"'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: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.in bile...in phlegm ...in 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 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.