Home » It’s all about karma – or what?

What goes around, comes around

Everything bad that happens is your own fault. So say some. But is Buddhism really a matter of victim-blaming on a cosmic scale?

All about karma

It is, of course, not only okay, but genuinely good that Tibetan Buddhism gets its fair share of criticism. It’s about time. But often the criticism is based on an at best half-baked, at worst seriously distorted, idea of what Tibetan Buddhism actually does say.

Half-arsed criticism is a staple of the Internet, of course, so no worries there. On the other hand, often enough the critics would not find it hard to find “Tibetan Buddhists” who really do hold very dumb views.

First, the silly side

In a recent (Facebook) discussion, a supposedly authentic representative of Tibetan Buddhism claimed that everything we experience is the result of our own karma/past action, and nothing else. This quasi-explanation is often applied to diseases – karma is, they say, the one and only cause of whether you get sick or not, and of whether you recover or not.

The fact is that this is unhelpful. It conflicts with common sense and it conflicts with the Buddha’s actual teaching. According to that, everything, disease included, results from an incomprehensibly complex mass of causes, one of which is our own past action or karma. Poison, an imbalance in the elements, bad diet, excessive heat or cold, ill-disposed spirits (if you believe in that kind of thing) and even, in some cases, karma. These can all cause disease.

Let’s try the logical approach. If you take the extreme view that all the other factors are themselves the result of our personal karma, you will find yourself tied in a knot:

Imagine that we meet. So far, so good, but irrationally I take a sudden and violently intense dislike for you – I punch you in the face, knocking your teeth out. Is there really any doubt about who is in the wrong?

On the childish view of karma, this would have to be your fault, because you had the karma to be punched in the face by me. It would follow that I was quite innocent, because my action was forced on me by your karma. In fact, says this theory, everything that any of us does is forced on us by the karma of the people affected by our actions.

Obviously tosh. The whole doctrine of karma implies that we are responsible for our actions. What we do leaves traces deep in our minds, in the “stream of our being”. This may attract us to matching circumstances somewhere in the future. But if we have freedom to act – to “choose” how we act – it follows that the effects we have are not entirely predictable. Whether or not I punch you in the face is not entirely a matter of your personal karma. It’s partly my choice. Of course.

We should all know that questions around free will and determinism have long been a playground for philosophers. I have no wish to join that game. I only want to point out that a version of karma in which the whole universe revolves around bringing every detail of my life into accord with my past karma, and your life into accord with your past karma, her life into accord with her past karma… – simply does not add up.

But more seriously

Buddhist literature includes an extensive analysis of karma – action and its fruit, in other words. The interplay of subject, object, motivation, the actual action, what general effect that is likely to have, what specific effects it’s likely to have, and so on – these are all discussed at length. Some of that literature contains deep thinking; some of it is more like fairy tales for children.

When suffering – sickness, for example – comes to a serious Buddhist practitioner, they are often urged to think of it as the fruit of their own bad actions in the past. But this is a training, not an explanation of how the world works.
If we ask, what is the origin of disease, we are more likely to get answers indicating multiple causes, such as this set of six:

  • an imbalance of the elements
  • bad diet
  • wrong methods of meditation
  • disturbances caused by spirits
  • possession by demons
  • the force of bad karma

Some of us will, of course, be more sceptical about spirit disturbances than others, but the point here is clear: yes, our past deeds, our past karma, play a part, but it is only one strand in the tapestry of cause and effect.

Further reading

If you are interested, you will find discussions in the “stages of the path” literature1 2. Because it’s easy, I’ve provided links in the footnotes for purchasing at Amazon, but please think of looking first to your favourite dharma centre, bookshop or publisher.

  1. Nyingma example: Words of my Perfect Teacher
  2. Kagyu example: The Jewel Ornament of Liberation

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