Karma and Buddhist Ethics

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How does the karma relate to Buddhist ethics? Is karma the basis of Buddhist ethics? Or is Buddhist ethics one thing, and the law of karma something else that is somehow related to ethics? In an earlier essay on this blog I distinguished the psychological from the universal meaning of karma, arguing that western Buddhists very often understand karma in terms of how intentional actions leads to psychological consequences that we experience in this life, whereas Buddhists have traditionally understood karma as operating over many lifetimes. The traditional view of karma as a system of natural justice seems to suggest that Buddhist ethics is based on karma. But for many westerners who think of karma as a psychological rather than a universal law, karma does not seem to be the basis for ethics, because we tend to think of ethics in terms of doing what is right or good, whatever the consequences might be for ourselves.

The question can be phrased like this: is an action good because the karmic consquences are positive, or are the karmic consequences good because the action is good? If we think that an action is good because the karmic consequence is good, then karma is the basis of Buddhist ethics. But if we think that the karmic consequence is good because the action is good, then we think that ethics – what counts as right and wrong – has a validity which is independent of the consequences for ourselves of our actions. I want to argue that karma is not the basis of Buddhist ethics, and that our intuitions about what is good and bad are indeed independent of the consequences of actions for ourselves.

This topic is a Buddhist version of the dilemma posed by Plato in his Euthyphro. In this early dialogue, Socrates engages in dialogue with his eponymous Athenian interlocutor about the nature of piety or holiness. But what is holiness? Euthyphro says that it is what the gods love, but Socrates asks him whether the gods love holiness because of its holiness, or whether holiness is such because it is loved by the gods. This is a dilemma because if the gods love holiness because it is holy, then it is holy whether or not there are any gods; but if the holiness is holy because the gods love it, then what counts as holiness depends on the arbitrary preferences of the gods. The dilemma also translates into more familiar theistic terms. If we suppose that God wills the good, is this good good because God wills it, or does God will the good because it is good? Is goodness the arbitrary invention of God, or is goodness part of the nature of reality, independent of God?

We can similarly ask whether an action is good because the karmic consequences are positive, or whether the karmic consequences are good because the action is good. Is Buddhist ethics based on the law of karma, or does the law of karma depend on an independent moral principle? It is hard to know whether the Buddha or the early Buddhist tradition worried about this kind of question. Nevertheless the words of the Buddha implicitly but very clearly tell us that the law of karma depends on a moral principle that is independent of the law of karma: ‘I say, monks, that karma is intention; intending one does an action through body, speech or mind.’[i]

These words are well-known, but they are more surprising than they appear. By saying that ‘action’ is ‘intention’, the Buddha is saying that what matters is not what you do but your mental state when you do it. The scholar Richard Gombrich has pointed out that, in the context of his time, the Buddha was using the language of karma here in an audacious way. Instead of focussing on ritual action, which was the original Brahmanical meaning of ‘karma’, the Buddha shifted attention to the psychological processes involved.[ii] By doing so, it is clear that the karmic consequence of an action depends on the actor’s intention, so that a good consequence depends on a wholesome intention, rather than the good consequence determining what counts as a good action.

Wholesome (kusala, ‘skilful’) or good intentions are those based on generosity, love and wisdom; unwholesome ones are those based on compulsion, hostility and delusion. Being good is based on the cultivation of wholesome mental intentions. It is wholesome intentions that result in good karmic consequences, and unwholesome ones that result in bad consequences. When we understand the relation of Buddhist ethics to karmic consequences like this, it is clear that ethics is not based on karma, but the law of karma is based on ethics.

So what is the role of karma in the Buddha’s teaching on ethics? I would say that the role is one of motivation. Buddhist ethics is a very practical business. We are all familiar with the experience of knowing the right thing to do but not being able to do it, as when we hide in our corner instead of making an effort to help someone; and we are familiar with knowing that an action is unwholesome but finding ourselves unable to stop doing it, as when we turn to pornography or comfort eating to assuage our existential discomfort. This is the human sitation, and in this situation the teachings on karma give clear reasons for acting from wholesome intentions, and not acting unwholesomely. The reason is that there will be an inevitable appropriate consequence for all of our intentional actions. Such consequences may be discernable in this lifetime (psychological karma), or one may believe in karmic consequences as operating over many lifetimes (universal karma). In either case, we are reminded that our destiny is in our own hands, and we alone are responsible for our future well-being.

Two important consequences follow from the fact that Buddhist ethics is not based on karma, but that the teaching of karma is a motivation to practice ethics. Firstly, we can discuss Buddhist ethics without necessarily discussing the law of karma, either in its psychological or its universal sense.[iii] We can discuss, for instance, how Buddhist ethics is connected with empathy, with the intuition that all living beings, like us, seek happiness and wish to avoid suffering. We can furthermore appreciate how the practice of Buddhist ethics is concerned with the well-being of others as well as ourselves, which is a non-karmic perspective on why we should act ethically.

Secondly, the fact that Buddhist ethics is not based on karma helps us to better understand what the Buddha meant when he taught the desirability of the cessation of karma. It is a very common theme in the early Buddhist discourses that the disciple practises in order to put an end to karma.[iv] We can now understand that this does not mean getting beyond Buddhist ethics, somehow going beyond good and bad. Rather, it simply means getting beyond the self-centred nature of karma as a psychological motivation for ethical action. Once one gains sufficient psychological integration to be able to act from wholesome intentions, there is no need to concern oneself with the consequences of one’s actions when making ethical decisions, since those decisions will be based on an appreciation of the roots of wholesome action, not on a concern for one’s own well-being.

In conclusion, it turns out that a belief in the law of karma is not necessary for a correct understanding of Buddhist ethics, whether this belief is in the form of a belief in the psychological or the universal meaning of karma. It is possible that many westerners who take up Buddhism have already developed an acute awareness of ethics, without reference to traditional Buddhist teachings on karma. For such western Buddhists, there may be little reason to take on a form of psychological motivation which is culturally alien. Moreover, reflections on culturally western forms of ethical concern, such as those based on rights and duties, seem to be perfectly compatible with Buddhist ethics, if not part of the traditional articulation of ethics. However, I suspect that when it comes to the actual practice of ethics, a reflection on the law of karma will always have a place as a useful psychological motivation to be good.

[i]Anguttara-nikāya 6.63, the Nibbhedika-sutta: cetanāhaṃ bhikkhave kammaṃ vadāmi, cetayitvā kammaṃ karoti kāyena vācāya manasā.

[ii] Richard Gombrich, How Buddhism Began, Athlone, London, 1996 p.51.

[iii]See for instance Sangharakshita, The Ten Pillars of Buddhism, Windhorse, Cambridge, 2010; Sangharakshita, the founder of the Triratna Buddhist Order in which I practise presents Buddhist ethics in this text without basing it on karma and rebirth.

[iv]See for instance the Nibbedhika-sutta cited above.

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