Five Big Questions on Karma and Buddhism
When I think of karma, it’s usually in the context of an ill-chosen word of mine, or an unskillful act, or a plain-and-simple, flat-out, bone-headed decision. Then there is the gnawing sense that it’s something that will come back to haunt me. I will get my comeuppance. This is perhaps not the healthiest way to ruminate on the topic.
I think about karma during sits. An old, painful memory will come up and its hard to write it off as just passing mental activity, a story the mind makes up. That memory has a karmic charge to it, the sense of an ongoing, unpaid debt that merits suffering. I am counseled by wise people (OK, it was Mark) to find value in such present moment wisdom. It is our capacity to be intimate with mental activity and the charge that comes with it that leads to insight.
I’ve been thinking about karma lately. Roger Jackson, a Carleton College religion professor, spoke at Common Ground last month in a lecture titled, “Karma: Now you do it, now you don’t.” It posed some interesting parallels between Buddhist and Judeo-Christian thinking and some difficult paradoxes for Buddhist thought. If you missed it, the lecture is available on line here.
Jackson is a practitioner, and his books include Is Enlightenment Possible (1993) and Buddhist Theology (2000). He took a scholarly approach to his lecture, and at the end he posed five big questions on karma (and Buddhism) that he has wrestled with for years.
(The following is not verbatim. If it piques your interest, check out the on-line lecture. )
1. How can a non self experience karma? The idea of no self is the great koan of Buddhism. To give a coherent account of how the cosmos works without a persisting self has been the greatest challenge of Buddhist philosophy. How can you reconcile the idea of karma — as you sow so shall you reap — with the absence of any persisting self? On the surface, it seems counter-intuitive to say that on the one hand I don’t have any self and on the other hand I may get the result of an action I perform in this life or in some future life.
2. Does the theory of karma explain so much that it explains nothing at all? Karma explains any experience based on some previous action. It sometimes strikes me that karma is used by Buddhists in the same way that the idea of the “Will of God” is used in a Christian setting. We don’t know exactly why, when I walked out of this building tonight, I was struck by lightening, but I must have done something. In a Christian context, it would be, “Well, it was time to be with God” (or to go to hell or whatever the case may be). With Buddhism, it’s karma. There is the difficulty. Karma is so useful it almost becomes useless. Yeah, it’s karma. But what are the other causes?
3. Does karma lead to social fatalism? If what we experience now is the result of things that we have done before, does that lead to a kind of fatalism and conservatism on a social and political level? There certainly have been a number of Buddhists and Hindus who have taken karma in a fatalistic vein and said, “Whatever I’ve got, I deserve. I did something in a previous life, or earlier in this life, that merits this and I simply have to live it through.” It is one of the troubling questions on a social/political level.
4. Does good and bad karma depend on social norms of good and bad? Do the judgments implicit in karmic valuations — the definitions and details of what is negative karma and what is positive karma — reflect in some objective way the nature of things? Or, as we in a modern or post-modern vein might suggest, are these themselves a social construction to some degree that are then given the metaphysical warrant? For a parallel example, just as some might say the Ten Commandments are posited as coming down as the Word of God, a modern non believer might say they reflect the social values of 13th Century B.C. Hebrews. Those values are projected into a divine realm to give them authority and social force. One could make very much the same point about the ten non-virtues in Buddhism, and particularly some of the details. The classical Buddhist claim is, “This is just the way things are. When you kill, and kill in a particular way, there will be these results.” But we might suggest that there are particular cultural values that are laden into all of this that call the objectivity into question.
5. What sense can we make of karma, given we as modern people have grown up in a scientific culture? We tend to believe that causation is largely restricted to the physical world and we are not quite sure about the mental and psychological, at least in the detailed sense in which the Buddhists often articulate it. We have considerable doubts about the power and the predictability of the human mind. We have a great deal of skepticism about the objectivity of moral claims and judgments. I am largely agnostic on the question of past and future lives. Despite reading many arguments in favor of it, I have yet to be thoroughly persuaded and I am afraid my experience doesn’t yet impinge on that realm. Where all this leaves us in terms of thinking about karma, I leave open for discussion.