Forget karma and carry on

As a former Buddhist of about 20 years, I still have many Buddhist friends, and one of the most frequent things I disagree with them about (I hope, amicably) is karma. Karma is a complex and tricky subject, that is often misunderstood, so I often find that when I raise objections to it, people who have studied karma and know something about it tend to jump to the conclusion that I’m in one of those categories of misunderstanding. I think otherwise. I recognise (I think) all the common misunderstandings. I recognise a whole set of reasons why some people – Buddhists, Hindus, New Agey types, or whoever – believe that a belief in karma is a good thing, but I think they’re also missing the bigger reasons why it isn’t. Instead, the practice of the Middle Way should, I think, lead us to abandon belief in karma. This is going to be a difficult subject to encapsulate in the length of a blog, but I’m going to have a go.

First, let’s acknowledge and leave behind various misunderstandings of karma. Even in its most traditionalist Indian versions, karma does not mean ‘fate’. Instead, it literally means ‘action’, and is a contraction of ‘karma-vipaka’, the ripening of action. Karma thus means the effects of action, and those effects are only believed to be inevitable once you’ve done the actions. The original significance of karmic doctrines in both Hinduism and Buddhism was thus to help people take responsibility for their actions, avoiding fatalism. It needs to be noted that ‘action’ here includes mental as well as physical actions: even a thought is an action, though often a less significant one than a physical action. The insight to be found in karma doctrine is that our actions, including mere thoughts, do always have effects of some kind. However, karmic doctrine also asserts that these effects return to us in a proportionate way.Good_karma_for_all

Another confusion around karma lies between retrospective and prospective ways of looking at it. Retrospective karma is when you notice a condition (e.g. a disability) and attribute it to an action in the past (e.g. you must have done something bad in the past to get that disability). The belief in retrospective karma involves the assumption that there are no other kinds of conditions at work (other than karma), such as genetics, to produce something like a disability. This kind of belief in karma – though still common – is pretty crass. However, when I suggest that belief in karma is unhelpful, I’m not only talking about retrospective karma. The prospective view of karma, where you assume that your actions will always lead to a proportionate result for you (even when you don’t know for sure which of the conditions that affect you are due to past karma) raises quite enough problems without needing to get into the retrospective version.

In the most common Hindu view of karma, an atman, or eternal self, receives the karmic effects of your past deeds. However, in Buddhism, belief in karma is combined with the anatman or ‘no-self’ doctrine (which is often interpreted as denial of a continuous self, but may more subtly be seen as agnosticism about it). If there is no self, though, who deserves the effects of past deeds? The person who receives the karmic effect is different from the person who performs the action, and thus the idea that karma has any moral significance, or that the person who receives the effect ‘deserves’ it, falls apart. A Buddhist text called the Questions of King Milinda tries to explain this by analogy to a mango and a mango tree: the person who planted the mango, it is argued, deserves the fruits of the ensuing mango tree, even though the mango is different from the tree. But what if someone else owned the land, a third watered and fertilised the young mango tree, and a fourth made the effort to pick the fruit? At best, then, the person who planted the mango might claim a small share! After many years of thinking about this problem, I can’t see this juxtaposition of Buddhist doctrines as anything other than thoroughly contradictory. What’s more, the contradiction is not somehow indicative of deeper wisdom – it’s more likely just an ineffectual attempt to patch up the relationship between incompatible beliefs in which people had developed vested interests.

The most basic problem with karma is that it requires a perfect system of just desert. Even if you don’t know when it is coming or how, karma requires that your action today will create corresponding effects in the future. But given that we are (as the Buddhist ‘no-self’ doctrine suggests) always changing, there is no way that we could perfectly ‘deserve’ those effects of actions done by someone different in the past. We can experience all sorts of effects of previous actions, yes, but the extent to which we benefit or suffer from them is unclear and inexact. If you say something unkind to Mr Smith today, he may get his own back tomorrow. If you fill in your tax return dishonestly, you may be tortured by pangs of conscience, and the revenue may catch up with you in future. Very often, indeed, people underestimate these kinds of moral effects. But the belief that they must be inevitable and morally proportionate is just dogma: experience gives us no grounds to assert such a thing.

Of course, it is the problem of what happens to karma that hasn’t obviously had its effects within a given person’s life that leads to the doctrine of rebirth. If your karma hasn’t paid you back in this life, the argument goes, then it will do so in another. Here we very clearly go beyond anything that can be supported through experience, and into the realm of speculation and dogma. I’m not going to go further into the question of rebirth here, because without karma, there is no particular reason to take it seriously. Karma is the more basic issue, and rebirth is just a big ad hoc defence of karma in the face of just one of the many ways the doctrine is inconsistent with experience.

One of the insights related to karma, especially in the Buddhist tradition, concerns the ways in which our states of mind contribute to its workings. Indeed, on some accounts (such as that of the Yogachara school), karma is entirely a matter of stored mental effects, and the reason we experience karmic effects of our previous actions is that our deeper minds themselves store and channel those effects. Could the supposed perfection of karmic effects be explained by their mental nature? Well, neuroscience makes clear the likelihood that any given judgement can contribute to the entrenchment of a mental habit. For example, if we get into the habit of drinking too much alcohol, the prospect of alcohol creates a feedback loop in the brain, in which synaptic tracks get increasingly more entrenched. We both develop a mental model in which alcohol will meet our needs, and reward the fulfilment of that model through the dopamine hits we get from receiving it. Is the belief in karma really an ancient insight into the way our brains work?

Well, no, because there’s a big difference between an entrenched habit and an inevitable effect. The significance of an entrenched synaptic track in the brain is that it makes it much more difficult to act differently. We have to exert effort, and use more glucose, to do something different like drinking an orange juice. However, there’s nothing inevitable about the effects of that track. We could conceivably just carry on making that effort to drink orange juice instead of alcohol, and the appeal of alcohol may very gradually fade as new alternative tracks are made. The habit may well lead to me feeling the ‘karmic effect’ of the negative effects of alcohol-craving in one way or another in the future, but if we are to take responsibility for our actions we also need to accept that it may not. Uncertainty is a much more basic condition than habit and its effects, meaning that we have no justification for absolutising bad habits into karmic laws.

Perhaps recognising some of these problems, another tack that advocates of karma sometimes take is to weaken it. “Karma isn’t an iron law” they say, “Karma just means actions having consequences.” By this, I presume they mean that it is useful for people to recognise and face up to the consequences of their actions, and indeed that those consequences may well be more far reaching and profound than they recognise. If that’s what they mean, then I thoroughly agree. But why call it karma, and thus in the process associate it with what has traditionally been seen very clearly as an ‘iron law’?

OK, they can define the term ‘karma’ in any way that they wish, and the arguments for doing so, in the end, are pragmatic ones. But I’ve yet to hear a good pragmatic argument for calling the ordinary, observable effects of our actions ‘karma’, and I can offer some strong pragmatic arguments for not doing so. The main one of these is that belief in karma is overwhelmingly understood, in both Buddhist and Hindu traditions, as a purely conceptual metaphysical belief about perfect payback, and that recognising the effects of our actions needs to be raw and experiential, not purely conceptual. I learn about the effects of alcohol through raw, embodied experience, not through deduction from some absolute belief about the effects of all actions. Indeed, associating it with an absolute belief is just likely to be a distraction at best, and more likely an exercise in ad hoc defense of tradition. The consequences of our actions are overwhelmingly particular, not general. The uncertainties of that realm of particular experience are basic to it. So the belief in karma tackles the matter from the wrong end of the spectrum: encouraging us, not to reflect on our experience and generalise about it in ways that can be applied to other situations, but to impose absolute top-down assumptions on it.

About Robert M Ellis

Robert M Ellis is the founder and chair of the Middle Way Society, and author of a number of books on Middle Way Philosophy, including the introductory 'Migglism' and the more in-depth 'Middle Way Philosophy' series. He has a Christian background, and about 20 years' past experience of practising Buddhism, but it was his Ph.D. studies in Philosophy that set him on the track of developing a systematic account of the Middle Way beyond any specific tradition. He has earned his living mainly by teaching, and more recently by online tutoring.

4 thoughts on “Forget karma and carry on

  1. I liked this … wondered why you were ‘a former Buddhist’? Don’t have to answer, of course. What is ‘a former Buddhist’?

  2. Hi Wanderer Shido,
    I’m a ‘former Buddhist’ in the sense that I used to have a commitment to the Buddhist tradition, which I no longer have because I found it incompatible with my commitment to practising the Middle Way. My former Buddhist commitment took the form of being a member of the Triratna Order.
    Robert

    1. Ah, I read through some of your links above. I like the sound of a lot of it (will look at it in more length). Sounds much like what we (Dogen Sangha Bristol) talk about (at first glance, not looked in detail yet), and we call ourselves ‘Buddhists’ (well, sometimes we don’t). On your definition, I’ve probably been an ex-Buddhist for 35 years. Whoops.

  3. The following is a comment (including text of the blog article itself which is being commented on) by Kamalashila, who was having difficulty commenting, and then a further response from me. O= orginal article. KS = Kamalashila’s comment. RME = My response.

    KS – Basically I really thik you are critiquing a pop version of Buddhism that no one is going to have any regard for. If you do that, it’s easy to rubbish it!

    O – Forget Karma and Carry on

    As a former Buddhist of about 20 years, I still have many Buddhist friends, and one of the most frequent things I disagree with them about (I hope, amicably) is karma. Karma is a complex and tricky subject, that is often misunderstood, so I often find that when I raise objections to it, people who have studied karma and know something about it tend to jump to the conclusion that I’m in one of those categories of misunderstanding. I think otherwise. I recognise (I think) all the common misunderstandings. I recognise a whole set of reasons why some people – Buddhists, Hindus, New Agey types, or whoever – believe that a belief in karma is a good thing, but I think they’re also missing the bigger reasons why it isn’t. Instead, the practice of the Middle Way should, I think, lead us to abandon belief in karma. This is going to be a difficult subject to encapsulate in the length of a blog, but I’m going to have a go.

    First, let’s acknowledge and leave behind various misunderstandings of karma. Even in its most traditionalist Indian versions, karma does not mean ‘fate’. Instead, it literally means ‘action’, and is a contraction of ‘karma-vipaka’, the ripening of action. Karma thus means the effects of action, and those effects are only believed to be inevitable once you’ve done the actions.

    KS
    It can mean that, but strictly speaking (as you start by saying), a karma is an action and a karmavipaka is a result of action, whether of a specific action or the cumulative effect of many, or even infinitely many, actions
    ———

    O – The original significance of karmic doctrines in both Hinduism and Buddhism was thus to help people take responsibility for their actions, avoiding fatalism.

    KS
    Though it has that effect, I’m not sure it’s accurate to portray karma as originally solely instrumental in encouraging a sense of personal responsibility. This is a westernised understanding perhaps. In Buddhism karma is an aspect of reality, something to do with the nature of being – not a moral exhortative device – though it can be used, perhaps misleadingly, in that way.

    RME – By ‘significance’ here I meant social function. Of course I understand that Buddhists also attribute karma to ‘reality’: but that hardly adds to its justification!
    ——-

    O – It needs to be noted that ‘action’ here includes mental as well as physical actions: even a thought is an action, though often a less significant one than a physical action. The insight to be found in karma doctrine is that our actions, including mere thoughts, do always have effects of some kind. However, karmic doctrine also asserts that these effects return to us in a proportionate way.

    Another confusion around karma lies between retrospective and prospective ways of looking at it. Retrospective karma is when you notice a condition (e.g. a disability) and attribute it to an action in the past (e.g. you must have done something bad in the past to get that disability). The belief in retrospective karma involves the assumption that there are no other kinds of conditions at work (other than karma), such as genetics, to produce something like a disability. This kind of belief in karma – though still common – is pretty crass.

    KS
    Indeed, this crassness is why Buddhism takes into account other forms of conditionality not based upon moral action, such as physical, chemical, mental etc. It is indeed crass automatically to attribute a specific physical condition like a disability to some previous action. Some Buddhist schools, (eg some Tibetan Buddhists perhaps, but probably that’s unfair to Tibetan Buddhism as a whole) – I’d say more likely individuals with wayward understandings, do attribute such things wrongly in that way.

    RME – In my understanding ‘individuals with wayward understandings’ would include most of the Buddhist tradition here. But no matter, the main point is that we agree it is crass.
    ——-

    O – However, when I suggest that belief in karma is unhelpful, I’m not only talking about retrospective karma. The prospective view of karma, where you assume that your actions will always lead to a proportionate result for you (even when you don’t know for sure which of the conditions that affect you are due to past karma) raises quite enough problems without needing to get into the retrospective version.

    KS
    The principle of appropriateness of resultant experience is held in the Pali traditino to be an influence on subsequent rebirth (along with a number of other parameters) but that principle is just one strand of influence in the mix. It is never assumed either that one or another strand of influence will predominate. The result of probabilities can only be be guessed at. Not is it stated, as you assume for some reason perhaps, that there will be some particular result. The Buddhist idea of pratityasamutpada, ‘conditionality’, indicates only probable or possible outcomes to particular sets of circumstances, not inevitable outcomes.

    Put it thus: ’In dependence on x, there is a possibility that y could arise if certain other conditions are also in place’.

    And this is observable: if you place an acorn in the ground there is a possibility that an oak tree will grow from it, but it is not inevitable that it will because there are other conditions at play. If you speak harshly to someone, they may react badly, or not, depending on many other conditions. Indeed to assume a very particular result would place us in the ‘crass’ category referred to previously. ‘Oh they will be angry with me because I said that’… an assumption. A caricature example in line with the way you are attempting to characterise Buddhism might be, ‘if you strike your mother on the head you will be reborn as a female monkey who is killed by a blow on the head by her own son’. I’m sure you’ll find some advocates of this kind of reasoning because there is no way of knowing for certain, becuase conditioning is too complex, and because there are plenty of religious nutcases out there ready to usurp perfectly useful teachings.

    I do think it is OK in the modern era to question the place of the principle of appropriateness of resultant experience on rebirth. Yet I feel it is not unreasonable to consider, if for a monent we allow the possibility of continuity between the mind that ceases at the demise of one body and the mind that arises with the birth of another, that there could be some kind of imprint that tends that subsequent existence towards experiences and responses of certain kinds.

    But even if we cannot allow that possibility, we can also see this principle at work within an individual life stream. A ‘person’ (to suggest a degreee of permanence that is not really there – see later) – someone who is bullying and cruel, say – may in old age become paranoid and aggressively fearful, despite the fact that they had hardened themselves to others’ responses to an extreme degree, because as the memory of all the people he has harmed has accumulated and started to affect him and come out in uncontrolled ways. In such a case there is some kind of connection that has come about through what we may call the moral force of former actions. But it might not come out in that way and we cannot predict.

    I think in every case of doubt in a dharma princiople that is based on an inability to accept rebirth, it is more convincing to seek that same principle in the continuity of a person’s life here and now. Our mind and body are changed by the moral force of particular deeds repeated over the course of a lifetime – yes or no? If it’s yes, then that is particular karma leading to particular karma results. If we drink to excess as a habit, we become like xyz. If we spend our lives caring for others, we become xyz. There is no way of predicting the detail of each kind of xyz, but it is clear that certain principles come into the changes, and these are the principles of karma and rebirth. ‘Rebirth’ in this case does not need to refer to literal birth, but can work metaphorically to mean some kind of transformation in this life: a spiritual rebirth. Buddhism does sometimes speak of rebirth as taking place continually. Many Buddhists will say that the rebirth can also be after bodily death – but what it finds important is the transformation, not the literal rebirth. We tend to focus on the literal rebirth because for western culture it is an exotic idea (outrageous!) whereas for traditional Buddhism and many asian cultures rebirth is not a surprising idea at all. It is at least as arguable as the idea of the mind ceasing at death. IN that argument one has to addres the question of where minds come from as well as where they go to.

    RME – You completely misunderstand me here, Kamalashila, and this seems to be another, relatively subtle, example of the kind of response I complained about at the beginning of the blog, where Buddhists jump to the conclusion that I’m subject to one of a number of familiar types of misunderstanding of karma. You accuse me of a kind of misunderstanding that I am not guilty of, but I failed to mention so as to explicitly head it off like some of the others. I said nothing at all about a principle of appropriateness, and at no point was I assuming that standard Buddhist karmic results (even in the prospective view) had to in any way resemble the form taken by the actions that produced them. I talked about a ‘proportionate result’, not an appropriate result. That means a result that is of the same degree of moral importance, not one that in any way necessarily resembles the previous action qualitatively.

    In some ways you also seem to be weakening the expectation of the proportionate result as well here, as in the ‘there is a possibility that…’. But on that point see the final two paragraphs of the blog.
    ——-

    O – In the most common Hindu view of karma, an atman, or eternal self, receives the karmic effects of your past deeds. However, in Buddhism, belief in karma is combined with the anatman or ‘no-self’ doctrine (which is often interpreted as denial of a continuous self, but may more subtly be seen as agnosticism about it). If there is no self, though, who deserves the effects of past deeds? The person who receives the karmic effect is different from the person who performs the action, and thus the idea that karma has any moral significance, or that the person who receives the effect ‘deserves’ it, falls apart.

    KS
    This is to misunderstand the teaching of nonself – it is not easy to grasp this and it is normally misunderstood. The fact that actually there is no unchanging ‘person’ who ‘receives’ the effect of action only shows how the way ‘morality’ (a western word with very partiulcar connotations) works in Buddhism is different from the way it works in western cultures. Morality in Buddhism is not defined in terms of a permanent receiving self, which the above definition is bounded by. So it is not about deserving or not deserving, it is simply the passing on through influence and familiarity of certain response mechanisms that are relatively skilful or unskilful for the individual (whose nature is unfixed).

    RME – You seem to be agreeing with me then that, by implication, karma has no moral significance in the way the tradition commonly gives it. I have no problem with recognising a *tendency* to pass on response mechanisms, if that’s how you choose to interpret karma. However, I’d refer you again to the last two paragraphs of the blog on weakened versions.
    ——-

    O – A Buddhist text called the Questions of King Milinda tries to explain this by analogy to a mango and a mango tree: the person who planted the mango, it is argued, deserves the fruits of the ensuing mango tree, even though the mango is different from the tree. But what if someone else owned the land, a third watered and fertilised the young mango tree, and a fourth made the effort to pick the fruit? At best, then, the person who planted the mango might claim a small share! After many years of thinking about this problem, I can’t see this juxtaposition of Buddhist doctrines as anything other than thoroughly contradictory. What’s more, the contradiction is not somehow indicative of deeper wisdom – it’s more likely just an ineffectual attempt to patch up the relationship between incompatible beliefs in which people had developed vested interests.

    KS
    The problem this is getting caught in comes about because of the (probably western) expectation that moral responsibilty must reside with an individual, when really it does not, certainly Buddhism sees does not. It does conventionally of course, indeed conventionally it should – if I murder someone then I should be punished for it because society needs laws to give it coherence. But technically, actually, the person who is punished will be someone different. That is why the Buddha was happy to ordain a serial killer who he was convinced had seen the error in his ways. He didn’t think he deserved punishment, though the local people certainly did – and they dished lots of it out as well. But technically, it’s more complicated than that.

    RME – Again, then, we seem to agree. It is only the question of what ‘Buddhism’ is that is the issue. If different strands of Buddhist tradition are as thoroughly contradictory as this, I think it should be more thoroughly acknowledged by Buddhist teachers than it generally is. I also think they should take a lot more responsibility for the fact that they are adopting a particular interpretation of ‘Buddhism’, rather than implying that their version is in some sense the essential true one.
    ——-

    The most basic problem with karma is that it requires a perfect system of just desert.

    KS
    This problem (it is nonsense to say that Karma in Buddhism requires a perfect system of just desert) inevitably arises on the premise above.

    RME – The moral significance of karma as often extolled in Buddhist requires a perfect system of just desert – in the sense of proportional effects as discussed above. If you want to disavow that, then you should also by implication give up any mention of karma in relation to ethics, and the issues below about the use of the term ‘karma’ are still to be addressed.
    ——-

    O – Even if you don’t know when it is coming or how, karma requires that your action today will create corresponding effects in the future. But given that we are (as the Buddhist ‘no-self’ doctrine suggests) always changing, there is no way that we could perfectly ‘deserve’ those effects of actions done by someone different in the past. We can experience all sorts of effects of previous actions, yes, but the extent to which we benefit or suffer from them is unclear and inexact. If you say something unkind to Mr Smith today, he may get his own back tomorrow. If you fill in your tax return dishonestly, you may be tortured by pangs of conscience, and the revenue may catch up with you in future. Very often, indeed, people underestimate these kinds of moral effects. But the belief that they must be inevitable and morally proportionate is just dogma: experience gives us no grounds to assert such a thing.

    KS
    I’d agree that that belief would be a nonsensical dogma – if it were one. But this is not the Buddhist idea of karma.

    RME – It’s certainly a common Buddhist idea of karma. Again, I think you need to take responsibility for your own interpretation rather than essentialising a varied tradition.
    ——-

    O – Of course, it is the problem of what happens to karma that hasn’t obviously had its effects within a given person’s life that leads to the doctrine of rebirth. If your karma hasn’t paid you back in this life, the argument goes, then it will do so in another. Here we very clearly go beyond anything that can be supported through experience, and into the realm of speculation and dogma. I’m not going to go further into the question of rebirth here, because without karma, there is no particular reason to take it seriously. Karma is the more basic issue, and rebirth is just a big ad hoc defence of karma in the face of just one of the many ways the doctrine is inconsistent with experience.
    One of the insights related to karma, especially in the Buddhist tradition, concerns the ways in which our states of mind contribute to its workings. Indeed, on some accounts (such as that of the Yogachara school), karma is entirely a matter of stored mental effects, and the reason we experience karmic effects of our previous actions is that our deeper minds themselves store and channel those effects. Could the supposed perfection of karmic effects

    KS
    This ‘supposed perfection of karmic effects’ seems to be a (perhaps wished for) fantasy that apparentl;y has been prematurely seized upon. The teaching of the Pali Cnaon is that the karma result of unskilful action is appropriate in resulting in states of suffering, which includes various kinds of unnatractivenesses, whereas the karma result of skilful acts result appropriately in states of happiness which tends to condition health, distinction, wealth and attractiveness. The details are not specified, certainly not to the ‘point of perfection’ being asserted here, and this explanation of conditionality leading to appropriate results doesn’t seem in the least unlikely.

    RME – Again, this is based on the proportionality/ appropriateness confusion together with the weakening of karma discussed below.
    ——-

    be explained by their mental nature? Well, neuroscience makes clear the likelihood that any given judgement can contribute to the entrenchment of a mental habit. For example, if we get into the habit of drinking too much alcohol, the prospect of alcohol creates a feedback loop in the brain, in which synaptic tracks get increasingly more entrenched. We both develop a mental model in which alcohol will meet our needs, and reward the fulfilment of that model through the dopamine hits we get from receiving it. Is the belief in karma really an ancient insight into the way our brains work?
    Well, no, because there’s a big difference between an entrenched habit and an inevitable effect. The significance of an entrenched synaptic track in the brain is that it makes it much more difficult to act differently. We have to exert effort, and use more glucose, to do something different like drinking an orange juice. However, there’s nothing inevitable about the effects of that track. We could conceivably just carry on making that effort to drink orange juice instead of alcohol, and the appeal of alcohol may very gradually fade as new alternative tracks are made. The habit may well lead to me feeling the ‘karmic effect’ of the negative effects of alcohol-craving in one way or another in the future, but if we are to take responsibility for our actions we also need to accept that it may not. Uncertainty is a much more basic condition than habit and its effects, meaning that we have no justification for absolutising bad habits into karmic laws.
    Perhaps recognising some of these problems, another tack that advocates of karma sometimes take is to weaken it. “Karma isn’t an iron law” they say, “Karma just means actions having consequences.” By this, I presume they mean that it is useful for people to recognise and face up to the consequences of their actions, and indeed that those consequences may well be more far reaching and profound than they recognise. If that’s what they mean, then I thoroughly agree. But why call it karma, and thus in the process associate it with what has traditionally been seen very clearly as an ‘iron law’?
    OK, they can define the term ‘karma’ in any way that they wish, and the arguments for doing so, in the end, are pragmatic ones. But I’ve yet to hear a good pragmatic argument for calling the ordinary, observable effects of our actions ‘karma’, and I can offer some strong pragmatic arguments for not doing so. The main one of these is that belief in karma is overwhelmingly understood, in both Buddhist and Hindu traditions, as a purely conceptual metaphysical belief about perfect payback, and that recognising the effects of our actions needs to be raw and experiential, not purely conceptual. I learn about the effects of alcohol through raw, embodied experience, not through deduction from some absolute belief about the effects of all actions. Indeed, associating it with an absolute belief is just likely to be a distraction at best, and more likely an exercise in ad hoc defense of tradition. The consequences of our actions are overwhelmingly particular, not general. The uncertainties of that realm of particular experience are basic to it. So the belief in karma tackles the matter from the wrong end of the spectrum: encouraging us, not to reflect on our experience and generalise about it in ways that can be applied to other situations, but to impose absolute top-down assumptions on it.

    RME – I’d be more interested in your response to this last point, Kamalashila, though you have not offered one. OK, let’s accept that your interpretation of Buddhism involves a weakened version of karma. Why call it ‘karma’ then, especially in a Western context where there are not even cultural connections to the idea (and indeed, it is subject to the misunderstandings you complain about)? If you simply talked about the mental consequences of actions, perhaps with an optional mention of brain plasticity, everyone would understand you in a non-absolute sense to start with, there would be no need for such arguments, and they would not become associated with ad hoc defences of tradition, rebirth etc.

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