Karma, Part 1 (of 6): It Is Not Simple

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    Dharmavidya writes:


    In Western philosophy we have been much concerned with ideas of free will and determinism, guilt and responsibility. rights and laws, and these debates have taken place against the background of religions dominated by the idea of an all-powerful god who made laws and punished transgressors. In the East, although there was also a strong sense of divine presence, it was not associated with laws and judgements in this way. The consequences of actions were seen to be more in the domain of a kind of natural law called karma. Thus in the West nowadays we have the notion of ethics as a boundary within which actions occur whereas in the Eastern approach consequentiality is inherent in the action itself. This has many obvious as well as subtle consequences. Thus, these days, for instance, there is debate in the West about what ethical framework should be put around the practice of mindfulness, whereas the Eastern practice of mindfulness needed no such boundary because mindfulness as originally understood was the very basis of ethicality itself. It is often difficult to discern these differences because they are so deeply ingrained in our paradigm of thought. Nonetheless, they have powerful impact upon feelings, faith, actions and society.

    In this series of postings I shall explore some of the main aspects of the Eastern idea of karma and draw out both seeming implications and paradoxes. Karma is not so much a single idea as a framework within which a range of debates have occurred and different understandings developed. The East has not much concerned itself with the philosophical dilemmas that have obsessed Western thinkers, but it has had plenty of conundrums of its own.



    Karma refers to the inherent consequentiality of intentional action. It is the principle that there is a spiritual effect of every action of the will. It has physical, psychological and spiritual implications. It goes with the idea that what happens in the spiritual domain is more important than what happens in the material world.

    Thus, if you give somebody a diamond, then in the material world a crystalline piece of carbon is displaced from your hand to that of the other person. In itself, this means virtually nothing. Yet, the diamond may be a token of love, or it may be a bribe, or a peace offering, or a commercial transaction. Or the diamond may have been stolen from you or extracted by blackmail. Or you might have been passing it to the other person, who was an expert in the matter, to have it tested and assessed for value and authenticity. We can readily understand that the meaning of the transaction is different in each case and that the social, psychological and spiritual consequences are going to be different according to the motives and intentions involved. Karma thus has something to do with meaning.

    We can also probably understand that while the quality of motivation is significant, so is the intensity:  the degree to which the motivation is important to the people concerned. A cat or dog would not use a diamond for any of these purposes, but a bone or piece of meat might serve for some of them. A person who had no interest in financial gain might be immune to some of these alternatives, finding them uninteresting. Thus karma is affected both by the actual motivations and intentions and also by the degree of attachment to those intentions. Buddhism thus includes ways of reflecting upon and changing our motivations and also a good deal about avoiding becoming overly attached.


    Karma is commonly taken in a negative sense and, as we shall see, this may be the correct or deepest understanding. However, it is common in Buddhist countries to also think about positive karma. This is conceptualised as “merit” or punya. It is logical to think that just as a person who does bad deeds will eventually get their comeuppance, so a person who does good deeds shall receive their reward.

    From this has developed the popular idea of doing meritorious deeds and in some Buddhist cultures this has become a quite sophisticated system with, as it were, more points adhering to some actions than others. In such a system of values, there are generally three contributory factors. One is the nature of the deed, the second is the intention, and the third is the merit of the beneficiary. This last leads to a rather different system of social values from that common in modern society.

    Thus, it is more meritorious to give a large benefit than a small one. That much is obvious enough. Then, as explained earlier, the intention matters. To give a large gift as a way of showing off is less meritorious than to give a small gift discretely. Then, thirdly, to give a benefit to a more worthy person is more meritorious than to give one to a less worthy. This is different from the common modern idea where the roughly equivalent factor is the need of the recipient. In fact, the most worthy recipients are holy beings and they, by definition, are those with least needs. What can you give to somebody who needs almost nothing? This is why feeding monks is such a feature of traditional Buddhist societies. The monks are the most worthy, but they have hardly any needs. Once per year there may be elaborate robe giving ceremonies and more regularly they get fed. In temperate climates, of course, there is a greater need for shelter and lay devotees become involved in providing residences and all that goes with it.

    Historically this led to monks becoming the pivotal points in a system of basic welfare. The laity gave food, clothing and medicines to the monks well in excess of their need and the monks then redistributed this excess to the poor. This provided a particular style of social safety net. Nowadays we are much concerned with fairness and equality, but in that old system everything was personal. The monks knew the beggars and street people individually and so could provide them with what they needed in an individually tailored manner. Of course, the system was open to favouritism, but it is an open question which way is really best.

    In any case, the merit system tends to foster pro-social attitudes, encourages generosity and sustains the monks in an influential position in society which, in turn, means that their virtuous teachings are disseminated through the population. This can all work extremely well as long as the monks live up to their calling. They are the lynch pin of the system and so long as they remain virtuous and “worthy of offerings” all goes well. If the monks become lazy or selfish then all falls apart. The laity thus also have a vested interest in making sure that the monks stay up to scratch. In traditional Buddhist societies the equilibrium of checks and balances generally worked well. The influence of modern consumerism can, however, be quite corrosive to traditional societies of this kind.


    Buddhism gave the old idea of karma some new twists. For one thing it made it more future oriented: if intentional action brings results then it matters what one does and what one’s real intentions are and this matters inasmuch as the future matters. This means that in Buddhism karma is more about creating a good future than about paying off a bad past, though a variety of views exist, as we shall see. This change of orientation gave things a psychological turn: if intention is the crucial variable rather than the performance of formulaic actions then some introspection is called for to examine what one’s motivations really are. This leads to concern with insight and it also leads to reflections upon human nature – upon what is actually possible. This then leads to an interest in the psychological, rather than merely physical, nature of karma. I once asked a monk what merit is and he said “happy mind|”. If one has a clear conscience one lives a less troubled life.


    In the next section we shall develop some of these ideas further.

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