I think I’ve shown that the kammatic-nibbanic distinction should matter to the historian, textual scholar, or anthropologist trying to figure out what Buddhism has meant in other times and places. Contra Damien Keown, it is a helpful ideal type to understand how Buddhists have thought about their tradition to date. But should it matter constructively, to us, now?
Yes, it should – at least to us Buddhists, and to anyone trying to think philosophically with Buddhism today. Because, I would argue, there are things valuable about worldly life – and it turns out that there have always been Buddhists who agreed that there are, in practice if not in theory. At least some forms of the dichotomy turn out to reprise the key constructive problem of my dissertation – the role of external goods in a good human life – from an intra-Buddhist perspective. The Buddhism of the suttas, of Buddhaghosa and Śāntideva, turns out to be single-minded: only liberation is important. Buddhists will often identify that austere Buddhism as normative, the ideal to aspire to – and yet live a life remarkably different from that ideal. And I think that they are, at least to some extent, right to live such a life. I consider myself to be a Buddhist, yet I do not think the suttas are correct that worldly things are so irredeemably marked by suffering, impermanence and essencelessness as to be worthy only of transcendence. My view of the good, like Aristotle’s, is comprehensive and not revisionist: we are not fools to seek everyday goods like romantic love. Some of our existing goals are misguided, but it is not the case that we should surrender all of them to the reduction of suffering.
That many Buddhists have had such other goals, and even considered them part of the tradition, is not news to me, and probably isn’t to you if you’ve been following this blog. What I find particularly helpful about the kammatic-nibbanic distinction is the way it frames Buddhists’ more worldly goals in terms of karma. For in fact many Buddhists do think of their lives in terms not of nirvana but of karma – of acting well because it will be rewarded. This includes philosophical monks like Śāntideva: the Śikṣā Samuccaya has plenty of passages about how if you provide beautiful things to monks and stūpas, you’ll become rich and beautiful and surrounded by beautiful things yourself.
Typically, of course, karma is viewed supernaturally: the rewards of good acting show up in another life, or even through some magical connection within this life. But, crucially, it does not have to be viewed in tht way. As far as I can tell, supernatural conceptions of karma are false. But karma can also be taken as a way to articulate eudaimonism – the view that being virtuous is typically beneficial for the virtuous agent’s well-being – and I take this eudaimonic version of karma to be true. I agree with Dale Wright that stealing brings bad karma in that one who steals “will find compassion and intimacy more difficult, be further estranged from the society in which one lives, and feel isolated and unable to trust others.”
This is all to say that the Buddhism I advocate is a kammatic Buddhism – just one defined in naturalistic terms like Wright’s. As Jan Westerhoff notes, on a naturalized account, nirvana looks a lot like death. But unlike Westerhoff I take that as a reason to have goals beyond nirvana – goals which Buddhists have traditionally understood in terms of a framework of karma. (To my mind, texts like the Mahāvaṃsa show that Buddhists have sought such goals for a long time.) Hsiao-Lan Hu advocates a “this-worldly nibbana”; I prefer to think of this-worldly karma.
Now, in traditional Buddhist societies as I understand them, the paradigm act for good karma is upward giving: giving (dāna) to the saṅgha, especially to monks. (The Thai phrase tham boon, which just means “making merit” or “making good karma”, refers in practice to the act of giving food to monks.) The karmic benefits of this act – central to kammatic Buddhism – are usually understood in a straightforwardly supernatural way: giving to monks gets you a better rebirth. But the work of Maria Heim (née Hibbets) reminds us that Indian texts on gift-giving, including but not limited to Buddhist ones, place very high importance on the virtue of śraddhā (esteem): the upward gift expresses a joy in tribute to the esteemed monk. In this I see it as close to what Paul Woodruff calls the forgotten virtue of reverence, which “begins in a deep understanding of human limitations; from this grows the capacity to be in awe of whatever we believe lies outside our control—God, truth, justice, nature, even death.” (3) Giving to monks is a cultivation of humility, a way to remind oneself of one’s own flawed nature – which is a crucial part of self-improvement.
This, in outline, is the Buddhism I advocate: a naturalized Buddhism which is kammatic rather than nibbanic, in part because naturalizing makes the goal of nirvana/nibbana more questionable. It is a modernist Buddhism, but one that has room for Buddhism as traditionally practised.