Different theories of karma and rebirth have circulated for generations now in the West, and for many centuries before in India and the East of course, so it can be difficult to arrive at a clear understanding of these ideas, even for Buddhist practitioners. Uncertainty around the subject has been exacerbated by the plainly mistaken views of some Western Buddhist teachers and writers, who see it as part of their role to question and review the whole concept of karma. Quite often these critics are the very people who used to actually ‘get off’ on the whole idea while travelling through the East, in Nepal, and in India, through the 60s and 70s going: ‘this is karma man’. Now they are in their 60s and 70s themselves, and suddenly karma has become a dirty word for them. When young karma was never far from their lips, but closer to death nobody wants to know about it; it freaks people out it seems! Unfortunately, just because we don’t wish to think of something does not necessarily make it go away. So this type of evasive reaction needs to be addressed.
Another problem is the hasty dismissal of karma on rather flimsy logical or philosophical grounds. Karma does not make sense it is said; it is an archaic kind of superstition with no relevance to the modern mode of thinking. Basically, the modern view and karmic theory are regarded as incompatible – one cannot be a modern person while subscribing to the idea of karma. It is another superstition, along with many others, that the modern individual needs to pare away from whatever truth the ancient wisdom traditions have to offer. This somewhat absurd conclusion is reflected in the type of book often written these days, where the topic is entirely omitted, except perhaps to mention that karma doesn’t really matter, one doesn’t have to believe in it, it is optional - just do meditation - this kind of thing. We are at a point now where we have to re-evaluate whether karma is something we can dispense with quite so easily, especially if we are followers of Hinduism or Buddhism. In this book it will be argued that karma is a central and indispensable plank in Buddhist doctrine, and that it is highly significant, not just as a concept, but as a reality.
The idea of Karma being an outmoded superstitious belief is probably based on simplified versions of the idea that emerged from old world Asia basically. In poor conditions, and where people were not very educated, the Buddha’s teachings were usually delivered very simply. People under such circumstances think about creating good karma in terms of making offerings to the ordained members of the sangha, worshipping Buddha images, or circumambulating Buddhist shrines and reliquaries, or feeding the poor, and so on. Many modern people tend to think of karma with these types of association. It is seen as a primitive superstitious idea that actually has detrimental effects on the motivation of the populace, teaching an acceptance of their lot. The idea is not that simple; it is not at all simple in fact. In this book we shall work towards presenting karma in a philosophically sound manner, devoid of some of its prominent misconceptions, so that at least readers can decide for themselves whether they find it credible or not based on a solid background. It is hoped we can accord karmic theory some credibility as a concept of intellectual value. This is an important venture, because in the end, as Buddhists we are trying to explain why we suffer, why things happen, and why we should we be moral. If in fact we do not recognise or attach importance to any of these things, if we do not believe in karma, then why should we even strive to be moral and treat each other well?
We have stopped talking about these things generally in the modern world, not just about karma, but people have stopped talking about ethical issues altogether. There is an increasing level of discussion around rights and justice, and who is entitled to what, and who deserves a share of such-and-such, but very little about how we should behave and treat each other, and how we should live together, and why. There may be legitimacy to the claims being made in the name of justice, however the amount of time devoted to this particular field of ethics is presently overwhelming all other considerations. Secularists are of course typically averse to start talking ethics in case the religious fanatics barge in and hijack the whole discussion, which might well happen, so their fears can be understood! On the other hand, we may be paying a price for not talking about ethics. In relation to karmic theory, which looks to explain why we should be moral, we don’t have to actually bring in any explicitly religious ideas, and we don’t have to talk about God. We don’t actually have to refer specifically to rebirth as such either. It is sufficient to just discuss the development of the individual, the community and societies generally, that’s the key issue.
There are two ways then, as a Buddhist, to speak to people about karma in the current context– in religious terms and in secularised, restrained fashion. A lot of people are sensitive to any hint of what they perceive to be religious fanaticism, or appearing to be the object of an attempted conversion to a particular world view. So the language used is critical. Not that there are any qualms from some contemporary quarters about trying to convert everybody to modern democratic ways of thinking, or touting the virtues of social justice and so on – there seems to be little restraint there. But this is all by way of considering the context into which this subject of karma is seated in today’s world, and it is not a condemnation of modernity in favour of Buddhist traditions for instance. There are many Buddhists who feel very lucky to be living in a democratic country, as does the author.
The fact is there is actually a lot of compatibility between the Buddhist view and the modern view, but unfortunately Buddha’s original contribution to karmic theory gets lost nowadays, somewhat ironically, due to the ongoing development of the way people think today in the West. In many ways contemporary attitudes are aligned with what the Buddha taught. People tend to react to the teachings along the lines of: ‘oh, yes, we already sort of think like that anyway’. But if we were to look back to how people thought in the West 100 years ago for instance, then we would have a more accurate perspective on the Buddha’s teachings – we would see just how modern the Buddha was. This is not to propound the Buddha as the most modern religious founder to have come into this world, or anything of that sort. Much of what the Buddha said has a modern ring to it, but he was a person of his time, of his milieu. Perhaps as Buddhists we would like to think he was more than a child of his time, but in any case, he did have genuine insight into a variety of things, great insights that exceeded cultural conditioning.
Karma is about what constitutes the individual – it looks at ideas of what is inherent, what is co-produced and what is conditioned. We already have a great interest in these ideas in the West, in many disciplines, but none more so than psychology perhaps. Given our great appetite for such matters, it is unfortunate karma has drawn such faint interest, for it is a concept that looks squarely at the health of the conditioned individual. It places individual person-hood and self-understanding at its very foundation. The concept of Karma moves from analysis of the subjective situation toward methods of individual development; it incorporates ways in which individuals can work toward an idea of being a person of depth, of value, or of some significance. And yet, unfortunately, it continues to be interpreted as an abstract and non-personal entity, a natural law of sorts. This is a misreading of the concept. To some extent common aversions and misunderstandings around the idea stem from its variegated origins in early Indian mythology and Brahmanic thought. So it is to this period of karmic theory that we turn to first to better understand the general historical dimensions of the idea, and hopefully, by way of comparison, we can then proceed to identify what it is that makes the Buddhist concept of karma and rebirth unique. In laying the foundations for this book, we will begin with a survey of the early material found in classic Indian scriptures like the Vedas, Mahabharata and Dharmashatra. We will continue in this fashion, contrasting karmic thinking in Hinduism, early Buddhism, and later Mahayana Buddhism. We can only deal with this comparative history in very broad brushstrokes of course, as this is not principally a work of history, but we will employ generalizations to get to an understanding of the various permutations of the idea as it has come down to us. There is no implication whatsoever in the comparisons to follow that one version of karma is assumed to be superior to another. They are simply different.