Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Buddhist Ethics: figuring out Karma

I have been pondering a minor quibble in Buddhism for quite a while now (in fact it has been on my mind for about four years), so I figure I should share it with the world, even if I'm no closer to figuring it now than I was way back then.

The question regards the 'domain' of karma. That is, is everything that happens to me due to my karma? Now keep in mind that I'm not questioning the relevance or coherence of karma in our modern world. I'm asking 'as a Buddhist' (and academic) trying to understand the classical sources. With that in mind, there seem to be two classical statements:

1) "not everything that happens to a person is seen as due to karma." (P. Harvey, 2000, p.23)

Harvey cites this sutta (From accesstoinsight):
SN 36.21: Sivaka Sutta — To Sivaka {S iv 230; CDB ii 1278} [Nyanaponika | Thanissaro]. The Buddha explains that present experience cannot be described solely in terms of the results of past actions (kamma).

[Moliyasivaka:] "Master Gotama, there are some priests & contemplatives who are of this doctrine, this view: Whatever an individual feels — pleasure, pain, neither-pleasure-nor-pain — is entirely caused by what was done before. Now what does Master Gotama say to that?"

[The Buddha:] "There are cases where some feelings arise based on bile. You yourself should know how some feelings arise based on bile. Even the world is agreed on how some feelings arise based on bile. So any priests & contemplatives who are of the doctrine & view that whatever an individual feels — pleasure, pain, neither-pleasure-nor-pain — is entirely caused by what was done before — slip past what they themselves know, slip past what is agreed on by the world. Therefore I say that those priests & contemplatives are wrong."

(because I'm fast becoming a nerd, I'll pop in the Pali from here)
[Moliyasivaka:] ‘‘santi, bho gotama, eke samaṇabrāhmaṇā evaṃvādino evaṃdiṭṭhino – ‘yaṃ kiñcāyaṃ purisapuggalo paṭisaṃvedeti sukhaṃ vā dukkhaṃ vā adukkhamasukhaṃ vā sabbaṃ taṃ pubbekatahetū’ti. Idha [idha pana (syā. kaṃ. pī. ka.)] bhavaṃ gotamo kimāhā’’ti?

‘[The Buddha:] ‘Pittasamuṭṭhānānipi kho, sīvaka, idhekaccāni vedayitāni uppajjanti. Sāmampi kho etaṃ, sīvaka, veditabbaṃ [evaṃ veditabbaṃ (syā. kaṃ. ka.)] yathā pittasamuṭṭhānānipi idhekaccāni vedayitāni uppajjanti; lokassapi kho etaṃ, sīvaka, saccasammataṃ yathā pittasamuṭṭhānānipi idhekaccāni vedayitāni uppajjanti. Tatra, sīvaka, ye te samaṇabrāhmaṇā evaṃvādino evaṃdiṭṭhino – ‘yaṃ kiñcāyaṃ purisapuggalo paṭisaṃvedeti sukhaṃ vā dukkhaṃ vā adukkhamasukhaṃ vā sabbaṃ taṃ pubbekatahetū’ti. Yañca sāmaṃ ñātaṃ tañca atidhāvanti, yañca loke saccasammataṃ tañca atidhāvanti. Tasmā tesaṃ samaṇabrāhmaṇānaṃ micchāti vadāmi.

See, that clears everything up, right?... Interestingly, the term kamma doesn't occur in the discussion until the next section:
‘‘Semhasamuṭṭhānānipi kho, sīvaka…pe… vātasamuṭṭhānānipi kho, sīvaka…pe… sannipātikānipi kho, sīvaka…pe… utupariṇāmajānipi kho, sīvaka…pe… visamaparihārajānipi kho, sīvaka…pe… opakkamikānipi kho, sīvaka…pe… kammavipākajānipi kho, sīvaka, idhekaccāni vedayitāni uppajjanti. [my emphasis]
Which Thanissaro Bhikkhu translates as:
"There are cases where some feelings arise based on phlegm... based on internal winds... based on a combination of bodily humors... from the change of the seasons... from uneven care of the body... from harsh treatment... from the result of kamma. [kammavipaka is 'the result of kamma' - I'm not sure what jānipi refers to] update - jānipi is a verb, I believe it means 'coming from.'
Anyhow, now that I've lost half of my readers (and myself) down this strange tangent, I'll return to my point: how extensive is karma?

The counter argument seems to come in Shantideva's great work "A Guide to teh Bodhisattva Way of Life." Here he discusses, in his chapter on Patience, the notion that karma, or our past actions, must be considered whenever we are to place blame for (our) suffering. Giving the example of someone striking him he states (translated by Wallace and Wallace, 1997):
43. Both his weapon and my body are causes of suffering. He has obtained a weapon, and I have obtained a body. With what should I be angry?

44. Blinded by craving, I have obtained this boil that appears as a human body, which cannot bear to be touched. When there is pain, with whom should I be angry?
Thus it seems that even being embodied as humans is attributable to karma - and if that is the case, then all that follows is due to karma too. Just as if I drop a rock on a mountain top that hits some more rocks and they hit some more, creating an avalanche, it can be said that I caused the avalanche and whatever distruction happened to follow.

We can discuss a remote/proximate distinction regarding karma. But I think it would be correct to say then that everything that happens to us has some moral (karmic) dimension - as Tibetan Buddhists seem to stress. So we can speak of accidents, but not mere accidents. That is, accidents can occur, but always within the domain of karma. Likewise if I am attacked there is always some extent to which I am responsible for that, simply for making the choices to be at that place and time (or even embodied).

The distinction may turn out to be nothing, but I have a sense that it is important for a 'Kantian' understanding of Buddhist Ethics, since for Kant humans always have the capacity of reason (and morality). Thus every situation is within the moral realm to some degree. Accidents can happen to me, but to say it was totally an accident (denying all agency on my own part) would be to deny my own freedom in the matter - to enter into Sartrean 'bad faith.'

Likewise I think a Buddhist must acknowledge that even his indigestion is at least proximately a result of his karma (to have a body and eat spicy foods). But that appears to contradict Harvey's conclusion that, "not everything that happens to a person is seen as due to karma." Would it be more correct to say that "not everything... is seen as due directly to karma, but everything that happens is in some proximate way still attributable to karma (cf. Shantideva, CH 6...)."

To throw in one more curve-ball, it goes back to the five niyamas (or laws) as well. The logical structure could be one of nesting; i.e.

1) all that is, is within dhamma-niyama
2) within that is a category of (moral) action, the kamma-niyama
3) within kamma-niyama are mental actions, citta-niyama
4) only within mind (citta) are organic or cyclical processes, bija-niyama
5) and within that is the category and laws of mere matter, utu-niyama.

Perhaps I'm trying to impose too much logical clarity to Buddhist thought where there simply is none, but that looks awfully tidy if that is how they constructed it.

It also could be helpful in compairing with Kant's phenomenal/noumenal distinction in which mind plays a nicely central role with the thing-in-itself and morality on one side and planets and physics on the other.


Tom said...

I think that the explanations of karma that you find only make sense if we understand there to be only One Mind in play.

When you write, "if I am attacked there is always some extent to which I am responsible for that." Yes, but not because you are embodied or because you chose to be in 'the wrong' place, but because you are really both the victim and the victimizer, ultimately. We are each and all every actor in any situation.

I think you have to take a leap here, Justin. How do you perceive the interface between what is physical and consciousness in Buddha's teaching?

If karma functions in ever action having a reaction, like Newton's Law of Motion, then it has physical properties even as it has no tactile reality. If 'experience' is a timeline of our sense awareness [I guess, since Buddha didn't highlight 'consciousness' as the core of our awareness as we Westerners are prone to do.], then mightn't we say that trying to understand karma/experience is likened to trying to understand physical/consciousness? And don't we find, in each set, both elements exist in each other while simultaneously they exist apart?

And isn't this true for ourselves vis-a-vis others? We are dependent on others being around for each of us to have an individual identity, while at the same time each one of us supposes we exist fully independently.

There is always this same paradox of dependence and independence. Neither can exist without the paradox. Logic cannot penetrate what is going on.

Thus, linear causality is not the full explanation. Experience is not epiphenomenal of karma.

[I think I am making good sense here, but I may be lost on a tangent or avoiding dealing with your Pali and encyclopedic knowledge of Buddhism. I am but a simpleton, but pretend not to be.]

Buddhist_philosopher said...

Hia Tom - Yea, I agree with the One Mind thing. One thing though: this does NOT seem to be an idea in early (or contemporary Theravadin) Buddhism. It only came about with the Avatamsaka Sutra in China (I'm not sure how central it's ideas were in India) in the 5th century onward.

Physical/Consciousness, yes I agree again and yet again regarding identity and others. There is no true 'independence' in reality.

As an aside, my advisor did think my 'top-down' systemization of dhamma-kamma and so on was sensible. So I'm moving forward with that - the idea that while it may be latent, early Buddhism (and contemporary Theravadin) would admit that all experience is within the realm of kamma.

Tom said...

Whoops. You're too kind to say so, overtly, but my comment flunked for being off-topic. Woe, me.

So your focus is to tie Kant in with Theravadan Buddhism?

Buddhist_philosopher said...

Hi Tom - I don't think you were off topic (it's hard of course to know just what is my topic in all of that). But karma must also make sense in pre-Mahayana Buddhism is all I note in my comment. And Theravadins presumably wouldn't say much about One Mind to explain karma. I'd like my thesis to be applicable to all Buddhism, but will follow Keown's route in focusing mostly on Theravada - trying to understand from there why other strands went the ways they did...

Tom said...

I will get back to your comment, but before my eyelids shut because of their heaviness, I am wondering if you know much about Synchronicity?

I understand that your focus here is to see karma from Buddhism's roots. But, perhaps Buddha left things 'unfinished' with respect to karma in his early teachings either (1) because he hadn't figured everything out yet and/or (2) because his following was wedded to pre-existing ideas of karma and that was sufficiently true for them to fully benefit from the whole of his teaching and/or (3) he had a copy of Jung's "Synchronicity - An Acausal Connecting Principle" in his back pocket but he wasn't about to try to explain all that to his followers.

S'later, dude. Heavy lids, drifting off. I'll try to read about Kant in wikipedia tomorrow. What was his first name again? Fred? George? No matter; I'll find him. Then I'll polish off your doctorate dissertation before dinner and get you back in your lover's arms by Monday. zzzzzzzzzz.

Tom said...

I guess, basically, I'm too ignorant to be a worthy discussant here. But these questions come to my mind.

Might karma be something, like God, that is beyond the bounds of pure reason?

Is is modern thought, something Buddha was not bound by, that insists that our thinking on a topic must be A Fortress, able to repel any criticism?

Since we know Buddha's thinking evolved over the course of his life, cannot we suppose that his earlier teachings weren't fully cooked such that even he can have known there were unplugged holed [mixed metaphor alert!] that needed to be attended to and principles that needed further evaluation?

Don't we need to accept that Buddha's teachings are never a Complete Package, a Tautology of Sense? And since, too, it is accepted, from his teaching, that Buddha's words aren't a dogmatic script, doesn't that give us room for Buddhism to flourish in the future when it is likely we will know far more than we can today imagine about what science can show us and what spirituality tells us?

And, finally, since Kant was a nobody until he was 50, doesn't this suggest, Justin, that you have twenty years in which you are free to screw around until you need to worry about buttoning down and making your mark on the world? Yes, indeedy! It is time for you to become really really interested in NASCAR!!

Buddhist_philosopher said...

Hia Tom - Nope, I'm afraid I don't know much about Synchronicity beyond the popular conception of it. At the short retreat I attended in September the teacher made the comment, "there is NO synchronicity, because EVERY moment is synchronicity - if only we open up to it." Deep stuff.
Ah, you ARE reading Kant. :) Yes, I think you're absolutely right by putting karma in the category with God (and morality).

And yep, this is definitely an issue of my Western thought bumping heads with the Eastern. The question we all need to ask is, "do we want Buddhist thought to be a Fortress?" Or perhaps some segment of it? Could it be more useful to more people if it were made more intelligible to the Western mind in an academic way (as opposed to Jungian, mystical, ontological, etc as has already been done by many folks).

How do we know that the Buddha's thought evolved? As far as I know we can't say much at all about the Historical Buddha - we can speculate based on the Pali Canon, but we know those were organized, passed along orally, and finally written down long after his death...

As regards Kant, yes! I'm very happy to see that I still have plenty of time to radically alter the world of philosophy (just don't go and read about Wittgenstein). Who's NASCAR, sounds like an Arab philosopher?

Tom said...

Amad Racer Nascar is Egyptian, I think. Some say he has no peer amid the Middle Eastern philosophers. Others say those 'some' are all wet, they're in denial, that he gives stock answers and his thinking runs in circles.

Tom said...

... they also flag him for having a checkered past.

Patrick said...

Hi - just thought I'd mention a nice sutta reference from an article by Damien Keown, whom I'm sure you know. Heck, I'll just paste the relevant section... starting with Keown:

"It must be pointed out that any force the above examples have depends on the assumption that every misfortune has a karmic cause. The Buddha, however, tells the wanderer (paribbājaka) Sivaka that this is not so:

'Those recluses and Brahmins, Sīvaka, who hold the view: "Whatever a person experiences that is pleasant (sukha), painful (dukkha) or neutral (adukkhamasukha) is caused by something done in the past (pubbekatahetu)," go beyond (atidhāvanti) what is rightly known (sāmaṃ ñātaṃ) and what is generally held to be true (saccasammatta). I therefore declare those recluses and Brahmins to be wrong (micchā).' [S.iv.230f.1.]

"The Buddha mentions in this context that suffering can be caused by factors which have nothing to do with karma, such as the action of bodily humors and the change of seasons. There is, therefore, no particular reason to suppose that a misfortune such as a house fire has a specific karmic cause. Since the Buddhist theory of karma does not rule out the possibility of accidents and adventitious misfortune, there is no justification for the demand that a karmic account be supplied in every case of good and bad fortune."

You can find the whole paper here:



Patrick said...

Woops, just noticed that you had already posted Peter Harvey's reference to the same sutta. Well, the Keown article is worth reading anyway.

Buddhist_philosopher said...

Hi Patrick - thanks for that. I'll try to say more about Keown's thoughts soon. I disagree with him that the Buddha's statement makes things like bodily humours "have nothing to do with karma." I think that the truth is that such are a result of karma (in so far as one being born a human with a body is due to karma) but the Buddha warns against one trying to attribute everything (eg. an upset stomach) to something a person did in a past life...

Tom said...

It seems to me that while Buddha was wise in many things that can teach us something, today, in the area of karma he is likely to have just been faking it.

If he was using the idea of "what is generally held to be true" to guide him, in his era, that is an extremely low standard.

Are there "Great Philosophers of Karma", somewhere in the books, that can be tapped to learn the development of karmic theory? If there are, are they greatly different than alchemists or astrologers?

As for the karma of stomach acid, my experience tells me problems come from what "I" did last night. Burp.

Tom said...

My prejudice in all of my amateur philosophical musings is that I support the glory of the little guy as opposed to the oppressiveness of the world's Goliaths.

Buddha was a Goliath, so I am cynical towards him and question his authority the same as I would Hitler's or God's.

So I wonder ... Why do we suppose that Buddha's silences mean there is deep wisdom underlying it rather than stupidity or ignorance?

Buddha was insightful, but, basically, he was 'just some guy' -- and, worse, just some guy in 550 B.C. I would suppose that it is probably the case that many of his stumbles got cleaned up by his admirerers over the centuries following his death, yet there are still some toxic, ugly areas in his thinking [eg, re women] that have come down to us.

Thus, in there with the wisdom that we should mine are many stinky clumps -- yet, we are very overmuch determined to make gems of any little twitter we spot in Big B's bloviations.

Patrick said...


>As for the karma of stomach acid,
>my experience tells me problems
>come from what "I" did last
>night. Burp.

Sour grapes will do that.

Tom said...

My wine is cheap, but my grapes are not sour -- just my stomach.