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West Meets East
Is Karma a Law of Nature?
It seems Matthew Gindin is destined to ask, and answer, this question.
Karma is the concept that, eventually, ‘you get back what you give’. The idea that karma is an observable type of causality, just as gravity or the laws of thermodynamics are, might strike some as far-fetched. Isn’t karma a mere piece of wishful thinking or grim moralising which asserts, against all evidence, that the universe is just? Yet a careful perusal of the doctrine, at least in its elaboration in the early texts of Indian Buddhism, yields a thought-provoking picture which might contribute to our own thinking about ethics.
The source of the concept of karma appears to be the idea of karman in the Hindu scriptures the Vedas, where it refers to ritual acts. If the ritual gestures (karman) are performed correctly, the future is bright. It was the shramanas – countercultural philosophers, including the Buddha and Mahavira, the founder of Jainism – who transformed the idea to refer to human action in general.
For the Buddha, karma, which literally means ‘action’, was part of the compound idea of karmavipaka (action and result), one of the key aspects of his teaching. The Buddha taught that karma was cetana – action was intention – and that the intentional quality of actions determines their results: whether they lead to well-being or to suffering. Thus, for the Buddha, it is the quality of character, of the life of one’s mind, that determines one’s future. (This is reminiscent of Heraclitus’s dictum that ethos is telos: character is destiny.) The Buddha taught that intentions rooted in greed, hatred and confusion lead to suffering; and those rooted in non-greed (for instance, patience, calm, generosity), non-hatred (goodwill, compassion, empathy), and non-confusion (knowledge, clarity, rationality), lead to well-being. This will probably make a general kind of common sense to most people. But is it a principle worth elevating to the status of a law of nature?
Buddhist tradition indeed sees the ‘law of karmavipaka’ (as it is commonly called) as a law of nature. However, in the Sivaka Sutta, an early Buddhist discourse, the Buddha denies that karma is a total explanation for what happens to a person, stating that other factors also play a role. Later commentaries talk of five natural laws: the laws of physics, biology, karma, psychology, and dhamma-niyama, or the truths taught by the Buddha. These are all seen as being utterly dependable natural laws which operate without recourse to a deity or any other metaphysical grounding. Does this make any sense with regards to the idea of karma?
A first objection might be that the idea that nature organizes itself according to human moral laws stretches credulity. The rejoinder would be that actually it’s the other way round: human moral intuitions are based on centuries of Homo sapiens’ observations of the patterns of life and our physiological and psychological adaptations to it. There is no more (or less) reason behind hatred causing suffering than heat causing water vapour: it’s just the way it is, and our moral intuitions reflect this reality in a way similar to how our physical instincts favor withdrawing our hand from a flame. This also helps to explain the tendency for fundamental moral intuitions to be universal, since it indicates an adaptive advantage to adhere to them.
A second objection would be that the claim that somehow greedy intentions (for example) regularly provoke suffering down the line, fails through having no way of showing how the law works or is applied. What mechanism connects cause and effect? This challenge also fails, however, since no mechanism can be shown for any cause and effect relationships, even physical ones – as Hume pointed out long ago. Why does gravity pull one object towards another? Why do positive and negatively charged particles attract each other? What causes these relationships to be regular across time and space?
There are two further objections to the idea of karma as causal law that are not so easy to deflect. The first is that karma is believed to apply not only within this life but beyond it, yielding results in future lives too. In principle there is no reason to deny that karma could operate on this scale, providing one believes in reincarnation. For those who don’t so believe (and there are of course good reasons to be skeptical about the doctrine) then karma could still be regarded as functioning within this lifetime.
The second problem is the claim that karma operates as an absolute law. It is hard to believe that this is the case. But consider again the example of gravity. Gravity is indeed in a sense an absolute law; but many kinds of other laws interact with it, mitigating its effects. You cannot be certain that if you throw a piece of bread into the air it will land on the ground: there may be a crow in the vicinity. It also seems reasonable to see karma as one of many laws – which the Buddha himself suggested, as we’ve seen. This would also imply (contra the opinion of some Buddhists) that although karma is an absolute law, it is mitigated and modified by the operation of other laws. So although karma exerts an influence over all things, it does not provide a guaranteed Cosmic Justice.
In terms of ethics, the idea of karma can offer a workable theory of morality. Good and bad are, as Spinoza said, not transcendent categories, but simply names for whatever brings us well-being or suffering. There is a regularity to the causality wherein acting on certain mental states generally either brings weal or woe. It also provides some succor for those of us who wish to see wicked people get their come-uppance. They generally will, although not in every case, and not in ways we will necessarily see as proportionate.
© Matthew Gindin 2019
Matthew Gindin is a journalist and educator located in Vancouver, BC. He writes regularly for Tricycle: The Buddhist Review and has been featured in Sojourners, Religion Dispatches, The Forward, and elsewhere.