From Abracadabra to Zombies
reader comments: karma
17 Dec 2000
Like others I was a bit dismayed by your take on karma in the Skeptic's Dictionary, since apart from your unwillingness to accept rebirth (which is a reasonable doubt of course, however unknown to the ancients or some modern Buddhists), it coincides well with the Buddhist critique of the Hindu version of karma, but you weren't aware of that. The Buddha was deeply averse to the use of the theory of karma for creating castes, and insisted that all humans have equal capacity for attaining liberation, in part by at first accepting karma, then finally seeing its lack of inherent existence. The worst karmas are called inveterate negative propensities, and it takes a great deal of insight and discipline to get free of them. The worst of all of these is the deep-rooted grasping after the belief that individuals exist inherently without interconnection to the world, and it is on this delusion that karma rides. Buddhists are not saying karma is a law of nature, only that it is a consequence of our neuroses.
The Buddha also argued that the vast majority of our karma is negative, and being born human is a precious opportunity not to be wasted with selfishness when a much better life is possible by developing compassion and other good qualities, which in his view were simply more realistic than our primordial delusions. Upon coming across a homeless person on the street, instead of feeling superior a Buddhist would try to look through that person's eyes and know that only a freak chance of timing differentiates the ripening of that homeless person's karma and one's own. And the Buddhist would also reflect that our karma is in large part collective, so to ignore that person's plight is to ignore one's own pain.
I am not trying to claim the theory is true, but that its social consequences are not as obvious as you assume. Certainly Buddhist societies are not above distorting their own doctrines in order to maintain social control, but this is not the fault of the Buddha or the doctrine. On the other hand, Buddhist monasteries are often wonderfully anarchical and democratic in structure, and their precepts enforce a communal way of life that puts the best social theories of the West to shame.
Even within the Buddhist tradition there is a spectrum of "strong" to "weak" versions of the karma. For instance, it seems self-evident dissipated actions like drinking yourself silly will have some deleterious effects on your life. To be sure, the ancient traditions go way too far for us moderns in specifying particular karmic results to actions. But they also developed a detailed description of the many nuanced stages of karma that are at the least philosophically interesting. For instance, contrary to one of your assertions, according to doctrine karmic results do not exactly correspond to their causes. The karma tends to ripen and magnify in the continuum (like Raskolnikov's guilt in Crime and Punishment) but can be mitigated even when it is too late to prevent it from coming to fruition. Karma in this sense can be understood as a complex information process, a theory of memory that becomes extremely subtle when subjected to Buddhist philosophical debate, which often happens.
On another subject, you might be interested in the Buddha's own prescription for a healthy skeptical attitude, instructions he gave to the people of the village of Kalama when they asked him how to evaluate philosophy:
1.Do not believe just because it is a tradition maintained by oral repetition. 2.Do not believe just because it is an unbroken succession of practice. 3.Do not believe merely because it is hearsay. 4.Do not believe just because it is in the scriptures. 5.Do not believe just because it fits with one's point of view. 6.Do not believe just because it is correct on the ground of metaphysical theories. 7.Do not believe just because it appeals to one's consideration. 8.Do not believe just because it agrees with one's opinions and theories. 9.Do not believe just because the speaker appears believable. 10.Do not believe just because the speaker is our teacher. Kalamas, whenever you realize by yourselves that these are unwholesome, harmful or are condemned by wise people, and whoever fully undertake or observe them, they will lead to uselessness or suffering, you should abandon them. Kalamas, whenever you realize by yourselves that these are wholesome, unharmful or are admired by wise people, and whoever fully undertake or observe them, they will lead to usefulness or happiness, you should undertake them.
(lifted from http://www.mahasati.org/library/kalama_sutta.shtml)
All Buddhists worth their salt try to take these words to heart. School children in Thailand are forced to memorize them. In one unfortunate incident however, a Thai friend of mine was nearly thrown out of school for asking "why should we believe this then?" She stopped being Buddhist for 20 years, but returned to it later in life.
University of Wisconsin -- Madison
07 Mar 1998
Your suggestion that the law of karma is "a law for sheep" hits the mark. How has it come to be a central tenet of a major religion? My suspicion has long been that the religious law of karma evolved as the perfect cover for a politically oppressive social system. Although I have not been able to trace the belief in karma to its roots (the old Hindu texts seem to accept karma as a given), it strikes me as a too-convenient justification for India's rigidly stratified caste system. Why wouldn't the elite support such a belief? They are who they are in society by virtue of their spiritual superiority.
"I am a Brahmin. This is my karma. You are an untouchable. That is your karma. Deal with it." This belief also works nicely for the prosperous therapy addict in suppressing his guilt over poverty in the third world.
Karma is the yoke worn by India's poor. Karma (and reincarnation) convince the poor
that their lot in this life is a function of their sins in the last. If they accept it
meekly, perhaps they'll do better in the next. Is it any wonder that over the centuries
India saw so little progress, socially or economically, until the British arrived? And why
it still remains largely impoverished and undereducated? Judeo-Christianity, on the other
hand, may promise eternal bliss, and some may have used that belief to keep the masses in
their place, but in practice its teleological view also suggests that if you only go
around once in life, you've got to go for all the gusto you can get. One need only compare
the social and economic differences between the two cultures to see how these beliefs work
themselves out in practice.
reply: Somehow, I don't think it's that simple. Western materialism developed in
spite of Christianity, not because of it. As for the British imperialists in India, the
only good I can see that came of that was the gin and tonic.
25 Feb 1998
Although I would classify myself as a skeptic and a devoted follower (?) of your dictionary, I have a suggestion to make about your recent entry on karma. The variety of differing views on karma make it incredibly hard to justify your overview. For example, Buddhists have a theory of karma which differs in some important respects from the theory you present.
For many Buddhists, karma becomes an ethical theory rather than one strictly of causation: "[Buddha's] great innovation was to say that the moral quality of an act lies in the intention behind it." (R. Gombrich, Theravada Buddhism) Karma is the psychological seed planted by an action which results in a tendency to act a certain way in the future.
This might be quibbling a bit and may be as screwy an idea as the cause and effect
karma you present, but I think it ought to be addressed in some fashion.
reply: If I understand you correctly, Gombrich claims that for Buddha karma is a process whereby purifying our intentions affects our behavior so that we tend to become as we intend and act. Focusing on intentions as both the main factor in morality and in effecting future behavior seems in harmony with traditional Christian morality. There doesn't seem to be anything particularly untoward with this notion. Yet, as Fr Becker used to say, "the road to Hell is paved with good intentions." Does Gombrich deny that Buddha maintained that one's intentions in this life will have an effect on what one intends in some future life? Does he deny that Buddha maintained that the evil which befalls a person in this life is due to some evil intentions one had in a past life?