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Karma: The creative life-force of human beings (PDF)
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Karma: The creative life-force of human beings

This article is an abridged version of Chapter 14 of Nalin Swaris’ book Magga: The Buddha’s Way to Human Liberation – A Socio-historical Approach, his Ph.D. dissertation from the University of Utrecht. A limited edition (500 copies) was published by the author in 1997. Nalin Swaris was born in Colombo, Sri Lanka, and was baptised into the Roman Catholic faith. He was ordained a Redemptorist Priest in 1962. After resigning from the ministry in 1969, he taught Social Philosophy and Methodology of Community Development for seventeen years at the Senior College for Social Work in De Horst, Dreibergen in the Netherlands. Back now in Sri Lanka, he works as a freelance journalist and lecturer.

A revised version of this article was published in 2011 through the International Network of Engaged Buddhists in their book Rethinking Karma: The Dharma of Social Justice, edited by Jonathan S. Watts. That book also contains many other useful articles on the social doctrine of Buddhism.

The theory of karma in Hindu and Buddhist ethics is always explained in relationship to the doctrine of rebirth. In the Mahāyāna Buddhist tradition, rebirth is accepted as an essential component of the Buddha’s teaching. The mainstream Theravāda Buddhist tradition has held fast to anatta as the corner stone of its doctrinal system. On the other hand Theravādins, like the Mahāyānists, consider rebirth theory as the pillar of their ethical system. According to Theravāda doctrine, it is not a soul principle, but “an identity consciousness” which enters a mother’s womb at the moment of conception and determines the eventual personal identity of the fertilized ovum. Between the Theravāda and Mahāyāna traditions, in this as in many other aspects, the differences in practice are marginal.

Supporters of rebirth theory can muster enough textual evidence to prove that the Buddha actually taught a theory of individual rebirth after death. The Buddhist tradition, Mahāyāna as well as Theravāda, has used this theory of reward and punishment not only to instill morality, but also to explain social inequalities. According to popular explanations of the theory of karma a person’s gender and social position at birth is either a reward or punishment for good or evil deeds performed in a previous life. This doctrine of karma in its practical implication functions as a dominant ideology when it is deployed to explain social disparities as the manifestation of an immanent justice at work in the world. Myths which provide seemingly plausible explanations of social hierarchy, as Balandier points out, are aimed at justifying the position and privileges of the powers-that-be:

They explain the existing order in historical terms and justify it by presenting it as a system based on right. Those myths that confirm the dominant position of a group are obviously most significant; they help to maintain a superior situation. (1972:118, emphasis his)

The spontaneously arising protest of people against their misery and against the injustice of oppressive conditions are channeled by reassuring them that there is an invisible justice at work in reality. The good will be rewarded and the evil punished in another life. At the theoretical level, scholars could argue that individual rebirth theory is compatible with logic and reason. David J. Kalupahana, for example, argues via the Logical Positivist A. J. Ayer that re-birth theory as presented in the early Buddhist texts is a logical possibility (1976:53). But, the Buddha held that views “hammered out on the anvil of logic” (D.i. 1) are of little practical use when it comes to the urgent task of eradicating suffering in the world. Logic may help to explain social (dis)order. The important thing however is to eradicate the conditions which engender suffering.01 Its actual workings, however, are difficult to verify empirically, though periodically there are individuals who claim to have vivid memories of their lives in previous births. The theory of karma as generally taught raises several troubling issues. While seeming to explain the problem of suffering in the world, many karma expositors give a positive moral evaluation of high social status, material comforts, and sensual pleasure. These are depicted as rewards for good done in a previous birth. By the same token, poverty, starvation, social degradation, servitude, feudal service, birth into a “low” caste, or birth as a woman are explained as punishments for evil deeds committed in a previous birth. One needs to seriously question the crudely materialist evaluations of “good” and “evil” underlying such interpretations. For the type of tortuous arguments used to justify this theory which explains birth into a wealthy and aristocratic family as a reward and birth into a lowly and wretched family as a punishment, see the essays by Francis Story and Nina van Gorkom in Kamma and its Fruit, ed., Nyanaponika Thera. It is within living memory that hundreds and thousands of Sri Lankan peasants lost their lands due to unjust, draconian legislature enacted by the British colonial government. Entire villages were torched to appropriate lands for the plantation of cash crops like coffee and tea. By what stretch of imagination can one suggest that these peasants and their miserable descendents deserved this lot? Story goes so far as to argue that children who are born into families who have plundered the wealth of others could enjoy their luxuries without any qualms of conscience. They are reaping the fruit of their good personal karma in a previous birth! He cites the descendents of the Nazis to illustrate the mysterious ways of karma. According to his logic, the millions of Jews gassed to death were obviously reaping the fruit of their bad karma. Story describes karma as an iron law and draws an analogy between it and kismet-fate as cynically depicted by Omar Khayyam: “The moving finger writes; and having writ, Moves on: Nor will all thy piety nor wit, shall lure it back to cancel half a line - Nor all your tears wash out a word of it” (Nyanaponika 1990:8). The compassionate Buddha could hardly have promulgated a law of ruthless retribution. He would have regarded such views as, at best, imaginative “story-telling.”02

How can the cornerstone of the Buddha’s ethic, anatta (no-self, no substance), be reconciled with the theory of individual rebirths – however one may call it – transmigrations of souls, or rebirth of identity-consciousness? The Buddha insisted that there is action, but no actor and that there is no consciousness that runs on from the past through the present into the future. There are numerous passages in Pāli scriptures where the Buddha asks his disciples to end restless speculation as to what they might have been in a previous life and what they might become in a future birth. He called this “attending to things which one should not attend to” Sabbāsavā Sutta (M.i.6).

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