although those words are not to be found in that work.