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Understanding Karma and Buddhist Ethics

by Nagapriya

Understanding Karma and Buddhist Ethics
by Nagapriya

Audio available at: http://www.freebuddhistaudio.com/talks/details?num=OM710
Talk given in Manchester, 2003


Actually, I'm not going to say that much about ethics very specifically. I am going to talk
in a more general way about the principle that underlies Buddhist ethics, which is karma.
So I am going to begin by saying something about what karma is not. Sometimes it helps
to define things in terms of what they're not, because there are often a lot of
misconceptions, and I think in particular there are often a lot of misconceptions about
what karma is within Buddhism.

So I'll go into that, and then I'll talk a bit more positively and say something about what
karma is; and under that heading I'm going to talk about karma in terms of the most
general and fundamental Buddhist philosophical idea, or principle, of 'dependent
origination' (I'll say a bit about that later).

I will also go into describing the Buddhist analysis of the human being in terms of anatta;
in terms of no-self, no fixed self. After that I'm going to say a bit about rebirth and how
that connects to the idea of karma, and this will mean going into the idea of different
realms; the so-called ‘six realms’. Just for a bit of visual interest I've put a picture here of
the Tibetan Wheel of Life, and the six realms are here — yeah?

And then to finish off I'll say a bit about how all this relates more specifically to the
practice of ethics and morality.

In the course of doing this, I hope to answer, or at least address, a few questions. First of
all there's the 'Glen Hoddle' question, which you may be familiar with: 'Is everything that
happens to us a result of our previous action (our karma)?' So I'm going to go into that.

Secondly, the question: 'If there is no soul, what is reborn?'

Thirdly: 'Is rebirth true? And is it to be taken literally or metaphorically?'

And finally: 'In what ways is karma a useful concept or idea?'

Actually, I think I probably won't fully address all these questions, but if I don't you can
ask me at the end — or you can put forward a question for the question-and-answer this
afternoon — but I will certainly address some of them at least to some degree.

I am going to base my presentation on sources from the Pali Canon and from a post-
canonical text called 'Milinda's Questions', or 'The Questions of King Milinda'. I do want
to say that I am going to try and present a traditional Buddhist view of karma, but I don't
necessarily agree with all of it, and I may in some places say where I don't agree with it,
or where I think it's rather crude and needs to be refined.

The principle of karma; what karma is not; pre-Buddhist Vedic tradition on karma;
karma is not reincarnation

Ok — so, 'what karma is not'.... well, I've already said that the word karma means
'action'; that's what it literally means. Just to clarify something which may be confusing
you: karma is a Sanskrit word, but the word is also known in another form, in a language
called Pali, as kamma. The scriptures that I'm talking from were written down in this
language of Pali, but because the Sanskrit form of the word is so well-known I'm just
going to stick to that.

So... karma. Action.

I think there's a popular idea of karma that it means something like 'fate' or 'pre-
destination', so when something bad happens to you, somebody comes along and says,
'Ah — that's the result of your karma! You had that coming to you. That was inevitable.'
So the implication is that things that happen to you — particularly bad things, I think, that
happen to one — are some sort of retribution for the bad conduct that you have
performed in the past.

I think this is quite a popular idea — even the idea that there is no escape, you know,
there was no escape from these consequences; they were bound to happen — this is the
way that people sometimes talk. And [they have the idea that] the best that you can do is
to accept your punishment or retribution and in this way be purified by doing so.

So there is this kind of idea that the universe is there waiting to give you what you
deserve. This is to see the universe as some kind of rewarder and punisher — a rewarder
for good conduct and a punisher for bad — almost as though it was some kind of god, or
power, of that kind.

And so karma is seen as some sort of inescapable, inevitable law, perhaps not dissimilar
from, say, the law of gravity. You throw a body in the air, and it falls. That always
happens (unless you're in space or whatever...) and I think sometimes people see karma
in this way — you know — you act badly, and you're going to get punished for it. You
act well, and you're going to get rewarded.

This is an extremely crude model of karma, and in some ways quite mistaken. But where
does it come from, this idea? Why do people think this way? To understand this, I think
it is useful to go into a little bit of history, because actually Buddhism isn't the only
tradition that has a notion of karma. It is a kind of pan-Indian idea, and we find it in what
we call Hinduism, and in Jainism too — two of the other Indian religions. And actually
at the time of the advent of the Buddha there were ideas of karma and rebirth already in
circulation in what is called the Vedic tradition; the Vedic Brahminical tradition.

The Vedic tradition comes from the Vedas, some of the sacred texts of what we now call
the Hindus. According to this Vedic notion, one is born into a particular station in life —
even a particular caste — due to one's previous karma. It is all determined by one's
actions in one's past life. So, given that that is the case, in this life one's duty is to
perform one's caste functions.

So if one was born into the lowest pile, if you like — the lowest strata of the pile — you
should just simply get on with that, live out your allotted function, and in doing that you
can look forward to a better rebirth next time round. So, importantly, you shouldn't try to
change your social status. You should just accept it, get on with it, and if you do that
fully you will get a better rebirth next time.

Again this is quite crude, but it is not completely too far from the truth. I mean, I don't
think it's quite like that really. I think rather than seeing it as this sort of inevitable law
— that if you act this way you'll get this kind of rebirth, etc. — I would rather see it more
as an organic principle, or as a general rule, if you like, that admits of quite a bit of
variation and flexibility.

So as a general rule one will reap the consequences of one's past actions. But we need to
understand fully how this works. It doesn't mean that every individual little wrong that
you do, every little lie that you tell, every time you swear or whatever, the universe is
going to find some way to pay you back — you know — suddenly someone else is going
to come along and swear at you, or lie to you. It's not quite as crude and simple as that.
Although, actually, some of the Buddhist texts present it in that way.

Some of the consequences of one's actions may be so minor as to be invisible or
negligible; you may not be able to see the consequences. At the same time, as well, two
people might actually commit the same act, or what appears to be the same act, with very
different consequences. And the difference in these consequences can be explained
through karma. I am going to go into that in a bit more detail shortly.

I just want to say one more thing about what karma is not — or what rebirth is not — and
what it is not, is it is not reincarnation. The idea of reincarnation is that we have this
fixed identity, this soul, this kind of essence, that is us — our core — that transmigrates
from life to life, as though we transplant it from one body to the next body in the new
life. This is not the Buddhist idea of rebirth. So, how does Buddhism see it? How does
Buddhism see the self? Well, I'm just going to come onto that.

What karma is; dependent origination; continuity and permanence; the 5 skandhas;
Manchester Utd analogy for samskara

So — what karma is.

Well, as I said earlier, the Buddhist notion of karma has got to be understood in the light
of the most general, fundamental and comprehensive Buddhist doctrine, which is the
doctrine of dependent origination. I haven't got that much time to go into this doctrine in
a lot of detail but I am just going to go into it briefly.

So according to this doctrine — the fundamental 'metaphysical' idea, or doctrine, of
Buddhism — all things, everything, arises in dependence on conditions. And when those
conditions cease, the thing itself ceases.

So just for ...

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