Saturday, January 19, 2008

Buddhist Ethics, Free Will, and the logic of Karma

It seems like it's been forever since I've posted on Buddhist Ethics, and almost that long since I've done any work on it. Oh well. We're moving past that slump now with a bit from an article fresh off the press (well, electronically, and it may be a few months old, hard to tell). The article is:
"'Freedom of the Will' in the Light of Theravāda Buddhist Teachings" by Peter Harvey [view] [print] from the 2007 edition of the Journal of Buddhist Ethics.
I should note a big kudos to Asaf Federman, a former coursemate of mine at Bristol (and soon-to-be co-panelist, more on that to come), who is cited frequently and approvingly by Harvey.

The one point that I wanted to post today was Harvey's modern logical extension of of the Buddhist concept of Karma.
While the idea did not exist in the pre-modern era, contemporary Buddhists are able to say that, as one gets one's genes from one's parents, and one gets one's parents from one's past karma, then any genetic influence on character, and thence behavior, is itself a mode of karmic influence. (p.47)
This is something I discussed a bit a while back. In that post I discussed the Buddhist five niyamas*. Though it is never, as far as I know, made explicit in primary or commentarial literature, I think these sets of causality may be seen as nested, that is, all that falls within a narrower category necessarily falls within the next larger. One example of such nesting is found in the similar categorization in the natural sciences, which may go something like this:

1) all that is, is determined by laws of quantum mechanics
2) within that is the category of (observable) classical physics
3) within classical physics are organic things governed by biological laws
4) certain biological things appear to have mental states*
*since the mental is so poorly understood in Western thought, no proposal that these be governed by laws has yet caught on.

Notice that this is a sort of 'bottom-up' nesting, from the littlest things to bigger and bigger. Many materialists will simply leave it at biology and say that mind is 'reducible' to that level (thus avoiding messy talk of mind all together).

And here's the Buddhist model (with my nesting interpretation):

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.

The Buddhist nesting theory is 'top-down'. It starts with the big, abstract stuff, dhamma, and works down to the material world. This makes matter itself a consequence of cyclical processes, which one could stretch to (match with contemporary physics and) say that the creation of universes itself is a cyclical process and it only within these that matter may be produced. More difficult to match up with any Western thought is the idea that organic or cyclical processes themselves are an outcome of mental actions, or that those fall on moral foundations.

Yet in Buddhism, at least in Tibetan expositions I have heard, everything does rest on moral, or karmic, foundations. Even our non-volitional actions, like rolling over and hurting a bug in our sleep (or a mouse if you're me), can only happen because our karma led us to have this body and live in this place. Yes, it would be silly (not to mention pedantic) to attribute every little thing to karma - to some past deed.

Later in the paper, Harvey explicitly asks: Is everything due to karma? (p.50) He suggests, that it is not karma, but other forms of conditioning that can be the cause of experiences (p.51):
At S.IV.230-231, the Buddha discusses the various causes of the experiences (feelings/sensations: vedayitāni) that a person might have. They can originate:

in phlegm the winds (of the body) ...from a union of humors (of the body) ...born of a change of season ...born of the stress of circumstances ...due to (someone else’s) effort (opakkamikāni)… and some things that are experienced here, Sīvaka, arise born of the maturing of karma.

It is thus seen as incorrect to say that, "Whatever this person experiences, whether pleasant or painful or neither painful nor pleasant, all that is due to what was done earlier."

But how does this match up with Harvey's logical extension of karma above? Certainly if we wish to say that things caused by "(someone else's) effort" are not due to karma, then wouldn't our conception (so clearly a result of our parents' effort) be not karmically caused? It seems to turn on how you interpret the Pali canon passage cited above. I take it to say that it is incorrect to attribute every experience to some (particular) past action (karman). Harvey is interpreting it as saying that there are experiences for which karma (our past volitional actions) has no causal role.

But then another question comes to mind. If being born as a human is due to karma, as all schools of Buddhism emphatically claim, then aren't all experiences in this human body due to that same karma? Now, that is emphatically not to negate other causal factors. If I have a belly-ache, it makes more sense to investigate the Thai food I ate last night, not what I did in a past life. I take this to be what the Buddha was suggesting here.

It is said that in this passage the Buddha was specifically refuting Jain theory. This fact supports my interpretation. The Jains focused so heavily on karma that they sought both to create no new karma (through an ultra-minimalistic lifestyle) and to burn off remaining karma through austerity (tapas). In this context we can see that the Buddha is simply giving a less radical, more common-sense teaching: "maybe you are sick because of the 'changing of the seasons' or because someone sneezed on you, (in cases such as this) don't worry so much about karma." He is not making the more radical claim that there are certain things in our life completely outside the sphere of karma.

* niyama = conditions, constraints, or laws - see p.199 of Keown's Dictionary of Buddhism, 'Fivefold Lawfulness' or 'natural order' in Nyanatiloka's Buddhist Dictionary, p.135.


Margaret said...

There was a discussion last year on Buddha-L (I think) during which one list member provided the Pali canonical source for the proposition that Karma is only one of a number of possible causal factors in any given situation. It's impossible to search the Buddha-L archives, but maybe someone more knowledgeable than I can give the location?

Buddhist_philosopher said...

Hia Margaret, thanks for the heads up. I've just joined Buddha-L, but I haven't got much of a feel for it yet. My guess is that it was the same S.IV.230-231 that Harvey cites (it is also in his Introduction to Buddhist Ethics) and I'm pretty sure Damien Keown uses it as well to downplay the causal role of karma.

This is a terribly interesting philosophical problem - in that if Harvey/Keown are right in their interpretation then I think the soteriological role of karma begins to fade away. That is, if we don't know if our experiences are based on past karma, how are we to trust that our future experiences will have any moral (karmic) connection to our present actions?

My suggestion is that while other factors: bile, winds, other people, may have immediate causal roles in our experiences, this does not mean that we are speaking of experiences that are non-karma related.

Anywho... I'd love to hear more thoughts on this, as it seems to be converting from a blog post to a potential article :)

Margaret said...

How about trying this on for size: Karma arises from intention, so the intentionality with which we act will always have an effect, sooner or later. However, since a given event may be the result of other factors, it's impossible to blame karma for everything that happens to us, or to others. E.g., "I don't give money to beggars because it's their karma to be beggars (i.e. it's their fault)"--maybe it's not? Thus we can't blame our own or others' misfortunes on karma; that would be an easy 'out' suggesting that we don't have to do anything about whatever the situation because "it's karma". We don't know; we can't tell; and on the off-chance that it's not karma, maybe we should try to lend a hand. But we do know that our intentions, good or bad, generate karma; so the soteriology remains intact.

Anonymous said...

What if the Utu Nyiama and Bija Nyiama, although not been results of kamma and instead of been out of influence of karma, are the conditions to the frutification of karma?

They are not results of karma and they're not randomic events.

So, bile winds are not necessary results of karma (they're not kamma vipaka) and not just an accident, but they're karma related because they allow the vipaka.

For exemple, a tsunami is not a result of kamma (like a "they deserved it" thing). It was the result of an utu nyiama related event (a submarine earthquake - not kamma related) but allowed the frutification of past kamma (so, at the end we can find a connection to kamma, but a "middle way" kamma connection).

Buddhist_philosopher said...

Margaret and Paul - thanks for some great food for thought! Here are some remarks:

First Margaret. I think we're on the same ground here, but my reasoning takes (I think) a different route. I am weary of using the term 'blame,' but doesn't the Buddha 'attribute' karmic causes to all sorts of things, e.g. that monk jumps around a lot because he was a monkey in his last life, or so-and-so's death was due to having killed so-and-so in a past life. These examples may be a bit off and I'll have to find the suttas to be sure, but the sense I get is that, wow, pretty much everything under the sun can be attributed to karma.

Now that's not so say that the person B who killed person A is off scott-free because it 'was due to A's past karma'. Harvey discusses this a bit later in the paper (pp.49-50). Person B still generates bad karma of his own (supposing his action is intentional). So we might say that A's death is due to A's past karma AND due to person B. We could also say his death is DUE to organ failure of whatever kind that occurs and/or DUE to the blow of the weapon B uses, etc - it depends on which level or category of causality one wishes to approach the situation on. My argument is only that the karmic level of causality is always operating, except in the case of Buddhas who have gone beyond it.

Paul, you have a very interesting idea going; I would love to hear more. Just in terms of logical connections I am curious how/in what way kamma and other levels of causality influence one another. Just in terms of your example, are you saying that everyone who was effected by the tsunami had the past karmic seeds for that, and then the totally un-karma related event (the earthquake), allowed these to come to fruition? I don't know, but it sounds like it gets toward Leibnizian idea of a pre-established harmony. My sense is that Buddhism attributes too much in the world (apparently) directly to karma to try to make this division. See p.49 on Harvey in which he notes "the J.I.167, where a thunderbolt causes a rock to split and so kill a goat, due to its karma of a past life..."

Anonymous said...

Justin: Just in terms of logical connections I am curious how/in what way kamma and other levels of causality influence one another.

Paulo: I understand kamma as an action, so, our actions can affect the world around us, so, kamma can affect bija nyiama and utu nyiama related events. As well, citta nyiama (but this one is easy to see, I think).
Maybe I have a poor vision of utu/bija nyiamas, but I see then as our environment. And our actions are affected by our environment.
At the same p.49 of Harvey’s, he wrote: “the world reacts to the moral and spiritual level of its inhabitants (as perhaps echoed in contemporary global warming)”.
Of course, it would give us another question: are there collective kamma? Or are there similar individual kammas, that only seems collective? Or even is there individual kamma (what is an individual?)?

Justin: Just in terms of your example, are you saying that everyone who was effected by the tsunami had the past karmic seeds for that, and then the totally un-karma related event (the earthquake), allowed these to come to fruition?

Paulo: Well… sort of. But not exactly. Whoever that was there or was affected by that and had seeds waiting an opportunity, saw the fruits.
But, there were any person there that hadn’t seeds? Well, since we all are results of kamma – kamma from the last life or any life before in billions of past life-times, I think anyone there had some seeds that could use that event (tsunami or earthquake or storm…) to give fruits. But that event didn’t happened “just” to give the conditions to the frutification of past kamma of that people there.
We just have to take care to not say “they deserved it”. In your example, person ‘A’ didn’t deserved to be killed, but that is somehow kamma related (in the scope of billions of past life-times kamma seeds) – and we still need to judge and punish person ‘B’, who created another kamma seed (and prison could be his vipaka in this very life time).
And I don’t believe in a “totally un-karma related event”. Since the events can create the conditions to the frutification of kamma, they are kamma related. But it doesn’t means that the event was kamma-caused or caused-because-“that seed”-need.

Justin: I don't know, but it sounds like it gets toward Leibnizian idea of a pre-established harmony.

Paulo: Bhikkhu Bodhi has an article entitled “Does rebirth make sense?” ( in which he uses (I think) this idea of harmony.
But I don’t know if we could use it. The Buddha said that life is dukkha, so, it isn’t harmonic.
That’s why some unfair thins happens to good people. They didn’t deserved it an they aren’t “paying kamma”. Just that, life is dukkha.
That’s why we search Nibbana/Nirvana.
If there is harmony (a “harmonia maxima rerum”), life wouldn’t be dukkha – maybe just a little hard sometimes, but OK at the end (we just need to learn how to deal whith the law of kamma an life could be nice).
But life is not Ok – life is dukkha. Not even our good actions (good kamma) can assure us long lasting good results.

Justin: My sense is that Buddhism attributes too much in the world (apparently) directly to karma to try to make this division. See p.49 on Harvey in which he notes "the J.I.167, where a thunderbolt causes a rock to split and so kill a goat, due to its karma of a past life..."

Paulo: I think you are right, Buddhism attributes too much in the world to kamma. At the Upajjhatthana Sutta the Buddha says “I am the owner of my actions (kamma), heir to my actions, born of my actions, related through my actions, and have my actions as my arbitrator. Whatever I do, for good or for evil, to that will I fall heir”.
But it doesn’t means that every rock in a mountain takes its place in order to someone’s kamma.
Believing that would be some sort of idealism. The search for harmony or balance in the world.

Anonymous said...

Well, It got bigger then I wished, but....

I'm just affraid of some idealization of the world through kamma and a "they deserved it" way to see things.

Best wishes,


Buddhist_philosopher said...

Hi Paulo - Many thanks for the follow-up! further comments coming VERY soon via a new post!