How Should We Think About Karma?

Our conversations over the last month or so have been exploring the traditional teachings on rebirth and how they fit, or don’t very well, with contemporary worldviews. The main sticking point is not whether we believe or don’t believe in some kind of continuity of consciousness after death, but a deeper philosophical problem: how to understand action and its consequences.

Rebirth is a solution to an ancient question. As a cosmological model, it provides a structure for thinking through a vexing ethical puzzle: how/whether individuals experience the results of their own actions. Without rebirth, concepts for how individuals experience any kind of inevitable recompense for good or evil actions are substantially weakened.

The humanist consensus is that they don’t necessarily, but that that’s OK. Sometimes people experience the results of their actions in their lifetime in a material sense, but not always. Sometimes the only result of evil action is psychological haunting and social shunning, and the only result of good action some amount of psychological and social well-being. We assume that people who do evil are unhappy deep down (and traumatized, which is now the standard narrative explanation for evil), and this becomes their karmic inheritance rather than any kind of more literal misfortune in a future life. The upshot of this ends up being that the true result of our actions is in the collective sphere, not the individual, and so the collective is where we should focus our intentions. In this worldview, folks who act for their own benefit, even if their actions are quite wholesome, may be considered selfish. 

I’ve heard folks talk about monastics this way: that the act of retiring into the contemplative life is a kind of turning away from people who are suffering. Bringing discourses of privilege into spiritual practice often hints at this kind of judgment: it’s a privilege to go on retreat, a privilege to live simply and quietly, a privilege to take up the monastic life and be dependent on the generosity of others. All of these things are privileges, of course, in that they are the result of certain favorable conditions that are not available to everyone. But to critique folks making the choice for lifestyles like this as being indulgent or selfish is very different from a traditional Buddhist view of these choices as being unequivocally wholesome.

Karma (Pāli: kamma) is a body of ethical and cosmological theory that attempts to solve the problem of action and consequence. It nags at the heart to think that our actions are fundamentally meaningless, because that suggests to us that the cosmos is fundamentally meaningless. This is the nihilism we’ve been talking about. It was unsatisfying to the ancient Buddhist thinkers to describe action as meaningful—productive of real effect in the world—only within a person’s current lifetime, and it seems to have been taken as axiomatic that the result of actions should be experienced by the individual themself. The only satisfying solution to this is that the result of actions might be experienced by the individual in a future lifetime. 

Does the humanist consensus solve this ancient problem? I see an ingenious recipe developing in the convert Buddhist world that integrates contemporary materialist ontology (there is no continuation of individual experience after death) with Buddhist views on selflessness and emptiness (there is no separate self, and so all action must be seen as collective and interdependent). The result is a conception of the self and our actions as being individually meaningful only in a very short term (this lifetime) psychological way, but meaningful in the collective sphere for much longer. I think this is why there is so much social pressure on the left—and this is fundamentally a leftist intervention in Buddhist ethics—to be an activist. If the only truly meaningful way to live is to contribute to the collective, disengagement from the political world must be an abdication of responsibility. In this view, the true nihilists are the ones who do not engage, turning traditional Buddhist values on their head. 

As an ethical system, I think the humanist Buddhist consensus more or less works:

  1. We use doctrines of interdependence to imagine the impact of our actions beyond our individual life
  2. We disidentify with being a separate individual in favor of identifying with collective social classes
  3. We make psychological and emotional life the primary place we experience the results of our actions
  4. We think of our actions as primarily collective and secondarily individual

This solves the problem of how individuals experience the results of their own actions by including both an individual experience in this lifetime and a collective experience beyond it. It is a fundamentally liberal, socialist vision of the world in that it depends on individuals finding meaningful identity and motivation in collective social groups and communities. We might call this a transpersonal ethical consciousness. It is fundamentally non-selfish, which is one of its beauties, but that’s also it’s weakness. 

Classical Buddhist karma is a motivational tactic: you will experience the results of your actions sooner or later so take care with them. When the “later” in that formulation is replaced by “or other people will, subtly, in the great collective turning of history,” the motivational impact may be quite weak. All we have to do is slide into the seductive anonymity of being a bit player on a vast stage and suddenly it really doesn’t matter. Karma is a proposal that our actions matter in a way that we can really feel and have a relationship with. 

Even if we wholeheartedly agree with the humanist Buddhist consensus, and feel strongly about the collective as the right place for the effects of our actions to play out, is it enough to guide us on the path? The definition of a spiritual path is that it must help us work with to the urges for pleasure, comfort, and acquisition and hatred of threat and discomfort that are the nature of being a sentient being—and motivate us to cultivate goodness in a world where it is often easier to do otherwise. Does it ask too much of us to embody the maturity of a transpersonal ethical consciousness before we are secure in even basic practices of non-reactive witnessing (mindfulness) and impartial love (mettā)?

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