12 June 2015

Alternate Karma Theory?

Revised 15 June 2015.

Many modern Buddhists find themselves struggling with the doctrines of Buddhism that rely on metaphysical speculation even though Buddhists regularly warn each other against speculating about metaphysics. The doctrine of rebirth is the one that usually heads the list. Literal rebirth seems very implausible in the light of other fields of knowledge. The doctrine of karma is allied to rebirth in the sense that if one is reborn it is because of karma. One of the main applications of pratītyasamutpāda has been to try to explain karma and historically this effort led to changes in the ways that Buddhists understood pratītyasamutpāda.

In my examination of the history of the idea of karma, in many blog essays and one published article (2014), I have noted that Buddhists themselves were often in dispute over the details of how karma could work. The idea of pratītyasamutpāda underwent significant change to try to accommodate karma. My 2014 article explained how the doctrine of karma itself undergoes a fundamental shift in the Mahāyāna that effectively decouples actions from consequences. The issue of whether there is or is not an interval between death and rebirth depends on how one interprets the karma doctrine to begin with. Despite an almost universal attempt by authors who write about Buddhism to present smoothed over accounts of these doctrines, what we find in the texts is a long history of dispute and alteration in search of coherence.

By now we know that no two Buddhist sects applied pratītyasamutpāda to the karma doctrine in the quite the same way. This knowledge may take some pressure off modern Buddhists who struggle to integrate Iron Age and medieval Buddhist ideas into their worldview. Even most Iron Age and medieval Buddhists could not quite believe it!

Although the archaeology of the karma is not complete, many of the main features have been exposed. Some details remain to be picked out. In this essay I will present a translation of a partial sutta from the Aṅguttara Nikāya. It lacks a nidāna, a framing story, and a proper ending. It's the middle of a text without a beginning or end. None-the-less it is interesting because the view of karma it presents is not in tune with the orthodox Theravāda doctrine, or with the other presentations of karma in the Nikāyas.

There is a counterpart sutra in the Chinese translation of the Madhyāgama (Taishō 26, no. 15; translated in Bingenheimer 2013). It is a more complete text, with a proper sutra opening and all that. I'll begin with my translation from the Pāḷi and then make a few comments. Where the Pali is tricky or unusual, I'll compare with the Chinese to see if it sheds any light.

Karajakāyasuttaṃ (AN 10.219; v.299-301)

“I do not say that intentional actions done (kata) and accumulated (upacita) are eliminated without having first experienced [the fruits], either arising in this life, or in the next, or some other. Nor however do I say that one makes an end to suffering without having first experienced the fruits of intentional actions done and accumulated.”  
[The Chinese text inserts a discourse on the dasakusalakammapatha here and it is precisely the one who cultivates this path who is able to radiate mettā etc] 
“Monks, this noble disciple, being without craving or aversion, unconfused, attentive, fully mindful (paṭisata), dwells suffusing one direction with feelings of loving kindness, with feelings of compassion, with feelings of sympathetic joy, and with feelings of equanimity. Similarly with the second, third, and fourth directions. Thus, they dwell suffusing above, below, across, and in all directions, everywhere, the entire world with feelings of love, compassion, joy, and equanimity that are extensive, lofty, immeasurable, without hatred or illwill.” 
“[The noble disciple] knows ‘formerly my mind (citta) was limited and undeveloped, but now my mind is unlimited and well developed. No measurable kamma dwells or lingers there now.’” 
“What do you think, monks, if a youth were to cultivate the liberation of the mind which is love from an early age, would they do an evil action?” 
“Indeed not, Sir.” 
“Not doing an evil action would they be touched by suffering?” 
“Indeed not, Sir. Not doing an evil action, how could they be  touched by suffering?” 
“In that case a man or woman should cultivate liberation of the mind through love. Monks, a man or a woman cannot take this body when they go. This internal mind is mortal, monks.”  
“They understand, ‘All that evil done through this action-born body in some past time is to be experienced here. It will not follow.” 
“Developed in this way, monks, liberation of the mind through love for a knowledgeable monk results in being a non-returner (anāgāmin) here, if they do not attain a higher liberation.”

I've noted the lack of framing story. We do not even get a city where it was preached. By contrast in the Madhyāgama version (MĀ 15) the passage is joined with a discourse on the dasakusalakammapatha or ten courses of right action. This might explain why the Karajakāya Sutta is in the chapter of tens (dasa aṅguttara). The previous two suttas (10.217-218) discuss how the practice of the right/wrong actions interact with the theory of kamma to produce different kinds of rebirth.

But if this is true, then we must also conclude it was classified with the tens before losing the parts concerned with the dasakusalakammapatha. In turn this is evidence that the Pāli Canon is not a complete and faithful record of Buddhist teachings as it is sometimes portrayed. Bits of the Aṅguttara Nikāya are missing!

I've compressed the sutta by combining the four brahmavihāras together. The CST edition has mettā and upekkhā spelt out in full, with abbreviated passages for kāruṇa and muditā. The gist of the story is that by dwelling in the fully developed brahmavihāras a practitioner may become a once returner. That one who practises the brahmavihāras will not be touched by disappointment (dukkha). And that karma all ripens in this life, it does not follow on. It is this last part which is the most interesting.

Before we compare this karma theory, a few remarks about the other aspects of the text. It is well known that mettā and the other brahmavihāras have been down played in the modern Theravāda. Richard Gombrich has made the case, based on his reading of the Tevijjā Sutta that brahmavihāra literally 'staying with Brahman' was originally a synonym for nirvāṇa (see Gombrich 2009: 80-84). This text seems to be somewhere in the middle on the issue of the value of practising the brahmavihāras, saying that at the very least one will become a non-returner (anāgāmin) The non-returner is a strange creature. They are not yet liberated from birth and death, but they are not required to be reborn in one of the five realms. After death, they exist in a definite sense, unlike a tathāgata about whom nothing may be said. As we saw earlier in the year, the anāgāmin is at the centre of the dispute over the antarābhava.

The other point is a moral one. If we take this text literally then it is saying that by radiating the brahmavihāras out to the four directions no dukkha will ever arise. In talking about this issue of dukkha in the Karajakāya with my Pāḷi reading group, I mentioned that following Sue Hamilton I take dukkha to refer to all unenlightened experience. I suggested that the focus on unpleasant experience was somewhat misleading, because from this point of view pleasant experience is also dukkha. The problem is in the translation of dukkha as 'suffering'. I have long argued for 'disappointment' as a serviceable translation. Our experience is dukkha because it does not conform to our expectation. Our expectation is that we will not suffer any undeserved pain or misery; and that we will experience all the pleasure and happiness we do deserve (based on what we believe we deserve of course). And that this is what constitutes a good life. So my reading is that the text is not saying that one radiating mettā etc. will never experience pain or suffering, but that they will never suffer disappointment, that whatever happens to them will be in line with their expectations. One cannot realistically be born a human being and expect not to suffer. The Pāli texts record a number of occasions when even the Buddha suffered physical pain (particularly the story of the stone sliver, Sakalika Sutta. SN 1.3).

Elsewhere, some early texts say that only dukkha arises and only dukkha ceases (See The Simile of the Chariot, 2009). Thus there is a conflict between those texts and this. If everything that arises is only dukkha, the idea that a person will not experience dukkha by radiating the brahmavihāras is a contradiction. The two ideas are mutually exclusive.

Now we return to the karma theory presented in the Karajakāya. The opening passage of the Karajakāya is a classic Pāli text account of the inescapability of karma. It insists that all the fruits of all the actions must be experienced, and all of them must be experienced before there is an end to suffering. This sentiment is repeated throughout the Nikāyas and is taken up by Buddhaghosa as Theravāda orthodoxy. Later Buddhists deprecate this original requirement of karma (see Attwood 2014).

Now part of the reason I wanted to translate this text and write about it stems from Bhikkhu Bodhi's translation in his Numerical Discourses (2012). The Pāli passage in question follows on from the revelation that one who suffuses the directions with love etc, will not experience dukkha. Next the Pāli reads:
"Bhāvetabbā kho panāyaṃ, bhikkhave, mettācetovimutti itthiyā vā purisena vā. Itthiyā vā, bhikkhave, purisassa vā nāyaṃ kāyo ādāya gamanīyo. Cittantaro ayaṃ, bhikkhave, macco." 
"So evaṃ pajānāti – ‘yaṃ kho me idaṃ kiñci pubbe iminā karajakāyena pāpakammaṃ kataṃ, sabbaṃ taṃ idha vedanīyaṃ; na taṃ anugaṃ bhavissatī’ti."
Compared to my translation above, Bodhi renders this:
"​A woman or man should develop this liberation of mind by loving kindness. A woman or man cannot take this body with them when ​they go. Mortals have mind as their core." 
"[The  noble disciple] understands: 'whatever bad deed I did here in the past with this deed-born body is all to be experienced here. It will not follow along." (p.1542; emphasis added)
The first part of this is fine, but when I read "Mortals have mind as their core." (translating cittantaro ayaṃ macco) my eyebrows shot up. What on earth could this mean? 

Cittantaro ayaṃ macco

"Cittantaro ayaṃ macco." is a common sentence structure in Pali and typically taken to read "this X is Y" though the word order is flexible. So it could be as Bodhi reads it "this mortal has an interior [which is] mind" or it might be read along the lines of "this internal mind is mortal". The compound cittantaro is a little unexpected. Antara is cognate with our word "interior", and of course the inside of something might be considered its 'core'. However, do mortals have a "core"? The usual idea in Buddhist metaphysics is to deny that anyone has a core, especially a mental core. Macco means 'one subject to death, a mortal', but note that it is in the singular,  'a mortal' (Cf Skt martya 'having death, dying, subject to death'; there is no connection to the English 'martyr'), rather than Bodhi's plural "mortals" but the statement does seem to be a generalisation. 

The compound cittantaro only occurs in this text. In this case Bodhi appears to be reading the compound as a bahuvrīhi 'has an inside which is citta'. As I have said this raises metaphysical objections. How else might we read the compound? If we look at other similar compounds we find
  • Buddh'antara - the time between the death of one Buddha and the appearance of another
  • eḷakam-antara - on the threshold or across a threshold (eḷaka),
  • daṇḍam-antara - amongst the firewood or across a stick (daṇḍa).
This suggests that Bodhi has misunderstood this compound. Margaret Cone is non-commital in her dictionary. In relation to this passage she ventures "having the interval of a thought-moment;" with a question mark to indicate she is unsure (DOP sv citta). That Cone is unsure is reassuring to me as I struggle to make sense of this passage. If she is unsure then I am not embarrassed about my confusion. Cone has picked up what similar compounds imply, i.e. that antara might mean in the 'space' between two moments in time. So that we would read the sentence as "a mortal has the interval of a thought moment". But again we have to ask, "What does this mean?" It has the advantage of not obviously violating Buddhist doctrine, but can we take it literally? A mortal typically lives many years and a thought moment is as long as the snap of one's fingers. The words make sense, but the sentence does not. 

Turning to Buddhaghosa, on this passage he says:
Cittantaroti cittakāraṇo, atha vā citteneva antariko. Ekasseva hi cuticittassa anantarā dutiye paṭisandhicitte devo nāma hoti, nerayiko nāma hoti, tiracchānagato nāma hoti. Purimanayepi cittena kāraṇabhūtena devo nerayiko vā hotīti attho. 
Bodhi translates most of this passage in note 2189 (p.1859), I finish it in square brackets:
“They have mind as their cause, or their interior is due to mind. For with the mind at rebirth that follows without interval the mind at death, one becomes a deva, a hell-being, or an animal.” [It means they were formerly a deva or hell-being though the cause or condition of mind (citta) also.] 
So Bodhi has translated in line with Buddhaghosa, as he usually does in these cases where the text is obscure. However, I once more have to quibble with how Bodhi is translating here. Cittakāraṇo must mean 'having a cause which is citta', though this is no help because the meaning of the sentence is still not clear. Antara and kāraṇa are by no means synonyms, so Buddhaghosa's logic is opaque. To say that a mortal has citta as their cause is possibly true from a Buddhist point of view, but it doesn't really make sense of the sutta. Again the words make sense, but the sentence does not. Bodhi then reads antariko as 'interior', which is allowed but also doubtful. What does it means to say that our interior is due to mind. As opposed to our exterior?

A lot depends on how we parse atha vā citteneva antariko. We can read citteneva as citte na eva or cittena eva (Bodhi adopts the latter). The former would mean that the whole sentence says something like "there is no interval for a thought event". I like this reading because it is followed by an insistence that the relinking mental event (paṭisandhicitta) follows immediately from the death mental event (cuticitta) with no interval. This is standard Theravāda metaphysics which requires that there never be an interruption of the stream of cittas. This makes sense, but is this really what the sutta is saying? I'm not sure.

My friend and Pāḷi guru, Dhīvan, has pointed out that in my first version of this essay I mistook a gerundive (grd) for a gerund (ger) in the PED entry. Gerundive is anther name for a future passive participle (fpp). The verb marati means 'he dies' and as an fpp takes the sense of 'one who must die', hence 'a mortal'. Dhīvan suggests that macco might represent a future passive participle (Skt martavyaḥ), and work in apposition to gamanīyo which is also a fpp. Then cittantaro and kāyo are in apposition also. Thus we could read the sutta as saying
nāyaṃ kāyo ādāya gamanīyo, cittantaro ayaṃ, bhikkhave, macco 
there is no going taking the body [with you], there is dying with the mind as interval. 
Dhīvan takes cittantaro as related to the measurelessness of the mind in the brahmavihāra state. One whose citta is limited (paritta) will be reborn, but one whose citta is immeasurable (appamāṇa) is not reborn, but becomes an anāgāmin (at least). This is an interesting solution to a difficult problem, but I still not convinced.

So, from the Pāli sources we have several alternative readings, none of them entirely satisfying. The Chinese text of MĀ 15 is somewhat different here (T 1.438.a19-20) :
若彼男女 在家、出家, 修慈心解脫者,不持此身往至彼世,但隨心去此。 
When those male or female 男女 laypeople 在家 or renunciates 出家 repeatedly practice (修...者)  the loving-kindness mind-liberation 慈心解脫, [they] do not carry 持 this body 身 towards 往至 the other world 彼世, [but] go there 去此 according to 但隨 the citta 心.
Cf "Bhāvetabbā kho panāyaṃ, bhikkhave, mettācetovimutti itthiyā vā purisena vā. Itthiyā vā, bhikkhave, purisassa vā nāyaṃ kāyo ādāya gamanīyo. Cittantaro ayaṃ, bhikkhave, macco." 
The first part of this passage is similar. It applies to men and women for example, itthiyā vā purisena vā = 男女 ; they cultivate mettācetovimutti  = 慈心解脫. When they go to the other world they do not take their body nāyaṃ kāyo ādāya  = 不持此身往至彼世. However, just where we wish the Chinese might shed some light on our text it is very different! Where the Pāḷi is weird, the Chinese is conventional, one goes to the next world according to one's citta (但隨心去此). Is this because the translator has smoothed out the text? Or is it because the Gāndhārī text was already different. And if the Gāndhārī text was different, why was it? Was one or other text corrupted? Or was it edited by sectarian interests? 

Of course Bodhi was obliged to settle on a translation, and he had 1500 pages of text to translate. But to my mind "Mortals have mind as their core" is unfortunate. It's not at all clear that this is what the text says, or even how Buddhaghosa understood the text. It's a very strange thing to find a Pāli text saying. On the other hand I don't see a way to resolve the quandary. 


Another curious feature in this text is the use of the indeclinable particle idha, meaning 'here, in this place', and especially 'in this world or present existence' (PED). To remind us, the one who is radiating the brahmavihāras knows:
‘yaṃ kho me idaṃ kiñci pubbe iminā karajakāyena pāpakammaṃ kataṃ, sabbaṃ taṃ idha vedanīyaṃ; na taṃ anugaṃ bhavissatī’ti.
I read:
All of that evil action done by me by this action-made body at sometime in the past must be experienced here (idha). It does not follow along. 
It's possible that Bodhi's Pali text has idha for idaṃ (4th word), I haven't checked the PTS edition, but otherwise his translation again seems slightly off when he refers to "Whatever bad deed I did here...", because in the CST text "here" is not specified. In any case we have a very intriguing statement about karma in this passage. Apparently the consequences of actions performed in the past do not follow one from life to life. They are to be experienced here (idha vedanīya). In fact this contradicts the opening lines of the Pāli sutta which say that the fruits of actions may arise to be experienced here and now (diṭṭheva dhamme upapajje), in the after-life (apare), or in due course (pariyāye). So again we are left wondering. If this an error or does it represent a minority report on karma? The trouble is that the idea is stated twice:  sabbaṃ taṃ idha vedanīyaṃ 'all that is to be experienced here' and then na taṃ anugaṃ bhavissati 'it will not follow along'. It is not accidental.

This last part is phrased curiously. "That", i.e. the evil action done formerly through the action-born-body (pubbe iminā karajakāyena pāpakammaṃ kataṃ), "will not become anuga." Anuga is an adjective from anu√gam a verb meaning 'to follow [along, after]'. So rather than saying the action will not follow (anugamissati) the Pāḷi says that it does not become (bhavissati) something which is anuga 'following or followed by'. The obvious interpretation is that the action determines one's rebirth, but does not follow one beyond death. This is interesting because it may well constitute a version of karma which is easier for some people to swallow. 

Buddhaghosa fudges this by defining the phrase as diṭṭhadhamma-vedanīya-koṭṭhāsavan "possessing a share to be experienced here and now".  This brings it into line with Theravāda orthodoxy, but the text very specifically says all (sabba) not just a share (koṭṭhāsa).

Again the Madhyāgama text is different (T 1.438.a21-22):
Bhikṣus 比丘 you should 應作是 think 念, “I 我 was formerly 本 heedless 放逸, I did 作 unskilful deeds 不善業, may 可 all 一切 retribution 報  be 是 suffered 受 now 今 and not in the other world 終不後世."
Rather than insisting that results must be experienced now, MĀ has a more plausible (i.e more orthodox) plea that it all be experienced now rather than later so as not to draw out the process across lifetimes. The wording is very different, so it cannot be a simple misreading. Is AN the sentiment of a heterodox sect whose views were included in the Pāḷi Canon. And MĀ a more orthodox rendering of the story? Is one text garbled, or the other edited for clarity? We just don't know. 


This is certainly an intriguing text. On face value it is a heterodox view on karma and rebirth. But it does not quite make sense on its own terms. Buddhaghosa shoehorns it into his orthodox Theravāda worldview in a way that is not entirely convincing. The Madhyāgama version of the story contradicts the Pāḷi precisely where it departs from orthodoxy. Though as we saw in relation to antarābhava the different Nikāya/Āgama recensions do reflect sectarian concerns.

The Madhyāgama text seems to be based on the same story, but records the details differently. The titles of the text are different and MĀ does not have an equivalent of the key Pāli term karajakāya 'action-born-body'. The MĀ text is titled 思經 The Sutra on Intention (cetanā). Note that the Karajakāya appears to be part of a set of suttas, and the previous two suttas in AN are called the Paṭhama and Dutiya Sañcetanika Sutta, where sañcetika could well be translated as 思. Overall the MĀ text is less problematic than the Pāḷi, but this may be because the Gāndhārī had more time to be edited than the Pāḷi before being committed to writing, or because the Chinese translators further smoothed out difficulties. On the other hand we can deduce that a large part of the Pāḷi text was lost after it was included in the Aṅguttara collection. So who knows what other changes it went through.

This is precisely the kind of wrinkle that scholars have overlooked or smoothed over in their accounts of Buddhist karma to date. It does not fit the view that the Canon is all the work of one mind, or the assertion that variations can be traced to a single source. All too often we see a plurality of Buddhist views, which are frequently incompatible and do not point to a single point of origin. As I have said previously, the early Buddhist texts represent the event horizon of an historical black hole. No information can ever come out of that black hole and it will always remain dark. All we can do is look at what we do see and conjecture about how it might have come about.

A fundamental problem I have identified is the overwhelming bias towards seeing history in terms of singular origin as represented in the tree as a metaphor for evolution. So engrained is this metaphor that it is very difficult to even think of other possibilities in evolution (particularly of recombination and synthesis). So we expect that Pāḷi and Chinese sources point to a common origin. Some aspects of the two texts are similar enough to suggest some common ancestry. Had the Pāḷi not become fragmented after being collected, then perhaps this similarity would be more striking. But there is no way, for example, to construct an ur-text from what we have. There is no obvious single underlying text that would give rise to the variants we have. The history is complex and now hidden from us. 

For me the idea that our history does not converge in the past has only emerged from years of studying early Buddhist texts and paying attention to inconsistencies. And there are far more inconsistencies than any Buddhist teacher and almost all scholars would have us believe. Inconsistency is a feature of the early Buddhist texts. That the Pali Canon preserves views which are not consistent with Theravāda orthodoxy is both interesting and useful. It suggests that the Theravādins preserved these texts, but that other unknown factors were at work in the collection process. Perhaps the Theravāda sect was once more diverse than it presently is with respect to doctrine. Buddhaghosa, as we see in his commentary on this sutta, had an homogenizing effect. At the very least we must think of the Pāḷi texts as a much more heterogeneous body of literature than we have previously.


Thanks to Dhīvan and Sarah from our Pāḷi reading group for input on the tricky passages. It is so great to have people to talk to about these things. 

My essays on karma & rebirth are collected under the afterlife tab at the top of the page.
Pāḷi texts from CST. Chinese texts from CBETA. 
Attwood, Jayarava. (2014) Escaping the Inescapable: Changes in Buddhist Karma. Journal of Buddhist Ethics Vol. 21. http://blogs.dickinson.edu/buddhistethics/2014/06/04/changes-in-buddhist-karma/
Bingenheimer, Marcus [Ed.] (2013) The Madhyama Āgama: Middle Length Discourses, Taishō Vol. 2, No.26 (BDK English Tripiṭaka Series). Bukkyo Dendo Kyokai America. 
Bodhi. (2012). The Numerical Discourses of the Buddha. Wisdom Publications. 
Gombrich, Richard. (2009) What the Buddha Thought. Equinox.
Related Posts with Thumbnails