Showing posts with label Karma. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Karma. Show all posts

18 January 2019

Against Karma: Modern Buddhism

This is the concluding part of a long essay making a Buddhist case against traditional karma views. Part 1, Against Karma, set the scene by reiterating some points I've made before about karma and the just world fallacy. Part 2, Against Karma: Suffering and Justice, explored the role of suffering in the just world fallacy. In this part, I conclude with some very incomplete ideas about how we make a good society, a summary of the main points, and some concluding remarks.

In my view, no suffering is ever deserved. It might be a direct result of some evil or ignorant action, but still, I have experienced a great deal of suffering and I don't think anyone deserves it. Moreover, I don't believe that it helps people to be more moral in the first place, or the that moral debts are satisfactorily repaid by the infliction of suffering (and nor does anyone else, since criminals are always treated with prejudice). I cannot think of any circumstances in which inflicting suffering is justified. I don't see any suffering as "earned".

And I don't say this as a saint. I have harmed people in the past and probably will again. Sometimes I have set out to do harm. But I am ready to admit that I was wrong to do so. I do believe that it is immoral to harm others or, indeed, to harm any sentient being, or the environment, generally. I have made a lifelong commitment to doing better and recognise the need for constant work in this area. Part of my reason for being in a Buddhist Order is to make common cause with people who feel the same way (although this has gotten complicated lately). 

Minimising harm is the urgent task of every human on the planet. I think most of us get it, but we define our group narrowly and only apply the principle locally. We need to expand our sense of identity to take in a broader picture. But there may be limits to how far some people can go with this. Nationalism as a response to insecurity and high levels of immigration is no great surprise. It may well be that globalisation is a good thing, but the reactions we are seeing to it suggest that, at best, it has been poorly managed. The UK going through the self-mutilation of Brexit is a sign that something has gone very wrong with the post WWII European project. But I don't see any sign of soul-searching going on.

I do not believe in karma because I do not believe that suffering restores justice; all suffering is unjust and there is no just world to balance it out. We can certainly cause ourselves to suffer, but I cannot see that any greater purpose is served by this. Fairness and justice, to the extent they exist at all, are emergent properties of human social interactions.

Of course, most people still think in terms of in-groups and hierarchies of exclusion; they put a higher or lower value on the lives of others depending on how closely related that they are. This is unlikely to stop because we evolved for it. We are social, hierarchical primates, and have an intuitive sense of what works (whether it does or not). But we are also capable of transcending our biological and social conditioning. And here modern Buddhism offers us some very useful tools for pursuing a better life: mindfulness, devotion, critical thinking, scepticism, positive emotion, meditation, and community.

I emphasise modern Buddhism because in order to continue to refine Buddhism we have to change it. I would say that we have to root out the presupposition that some suffering is deserved. We have to align what we say to what we do: we are interventionists in the world with the aim of reducing suffering. So let's not espouse doctrines that say "it will all work out in the afterlife" because that is counterproductive. Our approach is far more dynamic than this: we believe that we must take urgent action, whether or not we are enlightened, to reduce harm and increase well being. That's why we have public centres and teach meditation and Buddhism (though I think we do the latter all wrong).

And, above all, we have to communicate our ideas and values to other people in ways that will motivate to move in the same direction. Not necessarily to join our community, but to help form a confederation of smaller, loosely aligned communities which aim to reduce suffering. We have more in common with Amnesty International or Greenpeace than we do with Christianity or Islam (which is partly why I am bored by comparative religion). On the other hand, the folks who go out on cold winter nights offering hot tea and sandwiches to the homeless tend to be Christians rather than Buddhists. Anyone who is acting to reduce suffering is on the side I want to be on. The Triratna movement in India is more of a social movement with religious features and there is our model - the poor and downtrodden empowered to uplift themselves through education, equality, and fraternity.

Sometimes people are determined to make others suffer or are indifferent to their suffering. And we need a moral code that explains when and how we can intervene and what kinds of steps we can take. And counter-intuitively this may include inflicting harm. A policeman who shoots dead a suicide bomber before they can set off their explosive to kill and maim many others has clearly done the right thing and we need to adopt a moral code which can handle this situation. We also need to have ways of preventing, say, a capitalist who makes excessive profit at the expense of the security and safety of workers. We must see to it that everyone is housed, clothed, and fed. Work need not grind anyone into the ground for minimum wage. Industry must not harm the air we breath, the water we drink, or the soil we grow our food in! None of this is rocket science. We mainly just need to consider empathy and reciprocity.

If we want members of our society to behave themselves and contribute then we have to make it worth their while. The fact that some members of society chose lives of crime, instead, tells us that we are not making law abiding attractive enough. If obeying the law is oppressive or leads to unequal hardship, then we should expect a lot of law breaking.

In the west we tend to be quite hard hearted about the law. There is no obvious reward for being law abiding, it's just the minimum we expect. However, we set society up so that there is inequality and some people can't get by, even if they are working. If there is reciprocity then law abiding citizens need to know that they are going to be looked after as recompense for keeping to the rules.

So let's give people incentives. For example, housing should always be cheap - speculators should not be allowed to force up the cost of housing. One household, one house: no companies, no foreign investors, just people living in houses. Of course it has to be viable, so the housing can't be free. But in the UK landlords who rent houses can afford to pay 10% of the rent to a company to manage it for them and it is still one of the most profitable investments. We could just decide, no: houses are for people to live in.

The amount of wealth in the world is easily enough to provide for the needs of every living person. Easily. We need not have poverty or hunger. All it takes is for people to change their minds about who is deserving of what.

Our views about fairness, justice, and the role of suffering are just beliefs. "Belief is an emotion about an idea" (Michael Taft). If we feel differently, then our beliefs can change. Usually, it takes a personal connection to change someone's mind. Just bombarding people with facts is not enough.

In Part 2 of this essay I made the point that work is less secure nowadays and that this creates anxiety. To illustrate how we think about things, many people feel aggrieved that the government gives out-of-work people money. They may believe that such payments are undeserved. They may cite an example of someone who typifies this undeserving person or they may just believe what the media says: that the unemployed are lazy and feckless (repeating a 600 year old lie).

Most of the unemployed people I have met in many years of being unemployed want to work; they feel anxious about not being able to provide for their family, the insecurity of handouts, and the stigma of unemployment. They are bored from having nothing to do. I think one has to connect with them on a human level. It is all too easy to demonise people based on superficial judgements. But we know what this looks like writ large because we had the 20th Century. If we don't treat people as people it makes us less human, and on a societal scale can be monstrous: e.g., the British Empire.

Of course, ideally, the state would provide meaningful work and pay high wages for shit jobs to make them more attractive. Lately, government has decided to stay out of providing work and shit jobs offer shit pay. Should the person who carts off your dirty garbage in all weather be paid 10% of the salary of the manager who sits at a desk all day pushing (clean) paper around or 1000%? Who is more essential? What about the people who teach your kids at school and university or who care for you in a hospital? Why are they paid poorly compared to chief executives? Hint: the reason that CEOs are well paid is that they get more work for lower pay from fewer people, thus maximising shareholder returns. It just so happens that the people who make employment laws are all major shareholders in companies, often because they inherited their money. 


Key points
    Where "we" is humans in general,
  1. We are social and hierarchical primates
  2. We evolved empathy and reciprocity
  3. Morality emerged from the obligations and expectations created by 1. and 2.
  4. Fairness is an appropriate response to obligations and expectations
  5. Justice is the restoration of a situation of fairness
  6. We tolerate what would otherwise be called bad behaviour in response to unfairness, because
  7. We believe "suffering creates justice".
  8. We perceive ourselves as having different obligations to and expectations of ingroup and outgroup people
  9. Our definition of ingroup can be very flexible and expansive, if we feel secure
  10. Most cultures see immorality as creating a debt and
  11. Moral debts are paid in suffering and thus
  12. Suffering is in some sense earned or deserved and restores fairness and is just
  13. But there is evident injustice and undeserved suffering, so
  14. Religions invoke the afterlife as the place where one suffers in order to restore justice.
  15. Belief is an emotion about an idea, and both can change through personal connections. 

Conclusions

In traditional Buddhism the idea that suffering is deserved is encapsulated in the doctrine of karma. The doctrine says that present suffering is a result of past actions (with some debate as to the extent of this). It also says that our future experience is dependent on our present mental states. Buddhism demonises emotions since these are what lead, ultimately, to suffering (except in Tantra where they turned this on its head and embrace emotions).

By contrast, I believe that no suffering is earned or deserved. Even those who cause themselves harm through being misguided or careless don't deserve to suffer, because their suffering does not make things fair. It's not fair that mistakes or ignorance cause suffering, but more suffering does not improve the situation in any way. There is no justice in the mistaken or ignorant person suffering because of their mistake or lack of knowledge. Sometimes pain will help us learn to avoid the action that caused us pain, but if the route to learning is blocked then again, that is not fair or just.

The idea of a just world is pernicious because it inevitably blames humans for everything that goes wrong, when the fact is that sometimes shit just happens and no one understands why. There is no fairness and justice apart from how we treat each other. It's nothing to do with abstract principles or the supernatural.

Further, I believe that emotions, including so called negative emotions, are natural and helpful. Anger and fear protect us. Desire gets us our basic necessities. Love bonds us to the people who help keep us alive. And so on. Demonising these is unhelpful, but so is the idolisation of them in Romanticism. Emotions are just states of physiological arousal mediated by the autonomic nervous system in response to certain types of stimuli which can be internal (e.g., hunger) or external (i.e., a predator). They are typically accompanied by a style of thinking that gives the emotion its special flavour. Arousal plus happy thoughts is joy whereas arousal plus fearful thoughts is anxiety; and so on. Still, I can't help thinking that if we allowed ourselves to experience emotions more and theorised about them less we'd be better off.

I believe that some of us are able to have a radical transformation of perception so that it is not so self-referential. But not all of us. For most people life is never going to involve that radical transformation so there is no point in selling it as a panacea to all ills or as something everyone can attain. I suspect more people could attain it than current do, but the world is not fair so most people don't have the opportunity. Also, the techniques required are still embedded in contexts which make them inaccessible to the majority - i.e., in religions that require people to take on beliefs and obligations that are unattractive to the majority.

Karma as it is taught by Buddhists is a false picture of the world that clouds the issue and makes the possibility of radical transformation considerably less accessible. Traditional Buddhism ignores the way things really are in favour of a fantasy that is fundamentally unfair and unjust. As modern Buddhists, we could do something about this by exemplifying the change we seek and by telling new stories about the way things are in 2019. Which personal liberation is desirable, modern Buddhism needs to be politically engaged and seeking change on a societal level to make life better for everyone. I'm a fan of the various Green New Deal initiatives. The idea is taking hold in the US amongst progressives, but dates back to a group convened in the UK in 2007.

Mind you, as I watch the politics of the English-speaking world descend into a morass of pettiness and stupidity, I cannot help but wonder if we have left it a little too late to pay attention to the bigger issues.

I don't doubt that traditional Buddhism, complete with monks pretending that they live in medieval India or Tibet, will continue to be a draw card. And modern Buddhism will always have a relationship with the tradition. But this modern-tradition distinction is, to some extent, false. All Buddhism practiced today is modern, it's just that some Buddhists are convinced that pretending to represent some earlier phase of Buddhism makes them more authentic. And, of course, with monks a lot of it is tied up with issues of identity and status. It might be better to use distinctions like conservative and progressive; or authoritarian and libertarian.

I suppose if pressed I would say that I am a green libertarian socialist Buddhist, not an anarchist or a communist, but in favour of mutual aid between willing participants in society and an economy which rewards industry and innovation. Also in favour of a government that puts people and the environment first ahead of profit and that redistributes wealth fairly. Some profit is fair enough, just don't forget who adds the value to the raw materials through their labour! Basically, I grew up in New Zealand in 60s and 70s and there was a lot about it that was good.

But more than this. Look at any movie in which a group of people are threatened by some external force. All humans succeed by having two advantages: individuals with great ideas, and groups of people who work together to make their ideas a reality. We need both and to reward both. Buddhism, no less than society, or all of humanity, fighting off an alien invasion! One of my favourite thinkers, René Jules Dubos, said "Think globally, act locally". I might add, "think individually, act in concert."

~~oOo~~

11 January 2019

Against Karma: Suffering and Justice

The central issue of Buddhism is dukkha, variously translated as suffering, dissatisfaction, misery, stress, etc. Dukkha and its antonym (sukkha) are used in subtly different ways in different contexts. For example, Sue Hamilton (2001) has shown, in one sense dukkha is synonymous with unenlightened experience. That is to say that we don't have an experience that is qualified by the presence or absence of dukkha, rather unenlightened experience itself is dukkha. The first noble truth is just this: that sense experience does not satisfy our longings (whatever they are). The second noble truth informs us that the unsatisfactory nature of experience has an origin (samudaya) and that this origin is our own craving for it (taṇha). The pursuit of experience is not the way to happiness.

On the other hand, in the context of vedanā, experience can also be parsed as sukha or dukkha, meaning here, "agreeable" and "disagreeable". Finally, sukha and dukkha can be metonyms for nibbāna and saṃsāra. As we find in Dhammapada 203:
jighacchāparamā rogā,
saṅkāraparamā dukhā;*
etaṃ ñatvā yathābhūtaṃ,
nibbānaṃ paramaṃ sukhaṃ.
Hunger is the worst disease,
Constructs are the worst misery;
Knowing this, just as it is,
Extinction is the greatest happiness.
*note that dukkhā is spelled dukhā to fit the metre of the verse.
There is a presupposition in the Buddhist discussion of suffering. It is, of course, a self-evident fact that there is suffering. This is not something special that only Buddhists have noticed. More generally the problem of evil (or the question of why there is suffering) has been discussed by humans for as long as we have been capable of abstract thought. There is suffering. And it has a cause. That cause is us, i.e., we cause our own suffering. This is not unique to Buddhism, either. The Christian myth of the Garden of Eden blames humans for their suffering; they could not follow a simple prohibition and thus their God turned against them. In that story, the only responsible adult present is Yahweh. If anyone should be punished, it's him. In our myths, humans like to blame ourselves for our own suffering. 

I know that some people are horrified by the suggestion that Buddhists are "blaming the victim". I am certainly in that camp. But what I'm getting at is that "we cause our own suffering" is a presupposition of the received Buddhist tradition. I'm not endorsing this view, I'm stating it as baldly and as simply as possible in order to get to an important point. It raises questions I will try to address in a later essay. Why did we evolve in such a way as to consistently cause ourselves misery? 

Let's soften it a little and restate the idea in a slightly more subtle way: Buddhists believe that (at least some, if not all) suffering is the natural outcome of conscious choices we make. Karma is the theory that the suffering we experience is inevitable, appropriate, and timely. The idea is that if we could anticipate the consequences we would not act. And since it is our own mental states that determine the outcome, we can introspect before any action and exercise restraint to prevent any bad consequences.

On one hand, rebirth is the main consequence of karma and we end rebirth by not doing karma. On the other hand, we keep doing actions (with rebirth as consequence) until we purify our minds of evil intent through religious exercises. As Richard Gombrich has shown (2009), Jains had the first half of this equation but indiscriminately saw all actions as contributing to rebirth. Brahmins had the second half but equated karma (and escape from rebirth) with correct performance of rituals. Buddhism combines them to make a new hybrid religion. By equating karma with intention (cetanā) and characterising it as good or evil, Buddhists counteracted the worst aspects of Jainism (extreme austerities, lack of discernment with respect to good and evil actions). And by making the individual's willed actions the focus they disrupted the priestly hegemony and expensive rituals of Brahmanism. The key feature of Buddhism, unlike other Indian religions, is that it does not treat the cessation of sense experience in religious exercises as absolute being (jīva, ātman, brahman, puriṣa, etc). However, the explanation of this new syncretic religion proved to be very difficult. The early iterations were deprecated because of inconsistencies. But none of the later iterations quite managed to be fully consistent, either. At worst, Buddhism is solipsistic sophistry; the worst being Nāgārjuna and his "nothing goes" approach.

Coming back to the focus on suffering, most Buddhists seem to go further and argue that this reaction of action and consequence is what Buddhist justice looks like. Broadly speaking, karma is what supplies the "just" in just world or the "moral" in the moral universe. In other words, the suffering that we experience is only what we would expect in a just world. It is just what happens when our previous life was ruled by greed and hatred, even though we don't have any strong connection to that life (no memories that would enable us to conceptually connect consequence to action). We have to presume that our suffering is appropriate, which leaves some of us wondering what kind of monster we were in our last life to deserve this one. 

To distil the idea down its essence: suffering is the instrument of justice

Again, this is not peculiar to Buddhism. This is the presupposition behind all just world myths. The just world is just because bad behaviour leads to suffering (eventually). In Buddhism, an evil action [miraculously] produces suffering; a good action [miraculously] produces pleasure. More specifically, an evil life is [miraculously] rewarded with rebirth in a world of suffering; a good life is [miraculously] rewarded with rebirth in a world of pleasure. A saintly or holy life is [miraculously] rewarded with the end of rebirth so as to preclude any future suffering. Somehow, the universe just delivers the right result, at the right time, to the right person, every time.

This is sometimes written about as though it is like a law of nature. The thing with laws of nature is that they have to be consistent with all the other laws of nature. A "law of nature" that involves supernatural forces or entities, is not a law of nature. It's a miracle. Karma is a miracle, not a law of nature. Indeed, it doesn't even fit with other Buddhist stories about the world, let alone with laws of nature. This brings us to a feature of knowledge seeking in the ancient world: analogical reasoning.


Argument from Analogy

Many of the arguments for this view that suffering is the instrument of justice take the form of analogies. A classic Buddhist analogy is that allowing yourself to be angry is like picking up a lump of burning coal to fling at your enemy. We understand this analogy. Few of us get to adulthood without a few minor burns. Burns are very painful, partly because we have special nerves for burning pain. Signals from pain nerves are turned into subjective burning sensations by our brain. So we all know and understand burning sensations. The analogy is saying that when acting from anger we create the conditions for our own future suffering in the same way that taking hold of hot coal burns us. 

With all arguments from analogy, we need to pause and consider how apt they really are. Metaphorically, anger burns. When we feel angry, we get red-faced, steamed-up, hot-tempered; we burn with rage, erupt, boil over,  scald, etc. And if this happens it can easily tip over into violence, if only into violent words. Physiologically, anger activates our evolved autonomic arousal response to a threat and helps us on the fight side of the fight-or-flight-or-freeze triangle of threat responses. Anger might just put off a threatening predator or competitor because they know they will have to fight us. Anger makes us look scary. As a precursor to violence, anger warns aggressors that they risk injury. Anger marshals our physiological resources to defend ourselves and our loved ones from danger. 

As a species, we are highly attuned to reciprocity. If someone is angry with me and threatens violence (all anger is a threat of violence) then I reciprocate with my own fight-flight-freeze response either to warn the assailant that it's not worth their while to fight me, or to better enable me to escape, or to avoid detection (depending on which path I take). And note that violence need not amount to the loss of self-control. Sometimes violence is very deliberate and directed. Whether physically or psychologically, we set out to hurt and we do it in the most direct way we can think of. 

With burns there's a feedback loop; the pain of being burned rapidly teaches us to avoid flames and hot things. We learn how to test for heat before picking up potentially hot items. The same is not true for anger because we evolved to get angry whenever we are threatened as part of our suite of survival mechanisms. Anger marshals the body's resources for life or death action. Metaphors aside, the feedback is different from experiencing burning pain. 

If I go around just being angry all the time, then people will want to fight me or avoid me. However, for this to happen I'd have to both perceive myself to be under threat and my social group not working to provide me with safety and security. So anyone who is angry all the time is already in a dysfunctional situation. The anger is not a cause of suffering; it is a symptom that results from the situation. This is not the same as being burned by a flame at all. Acting from anger is nothing like picking up a burning coal to fling at your enemy. Of course, it can rebound on us, but that very much depends on who the anger is directed at. If my group and I get angry at someone who is trying to hurt us and we work together to drive them off, then we are not harmed by that. We are protected and brought closer together.

All analogies have their limitations. This analogy which sounds OK at face value is, on closer inspection, simply false. In fact, behaviour is very much influenced by environment and social convention and is much less about individual psychology. Disruptive behaviour is like pain. It tells the community that something is wrong, that some vital need is going unmet.


Security

In 2018 there was a spate of knife injuries in London and many people have been expressing opinions about what bad people these criminals must be. No one is asking the obvious question: why do young men in some parts of London suddenly feel insecure enough that they would start carrying a knife. Anyone carrying a weapon is much more likely to be injured or die. Just a few years ago stabbings were significantly less common. We also know that, in stark contrast to my days at university in the 1980s, that today's students are demanding that the institutions protect them by not inviting provocative speakers and not allowing challenging topics in lectures. Well-heeled university students don't resort to carrying knives, but they also feel less secure than teenagers did two generations ago. What has changed in the environment to make young people feel less secure? 

One thing is that work is much less secure than it was a generation ago. Work pays less in comparison to costs - the cost of housing has increased outrageously. Work is often on a fixed term contract or a zero hours contract (where you have to work if offered hours, but no work is guaranteed). Over my working life employers have radically reduced the quality of working life, the rewards for loyalty, and the ability of workers to make common cause to demand better treatment. Working conditions have steadily eroded as a result of Neoliberals seeing the cost of labour as an overhead that soaks up profits. And they see profits as rightfully belonging to shareholders. In the UK many people working full-time don't earn enough to live on.

The solution has been to offer state handouts rather than reforming wages. At the same time, the government is pursuing a low taxation fiscal policy; more tax money is being spent propping up high rents because the market-driven alternative would be thousands of homeless families. No one thinks this is a reason to revisit the policy of allowing foreign speculators to force up the price of homes at 5-10 times the rate of inflation or the policy that allows businesses to pay wages below a subsistence level. This can only be perceived as a threat to life by those who work for a living. It might not be an acute threat, but it is a chronic threat. Children may not be working, but they live in families affected by the insecurity of work and wages.

Add the threat of internal terrorism and external war, combined with economic threats (massive indebtedness of nations and business sectors) and yes, the average citizen feels less secure than they did. If they pay attention then they may feel less secure for other reasons also, such as climate change or pollution.

Social problems have social causes and require social remedies. The idea that an individual is responsible for everything that happens in their life is just bunk. Individualism is an idea that allows the rich and powerful to justify abdicating from their obligations to society at the same time as exploiting people and common resources for their own profit. Individualism makes the poor and oppressed much weaker and leaves them with little or no access to common resources. And it leaves the middle feeling constantly insecure about what they have. Individualism, the cult of the individual, is one of the most pernicious ideas ever entertained by humanity. We evolved to live in groups.

Why should individual suffering be highlighted? In a situation where a person's very thoughts and choices are (at least partly, but likely mainly) determined by their social environment, why should the focus of a just world theory be on individual psychology? That is not fair. Of course, every now and then some bright spark can rise above their circumstances and shine as a star. Think of Dr B. R. Ambedkar, born an untouchable outcaste but died with a PhD from the London School of Economics and having helped to write the modern Indian constitution! But look at the vast majority of his people, the Mahar caste, and they are still downtrodden, still oppressed, and still poor today. And in fact, even Ambedkar was given opportunities because of the British Army's policy of recruiting Dalits and because of a wealthy Sikh man who wanted to eradicate caste.

Most of us do not rise above our circumstances. We are our circumstances. We have obligations to and from our group. We have responsibility to and for our group. This is not an argument for so-called "collective karma"; rather, I'm arguing that karma as a concept is inadequate to the task of thinking about morality in real life (as opposed to the fantasy world most religieux live in) precisely because human life is collective in almost every aspect.

Let's return to the central thesis of this essay by looking at how we actually pursue justice.


Suffering as an Instrument of (In)Justice

Take a look at the justice system of any nation on earth, including all the nominally Buddhist nations. What happens to people convicted of crimes? They are punished, both in the short-term and the long term.

In the short term, we inflict harm on criminals; we isolate them from friends and family, deprive them of basic freedoms and rights. In other words, we violate the basic constituents of a deontological morality. And note that prison is a punishment that fully takes into account our social nature; it isolates us from our group, forces us to live amongst strangers, pushes us down into an inferior social position. This is how you torture a social mammal.

Sometimes prisons are designed to be humiliating and degrading, while sometimes they are that way because of indifference or banal reasons like lack of resources. Britain's prisons are often overcrowded because governments have decided to imprison more people and for longer but haven't expanded the capacity of prisons to take account of this. Crowding is stressful for social primates, especially with strangers. Overcrowding leads to stress and conflict, and sometimes to violence and riots. Although by the standards of, say, Thailand, the UK prison system is pretty well off. The more we dehumanise people on the inside, the more alienated they are when they get out.

What is the theme of almost all prison-based dramas? The establishment of a society within a society with two options: the redemption of those concerned through friendship and finding ways to hold on to their humanity or suffering under a violent autocracy that may or may not be subverted.

In the longer term, we deny criminals certain types of work, the ability to travel, and we force them to confess their crime repeatedly, i.e., every time they apply for a job, rent a house, interact with the government, and so on. There is no question of making a mistake and paying for it. Once a crim, always a crim.

We behave towards criminals in ways that we would never sanction for ordinary citizens. We treat criminals as less than human. We not only judge them deserving of suffering, we actually stand in line to inflict it on them. And again this is just as true in nominally Buddhist countries as in nominally Christian countries. The savagery of "justice" in Islamic countries is equalled by officially atheist China. So religion cannot be blamed, although I think it is a factor in defining in-group/out-group dynamics. It is often worse to sin against God than it is to sin against a fellow human so that the punishment for blasphemy can be particularly savage. But it's all a matter of degree. Some prisons in the US and UK are every bit as savage as those in less economically developed countries. There have been repeated scandals about the conditions in our prisons at the moment, especially in the private sector. Private sector prisons are a special kind of hell.

The presupposition behind all of this is that suffering creates justice. Or in other words, moral debts are paid in the currency of suffering: immediate and ongoing. And yet it is all too obvious that prison doesn't provide a deterrent or restore the balance of justice. It certainly creates more suffering, but the rationale for making people suffer is bizarre and sickening when you start to think about it.

The Scandinavians lead the way in the humane treatment of criminals and have much lower recidivism rates as a result. They have a much more cohesive society but it has been forced upon them. The government actively interfered in people's lives for decades to create the conditions for the modern Scandinavia. Still, the presupposition that guilt demands punishment is so strong in most places, that "justice" is relentless and merciless at inflicting suffering.


Karma In Real Life

Because I'm a member of a religious Order, I know a lot of religious people. And I would guess that most people I know say that they believe in some form of karma (although some of them define karma in ways having nothing in common with traditional Buddhist karma doctrines). In other words, they believe in the just world fallacy that justice will be restored (usually in the afterlife).

The natural consequence of such a belief ought to be a profound relaxation about injustice. They ought to be laid back about transgressions to the point of fatalism. Jesus said to his followers that if someone was to strike them on the face, that they should turn to give the assailant another target to punch, i.e., "turn the other cheek". Buddhists have an even more extreme version: In our moral stories, the Buddha says that even if robbers were to seize you and cut you apart with a wooden saw, if you had a single negative thought you would not be his disciple. "Vengeance is mine," sayeth the Lord, and all that.

The Triratna Buddhist Order is currently having a crisis because a senior member stands accused of some gross misconduct. The process of "safeguarding" we have adopted from the surrounding British culture has meant that no details have or ever will emerge about the nature of the offence. In the past, we were accused of not dealing with transgressions honestly and in the open so we voluntarily looked at how other groups deal with them and adopted the best practice model with little modification. In this case, it ironically means suppressing all knowledge of the misconduct outside of a tiny group to hide the identity of the accuser (at their request). The deliberating panel included a retired judge (and another outsider), which is meant to reassure outsiders as to the fairness of the procedure.

So now we have the situation where a loved and valued member of our community has been suspended from the Order for an indeterminate period (he thinks it will be at least two years) because they have been accused of something grossly unethical (though apparently not illegal) by someone who will remain forever anonymous. This is apparently what justice looks like in the world of UK religious groups nowadays. The process and outcome contradict my sense of what is just and fair and has made me question my continued involvement in the Order. This has nothing to do with karma and I have pointed out that we should now make clear that as an Order we do not believe in karma. I'm not hopeful.

Despite what they say they believe, no one I know is laid back about injustice. We all want to get involved, to pre-empt karma, to take control of situations and steer them towards the outcome we think best. Most people believe that justice is only served by such active intervention. And we all believe that we are acting for the good; that our motives are above question when it comes to our well-intentioned interventions. The many different recensions of the Vinaya also take this approach. Thousands of rules of conduct were created, often for quite trivial reasons, complete with prescribed punishments including expulsion from the saṅgha

I'm not saying that interventionism is unreasonable. We do need to intervene to ensure work is fairly paid and safe. We do need to act to ameliorate climate change. What I'm saying is that this is hypocritical if at the same time one insists on professing to believe in karma or God or any other just world myth. You either believe things will turn out alright, or you get involved.

In my view, suffering is not an instrument of justice. No one deserves to suffer. Even people who, from ignorance or malice, hurt others do not deserve to suffer. Suffering does not resolve situations of tension or unhurt someone who has been hurt. Making a guilty person suffer achieves nothing. Taking satisfaction from inflicting suffering on another person is sick. So no, I don't believe in a myth which organises and enacts this on a cosmic scale. Karma is an idea. It's a human desire to be well treated by our fellow humans and to have good fortune in the world projected onto the universe. Believing in karma is no better than believing in God. However, it is understandable that ancient people would come up with an idea like this to try to explain why things go wrong in our lives: bad faith from humans and bad luck in the world.

This begs the question: what is the alternative. I will make some comments on this in the next instalment. 


~~oOo~~

04 January 2019

Against Karma

I have been revising an article on the problem of action at a temporal distance for publication and thinking again about karma. This has involved rehearsing my understanding of what karma represents and the internal conflicts that karma has caused in Buddhism. The last 2000 years have seen a constant stream of apologetics for different, mutually exclusive, traditional views on karma. There have been many attempts to reconcile karma with dependent arising, for example. More recently, attempts are being made to reconcile karma with naturalism, humanism, and other modernist worldviews. For 2000 years intellectuals have been tacitly admitting that there is something wrong with the doctrine of karma, with all of them treating it as a good idea that needs to be rescued.

In this three-part essay, I take the opposite approach. I argue that that karma is a bad idea. Karma fails to explain what it is supposed to explain. Karma cannot be reconciled with or integrated into other worldviews, except as a floating signifier for whatever morality happens to be popular. Worse, it is based on a fundamentally flawed idea about suffering. It is the latter that is the premise of this essay. I begin with an overview of karma in terms of the just world fallacy and, in the process, highlight an aspect of the central problem: the idea that suffering can be deserved. 

Karma is the Buddhist myth of a just world. The just world myth is foundational in most religions. The myth says that everyone gets what they deserve, eventually. The final caveat has to be added because any observer of human life can see that few people, if any, get what they deserve in this life. Evil flourishes. Some argue that the world is getting better (Steven Pinker) or is at least not as bad as we think (Hans Rosling). But endless economic growth is a fantasy on a finite planet and even the status quo won't be sustainable if the climate becomes steadily warmer. And everything I've seen says that it will. 

The evident unfairness of life, or at least of most lives, has forced religieux to link the myth of the just world to another ubiquitous religious myth: the afterlife. Typically, the religious will admit that life is not fair, that there are many injustices and often no obvious way to tip the scales towards justice. How does one find justice for the thousands of sexually abused children or the millions of refugees? What can we possibly do to make those ruined lives un-ruined. We may ameliorate their suffering and we may make efforts to prevent future abuse, but some wrongs cannot be made right in retrospect. So the religious argues that justice will be found in the afterlife.

My favourite image of afterlife justice is from the Egyptian Book of the Dead. I've quoted it many times so I won't dwell on it here - see the image below. The key feature is that justice is literally represented as a set of scales, with the deceased's heart on one side and a symbol of the law on the other.


I have also mentioned many times that George Lakoff has described how morality is very often framed as a bookkeeping or accounting exercise (balancing the books). More recently, using ideas from the work of primatologist Frans de Waal, I have tried to make the case for the evolution of morality from the basic competencies and exigencies of social lifestyles. Social mammals evolved to face natural selection as a group. A herd of impala allow the weakest members to be picked off by lions. A group of chimps, led by the alpha male, will band together to fight off a hungry leopard. In a fight between one leopard and one chimp, the leopard will win every time. But in the fight between one leopard and five or six determined male chimps (each three or four times as strong as an average human), the leopard stands little chance. There is still a chance that a chimp will be injured, but the male chimps share the risks amongst themselves and they share the benefits amongst the whole troop. Such efforts are coordinated by females in bonobos. The abilities needed to coordinate group actions and make the social lifestyle viable lead naturally to morality (ways of behaving) and ethics (principles for thinking about morality) in humans.

Social living attunes individuals to reciprocity. You stand with me against the leopard and I have an obligation to stand with you. You share some food with me and I am obligated to share with you. You groom me and I groom you. Literally, you scratch my back and I'll scratch yours. Social living creates obligations to other group members. It usually also creates expectations of how each group member will behave and social mechanisms to reward and punish conformity and nonconformity. In both chimps and humans, this can be as crude as a beating or as subtle as a shared yawn. 

In addition, we have the capacity for empathy, if only at the level of emotional contagion: I know what other members of my group are feeling because I have the capacity to mirror external signals of disposition allowing me to model their emotions and thus to actually feel them. I know how you feel when we defeat the leopard. I know how you feel when you eat your favourite food. I know how you feel when you stub your toe. Your happiness is my happiness, your pain is my pain. And vice versa. 

So social animals are bound together by mutual awareness and concern, by mutual obligations and expectations and the mechanisms that grow up to police them. If we look at a society in terms of cybernetics, we can say that its members have evolved to be empathetic, cooperative, and generous and that each of these must be in positive feedback loops for groups (and therefore individuals) to survive. We must also evolve to be intolerant of individualism and selfishness. The present mania for individualism and selfishness is very strange and I can only conclude detrimental to our continued survival. Of course, we have to recognise outstanding contributions, but humanity only thrives when it works together.

This way of looking at the social norms that give rise to morality comes under the heading of deontology. Our obligations to the group are defined by what is required for a social animal to survive and thrive. In turn, this defines what counts as a virtue: for example, the virtuous group member puts the group first, they behave in ways that are consistent with the survival of the group as a whole. Heroes put their lives on the line for others.

Another way of looking at morality is to emphasise the consequences of actions; still, in order for this to be an accurate picture, it has to be framed in social terms. The consequences for one's group are most obviously what make an individual action a question of morality. Consequentialism cannot be defined in the abstract, but must take into account the obligations and expectations of the group, and the consequences for everyone concerned. Therefore, although virtue ethics and consequentialism are useful ways of approaching morality, deontology is what makes sense of them.

Particularism argues that there are no ethical principles and that actions each have to be assessed individually, but again this is done with respect to norms that emerge from social obligations and expectations. It can be useful to talk about morality in different ways, but if we want to understand how morality evolved and how it functions in real societies then deontology is the place to start. It is a measure of humanity's alienation from its own nature that we often place oppressive or even intolerable burdens of obligation and expectation on members: untouchability in India, foot-binding in China, genital mutilation in Africa, class in Britain, modern slavery, and so on. Social systems that are oppressive to their members weaken the long-term viability of any society because social animals always resist unfairness and injustice. 

Fairness is when everyone reciprocates at the appropriate level. And this may involve some hierarchical adjustments. In chimps, the alpha male has a much higher level of obligation to the group. It's a tough job because one has to intervene in all the conflicts, console all the injured parties, lead the charge on all the leopards, and so on. In most cases the alpha has a coalition of supporters to whom he has more obligation. He must groom them more, without neglecting the rest of the group. He shares his mates, his food, and intervenes in their conflicts. A selfish alpha cannot and does not last long. Again, this raises many questions about the modern world. With great power or wealth comes great obligation to society and in this light, I think we can guess which class of people make the strongest arguments for individual liberty.

I've argued that social animals must tilt towards generosity. This is because reciprocity is a feedback loop. If I am generous, you will respond by giving. If I withhold, then you will withhold. Reciprocity can only work if each member of the group has a preference for giving over withholding, however slight. Frans de Waal is critical of what he calls "veneer theories of morality", i.e., those views in which morality is an overlay of civility on a fundamentally selfish personality. Not only is this not the case, but it cannot be the case. A selfish social animal is an oxymoron because of social feedback. In evolutionary terms, a species of selfish individuals would simply die out because they need each other to help them survive. Fundamentally, all social mammals are by definition generous, extinct, or rapidly becoming extinct. Social mammals have individual needs and are capable of selfishness, but they are adapted by evolution to place the needs of the group ahead of their own by some margin, however small.

In the past, I've used John Searle's ideas about background capabilities to argue that such behaviour is not simple rule following. As we grow and absorb the conventions of our group, we develop dispositions that limit our behaviour so that it falls within the norms of the group most of the time. As a group we have ways of dealing with people who stray: from gentle reminders to summary execution and everything in between. This is a very important point that I will return to.


The Quality of Justice

The idea of justice emerges naturally from the idea of fairness. Justice is the process of responding to unfairness with an attempt to restore the harmony of the group. One of Frans de Waal's most famous experiments involves researchers treating two capuchin monkeys unfairly. The monkeys instantly recognise the unfairness and respond unequivocally. When both are rewarded with cucumber they will perform a simple task indefinitely. But the first time that one gets a grape and the other is still offered cucumber, the other gets angry and flings the cucumber back at the researcher. A second ago the monkey was happy to perform the task for cucumber, now it will forgo any reward rather than accept an unfair situation.

De Waal shows a video of this during a TED talk and the audience of several hundred people erupt into spontaneous laughter when the monkey throws a tantrum over unfairness. The emotional resonance is instantaneous and universal. We all know that feeling and what's more, we are on the side of the cucumber monkey. Even though throwing things at someone is a violent act, our sympathies are with the monkey treated unfairly and we instantly know that pelting the researcher with cucumber is fair enough (and possibly good). We don't have to sit and work through the implications. We have an unequivocal emotional response to seeing unfairness. 

This is a very important insight. When there is unfairness or injustice, then a contract is broken (the idea of a social contract is associated with Jean-Jacques Rousseau but in reality is very much older). It is not that reciprocity stops. What happens is that when the monkey perceives that their reward is unfair, the reciprocity principle opens the door to behaviour that in any other context would be considered unfair. For example, if the monkey were just in a bad mood and throwing food at the researcher with no obvious motivation, we would not sympathise with it. If we perceived a consistent attempt to harm the researcher then something would flip and our sympathies would be with the researcher. We know unfairness. But the important point is that we empathise with a monkey who clearly also recognises unfairness and acts in ways that are situationally appropriate. We know how that monkey feels and we tolerate its bad behaviour in this situation because the researcher started it.

In accounting terms, we frame reciprocity as a debt. Good behaviour creates a debt that has to be repaid in good behaviour; while bad behaviour creates a debt that can be repaid in bad behaviour that would not otherwise be tolerated. Paying one monkey a higher reward for the same task is unfair and as soon as we perceive this we are willing to tolerate inflicting harm on the researcher. They have earned their punishment. This "earning" of punishment and/or suffering is close to the key question I am concerned with, i.e., "How is suffering earned?"

For most of human history and in most cultures, killing a member of your social group is seen as wrong. In evolutionary terms, you weaken the group and reduce the survival chances of everyone. And in most societies, most of the time, the debt of a life had to be repaid by a life. Murderers have been routinely put to death. We cannot tolerate a group member who is willing to kill one of us. And note that by killing a murderer we further reduce our numbers and weaken ourselves, but the consensus is that this is the lesser of two evils. Murder within a group irreparably breaks the social contract. But note that killing an outgroup member, such as a slave or an enemy, does not have the same weight. In those (many) societies which kept slaves, killing one of them was never on the same level as killing a member of society. In fact, slaves were treated like livestock and reparations reflected this.

Even more striking, a soldier returning from battles with an enemy of the group is praised in proportion to the number of enemies he has killed. In trying to improve public perception of the deeply unpopular and incomprehensible Vietnam War, efficiency guru Alain Enthoven used the "body count" as a measure of how well the war was going. Despite not winning in any conventional sense such as occupying new territory, gaining access to new sources of wealth, or neutralising an enemy (China, in this case), the Americans were able to tout the number of dead Vietnamese as a measure of success. Thinking about this is nauseating, but even now we still report numbers of casualties as a measure of the "success" of war and a measure of the severity of a natural disaster or accident. 

To say that killing is immoral is to vastly over simplify things. In most human societies, placing all killing on the same level would be seen as irrational. In one case we may create a debt that can only be repaid with our own death. In another the more people we kill, the more our group owe a debt to us. Both represent justice according to the norms of most modern societies. Often the same people clamour for civilian murderers to be killed as argue that we should show more gratitude to soldiers who murder our enemies. There is no contradiction in this precisely because those people do not value all human lives equally. When it comes down to it, this is the way all social primates think.

As humans we can conceive of an ideal in which all human lives have equal value and some individuals do seem to embody this idea. But this idea has never taken hold in a more general way even, and this is important, even in nominally Buddhist societies.

So morality is always defined with respect to a group; with respect to my group. People are not equal and the fundamental split we all have is ingroup/outgroup in which very different obligations and expectations may apply. Killing might be the very worst and the very best thing one can do. It emerges from this that we consider some people to have earned their suffering.

Having set the scene, I will to return to karma in the next part and burrow deeper into the presuppositions which underpin the just world fallacy.


~~oOo~~


For a more detailed account of the evolution of morality see my trilogy on the subject,

See also

Frans de Waal's 2011 TED Talk. Do Animals Have Morals? (For much more detail see his book the The bonobo and the Atheist). 

27 July 2018

Is Karma Inconceivable? You'd Better Hope Not.

A colleague recently cited the famous passage in which the Buddha seems to say you'll go mad if you try to figure out the workings of karma. I was aware of this text, since it is very often quoted by anti-intellectuals who wish me to stop talking about the details of karma. Because, of course, when you look at it in detail, karma is nonsense. However, I had never scienced the passage before and decided to do so and report back.

Reading the text, especially in the light of a partial Chinese parallel, I find the Pāli quite strange and peculiar. It doesn't say what most people take it to say, and what it does say is really rather daft.

Here is the Acinteyyasuttaṃ (AN AN 4.77 ) in Pāli alongside my rough translation. Note the Buddha is only the implied protagonist and is not named here. I present the entire sutta as recorded in the 6th Council Edition. The point about karma is in red.

Cattārimāni, bhikkhave, acinteyyāni, na cintetabbāni; yāni cintento ummādassa vighātassa bhāgī assa.

Katamāni cattāri?

Buddhānaṃ, bhikkhave, buddhavisayo acinteyyo, na cintetabbo; yaṃ cintento ummādassa vighātassa bhāgī assa. Jhāyissa, bhikkhave, jhānavisayo acinteyyo, na cintetabbo; yaṃ cintento ummādassa vighātassa bhāgī assa. Kammavipāko, bhikkhave, acinteyyo, na cintetabbo; yaṃ cintento ummādassa vighātassa bhāgī assa. Lokacintā, bhikkhave, acinteyyā, na cintetabbā; yaṃ cintento ummādassa vighātassa bhāgī assa. Imāni kho, bhikkhave, cattāri acinteyyāni, na cintetabbāni; yāni cintento ummādassa vighātassa bhāgī assā. (AN ii.80)
Bhikkhus, four things are unthinkable and not to be thought of. Thinking of them will bring a share of madness and vexation.

What four?

Bhikkhus, the buddha-domain of a buddha is unthinkable and not to be thought of. Thinking of it will bring a share of madness and vexation. The range of jhāna-domain of a meditator is unthinkable and not to be thought of. Thinking of it will bring a share of madness and vexation. The consequence of an action (kammavipāka) is unthinkable and not to be thought of. Thinking of it will bring a share of madness and vexation. The lokacintā is unthinkable and not to be thought of. Thinking of it will bring a share of madness and vexation. These four things bhikkhus are unthinkable and not to be thought of. Thinking of them will bring a share of madness and vexation


The point here is that some things are being defined as acinteyya. I'm not going to look at all of them, because there seems little point. I just want to look at the word itself and how it might apply to karma-vipāka.

This is the only discourse in which the word acinteyya is used in the entire Sutta-piṭaka. Grammatically, it is a future passive participle and thus indicates something to be done, something desirable to do, something able to be done. The root is √cint, which is used for all kinds of cognitive activity, such as "thinking", "reflecting", and so on. So cinteyya would mean "something (able) to be thought about, considered, reflected upon" and with the addition of the negative prefix, acinteyya "something not to be thought about, considered, reflected upon". However, this participle is being used as an adjective: some things are being described as "not to be thought about" or "not able to be reflected on". Or some such. Many translators take it to mean the latter and substitute and English compound like "inconceivable".

So, the text is saying the consequence of action (kamma-vipāka) is something not to be thought about or reflected on. And we have to hold this alongside the idea that "actions have consequences" is often used as an English language summary of Buddhist ethics.

Sometimes translators try to tell us that it is the "exact workings" of karma, the complex processes involved that are the problem. It's all so complex and fiddly that we shouldn't worry our little heads over it. So, for example, Thanissaro translates kammavipāko, bhikkhave, acinteyyo, na cintetabbo as "The [precise working out of the] results of kamma is an unconjecturable that is not to be conjectured about." But this is not what the text says, so where is he getting "precise working out of the" from? It turns out not to be the commentary, which is the usual source of these kinds of divergent translations. The commentary makes a veiled reference to the Theravāda doctrine of the different times at which karma may be experienced and that's it.
Kammavipākoti diṭṭhadhammavedanīyādīnaṃ kammānaṃ vipāko (ANA 3.107)
"Consequences of actions" refers to the consequences of actions that are to be experienced during this life time, etc. [where "etc." means upapajjavedanīya "to be experienced at rebirth, and aparāpariyavedanīya "to be experienced in later births"]
I think "precise working out" is the kind of gloss that I would call a fig leaf. Something that we don't want to see is protruding and we want to cover it up. Because for a Buddhist to be told not to think about the consequence of actions is nonsensical - at some level, thinking about the consequences of our actions actually is Buddhism. So we fiddle with the translation without reference to the original text or the traditional commentary until what it says does make sense. This is putting the ideological cart before the scriptural horse.

By the way, in this translation Thanissaro uses one of his trademark bizarre neologisms—unconjecturable—for acinteyya. We can see what he is getting at. Sometimes a future passive participle will express potential: √kṛ "do" → kāranīya "that which should be done; doable". But would it mean to describe something as "conjecturable"? The language around conjecture is awkward. We can use the word as a noun, "a conjecture"; i.e., a proposition about something that is in need of evidence. But we can also use it as a verb, "Einstein conjectured that mass would bend the path of massless photons, because gravity bends space rather attracting mass". What Thanissaro means is "something about which we should not makes conjectures". Clearly karma is conjecturable in the sense that we can and should make conjectures about the consequences of our actions.

Now, we can boil down this sentiment to this statement about karma-vipāka: We should not  make conjectures about the consequences of actions, for fear of the consequences (i.e., if we do we might go mad). It is asking us to think about the consequences of thinking about the consequences! So whatever else is wrong with the sutta, it is blatantly self contradictory. And this is what passes for wisdom amongst us.

Furthermore, of course, the precise working out of the consequences of actions is a very frequent subject for conjecture or even for the confident assertion of knowledge elsewhere in this same literature. This is exactly the premise of the jātaka, for example, including the several hundred such stories in the official Jātaka collection, and the dozens more scattered throughout the Nikāyas and the Vinaya. And it is at the very heart of Buddhist ethics.


Chinese Parallel

There is a Chinese parallel, or at least a partial parallel, in the Ekottarāgama 增壹阿含經 (29.6). This version doesn’t include a warning about going mad. And kamma-vipāka is not one of the four items we are warned not to think about.

云何為四?眾生不可思議;世界不可 思議;龍國不可思議;佛國境界不可思議。 所以然者,不由此處得至滅盡涅槃。(T 2.657.a.19)
What four? The arising of people (眾生) should not be thought about; the worldly realm (世界 = lokadhātu) should not be thought about. The land of the dragon (龍國) should not be thought about, the objects of cognition in the Buddha-land (佛國境界) should not be thought about. Why is this? Because they are not conducive to cessation and extinction. (My translation).
When we talk about this text being a "parallel" what we mean is that it is a version of a text that shares some features with the Acinteyya Sutta. Here, the Chinese 不可思議 means the same as na cintetabbo. So this much is held in common. And remembering that the word is only used in one Pāḷi sutta, the use of it here definitely suggests some kind of connection.

But there the similarities end. The Chinese text doesn't mention karma and the reason for not thinking about things is more comprehensible - it doesn't go anywhere. When aiming for cessation the more things you have to think about, the longer it takes. Cessation is approached by not thinking about things. Although this contradicts what I said above at one level, it is because they are on different levels that there is no absolute contradiction. Ethics involves, amongst other things, paying attention to consequences of actions. In meditation we try to leave all such concerns behind to explore the mind in the absence of sensory stimulus. The two methods are complementary, not exclusive.

Note, not that it really matters, but I haven't been able to figure out what 龍國 means. I've given a literal translation for what it is worth. But I can't see how it would affect my argument unless it turned out to mean karma-vipāka and even then it wouldn't affect my conclusions.


Conclusion
Vizzini: He didn't fall? Inconceivable!
Inigo Montoya: You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means."
So this is a strange little sutta. It's quoted quite often, but apparently almost no one thinks about what it means. In other words, some Buddhists don't think about what it would mean to not think about the consequences of actions. This is partly because most people are reading fig leaf translations that opt to say something other than what the text does, so the fact that is it nonsense is obscured. Mostly the text is used in apologetics for traditional beliefs to combat people who do think about karma and come up with unanswered problems. Labelling karma-vipāka as acinteyya is the polite Buddhist way of saying "we can't explain it, so just shut the fuck up and do what you are told."

But the sutta is arguing from consequences to a conclusion about not thinking about consequences resulting in a bald-faced contradiction, which is why most translators pad it out till it says something less batshit.

Learning Pāli is empowering because it allows you to see when translators are going off piste. It is disappointing, in the sense that you realise how crap many translations are, and how much translators are interpreting for you so you don't see inconsistencies. But it is empowering to be able to think about it for yourself, I find. If one is only willing to read.

The problem with defining the outcome of action (kamma-vipāka) as unthinkable or inconceivable (acinteyya) and saying that we should not think about it (na cintetabbo) is that the basis for morality disappears. If we truly believe that the consequences of actions are unknowable then we have no basis for saying “Actions have consequences”. Our slogan should rather be “Actions may well have consequences, but we have no idea what they might be and we avoid thinking about them for fear of going mad.” Which would force us into being moral relativists, at best. In fact, most Buddhists take a decisive stand on morality because we believe that actions do have knowable consequences, and this seems to be entirely rational (and not mad or ummāda).

This idea that kamma-vipāka is acinteyya, that we should not think about the consequences of actions, seems like a classic example of an incoherent idea in Pāli that nobody ever really thinks about carefully just because it is in Pāli. Or if they do notice that the sutta cannot be taken on face value they simply add a fig leaf. The axiom is that the Pāli Canon always makes sense and therefore one is free to tweak any translation, without reference to the source text, until it does make sense.

I keep saying to my colleagues that we need to be more discerning in our use of these texts. We really do need to think about the consequences of our actions as users of religious texts.


“The devil can cite Scripture for his purpose.”
—William Shakespeare. Merchant of Venice. Act 1, Scene 3.

~~oOo~~

27 January 2017

Doctrine & Reason III: Madhyamaka Karma

4.4 Multiple Versions of Karma

In a recent online discussion with members of the Triratna Buddhist Order I discovered that we have no common narrative when it comes to karma. A majority believe in karma of some kind, but very often the kind of karma an Order member believes in is mutually contradictory with the kind that another Order member believes in. "Actions have consequences" is a relatively common way of expressing karma, but as we have seen (Part II), it is inadequate. The traditional idea of karma leading to rebirth is supernatural by its very nature, but encouragingly, a sizeable minority are reluctant to commit to any supernatural version of "actions have consequences". There is certainly no explanation to be found for karma in nature.

In a sense, the Order reflects the confused history of karma in Buddhism. Different versions emerged from time to time, presumably in response to perceived needs, and many of them were incompatible with others. More or less the only common features are the word karma and the notion that willed actions are somehow significant.

I've critiqued some of the main versions of karma, especially in an essay called The Logic of Karma (16 Jan 2015). So, for the purposes of this argument, I will focus on my critique of the Madhyamaka version of karma, particularly as set out in Nāgārjuna's Mūlamadhyamakakārikā. I don't think I've given a detailed critique of this version before and it turns out to be the one most resistant to reasoned argument and is thus the view most in need of effective refutation.


5. Madhyamaka

5.1 Nāgārjuna the Nihilist

The most difficult version of karma to argue against is the one that begins with Nāgārjuna and comes down to us via various groups that have assimilated elements of his metaphysics (including those various schools that claim the label madhyamaka). It took me many years of  losing arguments with pseudo-intellectual mādhyamikas to work out what is wrong with Nāgārjuna's explanation of karma. As Nāgārjuna says, near the end of his chapter on karma:
karma cen nāsti kartā ca kutaḥ syāt karmajaṃ phalaṃ |
asaty atha phale bhoktā kuta evan bhaṣyati 
|| MMK 17.30 ||
If action and agent don't exist, how would an action produce a consequence?
And if the consequence does not exist, who would suffer it? 
Ultimately, for Nāgārjuna, there is no action (karma) and no agent (kartṛ), thus there is no consequence (phala), no one who experiences it (bhoktṛ), and thus no rebirth, either. At best, they are like an imaginary city in the sky, like a mirage, or a dream (MMK 17.33). So Nāgārjuna rejects the idea of actions having consequences.

I've read a number of explanations of Nāgārjuna's approach to karma and they all baulk at accepting his dismissal of karma and restate the mainstream Buddhist assertion that actions have real consequences. For example, Kalupahana concluded:
"The most significant assertion here is that the rejection of permanence and annihilation and the acceptance of emptiness and saṃsāra (or the life-process) do not imply the rejection of the relationship between action (karma) and the consequence." (1986: 55)
But, clearly, Nāgārjuna does reject the relationship between action and consequence and, what's more, he rejects the more fundamental notions of action, consequence, and relationship per se. To Nāgārjuna, these concepts are not part of paramārthasatya or ultimate truth. How should we read a statement like Kalupahana's which is echoed in other academic work? It seems that Nāgārjuna's rejection of karma and rebirth does not sit well with anyone who identifies with more mainstream Buddhist ideas. To say that agent, action, patient, and consequence are all just illusions is a form of nihilism.

My sense of Nāgārjuna is that he is trapped by his own articles of faith. In maintaining that nothing persists in the face of plentiful evidence to the contrary, he is left with no choice but to obfuscate and distract us from his dilemma. Ironically, we know this because we still have his actual words. They, at least, have persisted for some eighteen centuries. Mādhyamikās (those who follow madhyamaka ideology) are apt to point out that this is not what commentators have understood him to be saying. However, when the text is clear and the commentary contradicts it, we have little choice but to reject the commentary as driven by motivations unrelated to those of the author.

Nāgārjuna's view is a pernicious one, because it destroys the basis of morality. If actions do not have consequences at all, let alone appropriate and timely consequences, the observation of which allows us to modify our behaviour in the future to obtain different results, then morality is simply not possible. If there is no definite relationship between action and consequences, then there could only be chaos. The view appears to be based on a fundamental confusion.


5.2 Arguing Against Madhyamaka

However, this is also a view that is extremely resistant to rational argument, because part of the madhyamaka ideology, at least in its modern versions, is that rational argument has no place in the Buddhist system. Only personal experience counts towards knowledge and experience, by definition not susceptible to logic. Here we see medieval Buddhist folly meshing with Victorian Romantic folly to produce a persistent delusion. Mādhyamikas further stretch the credibility of a critic through the structure of their rhetoric. In the typical conversation about karma, the mādhyamika asserts their view (some variation on MMK 17.30) as though it were ultimate truth (pāramārtha-satya). If one disagrees on any grounds, they assign those grounds to relative truth, which is simply an illusion and can be safely ignored. Thus, any argument against the asserted view is defeated solely on the grounds that to dissent against the ultimate truth is always wrong. One cannot argue with ultimate truth. The use of reason to undermine the assertion of ultimate truth is dismissed or even mocked, because the ultimate truth allows no role whatever for reason. Having declined to recognise the validity of any objection, the mādhyamika will often emphatically restate their view and then refuse any further discussion.

The view itself is irrational, but the defence that any dissent can only be a manifestation of ignorance is potent. It allows the believer to summarily reject any argument without ever having to consider it. One cannot win an argument with a mādhyamika on their terms, so one must shift the terms and one way to do this is to undermine the foundations; i.e., to point out Nāgārjuna's fundamental errors and argue that the framework itself is flawed.


5.3 The Two Truths

The two truths doctrine is completely absent from the early Buddhist suttas. This suggests that the problem which the two truths were supposed to solve did not exist earlier. I see this problem emerging from the confusion of experience and reality. This happened partly because Buddhists took a description of experience and tried to use it to describe reality. At the same time, they singled out certain rarefied meditative experiences and thought of them as reality.

The early texts are fairly clear that the domain of application of Buddhist practice is experience. There is no word that conveys anything like our word "reality", no discussion of the nature of existence, the nature of objects. The focus is on the nature of experience. As Bodhi has said:
“The world with which the Buddha’s teaching is principally concerned is ‘the world of experience,’ and even the objective world is of interest only to the extent that it serves as that necessary external condition for experience.” (Bodhi 2000: 394, n.182
This is highlighted in the Kaccānagotta Sutta (SN 12:15), a text which Nāgārjuna appears to cite, but completely misunderstand. The importance of this text is emphasised by Kalupahana when he suggests that MMK is a commentary on KS. What KS says is that existence (astitā) and non-existence (nāstitā) do not apply to the world of experience (loka). This means that the usual way of looking at objects doesn't apply to experience. When we have an experience, nothing comes into being; when the experience stops, nothing goes out of being. The ontology of experience, especially in Iron Age Ganges Valley, is difficult to pin down, in a way that the ontology of objects is not.

Experience is what it is, fleeting, insubstantial, and unsatisfactory. This was important at the time because Buddhists were in an argument with Brahmins about the possibility of experiencing absolute being (brahman/ātman). The Buddhist argument was that, since absolute being is unchanging, ever-changing experience could not allow access to it. We could not perceive something unchanging, because experience is always changing. So, even if an object was existent in this absolute sense, our experience of it would constantly change.

The classical texts say nothing much about the world of objects, except that they do acknowledge that some objects (particularly our bodies) persist through time. So the world of experience and the world of objects have a different ontology for early Buddhists (to the extent that they have any awareness of ontology). It is only experience that is governed by pratītyasamutpāda. Also, there seem to be no Pāḷi texts that seek to explain karma in terms of dependent arising, but by the early medieval period when Nāgārjuna was writing this distinction had been lost. By then, everything was understood to be governed in the same way. The description of mental events arising in the meditative mind was taken to be a universal principle. And this means that nothing whatever in the world might persist even for a second. And this in a world where objects do persist for years, decades, centuries, and millennia (the universe is currently thought to be 13.7 billion years old and will continue expanding indefinitely).

So Nāgārjuna's task was to explain away the ubiquitous evidence of persistence in favour of a reality in which nothing persists, based on an Iron Age theory of how experience works. He had to allow for persistence, because all the evidence of our senses tells us that external objects persist, while not allowing for persistence because dependent arising applied universally ruled it out.

By this time the Brahmanical arguments about absolute being seem to be a distant memory to Buddhists, which is puzzling because Brahmanical influence is seen everywhere in the development of Buddhism. The problem of absolute being is still present, but it is seen as a mistake that everyone makes with respect to their own experience. Some Buddhist groups were struggling to explain the connection between karma and phala. A Sanskrit term exists for this problem, i.e., karma-phala-saṃbandha, where saṃbandha means "connection".

Since it was completely implausible to assert that the world did not exist (or that existence did not apply to the world), Nāgārjuna was forced to accept that the world does exist. But he argued that this existence is saṃvṛti, a word meaning 'concealing, covering up, keeping secret'. Saṃvṛti-satya is often translated as "relative truth", but a Sanskrit speaker would be alive to the connotation of "concealing reality". In defiance of early Buddhists' reactions against absolute being, Nāgārjuna contrasted the world with an absolute reality: paramārtha-satya, translated as "ultimate reality", or "ultimate truth".

Both saṃvṛtisatya and paramārthasatya are not true. They are mistaken views that come about when we try to shoehorn dependent arising into everything. This is not to say that the experience of emptiness (śūnyatā) is not profound and transformative, only that it is an experience. It changes the way we perceive the world, which is an epistemological change. Ontology is unaffected by meditation.


5.4 The Confusion of Experience and Reality

Nāgārjuna's method is thus the theory tail wagging the evidence dog. And this methodology is one of the reasons his followers are locked into irrational positions. Evidence is made to fit the theory, not the other way around. And since this requires deprecating reason, rational arguments find no purchase. Compare this to the Pāḷi texts were rational arguments are part and parcel of Buddhism, alongside myth, legend, and inner monologues.

Nāgārjuna's worldview was one in which all domains are governed by dependent arising. He appears to see no alternative to this, despite being familiar with and valuing the Kaccānagotta Sutta. But this creates many problems for him, precisely because the persistence of the world and objects in the world is self-evident. Even something as simple as perceiving movement or change become problematic for Nāgārjuna. And, frankly, his task is not made any easier by composing his answers in metered verse.

The central problem with karma is what I have been calling action at a temporal distance, but which Indian commentators called karmaphalasaṃbandha. Karma requires consequences to manifest long after the condition for them have ceased. And this is forbidden by the formula of dependent arising.

Knowledge that we get by reasoning about experience is useful (i.e., an accurate and precise guide to interacting with the world), as long as we are actually reasoning rather than relying on a bias. Accurate and precise ontology requires careful comparing of notes and critical questioning of which assumptions in our worldview are valid. We have to switch to using abduction and eliminate all the impossible premises.  We did not begin to get this right until after 1543 when Nicolaus Copernicus published De revolutionibus orbium coelestium (On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres). The critical comparing of notes about experience is what enables us to understand the world. Unless we make a strict distinction between experience and reality, and have a very critical eye out for bias, we are apt to come to erroneous conclusions.

Nāgārjuna's fundamental mistake was to mix up epistemology and ontology, which is to say that he mistook experience, especially meditative experience, for reality; and the nature of experience for the nature of reality. Meditators I know continue to make this same fundamental error. Buddhists are constantly talking about the "nature of reality", but nothing about how we go about seeking insight could possibly tell us about reality.

It is entirely possible that we might gain insights into the workings of our minds, seen from the inside; that we might gain insight into the nature of experience. And this kind of knowledge is certainly very useful for avoiding misery. And even though reality is an over-arching super-set, which incorporates the mind and experience, as I have tried to show in my previous essays on reality, it is layered, and descriptions that work on one scale of mass, length, energy or complexity, may not work on another scale. So a perfect description of experience may still be a faulty description of other kinds of phenomena. In fact, the classical texts were wrong about the persistence of mental states - these do persist for short periods of time beyond the stimulating sensory contact, else we could not perceive the passage of time or any kind of change. Language and music both depend on this extension in time.

Nāgārjuna's description of reality is copied from a description of experience. Unsurprisingly, he comes to false conclusions about reality. He takes it as axiomatic that nothing persists. Indeed, he says that if anything were to persists that would contradict dependent arising (MMK 17.6). Note again that the classical Pāḷi texts don't have this problem, because they do not take dependent arising as a description of the world, only of experience (i.e., they take it to be an epistemology, not an ontology). In order to accommodate these obviously false conclusions, he has to bifurcate the truth into two domains, apparent and ultimate, because, for example, it is self-evident that our bodies and identities do persist over time. Nāgārjuna accommodates this by saying that it is true, but only relatively true (saṃvṛti-satya); i.e., true only in the sense that we perceive it to be true. In the ultimate view it is not true. Again this mixes up ontology and epistemology.


5.5 Compatibility with Reason

Ironically for modern Western mādhyamikas, our own intellectual tradition, from Heraclitus onwards, tells us that all existence is impermanent. At no point do we assume that if something exists, it is permanent and unchanging, except in the case of God. And since God no longer features in mainstream Western thought, even he is not a problem. For the Western tradition, persistence is not a problem per se because, unlike Buddhists, we do not associate all being with absolute being. We are not forced into the position of explaining away persistence as an illusion, because temporality is built into our notions of the world. We say quite explicitly that we live in a temporal world.*
* Pedants may be tempted to point out that quantum physics theorists are now suggesting that time might be an emergent property. 1. There is no consensus on this speculation. 2. Even if there were a consensus, descriptions of the quantum level are not relevant to the macro-world that was the whole world until the invention of the telescope and microscope in the early 17th Century. 

Rather than the classical position—that neither existence or non-existence apply to any experience—Nāgārjuna is forced into the bizarre assertion that both existence and non-existence apply to everything. Thus, the obviously false conclusions that his philosophy leads to are rationalised away. This is a philosophy in which obviously false conclusions have to be tolerated; the irrational is valorised, and logic is deprecated in favour of a religious ideal. Paradox becomes the sine qua non. And these conditions fit perfectly with the Romantic threads of modernism. The nihilism also fits the zeitgeist in which people feel that they don't matter and have no influence in the world, despite being bombarded with information about events in the world.

However, in our Western tradition, paradox usually suggests a deeper flaw in our understanding, which has led us to make false assumptions, or to frame the problem ineptly. Or they are curiosities. For example, "this sentence is not true" is a trivial example of a paradoxical sentence that is both grammatically and semantically well formed, but is logical impossible. All it tells us is that there is more to language than grammar and syntax. A glance at anyone's eyebrows as they speak could have told you the same.

For all these reasons, the Mādhyamikā view of karma is not compatible with reason. It's not a rational view. Nor, I argue, is it resolved by insight, because those with insight seem to be beset by the same confirmation bias as all of us: they seek and find confirmation of their pre-existing views. Most meditators spend many years absorbing the rhetoric of Buddhism before making any significant progress in developing insight. Thus when insights arise, confirmation bias prompts us to see them as proof of our view.

My best informant on the process of having insights suggests that each insight both shatters existing views, but tends to set up an alternative view. One finally sees the truth and is prepared to settle down with it. However, if we persist in practising, the next insight shows the flaws in this new view and points to another view. One has to go through this "Aha... Oh. Aha... Oh." process many times before one stops taking the views seriously and realises that all views are just different perspectives on experience. It's not that one gains insight into reality, but that one stops mistaking one's experience for reality.

However, Buddhists tend to treat Nāgārjuna as a god -- someone who had infallible omniscience. His words, or at least the interpretations of his words by commentators, are seen as ultimate truth. I notice that some people are puzzled that I would argue against Nāgārjuna. It seems to cause cognitive dissonance, because they accept what he says as gospel. To dissent from the "ultimate truth" is almost unimaginable to many Buddhists. It is akin to blasphemy, and they often respond the way theists to do blasphemy: with hostility.

So why do modern scholars not take Nāgārjuna to task as someone who mistook experience for reality? After all, they are supposed to bring a certain objectivity to their work, aren't they? Buddhist Studies is all about accepting Buddhism on its own terms, rather than taking a critical stance. So in the 21st Century we still find scholars trying to elucidate Nāgārjuna on his own terms and he is still hailed as probably the greatest Buddhist philosopher. To me, Nāgārjuna is the greatest disaster in Buddhist philosophy because his mistake continues undetected and his influence is pervasive (it goes far beyond Madhyamaka). This is partly because the mādhyamika rhetoric is impervious to reason, but partly also because Buddhists don't use reason when thinking about their views anyway: they only seek confirmation, they do not seek falsification. Of course confirmation bias is a feature of argument production, but religious argumentation discourages doubt and scepticism.

This critique will most like not make any impact whatever on the way people see Nāgārjuna or the way his disciples see the world. The way Madhyamaka is set up employs several cult-like features that make adherents particularly hard to reach. Those who do not simply reject the argument out of hand, will condescendingly explain that I have simply misunderstood the ultimate truth. I'm with Richard Feynman however, "I'd rather have questions that cannot be answered, than answers that cannot be questioned."

This concludes the central argument of this essay. It remains to sum up and conclude.


6. Compatible With Reason?

I set out in this essay to explore the idea that the Buddhist belief in karma is compatible with reason. I argued that both karma and reason are complex subjects on which authorities disagree about almost every detail. Karma has few common features across Buddhist sects apart from the proposition that actions cause rebirth. Also, reason and our ability to employ the methods of reasoning have been widely misunderstood. Reasoning is, more often than not, subverted by cognitive biases and logical fallacies. Even so, I tried to set out a coherent account of how reason works and how we might use it to think about karma in general terms. I then critiqued a particular Buddhist view about how karma is supposed to work, by showing how the reasoning in that view is flawed.

The question I posed in Part I of this essay was, could we come up with the doctrine of karma from first principles. That is, based on experience, can we infer—using deduction, induction, and/or abduction—a doctrine in which our actions lead to rebirth; or the watered down version that our actions infallibly lead to appropriate and timely consequences.

Based on observations across many species of primate, Frans de Waal is able to deduce that we all experience empathy and understand reciprocity. From reciprocity we can induce an understanding of fairness and justice. And from this we can construct a highly plausible, bottom-up theory of morality that has broad applicability and explains a great deal. In this view, morality can be understood as a principle in which the social consequences of actions are appropriate and timely.

To get to a doctrine of karma however, we have to go beyond experience and observation, and make a number of unsupported assumptions. Firstly, we have to assume a just world. This assumption is so common that it has its own name: the just-world fallacy. Secondly, we have to assume that a supernatural afterlife exists, in defiance of the laws of nature. Thirdly, we have to assume that this afterlife is cyclic or a hybrid between cyclic and linear. Many religions have a linear eschatology, a single destination afterlife. There is no credible evidence that we cite to help us choose which is the true version of events. In fact, the way the world seems to work rules out all these possibilities. Fourthly, we have to assume that some mechanism connects our actions to our post-mortem fate.

None of these assumptions is compatible with reason, since none of these assumptions is based on inferences from evidence or experience; i.e., they were not produced by reasoning. They are assumptions that we make so that our doctrine works in the way that we wish it to. All the evidence suggests that these assumptions are simply false (an afterlife is demonstrably false). So assuming that they are true is certainly not compatible with reason. And yet, without these assumptions, there can be no karma doctrine. So karma doctrines, as a class, are not compatible with reason.

Forms of morality in which the social consequences of our social interaction are appropriate and timely are at least possible, even if our social groups seldom attain the ideal. Beyond this, reason, fails.

In my critique of Madhyamaka karma I tried to show that the problem of continuity (saṃbandha) remains unsolved and that it seems insoluble within the traditional Buddhist metaphysics. A completely different approach to ontology would be required because the description of mental-states arising does not work as a general description of the world. In other essays I have proposed such an approach. In my proposed ontology all existence is temporary, both substance and structure are real, and structures (such as our bodies and minds) persist over time, for a time. Morality is explained by bottom-up manifestations of empathy and reciprocity, but karma is ruled out because there is no afterlife, no supernatural, and no just-world.

karma is not
compatible with
reason
Belief in karma fails to meet the standard set in Subhuti's essay (cited in Part I). So, the major conclusion of this long essay is that karma is not compatible with reason. By this I mean that no existing Buddhist version of the doctrine of karma is compatible with reason. I also infer that any theory of karma that involves logical fallacies (such as the just-world fallacy) or supernatural elements (such as an afterlife) cannot ever be compatible with reason. Since no logical fallacy or supernatural element is demonstrable, karma also appears to fail Subhuti's verifiability criterion.

~~oOo~~

Post Script. 29 Jan 2017. Someone wrote in to say that my understanding of Nāgārjuna's approach to karma was "obviously false", because he talks about karma in more conventional ways in other texts, such as the Ratnāvalī. But the fact that a Buddhist talks about karma in different ways in different contexts is completely consistent with the trend I first identified in 2013. In contexts that emphasise morality, Buddhists maintain a narrative that emphasises continuity between actions and consequences; for example, in the Jātakas, the personal continuity of people across lifetimes is normal; while in contexts that emphasise metaphysics this continuity is denied, and the idea of any persistence of any kind is rejected. And these two narratives co-exist. Buddhists switch between them without even noticing that they are doing so. Our metaphysics denies the possibility of morality; and yet morality is clearly very important to all Buddhists and karma is maintained in defiance of our metaphysics, without even achieving resolution. So the fact that Nāgārjuna exhibits this same kind of duplicity is not evidence that he does not deny the reality of karma in Mūlamadhyamakakārikā


Bibliography

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