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Karmic unbelief

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  • Karmic unbelief

    Dear Monastic Community, dear Lay Community,

    in the past months and years I had some very interesting philosophical discussions with friends.
    Prior to these I had been a devoted Buddhist for many years. However, these discussions plus my own thoughts that succeeded them by now have lead me to get out of my previously well-maintained, as I would call it, 'Buddhist bubble'. The following post of mine addresses the Law of Karma, although there are also other points regarding Buddhism which I by now consider to be questionable. For the sake of simplicity however, I leave it at that and stick to this one topic.

    Maybe my post may at some point sound somewhat caustic. I would like to say that it is not at all my intention to attack or to hurt anyone with it. I ask these questions solely out of, if you like, a 'spiritual quest for truth'. In the end, my post has grown quite long. However, I regard all points in it as necessary in order to fully express my doubts, which is why I didn't want to shorten it. So here we go:

    If the Law of Karma is to be understood as some kind of natural law then we have to act on the assumption that it works in accordance with objective rules or measures. There is to my knowledge no point in stating that the law of karma was somehow subjective. Because if the law of karma was to go by, say, subjective evaluations of individuals with regards to deeds, it would be impossible to identify any clear-cut, distinct rules of this law. And with that we would get into hot water, as this would open the doors for ambiguity and arbitrariness. But these are not normally characteristic for natural laws. To make this point more clear: it would mean that the subjective evaluation of a person could distort the consequences that are provided by this law. So, if someone subjectively was of the opinion that, say, killing human beings is not all that bad, his evaluation of this deed would thus change his karmic result for killing someone - in this case by lessening the bad results presumably associated with it.

    However, for all I know, the Buddha claimed to have identified such rules. Thus we are dealing with a law that, so they say, provides beings with consequences for their actions, be they good or bad - in accordance with objective rules. If we now assume that this was truly the case then this assumption would have a whole range of quite piquant philosophical implications.
    To begin with, this would mean that the Law of Karma was able to calculate how to repay any kind of deed. And this
    • for every single deed, however small and incidental it may be, as well as
    • for any imaginable defaulted deeds,
    • for every single one of the countless living beings in the universe,
    • twenty-four-seven.
    What is more is that reality is unfathomably complex. And it is the job of the Law of Karma to 'repay' deeds. So for it to come to an appropriate conclusive evaluation as to how to repay a deed, many prerequisites would be necessary. It not only would need to know the numberless frame conditions of every single deed or defaulted deed of every single being. It would also need to know how to appropriately and justly take them into account. To name only some of these frame conditions (the following list addresses primarily the human realm):
    • the social background and circumstances of a person
    • the past, upbringing and even past lives of a being
    • the social, political and legal frame conditions in the context of the deed
    • economically, socially and politically incentivising factors
      (let‘s say for individual consumption decisions or decisions for a professional career, et cetera)
    • and many, many more
    Finally, the Law of Karma would need to maintain an infinitely big 'data bank' for all deeds (as well as defaulted deeds) of all beings in the universe all around the clock, in order to make sure that the doers at some point in their countless lives in Samsara are bestowed on their appropriate karmic results.

    And, on top of that, all of that would mean that there even was an objective agency that was actually able to judge certain deeds in the first place. Because, in order to carry out a fair and just calculation, this agency of any kind whatsoever would actually need to have clear-cut valuation standards for all imaginable deeds - not to mention complicated borderline cases, as for example, say, assisted dying. The Law of Karma would then need to reckon up these valuation standards with the above mentioned additional frame conditions, in order to finally to come to a conclusion for an appropriate karmic result for one deed out of countless. Sounds tough, doesn't it? We also have to assume that the Law of Karma was able to correctly and objectively evaluate all of these factors, because otherwise it wasn‘t a natural law. Or not a righteous one (in which case should hope that it isn't true). Or neither natural nor righteous. Or even a fairy tale?

    A natural law takes effect always and everywhere. And, as mentioned: for every single being, everywhere, at all times. So how for all in the world is this supposed to work?

    Let‘s now look at some tricky cases that make me wonder.
    Let‘s say, someone is at the polls and chooses to vote for a political party. Does the Law of Karma now take into account why this person has voted for that party? Does it know anything about the party programme? And does it also know how serious the party is about it? And does it take into account the efforts that this person exposed itself to in order to come to an informed vote decision? And, as already mentioned, how can it apply clear-cut standards by which it can rank a vote decision for one party that, say, takes a more serious stand for climate protection and social justice, as ethically of higher value as that for a different party?

    Let‘s look at another more abstract example. Someone convinces his family to switch from using Whatsapp as a messenger to use Signal, out of concerns for privacy and also because the person doesn‘t want to support the business models of the data industry. This is a deed that, as all deeds, is somehow karmically potent, isn't it? Now, Law of Karma, what do you say about that? Is that a good deed? And if yes, why? And how, Law of Karma, do you know whether it is good? Do you have any idea of IT? Or did you ever before in your beginning-less history have to deal with such a case?

    Now one could dodge behind explanations as, say: it is the intention that matters. And if the intention is good, then the karmic result must be good as well. But this only relocates the problem. Because then the Law of Karma would then need to know, when and why an intention was to be ranked as accordingly good. And this, in my opinion, for almost all cases is not possible at all, exactly because context, reasons and motives (as stated above) of our reality are far too complex.

    But even if intention was the right criterium by which this law operates, then the Law of Karma would be ultimately flawed. That is because, I think, intention alone is not good enough to evaluate a deed. Because even if the intention behind a deed is good (by whatever criteria this is evaluated), the implementation of a deed could still be ethically flawed. Here is an example. There is a monastery close to where I live in Germany. Some of the people who live in or attend this monastery like to, say, travel to Thailand every now and again, in order to visit and practice in monasteries there, to meet with Ajahns, and so forth. So one could say that they have good, high-minded intentions. As good as their intention may be, the way they are implemented, however, is usually by taking a long-distance air travel. Make no mistake about it: that is an absolute ecological catastrophe. Long-distance air travels are absolutely disastrous, as we all should know by now these days. Now, does the Law of Karma know about the environmental problems on our planet? And if yes, how? And does it take them into account accordingly?

    My next point is the lack of any empirical evidence whatsoever. We as mankind have developed telescopes with which we can perceive the light from sources that are many many light years away from us. We have also developed instruments with which we can do measurements on a quantum level. But of something as colossal as the effect mechanisms of the Law of Karma we cannot detect anything measurable at all, not even rudimentarilly?

    All of this makes me doubt. I am curious what you have to say about that. At this point I would like to ask to not be palmed off with statements as, say, "only a fully awakened Buddha is truly able to fully understand the workings of the Law of Karma". Because, quite frankly, in my opinion that would only be an alibi for a lacking interest in real understanding.

    All of this being said, at this point in my life I am no longer willing to content myself with blurry and vague conceptions when trying to understand a supposed "Law of Karma". I have to say that, the way things stand at the moment, I am an apostate. Theoretically I am open to be convinced otherwise in order to restore my faith in Buddhism. However, for that to happen some very good explanations would be necessary.

    Looking forward to your replies.

    Kind regards

  • #2
    Hello Michael,

    Thank you for your articulate post. You raise some good, well thought out questions about karma.

    You mention that you are “open to be convinced otherwise in order to restore my faith in Buddhism. However, for that to happen some very good explanations would be necessary.”

    To be honest, is it really necessary for a good explanation to “restore your faith in Buddhism”? For some of us, actually Buddhism is not really a “faith” to follow blindly. I’ve heard great Buddhist scholars like Bhikkhu Bodhi mention that Buddhism is not a doctrinal religion where it is obligatory to believe in certain immutable doctrines and beliefs. If one finds a certain belief such as karma or rebirth dubious, then you can set that aside for now. If you’re looking to become a calmer, more peaceful, happier, and compassionate person (which many would say is really what’s important), then the Buddhist path can still serve you well with or without a belief in karma, rebirth, and other such beliefs.

    So perhaps it’s not necessary to get too attached to such matters. Our practice of the Buddhist path need not hinge on a staunch acceptance or rejection of such beliefs. For example, there are plenty of Buddhists who set aside such doctrinal, speculative beliefs and still benefit from Dhamma practice. One such Dhamma practitioner runs a Youtube channel and I’ve had the great chance to stumble upon his insightful videos. His name is Doug Smith. He has a Ph.D. in Philosophy and publications in Buddhist Studies journals. He also runs an online Dharma institute for the study of early Buddhism. Doug is as rational, skeptical, and scientific minded a person you’ll ever meet, yet he finds the Buddha’s teachings to be among the wisest there are.

    Here’s Doug’s take on how we can understand karma while setting aside the more speculative, doctrinal aspects of it:
    In this video Doug discusses some problems with the Buddhist notion of karma and how we can understand it in a contemporary context.

    He has many other videos which discuss various aspects of early Buddhism, including how we can make peace with some of the more speculative aspects of Buddhism such as karma and rebirth, yet still have a fruitful practice in order to live a wiser, kinder, happier, and less stressed life. I think all of us would like that Here’s Doug’s video on what such a practice would look like:

    So again, our practice of Buddhism need not hinge upon such speculative matters like karma and we can still have a perfectly rewarding practice without such beliefs if we find them hard to believe. So there’s no need to throw out the baby with the bathwater so to speak!

    Best wishes my friend.


    • #3
      Thank you Haca Ce for your answer. I have been taking time to reply as I really didn't know how to help. Michael, giving up on the Dhamma, not keeping the precepts, just because one can't comprehend the workings of kamma, is a terrible path to go down, quite honestly.

      A personal story - someone very dear to me recently went to prison, bringing great suffering to themselves and their family. There was only one reason for their downfall - not keeping the five precepts.

      It was very sad to see that happen. May this never happen to you.

      Its not worth messing around with the Dhamma. It operates whether you believe in it or not.

      I don't have much more to say.

      Ven Upekkha


      • #4
        Dear Haca,

        thank you very much for your kind reply.

        Thanks for referring my to Doug Smouth, I actually do already know some content of him, and I like him. I consider him a smooth and intelligent guy. His content actually further supported my process of becoming a so called "Secular Buddhist".
        However, I go along with what Ajahm Brahmali once mentioned in a talk on Secular Buddhism. He said that if you take a teaching as central as, say, Rebirth out of Buddhism, it is no longer really Buddhism anymore. In my case, Buddhism without a Law of Karma more or less collapses like a house of cards.
        What is left are ruins consisting of
        • considerably progressive and high standards of ethics (especially for the time in which it was founded)
        • some profound meditation teachings
        • some good self-help teachings
        • some interesting legends, stories, arts and cultural relicts
        • a doctrine that essentially renounces sensuality in order to avoid suffering because of attachment to sensuality
        All of this is not bad at all, even that alone can help people in their lives and still does help me in my own life.
        If I'd think longer I probably could list a few more points, but for now I leave it at that, as my main point is that Buddhism without something as central as the Law of Karma is not really "Buddhism" anymore.

        As for your reply, Ven. Uppekkha,

        To being with, it is - as mentioned - not only not comprehending the workings of kamma (as I said, I could go into other topics as well, but I left it at that, because it felt most prominent at the time of writing). The answer you gave didn't contribute anything whatsover on a content level other than lamenting that someone is losing his faith. Fair enough. Can you tell me what is so bad about that, taking into account my question?

        Secondly, I don't understand why you mention "not keeping five precepts". It's actually true that I am, say, no longer strict about the fifth precept, but it has nothing to do whatsoever with this topic, which is why I see no reason why you needed to bring that up. Apropos Five Precepts. I do still keep a considerable amount of ethical standards in my life. But I know many Buddhists who keep the Five Precepts probably perfectly, yet they don't mind, say, taking long-distance airplane travels every year.

        Its not worth messing around with the Dhamma. It operates whether you believe in it or not.
        That is such a blunt statement. I'm highly skeptical about that, for good reasons, as stated in all detail in my post, which you didn't address. I not sure where you get your firm conviction from, but let me take a quess - ...blind faith? If you really were sure about that, I guess my questions should be a no-brainer to you.

        I don't have much more to say.
        Fine with me. You didn't address my question anyway.

        Kind regards
        Last edited by Michael Steinfeld; 30th-November-2019, 07:13 AM.


        • #5
          Hello Michael,

          Thanks for your message. I've listened to Ajahn Brahmali's talk on Secular Buddhism and have heard him speak about the topic on other occasions as well. I have great respect for Ajahn Brahmali and benefit a lot from his Sutta study classes, although he has said on different occasions that secular Buddhists are not really Buddhists, but more like 'inspired by Buddhism'. He mentions something to that effect when he debated secular Buddhist scholar Stephen Batchelor in Melbourne some years ago:

          Nonetheless, I have respect for both admirable scholars.

          In addition to exploring more of Doug Smith's videos, have you had the chance to read some of Stephen Batchelor's stellar works? I loved reading his autobiographical account "Confession of a Buddhist Atheist" and also "Buddhism Without Beliefs". They are great reads and here are the links to both books you can read online or download in case you're interested:

          Confession of a Buddhist Atheist

          Buddhism Without Beliefs

          Be well my friend.


          • #6
            Dear Haca,

            thank you once more. I wasn't aware that there is so much literature around already regarding Secular Buddhism. I might have a closer look at some of Stephen Batchelor's works once I find the time.

            Kind regards
            Last edited by Michael Steinfeld; 2nd-December-2019, 06:34 PM.


            • #7
              Dear Michael,
              Sorry I couldn't help. Glad you got some answers from Haca Ce in the meanwhile. Thanks Haca Ce.
              Kind regards,
              Ven Upekkha


              • #8
                Dear Ven. Upekka,

                that's fair enough. I mean, maybe it's a bit audacious asking such questions. If I was a monastic, I would be reluctant to answer them as well. It would be like taking a saw to the branch one is sitting on.

                On the other hand, perhaps I wouldn't just discard them offhanded. Might be interesting to investigate into what such questions do to one's beliefs if considered carefully.

                In my case, they simply lead to letting go of the belief.

                Kind regards



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