Karma: it’s a funny thing.
I have been meaning to respond to my partner’s post on Karma for quite some time- aside from raising questions about whether the earthquake was a result of China’s karma or not, and whether it is proper to say that a disaster is caused by karma or not, I feel it begs the larger question about if this type of discussion is even productive.
The Pali Canon offers some interesting words on karma. It is said that pondering about karma and its results will “bring about madness and vexation to anyone who conjectures about them” [AN 4.77]. However, karma is also one of the five recollections, though the language of the recollection is targeted towards an understanding of the relationship to one’s karma rahter than its specific effects:
“There are these five facts that one should reflect on often, whether one is a woman or a man, lay or ordained. Which five?
… “I am the owner of my actions, heir to my actions, born of my actions, related through my actions, and have my actions as my arbitrator. Whatever I do, for good or for evil, to that will I fall heir” [AN 5.57]
The strength of the Pali Canon isn’t necessarily in its specific admonitions, but in the systematic process of investigation that it inspires, and I think that what these suttas are getting at is that karma, like so many aspects of the Dharma, is both an ontology and an ethics.
The tradition of viewing aspects of the Dharma as only useful when viewed in terms of the goal of liberation is not new – it is a well tread path. However, this purely ethical view of doctrine I feel is often used to de-emphasize or apologize for the ontological aspects of Buddhism.
Without leveling specific criticism, I feel like this is common with thinkers influenced by books like Buddhism without Beliefs where things like karma and rebirth may be viewed as purely ethical in order to resolve the perceived rationalist problems with a karma ontology.
It has been my feeling though that, to be complete, the Dharma must be both an ontology and an ethics. While it is true that things like personal misfortune are part of the ontology of karma, the ethics of karma discourages this analysis even in ourselves, to say nothing of the victims of disasters. It appears to me that the ethics of karma spurns us towards skillful action, not the dissection of causes and results of a life lived.
I found it quite curious that, at one time, an acquaintance told me about a temple where I could go and the monastics would tell me of my past lives. I’m not exactly sure what the value of that would be, since, in the best conditions where I assume it is not a scam, knowing the seeds of past karma is just going to prepare me for things which are already going to happen anyway, and the knowledge or lack of knowledge of the past should have no effect on my aspirations for a better future.
In my own practice, I try to see karma as an attitude to be grateful for my blessings, and to understand that living up to them requires proper conduct.
And that’s just about all I think about it.