Friday, February 13, 2009

Karma: Universal and Buddhist Interpretations

The word karma, in its simplest sense, means action. In a broader context, it features the causal relationships brought about by the action, likened to seeds awaiting to ripen in the future. Karma is generally understood as the sum-total of one's activities and their latent effects, weaving a complex causal web leaving even the wisest perplexed over matters of predetermination and free will.

The exact course and formation of causal relationships can be hard to decipher.

The concept has been broadly popularized in the West by Buddhist and Hindu teachers over the past century. The Buddhist tradition has excelled particularly in its presentation of the underlying ethics, while the Hindus, and in particular the Vedantic tradition, have done some interesting groundwork in estimating the subconscious mechanics of karmic ripening.

A comprehensive gloss on the treatment of karma in Buddhism and Hinduism, along with Jainism and Sikhism, the other two main dharmic religions, is beyond the scope of this article. In the following, I hope to first distill the essentials of what determine the nature of the effect arising from a particular cause, and then gloss the Buddhist ethical analysis of action and offence as applied in their old monastic code.


A number of universal factors affect the causal content of each action.

Universal Karma


Karma is the sum total of several variables instead of the outcome of a single factor. Cause here means all direct and indirect, often far-reaching consequences born from the action. First and foremost, karma is born of the desire and intent of the doer. The consequence befalling each action are defined, among others, by the following:

1) Intention. Was the intent positive or negative, good or evil? Was the act done impulsively, with contemplation or by accident?
2) Implementation. Was the act fulfilled in accordance with the intention, or to a contrary result? Was the good or evil act brought to a conclusion?
3) Effects. Are the factual effects of the act positive, negative or mixed, individually as well as collectively?
4) Object. Was the object of a good deed particularly wanting or without need? Was the object of an evil deed helpless and innocent, equal and neutral, or greater and evil itself?
5) Circumstances. Was the act done out of a real need, or whimsically? Was the doer in a forced situation or faced with a free choice?
6) Atonement. Did the doer of an evil act try to make amendments by attempting to correct its consequences? Was the repentance superficial or genuine?

We can all form examples of the above for ourselves, the principles ought to be clear enough. In examining the factual consquence of the act and its effect on its object, the collective effect of the transformation effected in the object, and the underlying intents, we all begin to fathom just how complex the network of cause and effect really is.

I would assume the above to be largely universal, and for the most part also applicable in a court of law as in ethical measurement, even if it is evident that analysis and interpretation of the variables involved is an inherently subjective venture. Religions have certainly all had their say on the matter, and particularly so among Indic religions, where extensive theories of personal causation have evolved.


Buddhist monks of Thai and Tibetan traditions gathered in Lumbini, Nepal.

In Buddhist Monasticism


The ancient Buddhist monastic rules (vinaya) make for a particularly fascinating read in this context. This owes largely to the excessively detailed and thorough philosophy of offense featured in the commentarial tradition, primarily assessing an offense against the criteria of motivation and implementing act. The system of Vinaya Pitaka doesn't discuss the variables of the offense with regards to its possible consequences; its sole intent is to judge whether an offense has occured, and if so, at which degree of severity.

There are four parajika-offenses or unforgivables for the Buddhist monks, committing which a monk is unconditionally exiled from the monastic community for the remainder of his life. They are as follows: 1) sexual intercourse, 2) homicide, 3) theft, and 4) exaggeration of spiritual status. These offences are applicable at this severity only while living as an ordained monk; should the monk for example be unable able to control his sexual urge, he may forsake monkhood and live in a relationship for as long as he wishes, and later in his life again become a monk. However, having sex while still ordained is unforgivable.

The monastic tradition, rich in its abundance of rules, naturally gives the bulk of its attention to these four severest offences. As an example, the tradition defines theft by four criteria:

1) Object: Anything belonging to another or a group of people.
2) View: The object is understood as belonging to another or a group of people.
3) Intention: One decides to steal the object.
4) Effort: One steals the object.

In the above, in absence of factor 2) no ethical violation has occured. (The object accidentally stolen must of course be returned once understood as such.) In absence of factor 3), where the thief has accidentally stolen an object he has contemplated on stealing, a full offense is not committed, neither is it in absence of factor 1) where the thief has stolen no-man's property or something of his own. Additionally the value of the object is in direct proportion to the severity of the crime.

Homicide, in turn, is judged according to the following criteria:

1) Object: A living human being. (Commentarial tradition includes featus here; the rule was born consequent to abortion medicines administered to nuns.)
2) Intention: To knowingly, with understanding, contemplation and intention wish to terminate a person's life. "Knowingly" also includes the following:
3) View: A perception of an object as a living human being.
4) Effort: Whatever may be done in order to terminate an individual's life.
5) Outcome: Life is terminated as a direct consequence of the act.

In the above, in absence of factor 2), for example in an accidental shot, no ethical violation punishable as homicide has occured. In absence of factor 3), for example in the accidental killing of an animal or another human instead of the object (not however if the other is viewed upon as the object), a full offense has not been committed. In absence of factor 4) a full offence has also not been committed, for the transition from will to action has not occurred. A death caused without intention, and thereby also without effort, does not lead to an ethical violation.

Those interested in the Vinaya-tradition may want to study Thanissaro Bhikkhu's Introduction to the Patimokkha Rules and Buddhist Monastic Code, freely employed in this article. In the latter, particularly the fourth chapter discussing the parajika-offences makes a thorough study of ethics, coupled with illustrative examples.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Post a Comment