Wednesday, June 20, 2012


I often thought that I should do a posting about buddhism. Only to then procrastinate/forget/otherwise weasel my way around it.

See, I had a fling with the thing. While I never was a real, professed, meditating-all-day follower of the Tathagatha, I adopted a lot of its most important tenets and tried to incorporate them into my own life.

And then, I stopped. And instead of trying to explain this in general terms, I think it will make more sense to break it down into smallish portions.

Let's start with the teaching of karma.

In its most basic form, adherents will inform you, "karma simply means cause and effect".

This formula makes me cringe when I hear it. If that was all there is to karma, then why not simply call it causality? After all, causality is a well-established concept. Why would we need a new name for an old ceremony?

Of course, as you probably already knew, that simple formula does not cut it. In a very important way, it's a lie. There is more to it - and every buddhist knows that. Yeah, sure, I get the need to sometimes have a cute little formula when you don't really want to discuss the details. But here, in this blog posting, we are actually concerned with those details.

So let's start with this: "Karma is the law of cause and effect, but EXTENDED TO THE REALM OF ETHICS."

Now it gets interesting.

Let's talk about causality first. It is such a well-established concept that most people would not hesitate even a second when asked whether they "believe in causality". Of course we do. It's obvious, right?

Weeeeell... yes and no. Sure, causality works pretty well. It works so well, actually, that it makes sense to assume that it is universal.

But there is a trap right in there. See, causality is based on observation. We have seen the egg fall from the nest and break to pieces. We have seen the cat catch the mouse, and inevitably the mouse ended up dead. We have seen it millions, trillions, unfathomable numbers of times.

So it must be universal, right?

Well, no. In fact, claiming that causality is universal is one hell of a bold claim. Sure, we can and we should ASSUME that causality is universal, given how many instances we have seen at work. It is the pragmatically useful thing to do. But we cannot be sure. Never. We derived this idea purely by inductive logic. And inductive logic may fail at any point. A quantum mechanic may have something to say about that.

In short, it's a necessary assumption. And a necessary assumption is not the same thing as an absolute and universal truth. We should never forget that difference.

And that is the first issue I have with the buddhist concept of karma.

In buddhism, causality is treated as an absolute. (In fact, it is even used in refuting the idea of a deity - because such would contradict causality.) But it isn't. It's nothing more than a useful concept. One of the most useful concepts we ever came up with, to be sure - but still, not necessarily universal, and definitely not absolute. If you witness something tomorrow that does not adhere to causality, then that's it - no more law of causality. It's proven to be less than universal. Then we have to do something about it.

(Don't catch your breath though - if you were really absolutely positive that you witnessed something non-causal, chances are you need a visit to the doctor. In fact, if you want to complicate things further, think of causality as a necessity of human thinking itself. It may well be an attribute of the brain, rather than an law of reality. And then, the next time you turn on the light, medidate the implications of that. It's quite mind-boggling, I tells ya.)

The second issue? I mentioned it above.

In basically all of mainstream buddhism, karma is treated as a law regarding ethics. You behave well, you get a good reincarnation. You behave badly, you're reborn as a slug. Or as a woman. Your call to decide what is worse.

Yeah, I know, it's not quite as simple. Buddhism actually has a very cool builtin safety measure: ONLY A BUDDHA KNOWS THE INTRICACIES OF THE LAW OF KARMA. Therefore, you puny non-enlightened being are not to try to judge me based on my ill-fortunes in this life. Case in question, as witnessed by yours truly: a baby born with congenital ichthyosis. Some said he must have done something incredibly bad in his past lives. Others interjected that we cannot tell, because none of us are buddhas.

Well, okay then - but what, then, is karma meant to be? Is it purely a FUD campaign? A way to wag your finger at people who misbehave?

Regardless of whatever the original intention - that is, of course, one of its major applications. I imagine that buddhist children don't get to hear that baby Jesus will be mad at them if they don't do their homework. They just get to hear that they will PROBABLY be reborn as Michael Jackson. Yeah. Much better.

But what really bugs me is that it just does not work in any predictable way. Talking about future incarnations is fine and dandy - but who will be around to check the truth of those claims? - And, really, if it works across incarnations, shouldn't it work much better, much more reliably and effectively, WITHIN this one small, short life? I mean, yeah sure, if I'm kind to my neighbours, chances are they'll be kind to me. I understand that. Society is, to a large part, a karma-producing affair.

But try to tell that to a Jew, in Germany, around 1939.

All the Jews were evil in their past lives. That's the unavoidable conclusion, if you want to stick to your karma. It really is - think about it, what other explanation would there be? I mean, sure, Hitler probably spends a few houndred billion incarnations as a single-cell organism in some remote, very hot place now, but is that really any solace? Do you honestly, SINCERELY, want to go there?

I certainly don't.

In short, karma is bonkers. It's a somewhat nice idea, and most probably it's nicer than baby Jesus and his obsession with my masturbation habits. But it's still rather stupid. At least as long as you think of it as a "law".

But there is another way. And I do believe that this way is actually rather cool.

See, how about seeing karma not as a law, not as an absolute - but simply as a rule of thumb, a very rough guideline to a live as a human among humans?

If you understand it that way, it makes a whole lot of sense.

After all, humans tend to live most of their lives in social situations. And in almost all social situations, there is some reciprocity involved - some one-hand-washes-the-other, some social glue. I smile at you, you smile back. I sell you cheap car-parts, you send me new customes. I kill your beloved cat, you kill my beloved parrot (a danish blue, no less!).

And that's just the thing with buddhism. And that's why I hesitated for years to make my first blog posting about it: Most of its tenets are rather ridiculous when you take them as absolute laws, as formulas that aim to describe the totality of reality. But if you take them as rules of thumb, as generalisations based on some people's rather acute subjective observations, then they suddenly start making a whole lot of sense.

And maybe - just maybe - the same goes for many teachings, in many religions. Not all of them, perhaps. But most.


  1. My understanding of karma, is that it is not a system of cosmic justice, built into the universe to punish evil-doers and reward the virtuous. Rather, the effect of karmically significant intentions/actions is to bring you closer or further from an enlightened mental state.

    Negative karma increases one's susceptibility to grasping, craving, and other deluded states of mind, while positive karma decreases these negative influences, allowing the inherent Buddha-nature that every being possesses to come to the fore. This, in turn, affects how you react to all the grief the universe throws at you. Your problems are not caused by bad karma. Rather, your karma determines how well you deal with your problems.

    The full range of causes for any event are inscrutable, and most have nothing to do with your personal virtue (most of the time!). Getting sick or facing trauma and loss are not punishments. A child is not born with physical defects because of naughty actions in a past life. These are just the normal horrible crap that happens in a universe ruled by time and entropy. Whether your nation has been taken over by murderous lunatics, or solar wind knocks an important nucleotide out of your DNA, bad things happen to good people all the time, and karma does not explain or excuse these things.

    The real question is, how well do you, as a conscious Being, a Buddha-in-waiting, deal with the problems life throws at you - the endless annoyances, the tragic losses and injustices you might endure. Perhaps with a mental state clouded with greed/hatred/delusion because of your rotten karma, reacting poorly and becoming emotionally crippled in the face of adversity? Or perhaps clear-eyed, able to accept reality, deal with it, and move on as best you can, because your good karma has fostered a stable, non-clinging mental state?

    This covers everything from remaining calm in a traffic jam all the way up to the ordeal of reincarnation. As I understand it, upon death the very subtle bit of Consciousness which survives death passes through several stages correlating to the chakras. You are faced with increasingly vivid and sometimes terrifying revelations, culminating in a direct experience of the blinding light of the "Ultimate" (ultimate truth, God, etc.). If you can survive this, then you achieve final Nirvana, meaning no rebirth.

    But only the Buddhas can go all the way to the end. Most Beings are unable to withstand the increasingly demanding experiences at each stage, and at some point will recoil from this path. One's mental state, shaped by karma, decides how far down the path one can go.

    The point where you recoil will determine what sort of rebirth you get. If you have rotten karma, you'll stop at an early stage and end up as a naked mole rat or an investment banker. If you have good karma, you'll make it further down the path, and enjoy another human birth, hopefully an opportunity for further spiritual/mental development.

    If you are a bodhisattva, you may get to the end of the path, ready to pass beyond, and instead choose to be reborn out of compassion for other Beings. Or you might take the final leap, merge with the infinite, and perish from existence/non-existence for good.

    So, Karma shapes your mental state throughout life (and across lives, if you accept reincarnation). This determines how you deal with life, death, and what comes after. It's not the universe punishing you for stealing candy from babies, or rewarding you for helping old ladies across the street. It's a test of your own readiness (or lack thereof) to let go of all delusions and, ultimately, after death, to stare into the face of God (however you wish to describe the indescribable) and accept the truth, that there is no Self to be reborn.

    That's my thoughts on the subject, based on lots of reading, thinking, and watching Joseph Campbell videos. My apologies if I've gone off the rails here and made a hash of Buddhist concepts.

    --an anonymous Ben

    1. Anonymous Ben,

      thank you for a very well thought-out, thought-provoking and succinct summary of your understanding of karma. As far as I can see, what you are describing is the best approach to karma that you can have inside buddhism.

      It might seem astounding, but to a large degree, we are in agreement. As we learn how to calm our minds, our ability to cope with the drama in our lives grows, and we become more happy, and hopefully more helpful beings.

      We part ways when it comes to reincarnation and enlightenment, since I'm almost certain neither exists. No reincarnation because consciousness without brains doesn't seem to be supported by facts, despite all efforts of the authors of zombie movies and religious people to convince us of the opposite. No enlightenment because, as far as I understand neurology and evolution, it makes no sense for the brain to give us a chance to escape the matrix; and, of course, because, again, there is no evidence.

      Reincarnation aside, karma seems to be an empty concept (not only in the buddhist sense). Is there any use for the term, once we strip it of its metaphysical meaning?

      If we learn to calm our mind, we become happier. This is a good insight, and it is completely baffling how western culture has managed to completely overlook this connection. Living a peaceful life will probably help just as much. When you steal money, it might rather make you nervous than make you calm.

      But if that's all there is to it, then we didn't need any nifty name for it. Or rather, it's not necessarily a metaphysical, absolute law. Instead, it seems to me like a direct result of how our brains are wired. On another planet, conscious beings might well exist that only feel good when they steal and murder. (Okay, their society won't exist for very long, and stable societies will tend to thrive on brains that work like ours in that regard - but that's another issue...)

      I can test, by my own experience, in this one life that I am sure of having, that meditation and calming my mind actually works. I can test whether killing a bird will make me happy. I can test whether keeping my promises ultimately has a good effect on myself.

      There might be other methods out there, that I have not yet looked into. They might even work better than meditation, who knows? Let's keep an open mind.

      By contrast, I can not test whether some cause connects to some effect via an "intricate and inscrutable" metaphyical web of causality. Once we turn it into a metaphysical absolute law (regardless of whether it's a law of punishment and reward, or just a law of cause and effect), it becomes untestable and thus, useless.

      Or in other words, to answer your question: "Perhaps with a mental state clouded with greed/hatred/delusion because of your rotten karma, reacting poorly and becoming emotionally crippled in the face of adversity?" Well, yes, perhaps. But as long as I can not determine (on principle) what that rotten karma consisted of, I can not base any decisions on this assumption. The assumption is therefore useless.

      And on top of that, once you do include reincarnation, I believe it is virtually impossible not to pass judgment. Your little jab at investment bankers - sure, I got the joke and I laughed. In fact, let me add lawyers. But there is a tiny bit of denigration in there. We do look down on those moles. And on those lawers, too. Maybe not much, but we do. Somebody will surely tell that child born with cystic fibrosis that it was his/her own fault. That may not be the way you understand karma, but it's an unavoidable consequence of elevating it to a metaphysical law regarding reincarnation.

      And that, ultimately, is the reason why I like to become ever more strict with regard to my own epistemology, and limit myself to testable, physical claims - or at least claims that I can test by personal experience. It's a safeline, a guardpost against passing judgment where it is completely unnecessary and unproductive.



  2. "Reincarnation aside, karma seems to be an empty concept (not only in the buddhist sense). Is there any use for the term, once we strip it of its metaphysical meaning?"

    It's funny, this reminds of stuff in the Pali canon, where it's made pretty clear that all metaphysical conceptions should be understood as, at best, useful or instructive, but not to be accepted as Truth with a capital T.

    I agree about reincarnation. I find the concept attractive and fascinating, but thus far see no real evidence to support it. It's sort of magical thinking. However, the overall structure of the concepts of reincarnation, Karma, samsara, dependent arising, etc, I think the effect of contemplating these things can point you in useful directions.

    Ultimately it's all extraneous and unnecessary to living a happy moral life, and can safely be disregarded without affecting the more fundamental point of Buddhism, which I think is to encourage mindfulness and compassion. Morality and happiness seem to follow from that, without dependence on faith in unprovable dogma/theology.

    Still fun to thnk about though, if you enjoy philosophy, psychology, etc.


    1. Hi Ben,

      interesting, from your first posting I was completely convinced that you do believe in reincarnation. Online communication is tricky business, it's so easy to misread one another.

      "I think the effect of contemplating these things can point you in useful directions."

      Yes yes yes yes. I have spent a lot of time trying to find out how to incorporate irrational but useful ideas in a realistic and skeptical world view. I even blogged about it once... here it is: The "As-If" method.

      Essentially, In that posting I'm saying that you can choose to interpret the world as if something were true, even if you don't actually say that it is. It makes perfect sense to interpret our social interactions as if karma were true, to think twice before killing an animal etc. (One funny example from my professional life: I now have to work on a software I initially wrote 7 years ago. Staring at my own code in utter disbelief. Duh! First rule of karma: Every line of code can and will come back to bite you in the abdomen as soon as you're sure you will never have to look at it again!)

      As an example of what can go wrong, my personal experience is that "enlightenment" kinda-sorta did point me in the right direction, but also made me completely go off base.

      It pointed me in the right direction insofar as it motivated me to do my daily motivations for a while.

      It made me go off base insofar as I had those euphoric bouts of "being enlightened" that probably every practitioner of any meditative practice knows. I started to think, ever so subtly, that dualistic discourse is bad. I started to punish myself for my own thinking. Bad bad BAD idea!

      Realizing that enlightenment probably isn't even possible, helped me to go easy on myself. No "need" to meditate, no obligation, just... one more piece in the puzzle of how to become a somewhat better version of myself.

      Oh and I completely agree with your last sentence! Thinking can and should be fun, above everything else!


    2. " do my daily motivations..." <-- haha! Daily meditations, even.