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Karma and Skeptics in the 21st Century

September 25, 2013
'Karma' by LexnGer via

‘Karma’ by LexnGer via

During the European Enlightenment scholars and philosophers called into question everything not based on reason and science. They rejected old superstitions and religious dogmas. Many of them discarded metaphysics entirely in preference for a cold, mechanistic view of the universe. I am a product of their legacy.

When I became an atheist as the age of 15, my classmates demanded “How do you know what is right and wrong without God?” Although my faith had waned over the past two years, I did not feel any less ethical than I had before. While I did not have a perfect answer for them, I remained convinced that morality was wholly independent of divinity.

As I grew older, I thought perhaps scientists would one day claim the prize of defining things like “good” and “virtue” with their mathematical equations. They certainly believed they could and look what they’d already given us! A man on the moon, television, the Internet! Also, saran gas, nuclear bombs, and global warming.

Now, I tend to believe that the things we value as “good” or “right” can never be wholly defined mathematically any more than they are the sole province of the divine. These are human things that can only be described in imperfect words and endlessly refined and squabbled over.

So when it comes to karma, I am in a bit of a conundrum. Some descriptions I hear are very metaphysical and my skeptic’s mind treats them as lightly as I now treat the notion of god(s) – certainly possible, but entirely beyond my understanding and not really worth making myself mad over.

Other descriptions sound downright Newtonian, with equal and opposition reactions – atoms bumping into atoms bumping into atoms (or whatever they’ve decided to call the latest quantum widget). I like these descriptions because they make a mechanical sort of sense, but how then is value, how is “good” or “bad” karma determined? Is that just a human invention?

Then there are the psychological explanations, which I find most satisfying – habits of mind. Some habits lead more often to suffering and others to happiness. Simple, but also endlessly complex, at least as complex as you or I. Yet, that fails to account for the action of karma in the cycle of rebirth, if there is such a thing. No single model is satisfactory.

I carry all this baggage with me into Chapter Three of Nakasone’s book, Ethics of Enlightenment. This chapter is “Interdependence: The Doctrinal Rationale for Buddhist Thought and Practice.” First of all, I don’t like it when anyone claims as “Buddhist” something that not all Buddhist’s seem to share, but let’s set that aside for now. Nakasone explains:

On that morning of the enlightenment, Gautama [the Buddha] simply realized the truth that all existences are mutually related and mutually dependent. He understood that no single cause or event determines how a thing or being is created or destroyed, or how an event is established or transpires. Rather, the reality which we experience is the result of a complex interaction of any number of causes and conditions. Further, since the multiplicity and sequence of causes and conditions are continually changing, and since all things and beings are concomitantly established, the Buddha understood that there are no eternal nor self sustaining [sic] entities and selves. (p. 31)

Okay, I can buy that. He goes on to discuss how this doctrine of interdependence is a refinement of the original system of karma first inherited from the Brahmans, reformulated by the Buddha, and later refined again by the Buddha’s followers. However, Nakasone’s moral assertions depend on more than the mere foundation of interdependence. He continues: “The universe is not a series of chaotic and conflicting interplay of karmic events; it is …the expression of universal good will that increasingly labors to uplift all beings.” (p. 33) In this formulation, the universe becomes anthropocentric.  In other words, it is good and for good and acts good.

Tell that to the asteroid that whipped out the dinosaurs or the ice ages that extinguished the mammoth and saber-toothed cat and giant North American sloth or the millions dead of bubonic plague. My skeptical mind balks. “Really?” I think. “Isn’t this just the case of someone mistaking what is for what ought to be and ascribing meaning to a physical process that, at the level of atoms bumping into atoms, really doesn’t care about all our complex philosophies to describe it?” Or perhaps I am reading too much into Nakasone.

He continues with his discussion of “good and evil actions” as well as “morally neutral deeds.” As skeptical as I am of the inherently meaningful nature of the universe, I remain a firm believer in the moral quality of all human actions. The Jews say that every decision is a moral decision, even though made unthinkingly (I have this from a trusted professor of Abrahamic religions; if someone can direct me to a verifiable source, I would appreciate it). I tend to agree, so I have to wonder what Nakasone means when he says “Laying in bed sleeping, for example, may have no significant impact on one’s spiritual progress, either good or bad,” (p. 35) but such a statement depends so greatly on the context that I would find it almost impossible to make with such blithe assurance.  Moreover, by what mechanism is this deed neutral? Or good or bad for that matter?

In some earlier Buddhist texts, the writers speak of actions that produce no new karma and thus free the actor from the wheel of samsara. Are these neutral? Or would they be good if they lead to enlightenment? I can see how this might work from a psychological perspective, but not a physical one. Newton’s laws of motion still apply, right? Even as my mind progresses towards Nirvana, my body is still turning oxygen into carbon dioxide.

If karma is a uniquely human thing (or even something unique to sentient beings), this would be easy to reconcile, but Nakasone hints at “karma generated by the physical universe,” so I am left pondering. He points out, very rightly, that sometimes we are prevented from doing evil because we are physically incapable, and vice versa. This seems to illustrate the phrase “if wishes were horses.” The physical laws of the universe constrain us from merely wishing someone harm; we have to go out and do it. Nakasone (following in Shinran’s footsteps) attributes this to “karmic forces” by which we “are constantly beset.” (p. 39) Yet, I firmly believe that even the wish of harm upon another has a karmic consequence. Nakasone does not address this.

He continues to set the metaphysic back on its heels by explaining that “’The transference of merit’ does not mean that Bodhisattvas and Buddhas literally withdraw merits from their merit repositories and deposit them in another’s…” (p. 43). It’s not magic. This brings karma ever more into the physical workings of the universe until, finally, Nakasone makes a straightforward ontological claim: “For color and sound to arise in an individual’s mind or thought, there must be color and sound to be apprehended.” (p. 44)

Really? And must Sheila be trying to steal my boyfriend in order for the thought to arising in my mind “Sheila is trying to steal my boyfriend?”

I’m not certain that is what Nakasone is trying to say because he continues with “The physical world, that is, the world outside the individual, does not exist for that person unless it is apprehended.” (p. 45, emphasis added) He mentions the boom of fireworks being nonexistent to the deaf person. All of this is an effort to illustrate that “mind and object are irrevocably interrelated and mutually dependent.” (p. 45)

The skeptic in me rises to the bait of a tree-in-the-forest argument when I hear one. “Human hubris!” I think. We may indeed be dependent on the universe, but I tend to think the reverse is not true. The universe could get along quite well (maybe better) without us. So while we may, due to the fact of our existence, be interrelated, and we (people) may be interdependent, I’m not at all sure the whole of existence needs us in order to be. Rather, this situation simply is.

Therefore, when Nakasone that says, for the reasons he has illuminated that “The ethical mandate of an interdependent world is clear…” (p. 46) I write a big question mark next to it. Where is human intention in all this? Will? Choice? Nakasone spends precious few words (if any) on them.

I feel the ethical mandate is clear, so we may be arguing over semantics. But if my ethics rely on interdependence as the working of karma the way Nakasone describes, then God (if you’re out there) help us all. This connection is no clearer to me than the one I discarded over half a lifetime ago.

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