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.