Considering Karma

| January 8, 2018 | 5 Comments

Let’s consider karma. We’ll go over three problems with the Buddhist notion of karma. Then we’ll discuss how the Buddha defined the term, and how his usage was innovative and different in its time. We’ll see that there is a way to recover a useful sense of the term, so we can understand it in a contemporary context.

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Doug Smith

About the Author ()

Doug is Study Director of the Secular Buddhist Association. He has a PhD in Philosophy, with a minor in Buddhist philosophy and Sanskrit. In 2013 he completed the year-long Integrated Study and Practice Program with the BCBS and NYIMC. A long time scientific skeptic, he pursues a naturalized approach to practice. He is also interested in scholarship about the Tipiṭaka, and the theoretical and historical origins of the dhamma. He posts videos at Doug's Secular Dharma on YouTube. Some of his writing can be found at academia.edu.

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  1. m.miller says:

    I think it is important to cultivate and promote a sense of karma in the secular Buddhist realm, if for no other reason than the term is in the everyday lexicon and is known to be a component of Buddhism at large. The good news is I think karma can be understood in secular terms. In the same sutta where the Buddha said, “Intention is kamma” he also said, “And what is the result of kamma? The result of kamma is of three sorts, I tell you: that which arises right here & now, that which arises later [in this lifetime], and that which arises following that. This is called the result of kamma” (Nibbedhika Sutta translated by Thanissaro Bhikkhu, 1997). The results that arise here & now and the results that arise later in this lifetime pose no issue for a secular understanding. Obviously, “that which arises following that” can pose an issue if we are focused entirely on what would happen to “us” after this lifetime (i.e. rebirth) but that doesn’t have to be the interpretation. Instead, we could consider how our intentions and actions will affect others and will therefore influence their intentions and actions, which will influence another person, and so on. Thus, the effects of our intentions/actions have the potential to radiate out over great distance, influence people we will never meet.

    From my lay understanding, I think positive psychology is bearing out this type of interpretation. Research in the fields of positive psychology and positive parenting have shown that our intentions and actions can have a profound effect on the mental state and actions of others. Specifically, the current line of research on “moral elevation” indicates that when a person witnesses an act of kindness, it makes them more likely to be kind to others. The short of it, kindness is contagious.

    On top of that outward effect, I think it’s important to keep in mind our own mental state. If we practice an intention of happiness, kindness, and compassion, we’re more likely to feel happy, kind, and compassionate on a regular basis. If we practice an intention of anger, hate, and greed, we’re more likely to feel anger, hatred, and greed.

    • Doug Smith Doug Smith says:

      Thanks for the comment, m.miller. Indeed, I think there is plenty to recover in the concept of karma if we understand it in secular terms, as you put it. We have to work on the quality of our intention so as to cultivate the best outcomes.

  2. Michael Finley Michael Finley says:

    Maybe I’m simplistic, but this, I think, is Gotama’s notion of karma: the way I experience the world is a result of what I think and do, which generates my attitudes, ultimately defines who I am; this is my karma. Really no more, no less.

    The Dhammapada has a nice passage about the effects of obsession, which is just an extreme form of attachment: ” ‘Look how he abused me and beat me, how he threw me down and robbed me.’ Live with such thoughts and you live in hate. ‘Look how he abused me and beat me, how he threw me down and robbed me.’ Abandon such thoughts, and live in love.” Define yourself as a victim, and the suffering is compounded. Thus bad Karma, dude 🙂 Karma is intentional in the sense that it involves things I attach to, allow to from affect me.

    I’m reasonably convinced of this interpretation partly because I think this is another example of the way Gotama turned contemporary notions upside down, in particular, as Gombrich suggests, to ethicize them. As society along the Ganges became more complex, back and white ritualized rules of behaviour were no longer adequate. That Gotama’s new version of karma was still not completely separated from older notions, still somewhat tentative and perhaps even confused, should be no surprise. That’s probably fairly typical of the way new world views evolve.

  3. I’m most comfortable with the notion that karma is not a secular Buddhist concept.

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