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Published in: The Middle Way Vol. 71 (1996), pp. 93-98
Concepts of karma seem to be central to how human existence is under-stood in Buddhism, Hinduism and Jainism. Here I shall be reflecting as a Buddhist, but even within Buddhism there are many strands of thought and different points of emphasis within that broad notion we call ‘karma’. My aim is to suggest a way of understanding the essentials of the karma notion which does justice to what is said in the traditional texts, while not incorporating anything which is at all speculative or beyond the bounds of common sense.
If we take the Four Noble Truths to encapsulate the essence of Buddhism, the first point to note is that they contain no explicit reference to karma. Nevertheless it is not difficult to see that something of the nature of karma is already there at the centre of Buddhist thought. Buddhism starts with the notion of duhkha (unsatisfactoriness), and the aim of Buddhist practice is the elimination of duhkha for all sentient beings. Now this already commits us to the view that Buddhist practice has consequences for the practitioner (it reduces duhkha), and the notion of action-as-having-con-sequences is central to the karma notion.
‘Karma’ is of course the Sanskrit word for intentional action, and when the Buddhist texts were translated into Tibetan, the translation chosen for ‘karma’ was ‘las’( pronounced leh’), which is just the ordinary Tibetan word for action or work. (‘Karma’ is related to Latin ‘creare’ and English ‘create’: so etymologically speaking one could say that our karma is our works, our creations). Yet in the context of Buddhism (and Indian religion generally) it must be acknowledged that the use of the term karma is given a special colour or emphasis. Karma is action seen as having consequences of a desirable or undesirable sort for the person who performed the action. Thus the view arises that if I perform a good (or evil) deed then good (or evil) will in appropriate measure come back to me, either in this life or in some future life. Karma then becomes a sort of ‘moral law of cause and effect’, something not unlike the notion of divine retribution in Western religion, but operating in a more mechanical way without the intervention of God.
At this point we can easily become involved in rather wild speculations. For example in the (Hindu) Dharmashastra literature1 there are long lists of the karmic consequences of misdeeds (e.g. a cow-slayer will go blind, a stealer of grain will be reborn as a rat, a ‘solitary sweet-eater’ will develop rheumatism). Similar ideas are found in some Buddhist writings2 but the Buddha explicitly criticized this ‘causal law’ notion of karma: “If anyone should say and be correct: ‘Just as this man performs an action, just so he will experience the consequence’ there would be no pure life and no oppor-tunity would be known for the stopping of suffering’.”3 In other words, if karma is simply an aspect of cause and effect, and we are bound into this causal web, there is nothing to be done about duhkha. However, for the Buddha, karma was not a matter of causal mechanisms, but of cetana (intention, volition, will): “It is cetana, O monks, that I call kamma. Having willed, one acts through body, speech or mind.’4
Now if karma is simply intention or intentional action, is there anything at all left of the traditional idea that through karma the consequences of our good and evil deeds come back to us? I think there clearly is: if I perform a kind action then one clear consequence is that I become to that extent a kinder person; if I give way to jealousy I become more of a jealous person. Our actions ‘have consequences’ for our character, not in virtue of any causal mechanisms, but simply in virtue of the essential connections between the concepts of action and character. Character is that aspect of our nature which develops out of our choices and intentional actions, and which disposes us to future choices and intentions. (‘Character’, as the precipitate of our choices is a very different notion from that of ‘personality’, which is more the precipitate of what happens to us, and is morally neutral). Of course people may act ‘out of character’ on particular occasions, and in special circumstances, but there are limits — conceptual limits — to how much this sort of thing is possible. If someone who has been timid begins to act in a consistently brave way (and there are no special circumstances, such as being under the influence of a hypnotist, etc.) then they have become brave; and we assert this not because of any esoteric knowledge we have, but because that is what the concept of ‘being brave’ amounts to. Hence in this sense it seems undeniable that from good actions good consequences come to us, and from evil actions evil consequences. Alexandra David-Neel drew attention to this sort of view of karma in the Hindu Brahmana of the Hundred Paths: ‘they spoke of actions (karman), by pure acts man becomes pure, by evil acts he becomes evil.” Such a view, which I will call the ‘minimal view’, seems to fit at least some of the traditional Buddhist texts.
Consider for example:
Actions arising from lust or hate or delusion ripen wherever an individual self-hood is generated, and wherever those actions ripen, there their offspring are experienced, whether here or on their next appearance or in some life-process beyond that. 6
karma operates by itself in the results produced by it. It ripens into the psychosomatic constituents of him who commits the deed and nowhere else. 7
The traditional image of a fruit ripening strongly suggests in itself that karmic maturation should be understood as something that takes place with-in the lifestream of the person who performs the actions. This is a very different picture from that found, for example, in the Saiva Siddhanta school of Hinduism, where a person’s deeds are assessed by God who then provides the appropriate desserts, 8 or (more in accordance with Hindu orthodoxy), where the place of God is taken by some impersonal causal system which automatically ensures that justice is done. (It is hard to say which of these views is more speculative: I have some sympathy for the Shaivites who argued that if the world really is arranged so that everyone always gets just what they deserve, then only an omnipotent and omniscient God could conceivably ensure that things always come out right.) It may be objected that although the ‘minimal view’ just outlined expresses something that is true and uncontroversial, this is not all that (and perhaps not at all what) Buddhists have in mind when they speak of karma. It may be said that typical examples of karmic consequence are not things like ‘becoming brave’ or ‘developing a mean streak’, but things like ‘going blind’ or losing one’s life’s savings’. Curiously, karma is often referred to in situations where it seems clear that what has happened is not at all the consequence of a person’s actions — the person went blind because of an eye infection. One response to this might be: ‘Yes, but they contracted the eye infection because they were, say, blind to someone’s suffering in a previous life.’ To which the sceptic can reasonably reply: ‘People contract eye infections for reasons that have nothing to do with karma; it is a matter of whether a particular micro-organism entered that person’s body, how the body’s defence system responded, and so on. We know at least the sort of explanation which is appropriate here, and it does not involve in any essential way the victim’s intentional actions, or karma.’
Now it might be said that the fact that one sort of explanation can be given for an event does not mean that other sorts of explanation are not also valid. For instance, the fact that my arm moved up because of the firing of certain nerve cells in my brain and muscles, doesn’t seem incompatible with the explanation that I raised my arm because I wanted to attract someone’s attention. There can, that is, be different levels of explanation associated with different ways of seeing the situation. So the fact that a person’s eye infection can be explained in biological terms doesn’t rule out the possibility that there can be a further kind of explanation of the situation in terms of karma. Yet this still leaves it very mysterious how the karmic explanation is supposed to work. Granted that a person’s blindness could be explicable in more than one way, how exactly does the person’s going blind connect with what they did in the past? It would be open to a follower of the Shaiva Siddhanta to say that God ensured that the person got their just desserts, by arranging for a particular micro-organism to enter their body; but this notion of punishment for past offences is different from the notion of karma, and in any case it seems impossible that anyone could know whether this connection between act and consequence existed: it is surely just speculation. In Buddhism, we are asked to ‘be a light unto ourselves’, which in the present context means that if we are to take karma seriously we must be able to see clearly for ourselves what the karmic consequences of our actions are. For a Buddhist, karma should not be a vague fantasy about the way the universe operates, a fascinating esoteric doctrine, but something that is open to view in one’s ordinary everyday experience.
Staying then within what we really know, what can we say about the tragic example of someone losing their sight? How can it be said that this is their karma? I think the key is that karmic consequences are always of an evaluative nature, ‘good’ or ‘bad’. In popular Buddhism a life of worthy action may be seen as leading to rebirth in a noble or rich family, and, crucially, that is seen as a good consequence. On reflection, however, one might well question whether being reborn as a prince or princess is really such a good consequence. If a ‘good birth’ means a birth in which one will have good opportunities to practise the dharma, then birth in a poor but devout peasant family may be much better. Rebirth in the Royal Family could well be seen as very bad karma! In general, whether the consequences of an action are good or bad depends crucially on the attitude of the person experiencing the consequences. In particular, ‘going blind’ can be experienced in very different ways, depending on the character and attitude of the person involved. For one it may be an absolute tragedy which leads to life-long bit-terness and resentment. To another it may a be a tough challenge with which they would rather not have been faced, but which they are prepared to take on. For a third it may lead to the development of a love of music, a new and unexpected closeness with a partner, and a whole world of experience that would otherwise have remained closed to them. ‘Going blind’ is not to be understood in purely medical, factual terms; what going blind amounts to depends crucially on the character of the person involved. Correspondingly, the explanation of ‘what has happened’ will be different depending on whether we are thinking in medical or in personal terms. The medical explanation applies to the physiological facts, and does not concern us here. What we are concerned with is the explanation of the ‘personal facts’, e.g. the fact that when one person goes blind there is bitterness, while when another goes blind there is a deepening love. This sort of explanation surely has to be given in terms of the character of the person involved. One person’s character is such that they see the situation as a tragedy, another as an opportunity, a third as a blessing. Although the physical events are the same in each case, what happens to these three people is different, and different things happen to them because of the different ways they are. However, in Buddhism the way we are — in the sense of what our characters are — is up to us. Our characters are formed by our actions; through making the effort to be a bit more honest or brave we become a bit more honest or brave. In Buddhism (and of course in other traditions as well, such as Existentialism in the West) character is not something given, it is something achieved.
Our intentional actions, then, lead to the formation of our character, and our character determines — in an important sense — what happens to us. Our actions don’t determine what happens (that usually depends on all sorts of additional factors), but they determine what happens to us, i.e. how we take what happens. But how we take what happens is what is important for us; the mere physical happenings are of only academic interest. For all important human purposes, ‘what happens to us’ is not certain physical events, but how the events are for us, whether challenging, boring, fulfilling and so on. And in that sense — the only humanly important sense — what happens to us depends on our character, which depends on our past actions. I would not want to claim that this way of seeing the matter Fits all the things that are said of karma in Buddhist writings. But often, at least, the stories that are told in the scriptures can be read in more than one way. I have space for only one brief example: Angulimala sets out on his begging round one morning and has things thrown at him. He is injured, his bowl is broken, and his robe torn. He comes back to the Buddha, who says: ‘Bear it, brahmin, bear it.’ You have experienced here and now in this life the ripening of deeds whose ripening you might have experienced in hell over many a year, many a century, many a millennium’.9 One way of reading this involves supposing that the stored consequences of Angulimala’s past deeds have somehow triggered the unfortunate events of that morning. The Buddha’s remark would then need to be interpreted as meaning something like: ‘You had something like this coming to you, and it is just as well to get it over now, since otherwise some nasty things would still await you.’ But an alternative reading, which I would recommend, would be: Angulimala has things thrown at him for reasons that have nothing to do with his past deeds. However, he has some choice in how he sees and experiences the morning’s events. Perhaps, on approaching the Buddha, he feels anger and resentment; it has been a really bad morning. The Buddha notices his mood, his way of taking the events, and suggests an alternative way of experiencing them. ‘Bear it — you are reacting like this because of the way you are; your karma has ripened in the form of this angry, resentful state. Be glad it has ripened now, since otherwise you may not have the opportunity to deal with it for many a year. By that time the attitudes in which it is rooted will probably have become more deeply rooted, and the pain of dealing with them will be that much greater.’ In short, what ‘happens to’ Angulimala should be understood in terms of how it was for him, and that arises from his character, which arises from his past deeds.
This way of putting things seems to me to have the advantages of being fairly obviously true, and of not invoking any speculative karmic mechanisms, while at the same time being a reasonable interpretation of what the texts mean by karma: karma is intentional action, and the ripening of action in character, together with the inevitable consequences for what ‘happens to us’. Karma has nothing to do with physical causality, or grand theories about cosmic connections. The doctrine of karma is not designed to answer the ordinary factual question of ‘Why did this happen?’ but the more poignant personal question of ‘Why did this have to happen to me?’
1 See Ludo Rocher, ‘Karma and Rebirth in the Dharmashastras’ in Wendy O’Flaherty (ed.), Karma and Rebirth in Classical Indian Traditions (Berkeley: University of California Press (1981).
2 See e.g. H. Saddhatissa Facets of Buddhism. (London: World Buddhist Foundation, 1991), pp. 168-75.
5 Alexandra David-Neel, Buddhism: Its Doctrines and Methods (London: Unwin Paperbacks,1978), p. 173.
6 Anguttara Nikaya III, 33
7 Gampopa, The Jewel Ornament of Liberation, trans. H. Guenther (Boston: Shambhala, 1986), p. 81.
8 See Ninian Smart, ‘Classical Hindu Philosophy and Theology’ in The Religious Quest: Hindu Patterns of Liberation (Milton Keynes: Open University Press, 1987), p. 22.
9 Majjimaa Nikaya, 86
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