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Archive for the tag “kamma”

Karma This, Karma That…

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.

[Scratch head.]

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.

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A Buddhist Answer to Craig’s God: Part 2 of A Critique of William Lane Craig’s Debate With Sam Harris

In the first part of this essay I tried to show how postulating God–any god or gods–as the source of morality is so beset by problems as to offer no refuge for the man or woman in the world who asks, in all seriousness, the ethical question What shall I do?  That there is an answer to this question I am certain, and the best answer I have found, the most complete and rigorously defined, lies in the teachings of the historical Buddha.

I say “historical” to delimit my source materials.  My interest here is in what Gotama’s answer to this question was, not what later followers and elaborators said he said.  For this we have as source the sutta pitaka, the “basket of discourses” found in the Pali Canon of the Theravada school and the only documents that can claim any meaningful direct link with Buddhism’s founder.  This is in no way to denigrate the later Mahayana and Vajrayana schools of Buddhism which have added substantitively to Buddhist technologies of liberation.  Simply, I have not the expertise (not to mention the time) to be all-encompassing; indeed, this discussion of the Buddha’s ethics will be at best preliminary, indicating possible answers to the questions addressed in the Craig-Harris debate.

In fact, I have already written on this subject.  Here is a quote from my “Ten Questions” essay in response to Daryl E. Wittmer:

What then is the purpose of ethical behavior?  The Buddha discusses this specific question innumerable times throughout the suttas.  In brief, one adopts sila (ethical precepts) specifically for the purpose of eliminating mental, verbal and physical actions that give rise to negative mental states, relationships and consequences that hinder mental culture (bhavana).  Also, we try to behave generously, graciously, and compassionately because such modes of deportment foster good mental states both within ourselves and others.  In other words, depending on what we think, say and do we have the power to increase or decrease suffering in ourselves and others.  Since the Buddha’s teaching is concerned entirely with the elimination of suffering (i.e. existential angst), ethical behavior is the bedrock upon which everything else must be built.  Without it, the attainment of higher states leading to [nirvana] is out of the question.

This really is the gist of it.  Ethics begin with a person confronting their vulnerable position in this world.  They are alone, even with others, for nobody can tell them how to live their life.  Even if others try (as they inevitably do), in the end it is their life.  They alone suffer the consequences and enjoy the fruit of what they have done.  They are responsible.  How, then, can they know what they should do, what is right and what is wrong?

Clearly this is not a question for simpletons or those endlessly lost in distractions.  I cannot ask my cat this question and expect him to hesitate next time he encounters a mouse.  Intelligence is required, maturity, reflection.  One must look and see what one has thought, said and done.  One must observe consequences, not only in one’s own life, but in the lives of others, living and dead.  Responsibility must be exercised.  Eventually, if one reaches out with the heart–this is what is called “compassion”–one understands, one feels, that the suffering and joy of others is in fact no different than one’s own.  One sees that thoughts, words, and actions are things that, once produced, live beyond you, but almost inevitably revisit you.  This is karma–the conditioning of one’s mind, body and life by the actions one has taken.

There is nothing mysterious or magical about this.  You think, you speak, you act.  These behaviors affect the world.  They affect others.  They affect you.  That influence in turn conditions your next thought, word or action.  Here we have, quite clearly, inescapably, cause and effect.  If you regularly ring the bell while eating, you will salivate at the bell, even in the absence of food.  You will have formed and shaped your own mind, thereby limiting or expanding your experience and possibilities.

What is the best way to live?  Which actions give rise to the greatest well being for the greatest number of beings?  (Note: this argument, as you can see if you’ve read the transcript, is quite close to Harris’, who has almost certainly been influenced by Buddhist thinking on this subject.)  A Stalin or Mao will never ask this question, or, if they do, will never reference anything beyond their immediate, self-absorbed concerns.  For more than intelligence is required.  Sensitivity, too, is paramount–hence the innumerable Buddhist trainings that are meant to open the heart to friendliness, sympathetic joy, and the suffering of others.  Only when these modalities are sufficiently mature can karma, in its broadest sense, mean anything to a person, thereby affecting the choices they make.

Ultimately, the Buddhist path converges on a total transformation of the human heart and mind.  It is transpersonal, transcendent, yet at the same time immanent, for the awakened one never loses sight of the fact that he or she is still in the world, related to other beings.  From an ethical standpoint, the selfless mind, the mind that has realized bodhi or anatta and undergone permanent transformation as a result, is the true source and ground of ethics.  Ethics converge on self-transcendence.  For where there is self, there is other, there is separation and division and conflict.  Ethics begin with an orientation toward non-duality or egolessness; they are  consummated and completed in the permanent realization of that state.

It should by now be obvious that Buddhist ethics differ radically from William Lane Craig’s definition of ethics.  In Craig’s view, morality is really just another word for obedience–if we obey God’s commands, we are judged ethical; if we do not, we are unethical.  It’s that simple.  In addition to the problems elaborated in the first part of this essay, it should be noted that ethics in Craig’s scenario are quite malleable.  If God says it is good to slaughter the heathens–and in some passages in the Old Testament he does–then murder is a virtue.  If he says “Love thy neighbor as thyself” then self-sacrifice and generosity are judged moral actions.  Morality is thus held hostage to the changing whims of a god through time.  The Spaniards were not in a position to criticize human sacrifice by the Aztecs on the basis of scripture.

I finish with one last quote from my “Ten Questions” essay:

But what if God tells a person to love their neighbor, to give to the poor, and to turn the other cheek?  And what if he or she does it?  Certainly they will be considered moral, perhaps even saintly.  And that is all well and good; it would be wonderful if more people followed such advice.  But I wonder: does such a person understand the purpose of ethics any better than, say, a puppy understands why its master wants it to sit, fetch or play dead?  I think not.  Ultimately, “doing God’s will” is a substitute for thinking and comprehension; it is simple obedience.  The person of faith may enthusiastically fulfill the commandments or do so grudgingly.  Either way, they will be fulfilled, but not because the person comprehends the purpose of ethical behavior.

True ethics, I posit, are not simply a matter of doing good.  More importantly, ethics must concern being good.  This is a totally different propostion, one that requires much more than simple obedience.  It requires intelligence, consideration, awareness and the long view.  Craig’s position cannot offer this.  The Buddha’s can.

How Buddhism Began by Richard F. Gombrich

How Buddhism Began: The Conditioned Genesis of the Early Teachings by Richard F. Gombrich.  Athlone Press 1996/Munshiram Manoharlal 2010, 180 pages. 

This is my last book review of the year. It will not be, however, the last review I do of something not on my Ultimate Buddhist Reading List.  There are still a half-dozen volumes hanging around on my shelves that I’ve read over the years I’d like to review, and when time and chance align, I’ll write up something on them too.

This project of reading and reviewing is the biggest intellectual endeavor and commitment I’ve undertaken since I finished my novel (unpublished) back in 2007.  That was something I’d wanted to do for much of my life—I once aspired to be a fantasy novelist, by the way—but when I was a hundred thousand words into a second novel depression hit and I understood intuitively I would not be able to continue.  Life had kicked me in the gut and I had no choice but to change.  A complete reorientation of priorities was the result, and a re-commitment to Buddhist study and practice followed.  It remains to be seen what fruits will be born from this.

Anyway, thanks so much for reading my blog and happy New Year to you!

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The book consists of five related essays based upon lectures Gombrich delivered in 1994 at theSchoolofOrientaland African Studies.  Certain characteristic interests, however, give them a semblance of unity.  In each case Gombrich attempts to look at how specific doctrines developed based on the texts, and how those doctrines often misconstrued the texts via over-literalism, lack of a sense of context, or by readings based on corrupted words or phrases.  His approach is primarily investigatory and exploratory as opposed to strictly didactic.  He starts with these words: “In these lectures I am more concerned with formulating problems and raising questions than with providing answers” (1).  In this, Gombrich is certainly successful.  That is, he excels in illuminating issues begging further clarification.  However, I have to confess that despite my enjoyment of his work I am not convinced by some of his arguments.  More on this to follow…

The first essay, “Debate, skill in means, allegory and literalism,” discusses the role of debate in the evolution of the Buddha’s teaching.  Gombrich writes: “…the Buddha, like anyone else, was communicating in a social context, reacting to his social environment and hoping in turn to influence those around him” (13).  He therefore emphasizes the importance of understanding the Buddha’s environment to understand his message, while at the same time noting the difficulty of properly reconstructing that environment.

Consider, for example, the anatta teaching.  Hindus, emphasizing the Buddha’s role as a “reformer,” have downplayed it, attempting to claim the Great Man as one of their own.  (Anatta, of course, flies in the face of Upanishadic teachings.)  Westerners, however, have misconstrued the “soul” the Buddha was apparently denying, seeing it from a Judaeo-Christian-Platonic perspective.  “But none of this has anything to do with the Buddha’s position,” Gombrich tells us (15).  “[The Buddha] was opposing the Upanishadic theory of the soul…”  He then goes on to elaborate how anatta only makes sense from that context.

This was my first point of significant disagreement with Gombrich.  Did the Buddha argue against the notion of an atman such as you find in the Upanishads?  Certainly.  Consider, for example, Brahmajala 1:30, 2:18, 2:38, all of which condemn Upanishadic teachings of one form or another about the Self.  (The Upanishads, it should be noted, are not monolithic, but contain multiple stances on this issue.)  But the Buddha’s anatta teaching is not primarily concerned with a metaphysical Self that, for most of us at least, is little better than an abstraction.  It is concerned, rather, with our experience of a locus of control, of inherent identity, of continuous being-ness, of “I am-ness,” as Ken Wilber likes to say.  (One of my gripes with the Great Integral Master…)  If it purely concerned the Upanishadic doctrine, the Dhamma would have no relevance to anyone today, unless they were followers of Upanishadic teachings.  (A few hundred million Hindus, I would guess.)  But then Gombrich redeems himself to an extent when he says “[The Buddha] was refusing to accept that a person had an unchanging essence.  Moreover, since he was interested in how rather than what, he was not so much saying that people are made of such and such components [i.e. the five aggregates], as that people function in such and such ways, and to explain their functioning there is not need to posit a soul.  The approach is pragmatic, not purely theoretical” (16).  I would go one step further and say it’s one hundred percent practical and not theoretical at all.  (As I’ve noted elsewhere, a three month Vipassana retreat should convince you of the reality of the anatta teaching, even if you don’t reach stream entry.  The moment-to-moment examination of experience and the inability to find a controller, a doer, even though suffering the sense one is lurking there somewhere, severely challenges any notion of identity.  Heady stuff…)

My objection here though is minor compared to the delights offered by this essay.  Gombrich goes on to discuss the Buddha’s skill-in-means, the assertion that the later tradition attempted to “level out” inconsistencies in his modes of expression, and concludes with a marvelous discussion of the simile of the raft (which confirmed a suspicion I’d had for a long time).

The second essay, “How, not what: kamma as a reaction to Brahminism,” illuminates the differences between the Buddha’s ethical orientation and the more ontological orientation of Brahminism. Here, too, he sees the Buddha in argument with the Upanishads, specifically the Brihadaranyaka U. (31).  The Upanishads asserted essence (especially as regards consciousness), the Buddha denied it (viz. dependent arising).  Gombrich says “that just as Being lies at the heart of the Upanishadic world view, Action [karma] lies at the heart of the Buddha’s” (48).  He runs with this idea, citing Lamotte, who called karma “the keystone of the entire Buddhist edifice” (49).  I think, however, that Gombrich goes too far.  In the Tevijja Sutta (D.13) the Buddha discusses how to attain the Brahma worlds via meditation on the four immeasurables (brahma-viharas).  Gombrich correctly notes that the Buddha says by such practice one can become like Brahma in his moral qualities, and gain ceto-vimutti, “release of the mind.”  He equates this with the liberation of nirvana.  “I am claiming that a close reading of the Tevijja Sutta shows that the Buddha taught that kindness—what Christians tend to call love—was a way to salvation” (62).

Now, I don’t need to cite texts to make my point here.  If you’ve got enough meditation practice under your belt, you will know that a heart practice like loving kindness (metta-bhavana; Mahayana practices to develop bodhicitta and Tibetan lojong are elaborations on this) is fundamentally different from an insight practice like vipassana or anapanasati.  While the former is intellectual and emotive and can develop concentration (i.e. it works with the contents of consciousness), the goal of the latter is to see directly the nature of experience itself.  While not at cross purposes, they are, you might say, at 90 degree angles to one another.  The development of concentration, which is absorption in a particular state of consciousness, as well as (in the brahma-viharas) the development of positive emotions and feelings, does not enable one to see the nature of one’s experience, which is what insight is all about.  Here we have Gombrich the scholar missing the truly applied—that which lies beyond the texts, in their lived experience—nature of the Buddha’s teaching.

Chapter three, “Metaphor, allegory, satire,” examine the Buddha’s manner of communication; specifically, how he used turns of speech, the flipping of terms, satire, etc to make his points.  This is probably the least weighty—and controversial—of the essays.  For me it was of interest in that it served to give a more human and concrete feel for the Buddha and his time.  Subjects discussed here include time, naga cults, allegory and satire, Mara, the Enlightenment, cosmology, and apperception.  (A lot!)

Chapter four—“Retracing an ancient debate: how insight worsted concentration in the Pali canon”—is controversial in the way the second essay was: it questions long-held assumptions about the nature and meaning of Buddhist practice and soteriology.  Briefly put: Gombrich believes the suttas point up tension between those who took an intellectual approach to the Dhamma (the insight or “wisdom” school) and those who advocated meditation (which he identified as concentration practice).  As Gombrich puts it, it was a battle between those who think “Enlightenment can be attained without meditation, by a process of intellectual analysis (technically known as paññā) alone” (96) and those who do not.

While it is clear there are tensions in the suttas between scholasticism and practice, I am not aware of the Buddha or any of his enlightened disciples propounding the notion one could get enlightened simply by thinking about it.  In other words, the identification of paññā solely with intellectual analysis is gravely mistaken.  What in fact appears to be the case is that those who favored paññā were monks (or laity) who were “dry insight” practitioners, much like the Mahasi satipatthana practice out of Burma.  Thus we have those who follow the more conventional concentration-and-insight path (attaining jhanas first and then the insight stages) versus those who go straight to insight.  But insight practice is not an intellectual exercise; anyone who has any familiarity with the Mahasi system can tell you that.

If you think the above is a trivial discussion, I want to assure you that in Sri Lanka, where opposition in the Sangha to the Mahasi practice was for a long time wide and vocal, a lot of ink has been spilled—and, probably, a few harsh words or blows exchanged—concerning which is the “right” or “correct” method of practice.  Regrettably, I have to say I don’t think Gombrich adds much to this discussion.

“Who was Angulimala?” is the last essay of the book, and possibly my favorite.  Who has not wondered about the true origins of this sutta, with its fantastic story of the homicidal bandit collecting fingers from his victims?  Who was this man, really, and what his motivation?  The sutta (and even its commentaries) does not come across as particularly reasonable in its internal logic, so these questions ought to naturally arise.  In this essay Gombrich offers some ingenious speculation on these questions that is quite possibly correct—though of course, we’ll never know.

All in all, while I found some of Gombrich’s arguments implausible, his book is a pleasure to read and a worthy contribution to the literature of Buddhist textual analysis.  His is a refreshing, learned and intelligent voice, and he admirably succeeds in unlocking closed doors, leaving it to us to open them and peer in and wonder what might be hidden behind them.

My Amazon rating: 5 stars

 

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