Why Traditional Faiths Believe Every Encounter Is Meaningful

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Many religions believe that the spirit does not die, but is reincarnated one lifetime after another. If this is true, our actions in one life may affect our circumstances and relationships in a future life. (Image: Tetyana Kovyrina via Pexels CC 0)

In ancient China, and according to Buddhist principles, people believed that everything in this world was a result of cause and effect. The seeds sown in the past, become the fruit of one’s future. When we apply this principle to interactions among people, what seems like a chance encounter is really inevitable.

There may be a reason behind the appearance of every person who comes into our lives. According to the Buddhist Dharma, and many religions around the world; including Shamanism, Hinduism, Islam, modern Taoism, Norse Mythology, and even early Christian religions, death is just a continuation of life, as the spirit reincarnates to experience life again in a different person or form. The principle of cause and effect could therefore span multiple lifetimes, as seen in the following story from the Buddhist scriptures.

In one lifetime, there was a mouse lying dead on the side of the road, exposed to the scorching sun. A merchant passed by, and upon seeing the small carcass, he covered his nose and left in disgust. Then along came a scholar whose compassion was stirred when he saw the dead creature. He felt it was a shame to leave the poor animal rotting in the sun and buried it on the spot. 

The merchant was later reincarnated as Ananda, one of Buddha Shakyamuni’s ten disciples, known as the “the most knowledgeable.” One day Ananda met an old woman who scolded him for no reason, and would not even give him a drink of water. The Buddha asked Shariputra, another of his disciples who was known as the “first in wisdom,” to apologize to the old woman for whatever had given her offence; but  the woman was so happy to see Shariputra that she made an offering.

Ananda was very puzzled. The Buddha enlightened him with the following explanation, “This old woman is the dead mouse that you shunned in the past, and Shariputra was the scholar who treated it with compassion. As you can see, your one thought at the moment, be it good or bad, gave rise to different karmic relationships, so the old woman has treated you differently.”

Through enduring pain and suffering, one becomes stronger and more resilient, like an old elm tree. (Image: rexboggs5 via Flickr CC BY-ND 2.0)

Everything in this world revolves around encounters. As Shakyamuni said, “In this life, who meets who is all about cause and effect.” If there is a karmic debt, one is bound to meet the person he is meant to meet; when the karmic debt is resolved, even if one tries everything to keep the person close, the person would not be able to stay.

The Avatamsaka Sutra, one of the most influential Mahāyāna sutras of East Asian Buddhism, says, “All outcomes arise from causes.” Every encounter in life is a predestined bond. To put it in perspective, it is no different from a reunion after a long separation.

Life is a stormy journey. If we treat each encounter as a blessing, we can view everyone who comes into our lives as someone who is meant to be there. Each encounter will bring us something. People who love us bring us warmth; people who hate us teach us to be brave. Pain can make people grow; frustration can make people strong. 

Everything that appears in your life enriches your life.

In more recent times, a man once placed an iron ring around an elm tree, to which he tethered his family’s cattle. As time went by, the iron ring cut into the tree deeper and deeper, leaving deep scars on the bark of the tree.

One year, a bacterial plant disease spread across the whole region. None of the trees survived except that elm tree with the iron ring.

The tree is still alive today, and full of life and vitality. The iron ring that gave it the scars, also inhibited the bacterial infection. If a tree can be strengthened by injury, what about humans? As philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche said, “That which does not kill us, makes us stronger.”

The pain and suffering one endures in life can be considered the tools that shape resilience. If nothing appears in this world without reason, all the people who appear in our lives have a deep karmic relationship with us. If someone gives us scars, they can serve as armor for the future. 

When we are hurt, the best way to move forward is to accept it. When we make each encounter a practice of acceptance, we will find that everyone has a valuable lesson to offer. If they were meant to be, then we would be wise to cherish every “chance meeting” and accept every experience.

  • Born and raised in China, Lucy Crawford has been living in Canada for over 20 years. She has great sympathy for Chinese and human suffering in general. With a Master's degree in Education and having worked on various professions, she now translates and writes about stories in ancient and modern China. She lives in Calgary with her husband and four children.