I recently encountered someone online who described karma as a “theory,” or “thesis.” Ironically, they also criticized Stephen Batchelor as doing a disservice to Buddhism. I noted that the Buddha in Anguttara Nikaya 6.63 explicitly stated: “Intention, I tell you, is kamma. Intending, one does kamma by way of body, speech, and thought.” Since I can see my intentions in real time (if I look), I therefore can see karma and, ipso facto, karma is not a theory but a lived fact, like breathing or farting or whatever. For good measure, I quoted the Sutta Nipata where the Buddha defined karma as that which has consequences or results:
651-By action [kamma] is one a farmer, by action a craftsman,
By action is one a merchant, by action a servant,
652-By action is one a thief, by action a soldier,
By action is one a priest, by action a king.
I thought this made the stance of the historical Buddha as regards the definition of karma pretty clear. But in response I was told that we do not see karma, only enlightened beings can do this. I was also told karma is both cause and effect and the force that binds these together. I was also told to get my head out of the Pali Canon.
I found these responses and the attitude they betrayed perplexing to say the least, and I’d like to take a moment to dissect what’s going on here.
First, let’s get back to Stephen Batchelor. Batchelor is famous for his efforts to strip Buddhism of its mythology, dogma and old-fashioned delusions. For this general program I applaud him, but he has a frightening tendency to confuse babies with bathwater. When it comes to karma he kind of, almost, sort of gets it right, since in the chapter entitled “Rebirth” in his Buddhism Without Beliefs he quotes the above passage on the equation of karma and intention. But then he goes on to spout silly and unjustifiable things, as when he claims on page 37 that karma is (just) an “ancient Indian metaphysical theory” and that “…the Buddha accepted the idea of karma as he accepted that of rebirth…” The first statement directly contradicts the definition of karma as intention (nothing theoretical there) and the second is simply false since if you can directly observe something it is a datum of experience and not something you need take on faith.
This misapprehension of the term karma seems to be a widespread problem, partly because not all Buddhists are even willing to acknowledge the quite straightforward definition of the term from the oldest texts—as in “get your head out of the Pali Canon.” The inevitable result is vacuous assertions like “only enlightened people can see karma,” which is exactly the mindset Batchelor—quite rightly—criticizes. In the case of my interlocutor, he clearly had an animus toward “narrow hinayanists,” not to mention a dislike for evidence that didn’t conform to his beliefs. Such an attitude reflects a “true believer” mentality, since if we cannot experience something until the hoped-for day we get enlightened, then we have no choice but to accept the word of those who claim themselves enlightened. This way of thinking reduces the Buddha’s teaching to a faith-based religion.
I loathe faith-based religions. While I may with good reason accept a proposition as a working theory, I remain ever ready to toss it out if and when strong contrary evidence comes to light. I treat a range of phenomena in this fashion, most notably the thesis of rebirth. I accept rebirth for a variety of reasons, but I would not say I believe it. I am willing to dispense with the notion; it just so happens that the balance of data I’ve encountered so far weighs in favor of it. (When I went to Asia at age 23, I was quite firmly of the opinion rebirth/reincarnation did not happen.)
But I digress. Back to karma.
Another point I made in the debate was that karma is cause, not effect. I noted that vipaka (“fruit”) is the word the Buddha defined as the effect of karma; it is what happens as a result of my intentional action. I was told this amounted to “an appeal to authority” and was therefore an illegitimate argument.
Imagine you and I are playing Scrabble. I disagree with your spelling of a word, or even doubt the word’s existence. You suggest we look it up in Webster’s. I then say “No dice! That’s an appeal to authority.” What should you do other than punch me? I mean, really? The issue here is not “authority.” The issue is the definition and proper use of technical vocabulary, and it seems a great many people—especially when it’s something they’re emotionally vested in, like a religion—are inclined to making up definitions to suit themselves.
Think of the chaos that would ensue in daily life if everybody went about their affairs in this way. Suppose you’re a Freudian analyst and one day, for amusement’s sake, you switch the meaning of the words “id” and “ego.” How long will you last before you’ve lost everyone in the room? How long will you last before you lose your board certification and are out of a job?
As in any endeavor, progress begins with learning the lingo. It continues with clear and sincere motivations. It is consummated when you are able to effectively communicate your realization, your understanding, to others in such a way that it helps them. For this reason I find karma deniers and obfuscators among the most pernicious so-called Buddhists around. They take a simple but very important idea and flog it until it submits to their ulterior motives. This is not helpful. It is bad karma.