Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Response to My Post on Karma

In response to my article on Karma, Alan Cook compiled a nice piece at Milinda's Questions rebutting my equation of karma and causation. I have a few short responses to several of his comments, which follow.
For one thing, the law of karma is not concerned with consequences in general, but with consequences which recoil upon the doer of the action, both in the current and in subsequent lives.
So, the author of the book Alan quotes is saying that karma equals causation applied to sentient beings. So far, it's still causality. He continues:
They especially concern its effects on the dispositions, character, passions and desires of the agent, or the creation of invisible qualities of merit and demerit which adhere to the agent. As such, the proponent of the doctrine will be as much, if not more, concerned with the invisible as well as the visible effects of a human action.
Of course. And the "invisible effect" is still an effect of a cause. He continues:
Since the central causal feature of the law of karma is moral, it is not concerned with the general relation between actions and their consequences, but rather with the moral quality of the actions and their consequences, such as pain or pleasure and good or bad experiences for the doer of the act.
But as no theistic ground exists for morality in Buddhism (see Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis for a well-written explanation of moral grounds), the "moral quality" of an action or its intent is ascertained from its effect. Hence, karma as causality is concerned with the general relation between actions and their consequences (internal, as defined in Alan's post, especially—I'll return to this point with respect to external effects later in this post). He continues:
[W]hereas according to the law of universal causation the production of effects does not depend on the intentions of the agent (except as they are causally related to actions) but on his action, the karmic relation depends upon both.
No. An action (cause) will result in an effect upon the world-at-large. An intention (also a cause) will result in an internal effect on the person with the intention. It is still causality operating within the person himself. Continuing:
[A]ccording to the law of karma like causes produce like effects. Right actions produce good consequences, wrong actions produce bad consequences. However, it is not obvious that like producing like is a characteristic of all causation.
Good and bad are value judgements. Causation is complex, as is karma. In the Acintita Sutta, the Buddha says, "There are these four unconjecturables that are not to be conjectured about, that would bring madness & vexation to anyone who conjectured about them. Which four? ... The precise working out of the results of karma is an unconjecturable that is not to be conjectured about, that would bring madness & vexation to anyone who conjectured about it." Hence, the Buddha himself expressed that we cannot simplify karma to the degree of "this action will produce this particular result, in all cases." It is too complex to be analyzed in that simplistic fashion. He continues:
[T]he law of causation applies to two events or things that are temporally conjoined, whereas the law of karma states that the effects are manifested at some time in the distant future, either in the next life or in more temporally remote lives. Thus, the immediacy of the temporal relation found in the causal law is absent in the law of karma.
Nothing could be further from the truth. In the Lonaphala Sutta, for instance, the Buddha says, "There is the case where a trifling evil deed done by a certain individual takes him to hell. There is the case where the very same sort of trifling deed done by another individual is experienced in the here & now, and for the most part barely appears for a moment." Therefore, the law of karma does not specifically define the temporal relation between a cause and its effect. The effect may occur immediately, or it may occur in the far off future. In this particular sutra, the Buddha is speaking of the physical observability of an effect. Hence, an action's intent does weigh in on the person immediately, but the effect may be so minimal at that time that it does not result in an observable effect by another person until much later. Hence, there is temporal uncertainty. In pure causation, as well, the time relation may be close or far. If I punch a wall, the effect is immediate, on both the wall and myself. But as water temperatures change over the Pacific Ocean, that affects weather patterns that, a week or more later, finally reach the east coast of the United States. In pure causation, as well, time relation is uncertain. He continues:
[S]uch an emphasis on originating dispositions and intentions as determinative of moral quality implies that it matters little what we do. Consequently, with respect to our accumulation of karma it would mean we could do the most despicable acts, so long as our attitude and dispositions were correct.
Nope. There are two problems here. First, with the correct dispositions and attitudes, it is nearly impossible to act in a despicable fashion. More importantly, however, this exemplifies the major problem with the analysis herein presented by the author Alan quotes. The author is examining karma, in and of itself, isolated from the rest of Buddhist philosophy. I'll return to this point at the end, but for now, notice that if a person were capable of performing a despicable act with the most perfect of attitudes and dispositions, the effect on the "world-at-large" would be one of causing pain and suffering, which violates the other core principle of the Buddha's teachings, that of compassion for others. Truly, the Buddha defined the removal of suffering in the Four Noble Truths as his "measuring stick." Hence, to cause another undue pain is grossly flagrant of this teaching, regardless of karmic results. Alan's author continues:
According to the first, karma works through us, creating dispositions and tendencies, merit and demerit, which in turn affect our desires, passions, and perspective on the world.
In short, "merit and demerit" are descriptive terms to help form an understanding of the effect of actions. Buddhist karma is NOT a bank account into which meritorious and demeritorious deeds accumulate in the credit and debit columns.
According to the second, our karmic acts affect the instruments of our experiences, from our own bodies to the world around us. They help determine, among other things, the kinds of bodies with which we are reborn, our social status, and how other persons and things in the environment act on us. These instruments mediate properly determined karma to us, so that one can say that we deserve what happens to us. Here the samskaric account by itself is inadequate.
First, the concept that we "deserve what happens to us" is true to a degree, but not completely. First, "deserve" implies judgment, which is absent from karma. But more importantly, accrued karma affects how I view the world, and affects my perception of the world. My karma does NOT cause a hurricane to come and destroy my house. That happens due to the causes of various weather patterns, water temperatures, etc. My karma does affect my automatic response to such a disaster. But since my karma does not cause such destructive environmental effects, the samskaric account IS adequate.

Alan wrote, in conclusion:
"True, and well said, but as I read it that still doesn’t fully include the objective, phala-producing aspect of the traditional doctrine of karma."

This is the problem inherent in attempting to philosophically dissect Buddhist karma separate from the complete Buddhist teachings. The Buddhist philosophical system functions as a whole and, when separated into component parts, is incomplete. The Buddha's Four Noble Truths focus completely on the ending of suffering. This is truly the central path of Buddhism. But to discuss the objection raised by Alan above, the Buddha's teachings on compassion reflect the Buddhist view of the phala-produced effects of our actions. We know that all beings experience pain, and we know that all non-Buddhas (just about all of us) experience suffering based on that pain. Hence, it is our prime job to avoid causing others pain because we know that they will then suffer. The karmic "demerit" arises from the effect on us, internally, from our intentions. The external phala-effect of our action violates the central tenet of Buddhism—that of removing suffering from all beings.

Thanks, Alan, for such a thought-provoking post!


Rob said...

"Fate is unfathomable" Maeterlinck

My hunch is that karma IS operating but I don't know this for sure.

Incidentally I recommend George Breed's blog "Cosmocracy".

Mike said...

Hi Rob, thanks for stopping by! I'll be sure to check out Cosmocracy.

Alan said...

Thanks, Mike, for a detailed, well-informed, and thought-provoking response (and also for the readers you sent my way.) It'll take me a little while to work through it all, and my response may come in installments. I'll keep you posted.

Alan said...

Sorry it's taken so long. I've posted a brief response; a more detailed version(s) will follow.