Most people think they are good enough to make it to heaven, or nirvana. They haven’t done anything really bad and they’ve done quite a bit of good. And that will surely outweigh the bad things they’ve done.
This raises an important question: how effective is good karma versus bad karma? If you curse someone, could the bad karma generated by your harsh words be cancelled out by the good karma created by your blessing someone with kind words?
Shantideva (6-7th C.E.) explains the importance of patience to the Mahāyāna path in the opening stanzas of the chapter on patience in his Way of the Bodhisattva:
1. Good works gathered in a thousand ages,
Such as deeds of generosity,
Or offerings to the blissful ones (buddhas) –
A single flash of anger shatters them all.
Note that “a flash of anger” is just a feeling, which may not even have been verbalized. And yet it wipes out the good karma generated by a thousand lifetimes of good works. That’s frightening!
Some might say that they are good because they haven’t broken one or more of the Ten Commandments. They haven’t stolen anything, or murdered anyone, or committed adultery. And they may honor their mother and father, in general, not counting their teenage years. But while there’s a good chance they haven’t specifically violated some commandments, are these people aware of the other commandments? Most “good” people tell the truth, almost all the time, except for white lies, fudging on tax returns, and so forth. But have they never “coveted,” or desired someone else’s spouse or possessions? Have they never sworn? Have they always kept the Sabbath as a holy day? Have they never sought some idol (i.e., some person or thing other than God that they look to as their hope for happiness and satisfaction)? Everyone today pursues some kind of idol, whether it is money, prosperity, power, fame, or a comfortable retirement. These are all idols. Very few “good” people have kept more than three or four of the Ten Commandments.
What about the person that can truly say they have never done anything that broke one of the Ten Commandments? Have they been so good as to have earned salvation on their own? What if they have only had bad thoughts, but not bad actions?
The Buddha believed that one’s thoughts are extremely important, so much so that he started out his collection of 423 proverbs with these two proverbs:
All that we are is the result of what we have thought: it is founded on our thoughts, it is made up of our thoughts. If a man speaks or acts with an evil thought, pain follows him, as the wheel follows the foot of the ox that draws the carriage. If a man speaks or acts with a pure thought, happiness follows him, like a shadow that never leaves him.
So, according to the Buddha, having a bad thought is virtually as bad as committing a bad action. What did Jesus have to say about this?
You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘You shall not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to a brother or sister, ‘Raca,’ [an Aramaic term of contempt] is answerable to the court. And anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell.
Then Jesus continued, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ 28 But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.”
A sacred Buddhist text tells the story about an old Brahman who asked Buddha, “How can . . . a priest follow all the commandments and escape from all his sins?” Buddha answered that even if he were to do all manner of good deeds and keep all the commandments every day,
your good deeds would be worth no more than a strand of baby hair still in its mother’s womb for 8 months. It is not even good enough to get close to the gates of Heaven. . . . I myself have left all my princely inheritance, abandoned lust and became a monk. I esteem that my good deeds are not few. I hold onto the 8 commandments, even up to 100,000. If I could do this and give away everything I have for 10 lives, yet I still cannot get over one of my sins.
The Brahman pressed on, “If this be the case, what must I do to get over all my sins?”
Buddha told him, “Let all of you do a good deed and seek for another Holy One who will come and save the world.”
Since bad deeds, and even just bad thoughts, generate a heavy weight of bad karma, and good deeds and thoughts only generate a comparatively small amount of good karma, if your fate in some afterlife is determined by what you think and say and do in this life, you are almost certainly destined to be found unworthy. That is why even “good” people need a savior. We all struggle as our feet sink into the quagmire created by our own bad karma and need to be rescued and pulled out of our self-created quagmire by a Higher Power.
To understand better what a “savior” is, read our March 18, 2013 blog article, Making Sense of the Cross.
 “Bodhisattva,” Wikipedia, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bodhisattva, retrieved May 8, 2013 (emphasis added).
 Dhammapada 1-2, Wikipedia, en.wikisource.org/wiki/Dhammapada_(Muller), retrieved May 8, 2013.
 Matthew 5:21-22 (NIV).
 Matthew 5:27-28 (NIV).
 Steve Cioccolanti, From Buddha to Jesus: An Insider’s View of Buddhism and Christianity. (Oxford: Lion Hudson, Monarch, 2007), 147–148 (emphasis added).