Bringing Karma Back to Earth


Relevant to discussions regarding the adaptation of Buddhist thought to contemporary society, Dale Wright has given us a valuable set of reflections on how karma is conceptualized. (Dale S. Wright, “Critical Questions Towards a Naturalized Concept of Karma in Buddhism,” Journal of Buddhist Ethics, vol. 12, 2005.) Wright argues that karma can serve as a useful principle for contemporary ethics, but only if a naturalized version of the concept can be effectively developed. Such a naturalized conception of karma would be in opposition to the metaphysical version that is so familiar as a system of supernatural retribution. What he means by naturalized is that “The connection [between a human act and its appropriate consequence] requires no supernatural intervention: we suffer or succeed because of the natural outcome of our actions themselves, rather than through the subsequent intervention of divine punishment or reward” (79).

Although Wright does not explicitly thematize this as an issue, he discusses different conceptions of karma—conceptions that seem to me to constitute extreme points along a continuum. One involves a personalized supernatural agent who makes decisions and judgements based on a set of moral standards, and then dispenses compensatory justice through supernatural means. Rather obviously, this includes the variety of deities who act in accord with Lakoff’s “strict father” family model, in which the deity sets up the rules, and then enforces them by punishing miscreants. Although not usually associated with the concept of karma, the Hebrew Bible’s Yahweh fits into this model, as do the underworld judges, such as, Yama, found throughout Buddhist cultures.

This conception of karma shades into more abstracted notions, but ones still including an understanding that the mechanics of karma involve a supernatural agent of some kind. Included here are the kinds of allusions to “the universe,” or “the cosmos” found among the casually new age. At the end of the spectrum opposite to images of a cosmic judge/executioner, but still part of the supernatural conception of karma is what I think of as the “cosmic bank” model of karma. This conception of how karma works is that of accounting (and in fact, religious conceptions in the West were radically transformed by the spread of banking and other systems of monetary accounting—think about what it means to be called to “account” for one’s actions). When one does good things, then the positive karma (assets) are accumulated until depleted by the gain of some positive benefit. Conversely, negative karma (debts) can also accumulate until they manifest as a negative effect in one’s life. This is a reified conception of karma, and Wright examines such reified notions in terms of the transfer of merit. This common ritual action, no doubt familiar to most readers, is found throughout much of the Buddhist tradition: “May the merits of these actions benefit all sentient beings,” or some similar expression being found at the end of many activities, from meditation to pūjā. He notes the ambivalence of this, as it both encourages a sense of compassion, while at the same time reifying karma as in some way substantive.

Wright considers that this may have been a skillful means that threaded “an excellent middle path between selfish personal quests and compassion for others” (86). It is not philosophically unproblematic, however, “when a skillful meditative device is taken out of that contemplative setting of mental self-cultivation and treated as a picture of what really does happen when we do good things” (86). In other words, don’t bank on a reified notion of karma as a supernatural entity of some kind that can either be accumulated or given away.

In order to move away from such supernatural conceptions of karma, Wright employs an important philosophic distinction from modern ethics. Certain consequences of actions are intrinsic to those actions, while others are not, an idea he draws from the work of Alisdair MacIntyre. This is the distinction “now common to contemporary ethics between goods that are externally or contingently related to a given practice, and goods that are internal to a practice and cannot be acquired in any other way” (82; citing Alisdair MacIntyre, After Virtue, Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1981, 188; see Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, “Reasons for Actions: Internal vs. External“). The issue as I would express it is that conceptions of what is good and bad that are employed in supernatural conceptions of karma are unable to escape the bounds of being socially determined. This is of course the problem with any absolutized ethical system. The socially determined consequences are extrinsic, but are treated as if they are intrinsic when elevated to the status of a supernatural ethical standard.

Wright’s exposition of the “mechanism” of karma as one that deploys intrinsic consequences uses the concept of “character development”: “A naturalistic theory of karma would treat choice and character as mutually determining—each arising dependent on the other” (89). In contrast to the pointless debates about whether karma is a form of (pre-)determinism, Wright notes that “In this light human freedom becomes highly visible, and awesome in its gravity, but is noticeable only to one who has realized the far-reaching and irreversible impact on oneself and others of choices made, of karma” (89–90). Wright suggests that a naturalized conception of karma would shift focus from the purely individualistic ways in which karma has generally been understood, as a consequence of the fear of death, to a more interpersonal or social conception. “Personal anxieties about death are a powerful force in the mind, so strong that they can prevent other impersonal and trans-individual conceptions [of karma] from rising to the cultural surface” (86). As developed so far, however, these are rather vague ideas that “lines of influence and outcome co-mingle…such that the future for others arises dependent in part upon my acts, and I arise dependent in part upon the shaping powers of the accumulating culture around me” (86). It is his suspicion, however, that “we have yet to see the development of this aspect of Buddhism to the extent of its potential, and that it has been continually redirected by what must have seemed more pressing questions about individual destiny” (86).

What further develops Wright’s naturalized conception of karma—naturalizing it even more, as it were—and moves it beyond a traditional (and in some ways neo-Confucian) conception of character development as individual is recent developments in “extended cognition.” Far from being an individual neural process taking place inside our skulls, cognition is extended in the world around us. Extended cognition is most clearly evident in the form of tools for thinking, such as paper and pencil, or electronic spreadsheet (see Andy Clark, Supersizing the Mind: Embodiment, Action, and Cognitive Extension, Oxford, 2008). Certain forms of cognition are only possible when supported by brain-external structures. (Online access to Wright’s article, which stimulated my own thinking about karma, is one kind of extended cognition, and the extension of cognition in this fashion provides us with one way of realizing the truly transformative impact of the www.)

Though the examples just given refer to “tools for thinking,” the extension of cognition should also be understood to include the social environment. It is not, therefore, just a nice idea that how one acts affects how one is treated by others, but a social reality. There is nothing mystical or metaphysical in thinking about karma in this fashion. Instead it may allow us to move even further away from individualistic notions of “character formation” into the realm of the interpersonal. Naturalized in the way that Wright suggests, karma may provide an analytic device for a phenomenology of social interactions, one that moves the naturalized phenomenology of consciousness (à la the late work of Francisco Varela) out of the interaction between isolates into a sense of a dynamic field relation, or dynamic system (cf. the works of Niklas Luhmann).

Repeatedly in contemporary popular religious discourse one hears the notion that a supernatural source of ethics is necessary. In a footnote, Wright refers to the argument presented by Robert Thurman (Infinite Life: Seven Virtues for Living Well, New York: Riverhead Books, 2004) to the effect that “that without a belief in individual immortality—a theory of the soul—a fully ethical life is not possible” (92, n. 10) as an example of just this kind of supernatural mandate for ethics. (See also, final sentence in “The Moral Animal“). At least since the Enlightenment, however, this idea has been contested. If we find the elevation of some social practices to the status of supernaturally mandated absolute ethical standards problematic, then treating any such practices as supernaturally mandated is equally problematic. We don’t get to pick and choose—the history of missionary efforts is replete with the confusion of social practices, whether wearing shoes or segregated bathing, and absolutized ethics. Perhaps a naturalized conception of karma as suggested by Wright will allow for the abandonment of such strategies for the imposition of social standards as if they were supernaturally mandated absolutes, and a shift toward recognizing character development as an interpersonal manifestation of extended cognition.


3 thoughts on “Bringing Karma Back to Earth

  1. I’m sympathetic to the view here, and interested particularly in the extended cognition aspect (which I’ve been intending to weave into a quasi-Buddhist ethical account myself).

    I have to wonder, however, what work “karma” does, as a word, once it’s this thoroughly naturalized. Is it actually adding anything? And, if it is, does the value added outweigh the need to constantly reiterate “by karma, we don’t mean the usual thing” to avoid confusion?

  2. Dear David, I believe that it can serve as a technical term that encapsulates the interactive or dialectic relation of action and consequence involving the social dimension, but in a naturalistic fashion that does not reference otherwise arbitrary social standards (which is, as you suggest, way too long to say each time). Granted, like many other technical terms it will need to be used in this fashion, and cannot avoid being misunderstood despite repeated stipulative definitions. What, however, would the alternative be? To repeatedly say something like “natural system of action and consequence in which beneficial actions serve to strengthen positive forms of being in the natural and social world”? Or, to make up a word? So maybe, “by karma, we don’t mean the usual thing” will have to carry the load for the time being.

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