A Funny Thing: Karma as Ontology and Ethics

Karma: it’s a funny thing.

I have been meaning to respond to my partner’s post on Karma for quite some time- aside from raising questions about whether the earthquake was a result of China’s karma or not, and whether it is proper to say that a disaster is caused by karma or not, I feel it begs the larger question about if this type of discussion is even productive.

The Pali Canon offers some interesting words on karma. It is said that pondering about karma and its results will “bring about madness and vexation to anyone who conjectures about them” [AN 4.77]. However, karma is also one of the five recollections, though the language of the recollection is targeted towards an understanding of the relationship to one’s karma rahter than its specific effects:

“There are these five facts that one should reflect on often, whether one is a woman or a man, lay or ordained. Which five?

…[5] “I am the owner of my actions, heir to my actions, born of my actions, related through my actions, and have my actions as my arbitrator. Whatever I do, for good or for evil, to that will I fall heir” [AN 5.57]

The strength of the Pali Canon isn’t necessarily in its specific admonitions, but in the systematic process of investigation that it inspires, and I think that what these suttas are getting at is that karma, like so many aspects of the Dharma, is both an ontology and an ethics.

The tradition of viewing aspects of the Dharma as only useful when viewed in terms of the goal of liberation is not new – it is a well tread path. However, this purely ethical view of doctrine I feel is often used to de-emphasize or apologize for the ontological aspects of Buddhism.

Without leveling specific criticism, I feel like this is common with thinkers influenced by books like Buddhism without Beliefs where things like karma and rebirth may be viewed as purely ethical in order to resolve the perceived rationalist problems with a karma ontology.

It has been my feeling though that, to be complete, the Dharma must be both an ontology and an ethics. While it is true that things like personal misfortune are part of the ontology of karma, the ethics of karma discourages this analysis even in ourselves, to say nothing of the victims of disasters. It appears to me that the ethics of karma spurns us towards skillful action, not the dissection of causes and results of a life lived.

I found it quite curious that, at one time, an acquaintance told me about a temple where I could go and the monastics would tell me of my past lives. I’m not exactly sure what the value of that would be, since, in the best conditions where I assume it is not a scam, knowing the seeds of past karma is just going to prepare me for things which are already going to happen anyway, and the knowledge or lack of knowledge of the past should have no effect on my aspirations for a better future.

In my own practice, I try to see karma as an attitude to be grateful for my blessings, and to understand that living up to them requires proper conduct.

And that’s just about all I think about it.

3 Replies to “A Funny Thing: Karma as Ontology and Ethics”

  1. Great post, John.

    I believe the attitude taken by Ms. Sharon Stone about karma is completely deceiving of the intention of the teaching of karma. It feels like a cop-out, a defensive shield to explain away suffering rather than go more deeply into it.

    The Buddha himself completely changed what karma meant in his time. More than just an explanation of how the world operates, with a result that was properly entailed by a previous action, the Buddha turned karma into a process and completely ethicized it.

    Intention became karma, and is performed through body, word, and thought. Anything beyond that misses the point. Rather than a view of accumulated karma, it becomes a constant reflection of, and action on thoughts and deeds.

    I’ll lay my cards out and say that I particularly enjoy Mr. Batchelor’s works such as Buddhism without Beliefs, and feel the emphasis on ethics and action are more important. Could you talk a little more about the importance of ontology?

  2. Thanks for this post! A much better response than I could have given!

    I think by “ontology”, John meant karma as the cause or origin of who we are, and why the world is the way it is. So when we think of the ontological aspects of karma, we are thinking about what we must have done before that makes us who we are now. (Please correct me if I’m wrong!)

    I think this ontological perspective is very important. At least from the perspective of a meditator, it helps to understand that many of the unpleasant sensations that arise in our body are a direct result of our karma. When I speak harshly, and later in meditation feel regret, I realize that this regret is the fruit of my harsh words. When I allow myself to worry and dwell in the past and future, then certain muscles tense up as a result. Or when I have numbness in my legs, it’s because I decided to sit for an hour on a hard floor. At least for me, it helps to realize this link, and to understand how karma explains even some of the simplest discomforts in our lives. Just understanding this relationship — this ontology — makes it easier for me to let go of these discomforts, and to not engage them.

    And so by abiding by the five precepts, I am able to ensure that these sometimes physically-manifested emotional discomforts don’t return… at least some of them 🙂

  3. I might just be stubborn, but I still don’t see a need for the explanation that karma provides. Rather than a why things are as they are, I’ve always found it more helpful to see it as a how we can do something about it. Certainly karma itself cannot be the only explanation of our conditions. The Buddha himself admitted to that. When karma is used as a why, it feels like such a large and impersonal force, when in fact it’s the force each of give to ourselves and others, for better or for worse.

    What am I overlooking?

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