Karma in society

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Last time I explained why I think a constructive modern Buddhist philosophy should indeed focus on Buddhist philosophical texts as its sources for karma, and I stand by that. Yet ironically, even if we were to turn away from philosophy to karma’s functioning in society, as Thompson now recommends, we would then notice that even his sources for that point themselves do not establish what he claims they do: i.e. that “the concept is fundamentally a way to handle the problem of why bad things happen to good people and vice-versa”. Just as Obeyesekere never made that claim historically, these sources do not make the claim sociologically.

The sources in question are three articles about karma, all by his UBC colleague Cindel White with some coauthors. Contra Thompson’s claim, these studies do not indicate that the Buddhist concept of karma “is fundamentally a way to handle the problem of why bad things happen to good people and vice-versa”, even in the sociological context of everyday Buddhism. This is for two key reasons.

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Philosophical texts for philosophers

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In my continuing response to Evan Thompson I now turn to another methodological question that Thompson raises: what sources should we be using in a discussion of karma? I claim that my eudaimonist interpretation of Buddhist karma is congruent with existing Buddhist tradition in important ways, so it matters what that existing tradition has to say and how we determine it.

When I had previously said that the traditional core of karma had to do with future results of action – with that basic idea that good actions improve well-being – Thompson had asserted in response that “this idea isn’t the core idea of karma, if ‘core’ means what lies at the heart of the concept’s formation. On the contrary, the core problem, which drove the formation of the concept, is to explain why bad things happen to good people.” To support this claim he linked out to Obeyesekere’s Imagining Karma, which studied the formation of the concept through philosophical texts like the Upaniṣads. In his new reply, however, Thompson now says that “exegesis of philosophical texts… isn’t the right method for a concept like karma.”

Here, it seems to me, goalposts may have been moved. In his previous post, when he was first trying to make the claim that the “core” of karma “is to explain why bad things happen to good people”, Thompson was happy to cite, as his only source, Obeyesekere’s study, which relies largely on the exegesis of philosophical texts like the Upaniṣads. This was hardly a surprise, given that both of us are self-professed philosophers, and that Thompson himself had said, “my aim is to lay bare the philosophical problems with Buddhist modernism.” Emphasis added. But once I pointed out that Obeyesekere said nothing of the sort, then Thompson declared that the right method for thinking about karma didn’t have to do with philosophical texts but must be in the way they “function psychologically and socially” in everyday people’s lives.

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Karma: eschatology, theodicy, or eudaimonism?

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In my previous post I discussed how Evan Thompson and I may agree in principle that not all innovations to a tradition are legitimate. The real question, then, is how applicable the accusation of cherry-picking (or shopping cart) is in this case, the case that we are discussing, of the naturalized eudaimonistic approach to karma. So the question is whether this new approach is congruous with Buddhist tradition, or with Buddhist sources.

If I am correct that it is, then it would seem that Thompson’s accusation of cherry-picking does not stand. I contend that the traditional view of karma generally follows the view of Śāntideva that good and bad actions bring the agent good and bad results “in this world and another” (iha paratra ca). On that traditional view this pattern is deterministic: every good action ripens as a good result and vice versa. What my approach does is to say that karmic results happen only iha, in this world, because it turns out there is no paratra. As a result karma must be probabilistic and not deterministic in order to make sense. On my view, this naturalized approach to karma entirely continuous with the iha half of the traditional view, even as it rejects the paratra half – and this does not radically change the system because both halves work in similar ways.

I will say more about Śāntideva in future posts. But before going further, I think we need to clarify some key concepts at issue in Thompson’s most recent response. Thompson relies a great deal in this response on the concept of eschatology, so it is important to clarify what that concept means. Regarding the concept of karma, Thompson says:

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Of shopping carts and cherry-picking

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Evan Thompson has continued our dialogue with a new reply, and I am now ready to respond to it. This response will be seven posts long, so I will follow the practice from my last round of replies of posting them three days a week (Sunday, Tuesday, Thursday) over the course of the coming two weeks. When they’re all up I will update the index so readers have a convenient record of the whole thing.

To begin with, I’m glad to see that Thompson and I have come to some significant points of agreement. We can agree now that a eudaimonistic Buddhism does not have to suffer many of the flaws that Thompson identifies in Buddhist modernism, such as Buddhist exceptionalism or pretending our innovations are those of the historical Buddha. But as Thompson correctly notes, points of disagreement remain.

Our core disagreement is on the idea of eudaimonic karma. This has two aspects, which each bear examination though they are not separate from each other. The substantive aspect is about the workings of karma and rebirth. The methodological or hermeneutic aspect has to do with the claim that I am cherry-picking. They are not separate because the accusation of cherry-picking depends on the closeness (or lack thereof) of the relationship between the naturalized eudaimonic karma I advocate and earlier Buddhist conceptions that involve rebirth. I want to first approach the methodological issue, on which I think Thompson and I may find some further agreement, and then start moving to the substantive claims where I think we do still largely disagree.

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Becoming good through repetition

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I recently attended a remote presentation by Boston University students about how to thrive in the COVID-19 setting. One student rightly stressed the importance of creating good habits and structure. In the chat window, one attender said that advice reminded her of “Aristotle’s quote” that “We are what we repeatedly do.”


That is not a quote I had heard cited before, and it piqued my interest. It sounded quite in keeping with Aristotle’s thought, but seemed like a different idiom from Aristotle’s. Of course, one of the joys of the internet is it is quite easy to look up quotes. So within seconds I found a short essay from a writer named Caelan Huntress who was crushed to discover that, as far as we know, Aristotle did not in fact ever say this.

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The consolations and pleasures of philosophy

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The ongoing COVID-19 crisis has been a struggle for everyone, and some more than others. It has been a heartbreak for those who have lost loved ones, a terror for those who have lost jobs, and a great struggle for those who must suddenly take care of their children full-time while simultaneously trying to do their full-time jobs as well.

I am lucky not to have fallen into any of these three troubled categories – yet, at least. But I have noticed how difficult these times have been even for others who share my relatively lucky position – simply because everything is cancelled. We may not have parties. We may not go out to eat. We may not go to the movies. We may not travel, not without severe quarantine restrictions. We may not play sports; we may not even watch sports. We may not watch, or play, live music. Most of our social interactions must be through a medium where we cannot tell whether others are looking at us or at something else on their screen. Even as we recognize others’ difficulties are considerably greater, this is all still a major loss of the things we love.

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On delusions and their pragmatic efficacy

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Continuing my response to Seth Segall, my greatest disagreements are with his second point. So I will begin by quoting that at length:

As a hospital pastoral care provider I minister to patients of all faiths, and I have been impressed at how their faiths shape their own understanding of the virtues and contribute to making their lives admirable. So, if you are a person who finds a belief in rebirth compelling, and if you find that a belief in rebirth inspires you to practice being more compassionate to others, I have no quarrel with you. Please continue. The only statement I am willing to make without hesitation is that a belief in rebirth (let’s just use “rebirth” here as a stand-in for all the parts of Buddhism I happen to disagree with) doesn’t work for me, and I expect it won’t work for the majority of modern Westerners. I don’t want to be imperialistic about my beliefs. My attitude is, “this is what works for me,” and if you are feeling the same kind of dissonance with aspects of the Buddhist tradition, see if it works for you, too. On the other hand, I would never want to tell the Dalai Lama that he is practicing Buddhism wrong.

I do recognize the importance of working with people as they are, especially in a difficult field like pastoral care. Still I am nervous about saying that false ideas – which I do take rebirth to be – constitute “the best model for” any given person. Continue reading

Responses on humanity, rebirth, and a minimalist model

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Seth Zuihō Segall wrote a helpful response to my review of his Buddhism and Human Flourishing. Seth’s1 response makes four points, groupable in two categories that correspond to the division of my original post: the first two points, roughly, have to do with endorsing modern Western views, the second two with rejecting them. I will move roughly from (what I take to be) our points of greatest agreement to our points of greatest disagreement.

So I will begin with the fourth and last of Seth’s points, which is the one where I think we agree most. This point is about transcending the constitutive conditions of our humanity: a key point at issue between Śāntideva and Martha Nussbaum. As I noted in my review, I do actually stand with Nussbaum and with Seth against Śāntideva on this question: I do not think we should try to transcend these conditions. My concern was that this point needs to be argued, we can’t simply assume Nussbaum is right – because if she is right, then Śāntideva is wrong, and I think it’s important to be clear about that.

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Classical and nondual mindfulness

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Ron Purser’s critique of modern mindfulness is thoroughgoing, and extends beyond chastising its skepticism of political engagement. Purser also criticizes modern mindfulness on other grounds, grounds that I think are considerably closer to the views of classical (early) Buddhist texts.

In particular, Purser’s article “The myth of the present moment” (from the journal Mindfulness 6:680–686) points to a central element of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) and other modern mindfulness practices which is not present in the classical texts. Namely: Jon Kabat-Zinn, the founder of MBSR and modern medical mindfulness generally, defines mindfulness as “awareness that arises through paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgementally”. So a key goal of modern mindfulness practice is “reducing thoughts and ruminations of the past and future, which keeps us from being in the present moment.” (Purser 682) Purser notes that this focus on the present moment is exemplified in the common introductory practice (included in BU’s mindfulness workshop) of mindfully paying attention to the experience of slowly eating a raisin.

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Why I am a Buddhist

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On Facebook, Seth Segall commented in response to my posts on Evan Thompson:

I agree with all the arguments you have made, but I think there is one maining major issue that divides you from Evan that transcends all the other issues. That is, as a “lover of all wisdom,” why would you define yourself as a Buddhist as opposed to someone who is informed by many wisdom traditions but holds a special place in his heart for Buddhism—in another words, how is your stance different from a more cosmopolitan one that is Buddhist-friendly, but not, strictly speaking, Buddhist?

I think I have answered this question before, but there is more to say on it. For a long time – including the first six years of writing this blog – I defined myself in just such a way, as Thompson does. Like Thompson, I went so far as to say I don’t identify as a Buddhist.

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