Jul. 26, 2006

Karma and Right View

I often get asked questions about karma. It is instructive to consider where the questioner is coming from. In particular, a common type of question revolves around the mechanism of karma. Some people assume that there must be some conscious agent that judges and metes out karma. This line of thought belongs to the Eternalist view. Others reject the idea altogether, because they just can't imagine a mechanism; the whole thing seems superstitious. This line of thought belongs to the Annhilationist view.

Dealing with the Eternalist first; part of the problem comes from the sloppy use of language when we refer to "good" and "bad" karma. This is not in accord with the Pali which classifies volitional action as "kusala" and "akusala", skilful or unskilful. That puts a whole different slant on things. There is no one to judge your actions as good or bad; they are just inherently skilful or not. It is a mistake to think of karma as some kind of cosmic or divine law-code. It is a law, of a sort, but more akin to the Law of Gravity than the Criminal Code. It is best to think of karma as an unfolding of natural law.

This then raises the objection from the Annihilationist; where is the mechanism for this law? He cannot accept that an action done today may have effects years hence, evcn in a subsequent life-time. This objection comes from a deep-seated materialist bias. Given the assumptions of materialism, then it is insurmountable. But abandon those assumptions and it melts away like dew.

Materialism has been the dominant paradigm of science for at least two centuries. It assumes that matter is the only ontological Real. Mind is considered nothing more than a process of physical interactions.

This is a strange hypothesis, one held by many with dogmatic fervour. It is strange because if you consider the case, it is obvious that the only thing we ever really know or experience directly is our own minds. The material world we access only through our sense doors and the light of consciousness. Materialism denies what is immediately known, and gives exclusive reality only to that which is inferred.

The Buddha was certainly not a materialist, a view which he specifically denounced. He also said that Mind is the forerunner; i.e. Mind is the primary Real.

Given that assumption it is not hard to see how karma works. In the abhidhamma, karma is explained in terms of balancing voltional and resultant mind-moments. For every skilful moment of volition there will be a profitable resultant experienced as sense-impression at some later time.

Given that Mind is primary, if the material universe needs to adjust itself to accomodate these mind-moments, then it does so. We make the world with our minds.

This is not an issue peripheral to the Buddhist Path either. The most common formulation of Right View is as follows;

There is what is given, what is offered, what is sacrificed. There are fruits & results of good & bad actions. There is this world & the next world. There is mother & father. There are spontaneously reborn beings; there are priests & contemplatives who, faring rightly & practicing rightly, proclaim this world & the next after having directly known & realized it for themselves.
Right View, remember, is the first of the Path Factors. I think the Buddha gave this doctrine such central importance precisely because the proper understanding of karma (and rebirth) is essential to find the Middle Ground of the Dependent Origination and to gain freedom from the shackles of the Wrong Views. If one is stuck in either Eternalism or Materialism (Annihilationism) one simply cannot correctly apprehend the void nature of the dhammas and escape from suffering.


e.m. said...

(1) I would warn that "an inherently skilful act" is a flawed concept, and inconsistent with the source texts. A "Skilful" action can only be extrinsically so (not intrinsically so), viz., in relation to the extrinsic issues of prior motive and posterior result. In a debate with a Jain master, as I recall, the Buddha points out that passing water through a strainer is only skilful if it saves the lives of small animals thus removed before drinking, but, despite the good motive, there is no merit in straining water that is clear (or has already been strained); this is in contrast to the Jain philosopher's assumption that the act itself (straining water) is inherently meritorious. [Sorry, no page references; that one's from memory.]

The emphasis in both the suttas and the abhidhammapitaka is almost entirely on these "extrinsic" aspects, often supplemented with the stated suspicion that for anything to be deemed "intrinsically" meritorious is a slippery slope to a belief in essences (atman ,etc.).

(2) Although it is much abused by some Mahayanists, there is some truth in the fact that the Buddha taught Kamma-theory in a very different manner to different audiences. When he debates it with philosophers of other schools, the content of the teaching is quite sophisticated; when he is asked by the local princess "Why was I born beautiful while others are born ugly?" his answer is dead simple --and does not stand up to much philosophic scrutiny. The "inconsistencies" within the source texts on Kamma theory are worth studying, and worth understanding; however, it is a sad fact that ambiguities and contradictions that have arisen from these sources are now responsible for the most diverse (and in some cases truly horrifying) misinterpretations of Buddhist kamma theory.

Alexus McLeod said...

Hello Bhante--

this is a very interesting post. I think you're right that the two contemporary views of karma you mention seem much like what the Buddha meant by the eternalist and annihilationist views, which should be rejected. I myself used to be drawn to the annihilationist (materialist) view, pressing this as a robust Buddhist metaphysics, before (I think) a more mature reading of the texts and some helpful dharma teachers showed me the error of this.

Maybe the Buddha's focus on the mind, though, is meant to show us that the mind is central with regard to suffering and liberation from suffering, rather than illustrating a metaphysical view. It may not be that mind is the most ontologically basic thing (some sort of idealism), but rather the mind is the only thing we ought to be concerned with, and we shouldn't worry about metaphysical questions such as whether or not physical or mental components are the most basic items in the correct ontology, because these questions are not conducive to achieving the end of suffering. One holding this view (if this is Right View) would then refuse to assent to the eternalist or the annihilationist view (or any other metaphysical view). In this same vein, we could rest contented with the knowledge that there is karma, and how it comes about, and put our efforts toward understanding how to break the chain of suffering (using karma?), rather than worrying about the ontology.

take care!