The workings of karma, naturalized and otherwise

As noted last time, I don’t identify the philosophical core of the concept of karma with its origins (which are pre-Buddhist), but with the way it functions in Buddhist philosophical texts. There, I submit, the core idea is indeed “that an agent’s good actions and good states of character typically improve that agent’s well-being”.

To show this point I turn to Śāntideva, as one of the most systematic and powerful writers on ethics in the Buddhist tradition. Karma and rebirth pervade his works, more than they do the Pali literature. But his works on karma are not directed to the question Thompson discusses – to the past results of karma as an explanation for present misfortunes. Rather, Śāntideva puts great stress on the future results of karma: the good and bad states that will befall us as a result of our good and bad deeds now. These include the hells, which Śāntideva delights in graphic depictions of. And they also include the results we get in this life. Consider this passage on anger:

There is no bad karma (pāpa) equal to anger, nor asceticism equal to patient endurance. Therefore, one should create patient endurance, with active effort, by various means. The mind does not get peace, nor obtain pleasure and happiness, nor get sleep nor satisfaction, when the dart of anger rests in the heart. Dependents desire to harm a master who has the ill fortune of anger, even when he honours them with wealth and respect. Even friends shy away because of it. He gives, but is not served. In short there is no way an angry person is well off. One who knows that anger is an enemy that makes multiple sorrows, and destroys it with perseverance – that one is happy (sukhī) in this world and another (iha paratra ca). (Bodhicaryāvatāra VI.2-6)

This passage is explicitly about how “an agent’s good actions and good states of character improve the agent’s well-being” – and vice versa, how bad actions and states harm it. Not only does the passage explicitly evoke bad karma, it makes no differentiation between the well-being that results in this world (iha) and in another (paratra). (In case there was any doubt about what “another” means, the Tibetan translation replaces paratra with “in other lives”.)

There is a reason for this continuity between our world and the next, and that is in the way that karma and rebirth work. After Śāntideva proclaims that “all fears and immeasurable sufferings come from the mind alone”, he proceeds to ask “Who carefully produced the weapons in the hells? Who produced its hot iron floor?… The Sage sang that all of that is arisen from a bad mind (pāpacitta). Therefore there is not any fearful thing in the three worlds other than the mind.” (BCA V.6-8) It is mind, specifically, that causes hell rebirths –just as it causes all fears and immeasurable sufferings in this life. The causes of suffering are mental, in this life and in future ones. And so, for Śāntideva “an agent’s good actions and good states of character typically improve that agent’s well-being” – in this life and future ones.

The present Dalai Lama, who reveres Śāntideva and has written extensively on him, explains in more detail the mental mechanism by which rebirth works:

the attitude just before death is very important; for, if even a moderately developed practitioner is disturbed at that time, manifest desire or hatred will be generated. This is because we all have predispositions established by former non-virtuous actions, which are ready to be activated upon meeting with disadvantageous circumstances. It is these predispositions that provide the impetus for lifetimes as animals, and so forth. Similarly, we have predispositions established by former virtuous actions, which, upon meeting with advantageous circumstances, will provide the impetus for lifetimes in happy migrations as humans and so forth.

For example: “Some whose physical warmth has diminished through illness become desirous of heat, thereby fortifying predispositions for rebirth as a being in a hot hell, whereupon they take rebirth in a place of extreme heat.” Notice the emphasis on predispositions or dispositions. This is a central concept to Aristotelian eudaimonistic virtue ethics, and it turns out to be the principle underlying the workings of rebirth itself. (True, the Dalai Lama is influenced by Buddhist modernism, but in this passage at least, he is doing something decidely un-modernist: explaining the process of rebirth.)

Both Śāntideva nor the Dalai Lama have a traditional understanding of karma that ties it closely to rebirth. Yet even in that non-naturalized context, they describe it in the terms of something very familiar to Aristotelian eudaimonists: habituation (hexis). Damien Keown’s analogy between Buddhism and Aristotle holds up well on this point, Seth Segall’s even better. Good actions build up good habits that make our lives better; bad actions build up bad habits that make our lives worse. For Śāntideva and the Dalai Lama, habits or dispositions are how karma results in better and worse rebirths – and how karma affects our lives in this life. What we eudaimonist Buddhists are doing is simply dropping the first half of that statement, the rebirth half, and focusing instead on karmic results in the present life. And so, far from being “incogruent with its traditional meaning and function”, I think the interpretation of karma as eudaimonia is quite continuous with Śāntideva’s take.

The interpretation does still leave us with the fact that bad things happen to good people, which I think does remain a problem for eudaimonism. I will address that problem next time.

Cross-posted on Love of All Wisdom.

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