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 Does Fate Decide Our Life and Death?

By Master Jueyue



A common saying goes,
 Life and death are decided by fate,
 Riches and honor come naturally

If life and death are predetermined
From the moment of birth,
How can we explain the miraculous cures achieved by doctors?

If everything is predestined,
 Who holds the reins of our destiny?
 What determines our life and death?

 If life and death were determined by fate,
 Why is it that some destined to die young
 Live long and healthy lives?

 We often assert that,
Driven by karmic force,
 No one acts freely.

 As between the power of karma and the Buddha,
 Which one dictates life and death?
 As between self-power and other-power,
 Which one is more potent in altering life and death?



 1. Karmic Force Dictates Life and Death

       When I first decided  to study medicine, I was motivated by an ideal to save lives and heal the wounded. Back then, I believed that doctors, with their exceptional medical skills, had the power to work wonders, turning the tide and altering the course of life and death.  However, both medical literature and the harsh reality conveyed one undeniable fact to me - doctors treat illnesses, but cannot alter destinies.

       In the Biography of Huatuo, I read about a particular medical case.

       A seriously ill man sought treatment from the legendary physician Huatuo, who declined to treat him, saying, "Your illness is serious and requires abdominal surgery. But without treatment, you would still have ten years left to live."

       The man could not bear the pain and pleaded for treatment. After Huatuo performed the surgery, the man swiftly recovered. Yet, ten years later, he passed away from the same disease. It dawned on me then that a doctor's ability to save a life hinges not on his medical proficiency but the patient's unexpired lifespan.

       Even if Huatuo were to return, he could not resurrect the dead once their life was over. Even if we are not sick, we could lose our lives suddenly under countless circumstances. People have passed away in their sleep, during meals, or even in the operating room where the patient has survived, but the surgeon died.

       Many entrust their lives to doctors, believing that with enough money for the best hospitals, the most advanced equipment, and the finest doctors, their lives are secure, no matter how severe their illnesses.

       In reality, our life and death are not in the hands of doctors, nor determined by illness, but by fate. Even the most skilled doctor cannot control his own life and death. The death of Mr. Ni Haixia is a case in point and left a deep impression on me.

       He was regarded as a genius in modern times, highly skilled in the five Chinese arts of Taoist practices, traditional Chinese medicine, fortune-telling,  divination, and physiognomy. He was so adept in fortune-telling that he could predict how much time his patients had to live.

       Despite being hailed as "the Last Hope for Cancer Patients”, he could not cure his own cancer and could not avoid the inevitable fate that awaited him. At one point, rumor had it that he might have used the "fake death" method to escape his fate. But the death of Ni Haixia was an irrefutable fact.

       In the face of death, all are equal. Even the most skilled doctors cannot alter this. There is a saying, "Every sip and bite is preordained," meaning that the hand one is dealt at birth determines what life has to offer us.

       Another saying goes, "Life and death are decided by fate, wealth and honor are governed by heaven." Here, "heaven" symbolizes "the law of nature". In a similar vein, karma and its forces are governed by the law of nature, the law of cause and effect. 

       The so-called "determined by fate" actually means “determined by our karma”. Every bit of karma created through our action, speech, and thought shapes our destiny. In other words, we create our own fate.

02. The Law of Cause and Effect Never Fails

       If karma decides our fate and, since time immemorial, we have all committed innumerable transgressions, is it possible to change our fate?

       We have often heard it said that “Driven by karmic forces, no one acts freely.” If everything in life has been predetermined, it follows that those we encounter and what experiences we have in this life are a fait accompli and there is nothing we can do to change them.

       Does that mean we are doomed to be dragged by the force of our karma, helplessly set on a predetermined path leading to life’s end? Doesn’t our study of Dharma teachings and practice of Amitabha-recitation alter the course of our karma?

       Though we exist within the bounds of karma, and every aspect of our lives seems predetermined, this is not to be mistaken for ‘fatalism’. Because our thoughts are constantly changing, our destiny will also change with the karma we accumulate in this life.

       Let's look at a case in the Qing Dynasty.

      One evening during the Daoguang era of the Qing Dynasty, a devastating earthquake struck the city of Xichang in Sichuan province. The city was leveled, with nearly every home, including the mayor's house, reduced to rubble. This catastrophe resulted in countless casualties. The city's mayor, Niu Shumei, was buried in the debris and later rescued, sustaining an injury to his ankle. Tragically, his son did not survive the disaster.

       He was bewildered, thinking to himself, “I’ve been an honest and caring official, why did such a disaster befall me? So, he submitted a petition to the City God, posing the following questions:

As the City God, you are the recipient of offerings from multitudes, yet why was your protection not extended to your people?
In a city of such size, it cannot be that all its inhabitants harbor evil, can it?
I have discharged my duties as an official with utmost integrity. Despite this, my son has tragically met with calamity. Might there exist errors in the seemingly infallible law of cause and effect?"

       That night, he dreamt of the City God, who spoke to him: 'You fail to understand the workings of cause and effect, and you even dare to cast blame. I have brought you here to clarify matters and prevent you from further slander. Major disasters are the result of collective karma. They are never random. For this earthquake, we have conducted a fifty-year investigation, and those who were not destined to suffer from the calamity have been safely relocated.

       Niú Shùméi asked, "Is there not a single decent soul in this whole city? Why must my son and I face such a disaster too?"

       The City God responded, "There are still three households, not yet relocated, that remain unharmed. One is a widow who has remained faithful to her late husband. The second is a doctor, an honest man who never peddles fake medicine. He never hesitates to attend to a patient. Even if it means venturing out in the middle of the night, braving the rain, or navigating roads slick with mud, he would go immediately. The third is an old woman who sells fried cakes. She often helps those less fortunate - the elderly, the frail, the handicapped - and doesn't hesitate to sell to them even if they can't pay the full price, sometimes not charging them at all. You can find them if you look."

      Your son's misfortune stems from the weight of his karma. You were also destined for calamity, but because of your upright conduct in office in this life, you merely suffered a foot injury. In short, everything is a matter of cause and effect. Remain a good official and you will rise to the rank of Imperial Inspector one day.

       Upon waking, he set off to find these three families the City God mentioned. Indeed, he discovered that each one was safe and sound, every member unscathed.

       He was amazed and, from then on, truly believed in karma. He was committed to being a caring and dedicated official and, sure enough, he was eventually promoted to the position of Imperial Inspector in Sichuan.

       It goes to show that, in a catastrophe, there are no unwarranted calamities; nothing is by chance. Under the force of karma, all are treated equally - men and women, old and young, rich and poor.

       However, even within the collective karma, there are the individuals’ personal karma at work. The three families who survived the earthquake did so because of their virtuous deeds in this life.

       In short, the laws of cause and effect and karmic force are unfailing and precise to the letter.

03. Understanding How Karma Works May Change Our Fate

       The good thoughts and good deeds of this life can turn misfortune into blessings. Does it mean that we can change our fate by doing more virtuous deeds in this life?

       In theory, yes.

       Let’s say someone is dealt a hand with a long life. But if he goes around causing a lot of harm to other lives and accumulates a lot of bad karma in this lifetime, he may have his lifespan shortened. On the contrary, someone may not be set up for a long run but, if he refrains from harming other lives and sets free animals which are trapped or waiting to be slaughtered, he is adding bonus years to his life.

       There is an account of this kind of story in the Sutra of Miscellaneous Jewels.

       An Arhat, in his meditation, observed that his novice monk had only seven days left to live. Not having the heart to break the news, the Arhat called him to his side and said, "You haven't been home to see your parents for a while. I’m giving you a week off. Go home and spend some time with them.”

       The Arhat’s aim was to give his disciple a chance to say his final goodbyes to his parents. The young novice monk, blissfully unaware, cheerfully bid his farewell and happily went home. Seven days passed and the Arhat figured the young monk wouldn't be coming back. But to his utter surprise the disciple, who was originally marked for death, came back safe and sound.

       The Arhat thought to himself that the novice monk must have done some pretty great deeds in those few days to earn himself extra time. It turned out that, on his way home, the young monk saw some ants being swept away in the water, on the brink of drowning. Being compassionate, he took off his robe, filled it with soil to create a dam and rescued the ants, bringing them to a safe, dry place. Upon further meditation, the Arhat realized that the reason the novice monk's life had been extended was precisely because he had saved those ants.

       The karma created in the past is cast in iron and cannot be changed. But if we do good deeds, accumulate merits and virtue, abstain from killing, set lives free, have faith in the Buddha, and practice Amitabha-recitation, the life and death we are slated for can be changed.

      There are many stories of this kind of karmic response, both ancient and modern, especially when it comes to having one’s blessings enhanced and lifespan prolonged as a result of reciting the name of Amitabha Buddha.

04. Changing Our Fate isn't as Good as Gaining a New Life 

       While we can alter our fate and have our lifespan prolonged, we are still stuck in the endless cycle of transmigration. Even if we stretch it out to a life that could last 80,000 great kalpas in the Neither Perception Nor Non-Perception, the highest level of the heavenly realm, we're still in samsara, and death is inevitable. We haven't fundamentally altered anything.

       No matter how much we change, we can't escape the fate of the cycle of birth and death; no matter how much we stretch our lifespan, compared to the immeasurable life of the Buddha, it's fleeting.

       Since our lives, after endless cycles of rebirth, are topsy-turvy and in disrepair, and no amount of patchwork repair can change the nature of samsara, we might as well trade in this rotten life for a new one - a pure, untainted life with infinite light and infinite life.

       So, changing your fate isn't as good as exchanging it for a new life.

       If we can't change the fate of reincarnation, let Amitabha Buddha give us a brand new life.

       However, most people dare not ask Amitabha Buddha for the life of a Buddha. They're essentially asking Buddha to tweak their fate a bit - live a little longer, suffer a little less, worry a little less - and they're perfectly content with that. It's like pushing a broken-down bike to a repair shop. You're just hoping to swap out some parts and get back on the road - you wouldn't dare to dream that the mechanic might hand you the keys to a brand new BMW!

       In worldly matters, we mustn’t be greedy and ask for the moon. However, with Amitabha Buddha, we can ask for the best of the best because he is like our loving father. He has already put the Land of the Ultimate Bliss at our disposal, and has prepared our attainment of Buddhahood ten kalpas ago. He's just waiting for us to ask.

       We shouldn't feel any burden at all. All we need to do is single-mindedly recite the name of the Buddha and accept his offer.

05. Take Refuge in Amitabha to have a New Life 

       It’s tough for us ordinary beings to transform our samsaric, inverted and impure life. However, it’s surprisingly simple and easy if we just accept Amitabha Buddha and let him transform our lives into Buddha’s life.  All it takes is entrusting ourselves to Amitabha, and we can make the switch in this very life, in this very moment.

       And how do we entrust ourselves? Master Shandao said:

Namo means to entrust our lives,
As well as to dedicate merit towards rebirth [in the Pure Land].
Reciting “Amitabha Buddha” is the practice.
That is why rebirth is certain.”

       Entrusting oneself to Amitabha Buddha is also quite simple. All it takes is to recite the name of Amitabha: Namo Amitabha, taking refuge in the Buddha.

       When entrusting oneself to Amitabha Buddha, one must completely let go of the self and surrender to the Buddha. It's like filling an empty bottle with water: you must first empty the bottle before you can let Amitabha Buddha fill it up.

       So, we must surrender everything to Amitabha Buddha -  whether it be virtuous or evil, things you can air in public, and things you rather keep under wraps.

       Open yourself up fully to Amitabha, and let him take charge.

       Some people, however, are unwilling to do so. They only show their co-called practices and achievements to Amitabha while hiding their turmoil and darkness.

       This shows a lack of courage and willingness to surrender themselves to Amitabha, feeling safer to control fate in their own hands. They only offer what they perceive as their best to Amitabha, saying to the Buddha, “Don’t I have enough good roots and merits by now? I have reached a high level of cultivation. You should let me be reborn in your land.”

       The Buddha's intention is to fundamentally transform our lives, currently dominated by the three poisons of greed, anger, and ignorance. Yet, how can Amitabha Buddha accomplish this if we do not surrender these poisons to him?

       Consider it like visiting a doctor. If you're worried about revealing unsightly sores, choosing only to show the doctor the unblemished parts of your skin, how can the doctor properly diagnose and treat you?

       If we are to seek to exchange our mortal lives for the life of a Buddha, we must totally entrust our lives to Amitabha Buddha. After all, what is there in this cycle of rebirth that is worth clinging to and that we are unwilling to let go?

       Taking refuge in Amitabha Buddha means sincerely reciting "Namo Amitabha Buddha '', letting Amitabha be our guide, and regarding him as the center of our lives. Regardless of what we do or where we are, our life's trajectory should always be oriented towards Amitabha Buddha.

       Having entrusted our lives to Amitabha Buddha, our lives and his are now one. Everything that concerns us, whether big or small, is now Amitabha Buddha's concern. Moreover, the path towards our attainment of Buddhahood was already laid out by Amitabha Buddha ten kalpas ago.

       Whether our current life is one of health or illness, whether we live for two centuries or perish tonight, whether we know when our end comes or are greeted unexpectedly by Buddha in the midst of disaster  -  these distinctions are insignificant. Regardless of how we depart this life, at its end there awaits the gentle hand of Amitabha Buddha, the transformation rebirth in a lotus in the Land of Ultimate Bliss, and the attainment of a life of infinite light and infinite life as a Buddha.

       So, let's surrender our lives with peace of mind. Whether it's a life tainted in samsara or one destined for Buddhahood through realization of our Buddha nature, let it all be entrusted to Amitabha. All that remains for us is to recite "Namo Amituofo, Namo Amituofo..."


(Translated by the Pure Land School Translation Team;
edited by Householder Fojin)





  • Recitation of Amitabha’s name, relying on his Fundamental Vow (the 18th)
  • Rebirth of ordinary beings in the Pure Land’s Realm of Rewards
  • Rebirth assured in the present lifetime
  • Non-retrogression achieved in this lifetime

Amitabha Buddhas

The 18th Vow of Amitabha Buddha

If, when I achieve Buddhahood, sentient beings of the ten directions who sincerely and joyfully entrust themselves to me, wish to be reborn in my land and recite my name, even ten times, should fail to be born there, may I not attain perfect enlightenment. Excepted are those who commit the five gravest transgressions or slander the correct Dharma.

Guiding Principles

Faith in, and acceptance of, Amitabha’s deliverance
Single-minded recitation of Amitabha’s name
Aspiration to rebirth in Amitabha’s Pure Land
Comprehensive deliverance of all sentient beings