March 28, 2011

Bad Karma

In the Tricycle office this morning we discussed karma and rebirth at our morning meeting and how, while opinions vary widely on the subjects, the concept is freely used and often with little understanding. Most of all karma (which literally means "action") is thought to be responsible for fortune and misfortune in our lives, an attitude that is no different than calling natural disasters "divine punishment." (We heard this from the governor of Tokyo about the tsunami, and also heard that 4 in 10 Americans believe natural disasters are signs from God.)

But in the Tittha Sutta, the Buddha explicitly rejects the idea that our good and bad circumstances are the result of past actions:

"Having approached the priests & contemplatives who hold that... 'Whatever a person experiences... is all caused by what was done in the past,' I said to them: 'Is it true that you hold that... "Whatever a person experiences... is all caused by what was done in the past?"' Thus asked by me, they admitted, 'Yes.' Then I said to them, 'Then in that case, a person is a killer of living beings because of what was done in the past. A person is a thief... unchaste... a liar... a divisive speaker... a harsh speaker... an idle chatterer... greedy... malicious... a holder of wrong views because of what was done in the past.' When one falls back on what was done in the past as being essential, monks, there is no desire, no effort [at the thought], 'This should be done. This shouldn't be done.' When one can't pin down as a truth or reality what should & shouldn't be done, one dwells bewildered & unprotected. One cannot righteously refer to oneself as a contemplative. This was my first righteous refutation of those priests & contemplatives who hold to such teachings, such views. ("Tittha Sutta: Sectarians" (AN 3.61), translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu)

As Nagapriya points out in Exploring Karma & Rebirth, holding to the view criticized here by the Buddha denies not only free will but also the possibility of bettering ourselves in this lifetime. There are numerous example of the Buddha discussing karma in the Buddhist canon that point to alternative readings: In other words, some passages suggest that everything that happens in our lives is a consequence of past karma. Nagapriya attributes this to the multiplicity of sources in the early tradition, and the continuing evolution of ideas both in and around the Buddhist tradition in the fertile intellectual climate of Axial Age India.

As Richard Gombrich and others point out, karma was conceived of as a kind of dust or impurity that clung to souls by the Jains, and was connected with the performance of ritual in the brahminical tradition. The Buddha reversed this: Karma is not something to be cleansed of or that we must live under the yoke of, karma is intention.

Thanisaro Bhikkhu in his recent visit ot the offices suggested we run a special section on all the various views of karma within Buddhism. There's certainly enough to make rich reading.

Two recent Tricycle articles on karma:

"Karma in Action" by Andrew Olendzki
"Rethinking Karma" by David Loy

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Dominic Gomez's picture

Re: "everything that happens in our lives is a consequence of past karma" and "karma is intention", the artcicle mentions neither the law of causality nor multiple (past and future) lifetimes.

In this light, everything in our lives at the present moment is indeed conditioned. Conditioning even applies to people's "intentions" or "causes" (products of a free will), which set in motion entirely new "conditions" that manifest themselves as "effects" at certain points in the future.
In short, the most critical point of an existence which spans a past with no begining and a future with no end is this very present moment...and what you do with it.

Wisdom Moon's picture

Well said, Dominic.

How 'free' is free will, though? As you said, intentions are also conditioned. The freedom to choose comes from training the mind, developing virtuous thoughts such as love, compassion and wisdom as opposed to being enslaved by our negative tendencies such as anger and attachment.

Dominic Gomez's picture

Good question, Wisdom Moon. My thoughts are that freedom of will (the innate ability to make a choice) is relative to the conditions a person finds her- or himself in. These conditions could be externally imposed, for instance by a society's rules or traditions. Or they may be internal, as in an individual's particular temperament or inclinations. In those cases, then there is no such thing as absolutely free will, even from the stand-point of a new-born baby who has yet to excercise it!
OTOH, free will is what separates human beings from animals, in that our ability and power to "choose" is not totally driven by instinct. Intellectual discretion come into play here.

Philip Ryan's picture

Wisdom Moon: Thanks for your input. I don't think anything above contradicts that karma (like almost everything else) is part of cause-and-effect. I think the point of the passage is that our present circumstances are not wholly determined by our past actions. While past actions certainly influence or condition the present, they do not determine the present or the decisions or intentions we make in the present which lead to the future. If past actions determine the present, there is no such thing as free will and ethical action. In other words, Buddhism is not determinism (as you say, we don't just get what we deserve.)

wtompepper's picture

I think a clearer way of putting it may be that past actions, combined with past conditions, DO determine our present circumstances, but don't completely constrain our present ACTIONS. (Sorry about the caps, but there's no other way to emphasize a word)

Philip Ryan's picture

Hi wtompepper, you can use simple html tags in comments ( or for Bold, or for Italics, etc.) Anyway, sorry to be late and thanks for the comments.

Wisdom Moon's picture

In the passage from the Sutta, Buddha is not denying that our actions are the cause of our present experiences, good and bad, he's denying that the past person who did those actions exists now explicitly and that, being that person, it is impossible to change. It's misleading to say that karma doesn't mean that our previous actions are the cause of our present experiences because that's exactly what karma is - a special instance of the law of cause and effect whereby our actions are causes and our experiences are their effects.

There are many wrong views associated with karma, though, such that some people assert that karma is divine punishment or that 'we get what we deserve', meaning we deserve to suffer as payback. Both of these views are wrong. No one is keeping score and meting our punishment or rewards and similar, no one deserves to suffer no matter what bad actions they have done, are doing, or will do in the future. We need to have compassion for those who are committing wrong actions now (such as Colonel Gadaffi) as their suffering is really just beginning.