Karma: Another Look

Buddhism has much to say about happiness. However, it makes many metaphysical assumptions which may not sit well with those seeking a secular path. Fortunately, Buddhism is easily secularized — many concepts can be given a psychological interpretation or dropped with no harm to the system.  For instance, Nirvana is easily secularized, while Karma is usually dropped. Yet recently, a useful secular interpretation of Karma came to my attention.

First, let’s see how Karma is usually handled. Karma is said to be the cause of our suffering; past acts generate the Karma that causes  our present suffering, while present acts generate the Karma that will cause our future suffering.  Unfortunately, this sounds like reward/punishment from an outside agency, especially with the claim that acts somehow make us happier. The result is the temptation to turn our practice into a series of acts designed to appeal to this agency.  Even defining Karma as a universal law or the agency as our selves doesn’t help.

My views changed when I met a person with a different definition of Karma, courtesy of Shinzen Young (sadly, I could find no references).  She defined Karma as our tendency to respond to events in terms of past conditioning.

It’s important to be clear about this. Not all past influence is bad. For instance, if I had an auto accident, I am likely to be more cautious as a result, and this is good. It becomes bad when I dread driving or obsess over the accident. It is this conditioning I speak of, and I will use the word “attachment” to refer to it.

If I substitute this new definition of Karma into the previous statement, I get: our suffering is caused by our tendency to respond to events in terms of past conditioning (attachment), and continuing this tendency causes future suffering.

Let’s explore this in more detail by examining the cycle of suffering:

  1. An event occurs.
  2. I react to it, and it’s in this reaction (rather than the event itself) that I suffer.
  3. I remember this suffering as a property of the event (rather than my reaction).
  4. I experience or think I may experience a similar event.
  5. I remember the suffering I blamed on the event.
  6. I suffer from the event or dread.
  7. The cycle repeats, starting from step 3.

The way out is non-attachment — seeing things as they are (thoughts as thoughts, sights as sights, etc…), without identifying with them, fleeing them or clinging to them.  In fact, there are some path elements in Buddhism that can be profitably viewed through this lens: Right Thoughts, Right Action, Right Speech, Right Livelihood.

Usually, these elements are presented as specific acts to do or avoid.  However, viewed through the lens of non-attachment, it isn’t the act itself, but one’s mental state while doing them that matters.  So it’s not about what we think, do or say, but that we are non-attached while thinking, doing or saying.

Right thought — more than anything else — breaks the cycle. If we adopt non-attachment to our thoughts, then we see past conditioning as thoughts about the past. We don’t identify with them, give them energy or flee them. This in turn helps us achieve well-being now — regardless of past Karma — while building habits that will serve us well in the future.

Not only should our actions spring from non-attachment, but we also should not be attached to the results.  This meshes very nicely with a Hindu path called — appropriately enough — Karma Yoga.  In Karma yoga, we erase Karma by not being attached to the fruits of our actions.  This is good advice to take into the Buddhist path.  Do our part, but don’t cling to the results.  Talk, but don’t cling to someone being persuaded.  Work, but don’t cling to accolades or recognition, and so on.

Clinging to the results of actions can be especially troublesome because if we cling to things outside our control, we set ourselves up for disappointment.  We always have the power to respond appropriately, but we don’t have the power to guarantee outcomes. This recalls the Stoic admonition to value only one’s will to virtue, and the serenity prayer’s reminder that we should know what we can and cannot control, and restrict our actions to the former.

Unfortunately, attachment can use anything as its object.  If we experience good results from non-attachment, we may turn that into positive conditioning/Karma. While this is better than what we usually do, it is still a problem for it builds expectations. We may then  expect these results and be disappointed if we don’t achieve them, or we may worry about achieving them.  Which brings us back to attachment.  Yes, we’re now attached to the perceived fruits of non-attachment! To avoid this trap, we must remember that genuine non-attachment meets the present on its own terms, which is one reason to be fully present to this moment.

Whether this interpretation of Karma has anything to do with the original purpose of Karma is irrelevant; what matters is it offers us a useful tool for practice.  Still, it’s interesting to speculate:

  1. Can we secularize rebirth and fit it into this Karmic system?
  2. Was Karma a metaphor for this psychological past conditioning that ended up getting taken literally?  This is  intriguing because — broadly viewed — these two conceptions of Karma are the same:  our past actions sow the seeds of future suffering.

 

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21 thoughts on “Karma: Another Look

  1. A very interesting understanding of karma. While I do see your point that what matters is how such concepts affect the way we live/practice, I still wonder how this secularized view of karma can play the same conceptual role the non-secular version did in relation to rebirth. Still, I quite like this very plausible understanding of karma, thanks for sharing it.

    1. Thanks! One way to reconcile this view of Karma and Rebirth is to secularize Rebirth. I heard someone propose that rebirth was not about literally dying and being reborn, but: 1) The passing away and arising of our experience, such as the thoughts, moods, conditions, etc… 2) The constant recreation/reinforcement of our identities, in response to our experience. This Karma can then be seen in terms of clinging to (1) or deriving (and forming a feedback with) (2). In fact, (2) may be the most critical driver of the cycle of suffering I outlined in the article, as it’s the attempt to shore up the self in light of experience that drives much (if not all) of non-acceptance.

  2. I’m a bit sceptical about this one BR. I’m not sure I see the purpose of ‘secularising’ karma or how one would go about it, or what the opposite process would be. As no God or Cosmic Magistrate is involved is it not secular already? Surely the issue is only whether it is a real phenomenon or not.

    1. I guess I’m using secular in a more restrictive sense; if it involves anything remotely supernatural, then I don’t consider it secular. The traditional interpretation of Karma essentially states that the universe somehow acts in accordance to my past acts; this makes traditional Karma non-secular (IMO).

      Why attempt a secular explanation? Well, this was more out of interest than anything else, but it turned out to have some benefits. The different angles on aspects of Buddhism and Hinduism alone were worth it (IMO).

      There are some deeper reasons as to why secularizing may be useful, but it rests on some assumptions/justifications that are too involved to get into here. I might write a post on that…

  3. Yes, I see your point. But karma is just cause and effect. That it operates on more than a purely physical level would not seem to make it supernatural, and in fact the supernatural is denied by Buddhism. It speaks instead of the ‘supramundane’, which is a quite different idea. Karma is supposed to be a law of Nature, not a magical intervention in the law. Still, I see where you’re coming from.

    1. Unfortunately, just because something is cause and effect doesn’t make it secular; after all, sinning and going to hell is cause and effect. The key is the mechanism of this cause and effect, and this is where Karma is likely to be objectionable to the “secular” or scientifically-minded.

      For instance, to claim that any physical consequences would result from my bad actions is to posit morality in a causal role with physical reality, something I think everyone of a scientific/secular mindset would reject out of hand.

      To claim psychological pain would result from bad acts would require some recognition of the act’s immorality and remorse on some level, even if not realized. Yet what if immoral acts are performed with no remorse? Then there could be no comeuppance. To argue that all immoral acts are recognized is to claim for a universally recognized, innate code of ethics. While many may agree there are cases in which we broadly agree on ethics, they aren’t universal and are learned.

  4. I think maybe you’re talking about your ideas about karma, and not what Buddhism says about it. It’s a subtle topic and I wouldn’t want to argue, but certainly the teachings on karma are not as easy to pick holes in as this.

    1. I spent many years studying Buddhism and attending a Buddhist Temple. In all that time, the only Karma I encountered was the one that implied acts had non-naturalistic causal powers. Given how central Karma is, it’s doubtful I missed this critical piece of information, but I won’t reject the possibility.

      Could you point me to some reputable sources that argue that the mainstream Buddhist interpretation of Karma fits within a scientific/naturalistic framework? I’d love to read any such sources.

  5. Well, I respect your experience, of course, but I’ve never heard the laws called supernatural. Supramundane yes. I’d say the whole of Buddhism fits within naturalism. Unless, that is, we have dogmatic preconceptions about what is natural and what is not.

    Why do you consider these laws supernatural, as opposed to being not in line with the current scientific orthodoxy on what is natural? I fail to see how any phenomenon can be supernatural unless it is fictional. I also fail to see how we can call a phenomenon supernatural until we can understand Nature and thus what is and is not natural. It seems to me that an inescapable law which governs the entire universe including all Gods and Men can hardly be anything else but natural. Is the supernatural possible? Or is it always in the eye of the beholder?

    1. I think we should just agree to disagree, since…

      1. I consider Supramundane = Supernatural.

      2. I don’t think Buddhism is even close to fitting into a Naturalistic worldview.

      3. I never claimed the supernatural was or was not real, so I don’t see the relevance of bringing up fiction or phenomena.

      4. Certain claims fall outside the way the world is (scientifically) believed to work. While there’s always the possibility that such claims may be true, being agnostic about them is not the same as accepting or denying them.

  6. It’s a little odd this. Do you not see that it doesn’t actually matter that you consider ‘supramundane’ to have the same meaning as ‘supernatural’. What matters is that Buddhists do not. You are free to argue that Buddhism needs to be naturalised on the grounds that you have the view that it is supernatural, but this is not how Buddhists see it. This is why they use two different words, so as to avoid any implication of supernaturalism. .

    I realise that you believe that Buddhist doctrine is not naturalistic, or cannot be presented in a fully naturalistic way, I was just pointing out this a conjecture. You would have know all about Nature and all about Buddhism to know if it is a fact. All we can be sure of is that Buddhism does not claim that the world breaks the laws of Nature, and in fact claims that it is completely law-governed. .

    I can’t agree that the supernatural might be real. I would agree about agnosticism though. So did the Buddha.

    Anyway. Quite right. Good idea not to argue. Now I’ve responded I’ll shut up.

  7. Thank you for this elegantly wrought article, and for your clarity too. I have read through the interesting discussion you have had with Guy also. Discussing any doctrine in generic terms is fraught with danger, particularly in the area of religious cosmology. I was under instruction in the Theravada tradition for over 20 years, and was always encouraged to test all assertions against experience. Your reading of Kamma/Vipāka makes sense to me.

      1. “Believe nothing, O monks, merely because you have been told it. . . or because it is traditional, or because you yourselves have imagined it. Do not believe what your teacher tells you merely out of respect for the teacher. But whatsoever, after due examination and analysis, you find to be conducive to the good, the benefit, the welfare of all beings – that doctrine believe and cling to, and take it as your guide.”

      2. “‘If there is a world after death, if there is the fruit of actions rightly & wrongly done, then this is the basis by which, with the break-up of the body, after death, I will reappear in a good destination, the heavenly world.’ This is the first assurance he acquires.

        “‘But if there is no world after death, if there is no fruit of actions rightly & wrongly done, then here in the present life I look after myself with ease — free from hostility, free from ill will, free from trouble.’ This is the second assurance he acquires.

        “‘If evil is done through acting, still I have willed no evil for anyone. Having done no evil action, from where will suffering touch me?’ This is the third assurance he acquires.

        “‘But if no evil is done through acting, then I can assume myself pure in both ways.’ This is the fourth assurance he acquires.

        “One who is a disciple of the noble ones — his mind thus free from hostility, free from ill will, undefiled, & pure — acquires these four assurances in the here-&-now.”

        Kalama Sutta: To the Kalamas

        Translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu

  8. Hi Blogging’ – I liked this. Two comments.

    Buddhism makes no metaphysical assumptions, and I bridled at the idea. Individual Buddhists may choose to do so, but what would be the point? .

    A very good explanation of karma is given in ‘A Course in Miracles’ using mostly psychological language. where transcending karma would be by means of ‘Atonement’, or reconciliation with our source. For Christians investigating the idea of karma this might be a more useful read than the sutras, I haven’t studied your post above carefully, but you seem to have arrived at pretty much the same explanation.

      1. I’m not sure that this would be the whole story, but there comes a point after which I’m guessing, needless to say.

        At any rate, this would the reason why it is possible to speak of transcending this conditioning for ‘Enlightenment’ or ‘Salvation’, which is what ‘A Course in Miracles’ and the Buddhist sutras advise us to do.

        By this view of karma it would refer to the psychological laws while the laws of physics would refer to the material laws, and this would give us a law-governed psycho-physical universe.
        This would be the mundane world. .

        Going back to our earlier chat the question was, Is this other world supernatural or supramundane? One reason for favouring the latter idea might be that it suggests that the two worlds overlap and thus form one world, while the prefix ‘super’ suggests something beyond or additional to this world. Not a strong reason, but it would explain why Buddhism uses ‘supra’ and not super’, which would be quite wrong.

        .

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