When does karma stop being karma?

Evan Thompson has made his last statement in our correspondence. Before I make mine, a personal note: our series of responses to date has become increasingly confrontational in tone, in a way I imagine our readers have noticed. Thompson and I have spoken about that tone in private and we agreed that it is not where either of us had hoped or intended for this conversation to go. I hope to end this series on a note of gentler and friendlier disagreement, one that invites both of us and our readers to new avenues of inquiry that the dialogue has opened up. For one thing, from the beginning, I have appreciated Thompson’s willingness to take Buddhist thought seriously by acknowledging where he finds it inadequate; this is a valuable and refreshing contrast to the kind of kid-glove treatment that it is too often given in religious studies. I think that this aspect of Thompson’s approach is very helpful for advancing contemporary discussions of Buddhist thought, and I think I should have led my opening review post with my appreciation of his work on that point.

Now to recap the state of our debate. Thompson, in his June reply, had stood his ground on the claim that karma is fundamentally about why bad things happen to good people. My ensuing July-August round of posts addressed in detail why I think he is wrong about this. While I think it was important to go into those details, I think I didn’t spend enough time on the big-picture questions that motivated them, which remain important to both Thompson and myself. So, while I didn’t think the wordplay in his June title was accurate, I think the current one was. That is, I did, to some extent at least, “lose the thread”. I am happy that the final exchange can now take us back to those larger questions.

I will attempt to restrain myself from responding to everything in Thompson’s final reply, so that this dialogue can conclude with that larger picture in mind. This approach will also allow these reply posts to be more succinct: just two. (For that reason, I will post them on my regular weekly schedule.) This first post will situate the karma discussion in the larger discussion of Buddhist modernism. The second will deal with what I think is Thompson’s most interesting line of critique: about whether eudaimonism works on its own terms.

Thompson’s book, recall, is a critique of Buddhist modernism in general. I argued in April that that critique did not apply to a modern eudaimonist Buddhism that naturalizes karma. Thompson replied that it does, on the ground that naturalized, probabilistic, or this-worldly karma was “incongruent” with karma’s “traditional meaning and function”. Thompson puts this latter claim in another, perhaps stronger and simpler, way in the final (August) post: what my theory calls karma, he says, is not karma at all. “I’d call this shwarma, not karma.”

Before we examine Thompson’s reasoning behind this claim, let’s note a key implication of it. I appreciate Thompson’s discussion in the August post of Ian Stevenson’s work on rebirth, which engages with Stevenson in more depth than I’ve been able to so far. There, Thompson comes to a conclusion that (so far) I share, namely that we do not have good reason to believe in rebirth. Notice that this conclusion implies that a karma doctrine which does involve rebirth is false, an incorrect description of reality. Therefore, if non-rebirth karma theories aren’t really karma (as Thompson claims and I do not), then all karma doctrines that are really karma, are false. That is: for Thompson, karma, qua karma, is a false idea. (As Thompson’s book title might suggest.)

So why does Thompson say that naturalized karma isn’t karma? In the August post, Thompson makes an analogy to the evolutionary point that after enough mutation from one species a new species is formed, distinct from the old. I agree with Thompson that analogous transformations can happen in traditions of inquiry and self-cultivation, where at some point something becomes something other than it was. While I accept the analogy, I do not think it settles the point. Thompson knows far more about evolutionary theory than I do and I’m happy to be corrected if I’m wrong about this, but it is my understanding that the question of when a new species has emerged is far from easy to settle. Even a quick Wikipedia search notes that “If species were fixed and clearly distinct from one another, there would be no problem, but evolutionary processes cause species to change continually, and to grade into one another.” In evolution it is often not a simple matter to declare that a new species has or has not been formed from the old, and I think the same is the case about a new concept forming from the old.

This scientific question is an application of a more basic metaphysical question: given that things are changing all the time, at what point can it be said that a thing has ceased to be the thing it once was and has instead become a different thing entirely? This was a question of great concern to classical Greeks like Plato. Their answers revolved around concepts like eidos (form) and ousia (essence): what is the underlying property that makes a thing what it is, despite its transformations? Such that when the thing no longer has that property, it has become a different thing? Indian Buddhist philosophers were often not comfortable with such concepts of essence, identifying them with the svabhāva that they thought an illusion. I do not generally share their discomfort, and it seems clear that Thompson does not either, for the language of essence is what he has effectively used by speaking multiple times of the core of the concept of karma. (For example, “I assert that the problem of accounting for why bad things happen to good people lies at the core of the formation of the concept of karma.”)

I note all these questions to situate what I think is the real question between us: at what point is a revised concept of karma no longer karma but something else? When has it become “shwarma, not karma“? Jains and other pre-Buddhist thinkers said karmic fruition resulted from the act itself (as the word karma, literally “action”, itself implies) – irrespective of mental states attached to the act. The Buddha of the early suttas instead identified karma with intention; Jains and others understandably balked at this psychologizing innovation. These are two very different concepts of karma, but Thompson allows that they are both still concepts of karma. When the Buddha makes his drastic and dramatic innovation, Thompson does not say that that is enough of a departure from the original to be “shwarma, not karma.” (Shwarma, incidentally, is delicious.)

Thompson distinguishes between the Buddha’s innovations and mine in this way because he believes that the core of karma is “accounting for why bad things happen to good people”, or “the problem of why there is evil and an unequal distribution of happiness and suffering in the world”. If this problem is indeed at the core of karma, then an innovation that includes it remains karma, and one that does not, does not. I wrote the detailed discussions in my previous replies with the intent to show that this problem is not the core of Buddhist karma and never was, at the pre-Buddhist formation of the doctrine or anywhere else. I believe that I established that point in those posts and that it stands well enough after Thompson’s final reply, so I won’t go back to it here.

Rather, I want to keep the focus on the bigger picture, by ending with a conditional statement that I think Thompson could accept: if explaining why bad things happen to good people is not the core of the Buddhist karma doctrine, as I have argued, then my theory of eudaimonistic karma is indeed karma – a modification of traditional Buddhist karma theory, not something entirely new and different. Readers may look at the previous posts and judge for themselves whether that is in fact the case.

Cross-posted at Love of All Wisdom.

One Reply to “When does karma stop being karma?”

  1. Hello sir,

    Your post seems to be quite certain about the terms “good” and “bad”. Is there any material you can direct me to that can help me satisfy my questions regarding the validity of the terms.


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