One thing I really enjoy about reading the suttas is that they contain real-world examples. Lately, I’ve struggled with trying to understand my degree of responsibility for how other people act, and I was wondering if the suttas have any guidance on this? I’ve read that intent is a key element of personal responsibility/karma. Here are some example scenarios:
- You are upset and scold someone and they in turn get upset and are in a car accident later. Are you responsible for that accident and accrue negative karma? Or, are you only responsible for your harsh speech and only that negative karma?
- This time, you follow the Buddha’s guidelines for wise/skillful speech to give someone advice, and they still get upset and are in a car accident. Are you responsible for that accident and accrue negative karma?
- You follow the Buddha’s guidelines for wise/skillful speech to give someone advice, and they later get upset, but this time, tragically go on a shooting spree and kill several people. Are you responsible for that violence and accrue even more negative karma than in the prior example?
A more complex case relates to the Vesali sutta (Vesali Sutta: At Vesali) in which monks commit suicide after hearing the Buddha give “a talk on the unattractiveness [of the body]”. The Buddha, in this same sutta, then advises monks to focus on mindfulness of breathing and goes on to describe the 16 contemplations as a more suitable topic for meditation.
A key challenge in understanding our personal responsibility (and resultant karma) for how other people choose to act is that lay persons live in a complex world. Thus, we may have to discipline a colleague as part of our work. While the Buddha’s advice for wise speech is helpful, sometimes a colleague is just not ready to listen, but we must still talk with them because it is required by our work (for example, if the colleague is doing something dangerous). Any advice you have from the suttas would be welcome.