Two Meanings of Karma


The law of karma is a fundamental principle of the Buddhist worldview. In brief, karma refers to the idea that intentional actions have consequences for the agent, in this life and in future lives; in fact, it is karma that leads to rebirth. Buddhists understand the law of karma as another manifestation of dependent arising (paṭicca-samuppāda), the law of case and effect, whereby everything that exists arises due to specific conditions. In this sense, the law of karma is a sort of natural law, so that actions are naturally followed by consequences, not as the result of divine judgement. But they will follow: the Buddha emphasised that actions lead inevitably to appropriate consequences: 

Not in the sky, nor in the midst of the sea,

Nor by hiding in a mountain cave:

No place on earth is to be found

Where one might escape one’s wicked deeds.[1]

The inevitability of karmic consequences is a large part of the way that traditional Buddhism has presented its ethical teachings. Evil actions, like killing, stealing, lying and so on, are bad karmas and will lead to rebirth in an unpleasant human situation or in hell. Good actions, on the other hand, such as generosity (especially giving to Buddhist monks), makes merit and leads to good rebirth in a pleasant human situation or in heaven. Western Buddhists, while aware of the traditional teachings on karma, are generally more inclined to understand the law of karma in a psychological sense, as a reminder that good actions will produce pleasant experienced consequences in this life, and that bad actions will lead to unhappiness. My contention in this article is that in fact we should understand that ‘karma’ here is being used in two ways, and has two quite distinct meanings, which traditional Buddhists have not necessarily noticed, but which is important for western Buddhism.

I will call the two meanings of karma universal and psychological. When western Buddhists talk about the law of karma, they often have in mind only one meaning of the term, and that is the psychological meaning of karma. In its psychological meaning, the law of karma in Buddhism amounts to this: intentional actions of body, speech and mind have psychological consequences for the agent, such that good actions bring positive experiences in their train, and bad actions bring negative experiences. For instance, if I make a habit of going to the monastery and giving food and money to the monks and nuns, then this generosity has certain consequences: I feel happier, because my concern has been habitually directed beyond myself; I feel inspired, because my giving to the monks has brought me into contact with Dharma-practitioners; I feel my life is more meaningful, because my generosity has brought me into connection with the sangha in a general sense. Conversely, if I make a habit of fiddling my tax-return and stealing packets of coffee from work, then there will be certain consequences: I feel unhappier, because of the edge of anxiety that HMRC will catch up with me, or the kitchen manager at work will notice my theft; I feel more anxious, as I need to be careful who I am honest with, especially at work; I feel my life is a struggle, because I’m not able to relax into every moment with a good conscience.

The psychological meaning of the law of karma is extremely important for understanding how practising ethics has good consequences and leads to a happier, more integrated sense of self. This is the best basis for further progress on the Buddhist path. As an aside at this point, it is worth noticing that Buddhist ethics is based on the axiom that ‘actions have consequences’, but a good action is one that has good consquences for everyone, not just for oneself. The law of karma follows from the ethical axiom, but the psychological consequences for onself should not be the only considersation for our actions. But perhaps for a lot of us the promise of greater happiness acts as a prompt to remember to be good.

However, when traditional Buddhists talk about the law of karma, they usually have in mind something different to the psychological meaning of karma, which I will call the universal meaning of karma. In this more traditional meaning, the law of karma amounts to a theory about universal moral justice: intentional actions of body, speech and mind will have felt consequences in this life, or, more likely, in future lives. According to the universal law of karma, if I make a habit of going to the monastery and giving food and money to the monks and nuns, then such generous acts create merit, which is something like a positive balance on a cosmic balance-sheet, and which, after I have died, will come to fruition in my having a pleasant rebirth, perhaps in a well-off family, perhaps in a Buddhist country, or perhaps in a heavenly realm. Conversely, if I fiddle my taxes and steal the coffee, then such acts of taking the not-given will create demerit, which is something like a negative weight on the cosmic balance-sheet, which, after I have died, will have the result of putting me into a less pleasant rebirth, perhaps in a family of thieves, or among tax-collectors or coffee-growers, or perhaps in a hell-realm.

The universal law of karma is part of Buddhist cosmology; beings move between the various realms of existence – human, divine, hellish, animal – as a result of their karma. Due to universal impermanence, all beings arise and pass away continuously, and the effects of both good and bad actions only last for a certain period of time before they are exhausted. Hence the gods may fall and the inhabitants of hell may find their way back into the daylight, all through the law of karma. This universal karma is a system of cosmic justice, whereby moral acts never fade into oblivion, but register in the fabric of reality, their moral quality conserved until the very universe rewards and punishes good- and evil-doers.

My thought is that the Buddhist tradition has never distinguished these two meanings of the law of karma, the universal and the psychological. I think that the reason is that the universal idea of karma has its origin in ancient Indian religious and philosophical thought, and was not originally a psychological doctrine. In the Brahmanical religion of before the Buddha’s time, karma meant ritual action. For instance, a son might perform karmas at the funeral of his father, to ensure the deceased person’s passage to the world of the ancestors. Such karmas involved placing ritual items in the ritual fire, and it was believed that correctly performed ritual karma effected the nature of the universe. Around the time of the Buddha, the Jains formulated a new teaching about karma. For them, karma was a kind of substance that clung to one’s soul and kept one in conditioned existence and transmigration. Good karmas were purer than bad karmas but better than both was no karma. Again the effect of karma was inherent in the nature of the universe, but now the effect was individualised and ethical. Then the Buddha gave this individualised and ethicised idea of karma a psychological turn, so that the most important kind of karma was mental intention, and it was not a kind of substance but something more abstract.[2]

So although the psychological sense of karma has always been part of the Buddhist teaching, it has not usually been distinguished from the universal sense of karma. But actually, the two meanings of karma have very different implications. The universal law of karma is a matter of religious belief. It is not possible for ordinary people to understand the workings of universal karma; as the Buddha said, the workings of karma are unthinkable. It is simply a matter of trusting that this is the way that the universe works. Moreover, a belief in the universal law of the karma is tied up with a belief not only in rebirth but also in the various realms of existence posited by Buddhist cosmology. All in all, the universal law of karma is a matter of religious belief.

By contrast, the psychological law of karma is not a matter of belief, but is something that we can observe and test for ourselves. Indeed, most of us have to some extent learned to do good and avoid evil just because of our past mistakes. But mostly this psychological law of karma appeals to our intuitive sense of morality as well as being easily testable through actual experience. The truth that good actions have good consequences which are experienced in the here and now seems to be part and parcel of the Dharma, which is said to be evident, timeless, inviting, guiding, to be experienced individually by the wise.

My sense is that Western Buddhists are generally more inclined to think of the law of karma in the psychological sense. This makes sense, as the psychological sense of karma is practical and empirical. The universal sense of karma is, by contrast, religious and indeed a matter of metaphysical speculation, since our knowledge of it is dependent on the the Buddhist tradition. It seems to me, moreover, that the universal meaning of the law of karma is incompatible with the scientific world-view in many ways, and for this reason many western Buddhists actually do not believe in the law of karma as universal justice, while nevertheless the law of karma as a clear psychological teaching is central to their conception of the Dharma. So the distinction of psychological and universal meanings of the law of karma is important for clarifying what is distinctive about western Buddhism.

[1] Dhammapada, verse 127, my trans.

[2] Richard Gombrich traces the origins of the Buddha’s teaching of karma in Brahmanical and Jain traditions in What the Buddha Thought, Equinoxe, London, 2009.

21 thoughts on “Two Meanings of Karma

  1. Very good way of highlighting a difference that probably for most Buddhists is a bit obscure. I wonder if that difference is what is really behind the two “options” presented in the Kalama Sutta to believers and non-believers in rebirth? The reason why the issue has come into prominence today is because the rebirth issue itself is in so much dispute. The main problem facing any ethical theory is to be able to answer the question as to why the individual should behave ethically in face of the obvious fact of the utter contingency of ethical life – good people quite often do not reap any obvious benefit from their actions, while bad people quite often prosper! A belief in some sort of super-natural differed reward and punishment for good or bad behaviour (either by the moral will of God or the mechanism of the supposed “natural” operation of an ethical order of the universe) clearly rectifies this problem. If on the other hand todays generations find it quite difficult to adequately believe in some sort of future other-world, then the whole of ethics becomes reduced to just the psycho-spiritual aspect. And this makes any attempt at a justification for ethics very weak and wishy-washy indeed. The challenge to any ethical theory is to be able to find adequate reasons as to why the individual should be ethical in the first instance, that are convincing enough for them to emotionally get behind a practical transformative ethical life.

    • Hello Padmadipa, thanks for this. I’m OK with your reply. I was just trying to make a distinction between two meanings of karma, but having done so the question now arises – is the psychological meaning of karma defensible? Yours and Robert’s replies certainly indicate the problems.

  2. Nice piece Dhivan, and I appreciate the distinction between psychological and universal senses of karma. It would have been useful in our discussion group on this topic at the recent order weekend. I have an enduring question about whether other peoples’ actions in response to our willed actions constitute karma-vipaka. And if so, does that need a third category? For example, if I act aggressively towards someone on a number of occasions then they may become wary around me, or even avoid me altogether, perhaps to my cost. Is this karma-vipaka, do you think? Amalavajra x

    • Hello Amalavajra. I think your question simply raises a question of definition, what we mean by ‘karma-vipāka’. If we interpret it simply as ‘consequences of actions’, then, yes, the wariness of the person to whom you have been aggressive is a consequence of your actions. If we interpret ‘karma-vipāka’ in a ‘metaphysical and dogmatic sense’ as Robert Ellis puts it in his reply below, then, no, the wariness of the person to whom you have been aggressive is not a karma-vipāka in the strict sense, because all karma-vipākas are experiences of the individual agent in a stream of consciousness. So it’s really important at this point to clarify what we think we mean! I agree with Robert that the latter interpretation is ‘metaphysical and dogmatic’, and it’s much more convincing to me to understand karma-vipāka to simply mean ‘consequences of actions’ in a straightforward sense. Being aggressive around someone, they get wary. Consequences of actions. From the strict Buddhist point of view, I suppose a ‘metaphysical and dogmatic’ interpretation would be that the wariness of the person to whom you have been aggressive is the consequence of their own mental states, not your actions. But it seems to me that such an interpretation, though not untrue, misses out the obvious ethical implication of the situation, which is that being aggressive does not bring world peace.

  3. Hi Dhivan, I think the distinction you make is a handy one for many Western Buddhists struggling to reconcile experience with traditional Buddhist metaphysics. However, I’m not convinced by this distinction, any more than I’m convinced by most other attempts to make traditional authority palatable, rather than admit its incompatibility with the Buddha’s core message.

    For one thing, the distinction between ‘psychological’ effects and ones outside our psyche is not as neat as you seem to assume. If our actions have effects on our states of mind, they also have an effect on how we understand and interpret the world. If it was really the case that all our actions lead to “appropriate” psychological results, good actions would presumably lead us to interpret even very painful external events in a positive way so that they were no longer painful, and bad actions conversely would make us experience good external events as pleasant. As far as we were concerned, universal karma would be operating – or at least, we wouldn’t be able to tell the difference.

    For another, ‘psychological’ karma strikes me as just as absolute and just as far beyond experience as ‘universal’ karma. Do you really think we understand our brains, with their trillions of neural connections, any better than the universe? Sure, we can generalise with a good level of justification about the likely psychological effects of certain types of action, but this is not a ‘law of karma’ – even a psychological one. A law of karma would have us believe that the effects of our actions are always morally appropriate; an assertion demanding just as much metaphysical dogma as any assertion about universal karma.

    No, the problem with karma is that it’s framed as an overall law from which we’re supposed to deduce an understanding of specific conditions. This is putting the cart before the horse. It is our understanding of specific conditions and the way specific kinds of actions lead to specific kinds of effects in experience that’s important. But we get this understanding of specific conditions from experience, not traditional formulations of karma. Our understanding of specific conditions will never entitle us to make metaphysical claims like the law of karma, psychological or otherwise; nor would the law of karma, even if we ‘knew’ it to be ‘true’, actually help us in any way with understanding specific conditions – it’s just an irrelevant dogmatic abstraction. The law of karma is dogmatic, metaphysical and useless, whether interpreted universally or psychologically. The only thing to do with it is neither to confirm it nor stoop to deny it, but to thoroughly sideline it with a hard agnostic stance.

    • Hello Robert, thanks for this. You are pushing the argument to the edge, as ever, for which I am grateful. But your reply highlights for me that you are reading into the idea of ‘psychological karma’ a bit too much, and certainly not what I was getting at. For instance, you’ve written in your reply that ‘we can generalise with a good level of justification about the likely psychological effects of certain types of action’, and that was all I was getting at in my generalisation that probably most western Buddhists think exactly like this about karma. It’s just consequentialist ethics made quite conscious, and structured with the help of the precepts understood as rules. For exactly the reasons you go on to give, I think most western Buddhists are quite unable to suppose that the law of karma has any real predictive power, from which one could induce appropriate actions. Personally I think it is merely a psychological motivation for ethics, even and especially when people are rather shaky and unsure about how to think ethically in ordinary life (because of the dominance of negative factors in their experience, lack of integration, confusion, unhelpful upbringing, etc.). As people get more confident about what is right and what is wrong, the so-called law of karma becomes irrelevant, as you don’t need ‘metaphysical and dogmatic’ help with your decisions. (You might appreciate the advice of your friends though, but only if they weren’t being dogmatic and metaphysical!).

      • So, if I’m interpreting you correctly, you think the value of belief in (psychological) karma is to give people initial confidence in ethics, by just giving them the initial idea of a link between their actions with likely psychological effects? That sounds reasonable enough, apart from the question that I’m afraid I keep coming back to in discussions of this topic – “Why call it karma then?”. It’s not as though it’s a label that is particularly central to the idea of ethical concern for people in the West. In far more cases, I’d suggest, it’s an alien and/or oversimplified concept. People associate the word with fatalism, reincarnation and cosmic law, not with concern for psychological effects. It’s also very much an in-group word which acts as a barrier between Buddhist talk and non-Buddhist talk. Why not just talk about psychological consequences?

        If we were in an Indian context, I can see the argument for adapting terms, and diverting the energy that goes into a traditional set of associations into a useful direction. But in the West, it is Christian and scientific terminology that is much more deeply rooted. Surely for Western Buddhists the priority should be taking Christian or scientific terminology and injecting Buddhist insights into our understanding of their meaning, rather than re-interpreting Buddhist terms that are not in any case deeply-rooted in anyone’s way of thinking?

  4. Hi Robert, yes, you were interpreting me correctly. And perhaps slightly unusually (I mean often we agree to differ) I agree with you in what you go on to say. I can see no value at all in using the Sanskrit word ‘karma’ to mean actions, when our word ‘actions’ is straightforward and not loaded with religious and metaphysical ideas. However, just to clarify, my blog post was an exercise in clarification of how western Buddhists use the term ‘karma’, and I was trying to write a concise blog post that made just one simple point. And the point was about the use of this word ‘karma’. Now, if I was to go on and make a recommendation about how western Buddhists ought to use their words, I would probably recommend we leave the word ‘karma’ to signify the universal law of karma, with its religious and metaphysical concomitants, and use the word ‘actions’ instead of ‘karma’ for the psychological discussion of actions and consequences. Which is the kind of thing you’ve been doing in your Middle Way philosophising.

    • Hello Chaps, good discussion. Just to say that I agree with Robert that that there maybe no point using Pali Sanskrit terms for their own sake if there is appropriate English terms available, yet I think with karma (and others terms) that the horse has bolted , it is now part of everyday usage and clarifying the meaning of it ( and the views represented) for Buddhists and non Buddhist is time well sent.

  5. Hi Dhivan

    I’ve just seen this. I think the distinction is a helpful one. And I agree with your last paragraph entirely.

    The psychological version of karma, it seems to me, is what is being taught to the Kālāmas – “what you know to be unhelpful ought to be abandoned.” What is unhelpful is portrayed in rather formalistic terms of Buddhist ethics, but it still fits more or less with what you are suggesting. It’s the knowledge of actions and consequences that comes from our experience of interacting with other people. I’ve started to think of viññu as those, probably older people, that have learned how to get on with everyone. Interestingly the Kālāma Sutta suggests this is true whether one believed in rebirth or not. Do you agree?

    I understand that traditionally the main consequence of karma in any life is ones gati or rebirth destination. But does not karma also manifest as vedanā? How does this fit with your two-fold scheme?

    Although the early Buddhists, including Buddhaghosa who wasn’t so early, believed in the inevitability of karma, Mahāyāna Buddhists did not. Mahāyāna Buddhists adopted the idea (perhaps from Jainism) that one can block, nullify, or avoid the consequences of actions through religious practices. This stands out, for example, in the Chinese translations of the Samaññaphala Sutta – King Ajatasattahu is wounded and doomed to Hell by his patricide in the Pāḷi, but in the Chinese just meeting the Buddha mitigates his fate in one version, and in other he is more or less liberated after the meeting. I noted this in my article on “paṭikaroti” and the king’s confession in JBE.

    I hope to expand on this theme in a forthcoming article which has been provisionally accepted by JBE but we’re negotiating suggested changes. This change in the inevitability of karma denotes a major change in the underlying metaphysics of universal karma. It reaches its acme in the 100 Syllable Vajrasattva Mantra the chanting of which overcomes *any* negative karma, according to the text in which it first occurs: Sarvatathāgata-tattvasaṃgraha (ca 7/8th centuries).

    My forthcoming article will also discuss possible Iranian influences on the idea of karma, following the theme of the Śākyas being the descended of Iranian immigrants. I suspect, but cannot prove, that it might have been (indirect) interactions with Zoroastrians that led to cycle rebirth being seen as a burden rather than a blessing. That change is a curious thing. Zoroastrians were the nearest people we know to have had the concept of heaven and hell, and where one went was dependent on how one lived one’s life in matters of body, speech and mind.

    • Thanks for this Jayarava. As for the Kālāma-sutta, this is an interesting example of where the Buddha discusses (as you say) karma in what I’ve called a psychological sense, which is the sense that many western Buddhists accept. But it’s noticeable that the Buddha does not use the idea of karma in his teaching to the Kālāmas. I think this may show that, for the Buddha, or for people of his time, the idea of karma and the law of karma was understand in what I’ve called the ‘universal’ sense, and was mainly connected with big themes of cosmic justice, with how one’s future rebirth was connected with one’s actions. So it follows that the Buddha certainly did teach about karma in the sense of ‘psychological’ actions and consequences, even if he did not call it karma! I also agree that we should think of the ‘viññū’ as people who are wise elders. Probably they can do more than just ‘get on with everyone’, as this may or may not be a matter of age and wisdom. I’d say that they have acquired some practical wisdom.

      You mention the idea that consequences of actions are said to manifest as vedanā, as well as determining future rebirth. When I read about a particular action, e.g. a good action, being said to lead to future pleasant vedanā, that sounds to me like a psychological belief, sort of in-between the belief in karma over life-times, and the simple idea that actions have consequences for oneself and others. However, there is the example of the Buddha’s analysis of eight sources of vedanā, in S iv.230, where the last source is kamma, which suggests that this view was perhaps another part of the cultural worldview of the time. The Buddha does not press the idea, but points out that not all vedanā is due to past kamma.

      Thanks for the summary of your research on how the law of karma changed its garb in later Buddhism! It is fascinating to think how the Indian Buddhists altered the basic metaphysic of karma and rebirth. Even in Theravāda came the idea of ‘merit-transference’. I don’t think the ordinary Buddhist liked the rather forbidding metaphysics of karma. We need to feel we can help our deceased loved ones!

      • Hi there Dhivan

        Thanks for this, which I’ve just come across.

        This interested me from a number of points of view – perhaps a bit more practical and less theoretical/ historical than Robert or Jayarava.

        Firstly I’m sure you’re right about the distinction between universal and psychological karma which is implicit in the minds of many Westerners. However I think it is a bit jumping to conclusions to assume this is the normative view of Westerners who see themselves as practising Buddhists. It is easy to think that if you mix mainly with scholarly types or adherents of avowedly “Western” Buddhism like the TBC or Insight meditation, say. In a country like the UK adherents of groups like the SGI or the NKT and other Tibetan lineages will vastly outnumber the aforesaid and most of these will cheerfully adopt the traditional views they are fed pretty unquestioningly.

        I also agree that the two types of karma can be seen in the historical teachings but nobody has historically seen any need to distinguish them. Nor is there necessarily a need to unless, as you assert, universal karma is incompatible with a modern scientific world-view. Being lazy I’d prefer to remain agnostic about whether that is actually the case or not!

        Richard Gombrich has performed a great service in so clearly illustrating how the Buddha ethicised earlier formulations of Karma as a ritual practise. But it remains the case that this ethic is encased in a somewhat metaphysical framework: one gets the feeling of something bigger and more mysterious out there which wields its own power. Traditions may have expounded this is the Unconditioned, the Indestructible Heart Essence, the Buddha Nature, the Dharmakaya – you name it. Then radicals keep coming along and pulling the rug out from underneath these certainties.

        I think Padmadipa hits the nail on the head when he (she?) asks the perennial question of where the incentive for good conduct comes if the rewards are only psychological and only in this life. That doesn’t seem to satisfy many people who need inspiration in the shape of things like the bodhisattva ideal, the Pure Land or whatever. Where will Samvega go if we are only musing about the psychological effects of our decisions and not engaged in a radical transformation of the heart? Where will the devotion that has inspired amazing buildings, sacred music etc. come from if there is not a sense of something ineffable (which could, for example, be seen as the hand of universal karma)?

        Will there be any such thing as Buddhism left in Robert’s thoroughly non-traditional world? And would it matter? Does nibbana still have a place? These are the questions I ask without expecting an answer!

        I just come back to the fact that the Buddha doesn’t seem to have confronted tradition head-on but rather reinterpreted it in a way which people could relate to practically and keep their spiritual inspiration. I’m very poorly read in the suttas but my impression is that the historical Buddha didn’t actually encourage people to fret too much about how universal karma might actually work – didn’t he say it would drive you crazy if you tried to understand it?! Maybe us old fashioned religious Buddhists are just too attached to universal karma to let go! But then maybe that’s all you wanted to highlight in drawing attention to this distinction.

      • Thanks a lot Michael for this thoughtful reply. I don’t have much to say by way of reply but I thought I’d write something. First, you’re probably right to make the point that most ‘western Buddhists’ do actually believe in the traditional (‘universal’) meaning of karma. I suppose I mostly mix with Buddhists in the Triratna Buddhist Community, and my impression is that about half don’t believe in rebirth and hence think in terms of the ‘psychological’ meaning of karma. However I’m personally very keen to develop an authentic ‘western Buddhism’, and to my mind this starts with a thorough-going critique of metaphysical teachings like karma and rebirth. This doesn’t necessarily mean throwing out these teachings, but really trying to understand what they are doing and whether they are essential. Lots of Buddhists, for instance, think that if you don’t have the idea of karma and rebirth then Buddhism just doesn’t work any more – the idea of nibbāna just doesn’t make sense anymore. I have to say, this has never convinced me. I was initially attracted to the Dharma because of the ideal of awakening, nibbāna, liberation, and these ideals have always spoken to my experience in the here-and-now. Anyway – I look forward to more of your comments on future blog posts!

  6. Hi Michael,
    You say you’re not expecting any answer to your questions, but if they are sincerely asked I feel that they deserve answers.

    Will there be any such thing as Buddhism left in Robert’s thoroughly non-traditional world? Yes, of course there will. It is just that Buddhist tradition will be seen as a resource, to be judged in terms that relate to experience, rather than a self-justifying metaphysical authority. I don’t think traditions should be defined by their ‘beliefs’ any more than people should be. They always have potential to change and evolve into something better suited to the conditions. Nor do traditions have easily defined sharp edges. What is ‘Buddhism’ and what is not depends only on how people choose to define it. I only ceased to call myself a Buddhist when I began to judge that the main interpretation of it around me was actually a metaphysical one, and thus that the term courted too much misunderstanding as a label for what I was trying to do.

    Would it matter? It would matter if ‘Buddhism’ disappeared if that meant that we would lose rich and valuable resources that might help us on the Middle Way. It would not matter if we lost either the label or the associated metaphysics, but kept the resources.

    Does nibbana still have a place? For me it remains meaningful, but I don’t ‘believe in’ nibbana, or aspire to it. It is at best an abstract concept, like infinity. I don’t think we need ultimate goals that are beyond our experience – and indeed such goals are just further metaphysical beliefs that we tend to unhelpfully confuse with actual goals in our experience. We do need goals, but these need to be intermediate ones that are within the horizon of our experience. We also need a sense of direction – but that can be provided by the Middle Way. The goal is not the path!

  7. Thanks for that, Robert – all answers gratefully received!

    I imagine most “Buddhists” I know would take on what you say about the mutability of (still useful) tradition and the importance of realisable goals.

    The usefulness of Buddhist “metaphysics” is clearly a huge subject and not one we can sort out here. Different people have sought to reduce the Buddha’s teaching to a single principle (e.g. the Middle Way). I’m not sure how far you can get with that without straying into metaphysics – I’m sure it’s all in your book, which I’m afraid I haven’t read!

    Perhaps I could just allude to one theme and that is the practicality of the Buddha’s teachings. You say you only see nibbana as an abstract ideal. But when I read the discourses what leaps out to me (and if you like is my unifying principle) is the urgency of getting on the noble eightfold path. This is always presented as a set of practical actions but to embark on them you do need some faith that the Buddha awakened to the end of suffering, quenching the fires of greed, hatred and delusion. If you like that is “believing in nibbana”!

    Even though the Buddha didn’t teach in a “metaphysical” way he did inevitably use conceptual models which can easily be dismissed as metaphysical – the whole process of dependent arising, the analysis of the psychophysical organism into the five kandhas and so on. And that was way before the Abhidhammists got going.

    Speaking as a small c conservative, Buddhist fuddy duddy I guess I hear alarm bells when there is too great a readiness to abandon tradition in favour of a supposedly superior modernity. That would be the case with the present example – the whole area of karma and rebirth. I don’t feel the urge to get into too critical a mode when the tradition itself (as presented to me) doesn’t actually place much stress on those things but simply encourages me on the energetic cultivation of awareness and compassion.

    But it’s a free country (kind of) so good luck to all of those navigating their own way around the whole business of tradition, authority and authenticity. Heaven knows, “traditional” Buddhism globally is clearly in something of a mess!

    Peace and joy


  8. Cheers Dhivan

    I very much appreciate your work within the Triratna Community and your efforts to stimulate discussion and connection.

    It’s refreshing to hear that the TBC is actually pretty variegated and heterodox in practice – I’m a bit out of touch!

    I’m interested that you say that an authentic Western Buddhism must START with a metaphysical critique. It hasn’t been like that for me. To me what most of us start with is some sort of inspiration by way of practice, albeit as experienced through our Western cultural conditioning. The bits of Buddhism that work are not, in my experience, much hedged around by metaphysical “issues”. I’m thinking of the need to develop some level of meditative concentration, the willingness to subject one’s ethics and intentions to honest scrutiny, the readiness to fearlessly look at one’s own transient mental states, the openness to adapting one’s behaviour to the demands of communal/ relational living. These things are not contentious – they’re just bloody difficult!

    What seems to happen is that, often after an initial flurry of enthusiasm, the magnitude of the task starts to hit us at the same time as the difficulty of “swallowing” some of the assumptions in the historical teaching and tradition which don’t seem to chime in with our contemporary experience. This seems to come up for lot of people around karma and rebirth (at least it has since the publication of Buddhism without Beliefs). I don’t seem to find this area a problem but when I was trying to practice within the FWBO I found the predominant view that one’s practice must develop in the direction of the adoption of a Vajrayana style sadhana practice (based on the visualisation of archetypal forms) came to be a similar obstacle – even though of course these practices only come from part of the Buddhist tradition.

    I guess my concern is that as we go on to the metaphysical critiquing we don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater by losing sight of the fact that the central project is the seeing through of egocentric delusion via an intelligent dedication to the noble path. You seem to acknowledge this. (I can already hear some people objecting that the path itself is a cultural construct but hey let’s just see what works and not look the gifthorse of inspiration in the mouth!).

    I’m starting to ramble so I’ll close by just observing that there is a big irony in all this in that the traditions we often find ourselves in rebellion against are often manifest distortions of what was probably the original teaching – e.g. the way most ethnic Asian Buddhists will tend to have an understanding of rebirth as Hindu style transmigration of some kind of innate entity. This we can be pretty sure the Buddha didn’t teach and yet it doesn’t inhibit people from imagining that they are heirs top the proper teaching!

    Love and peace


  9. Hello Michael, thanks again for your reply. I think again I agree with you! I tend to get absorbed in philosophical and doctrinal matters, but if I’m honest my interest in Buddhism goes back to quite a straightforward faith in the Buddha’s teachings, especially in the idea that it’s possible to develop wisdom and compassion. So perhaps the metaphysical critiquing is not quite where any of us ‘start’ as western Buddhists, although it’s where I tend to start when I’m thinking about Buddhism.

    I’m glad to hear you had a time with Triratna when it was FWBO. Where and when was that? Interesting to hear about your experience of being guided towards Vajrayana-style sadhana practice. I didn’t take on one of these when I became an Order member, because I never connected with that whole approach to practice. Recently Sangharakshita (via Subhuti) has point forward the idea that we need to be ‘re-imagining the Buddha’, i.e. not just doing Indo-Tibetan visualisation practices, but also trying to engage our imaginations with the Buddha in terms of our own cultural experience. It’s not quite clear what this will mean in practice but it has created a bit more discussion around the point of Vajrayana-style sadhana practice.

    All the best, Dhivan

  10. Thanks again, Dhivan

    Your question invites a LOT of thinking aloud – I’ll try to be brief!

    My involvement with the FWBO petered out about 8 or so years ago though I try to keep in friendly contact. My involvement was mainly around the LBC from the early 90s then later in Brighton. I did complete all the ordination retreats at least once but I could never engage with the process wholeheartedly for all sorts of reasons. Including probably my own arrogance! And some flirtation with neo-advaita (which I now see as a dead end though it does seem to captivate quite a few people in and around the Order).

    Thanks for drawing my attention to the Subhuti paper on re-imagining the Buddha. I had seen this and have looked at it again, There is a lot in it I welcome though it does seem to ramble rather and I can’t help feeling it is making life more complicated than it needs to be! I’d be interested to know what the upshot of it has been.

    As a traditionalist much of it is music to my ears. A suprapersonal dimension, the transcendental object, an unearthly light, a dimension beyond non-clinging. Bring it on! I may be a simple soul but I’m not sure what the 5 niyamas are if they’re not the outworking of “universal karma”.

    One reason I liked the thrust of the paper is that much of my input in recent years has been from dedicated secularists like John Peacock who eschew all such “mystical” language.

    It’s funny a lot of my re-imagining of the Buddha has taken place since I drifted away from the FWBO. Key influences has been more intensive silent vipassana type retreats (Mahasi and Goenka) which had quite a ratchet effect on my meditation. They really brought the satipatthana discourses alive for me. IMHO they should be compulsory for all Order members: in my experience there was far too much talking and far too little meditation practice around the Order! Similarly doing the Committed Dharma Practitioners programme at Sharpham College opened up a whole new world – getting at least a nodding acquaintance with the Pali Canon and a much richer appreciation of the historical Buddha as a human being and teacher. You could say I now have a much enlivened sense of “the Word of the Buddha”. Yet doing all this Theravada based practice amongst predominantly “secular” psychological types has left me still feeling a big gap in terms of community and the devotional/ imaginative side of things – I really miss these aspects of “the movement”!

    Of course I welcome the incipient move away from Tantric style practices as the norm but we do need a truly open minded exploration. One particular difficulty I have is with Subhuti’s cavalier rejection of “the language of God”. That seems odd if we really want to find a practice which is informed by our own culture. Subhuti really should read a book like the Experience of God by the Orthodox theologian David Bentley Hart. He would find that there are intelligent Christian (and other) contemplatives who are not guilty of the sins he seems to ascribe to them. For some of these people God is simply another word for the transcendental object. That would probably be heresy within the TBC but there are plenty of Zen teachers (like Ken Jones) who would express a common ground with non-Buddhist contemplative types. And if we are so unappreciative of our own meditative traditions in the Christian West we risk replacing one form of cultural alienation (contrived use of Tibetan imagery and rituals) with another (dogmatic rejection of God talk). You can make up your own system of meditation but that should not be a Procustean bed within which all human experience has to be force fit. Still at least Subhuti does have a good word to say for Gothic cathedrals!

    Anyway this is getting very off-topic. I’ll try to retire gracefully from this thread but it would be good to communicate some more. Maybe I’ll try to get on a retreat you’re leading (if they happen?) in the not too distant future.

    With all good wishes


    • Thanks for this Michael. I’m sure we’ll be in touch. My email address is I’m leading a study retreat up at Dhanakosha April 4–11 studying conditionality. Lots of meditation as well as talking! By the way, my friend Padmadipa (civil name Paul Simmons) remembers you from the WBO ordination process.

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