27 July 2018

Is Karma Inconceivable? You'd Better Hope Not.

A colleague recently cited the famous passage in which the Buddha seems to say you'll go mad if you try to figure out the workings of karma. I was aware of this text, since it is very often quoted by anti-intellectuals who wish me to stop talking about the details of karma. Because, of course, when you look at it in detail, karma is nonsense. However, I had never scienced the passage before and decided to do so and report back.

Reading the text, especially in the light of a partial Chinese parallel, I find the Pāli quite strange and peculiar. It doesn't say what most people take it to say, and what it does say is really rather daft.

Here is the Acinteyyasuttaṃ (AN AN 4.77 ) in Pāli alongside my rough translation. Note the Buddha is only the implied protagonist and is not named here. I present the entire sutta as recorded in the 6th Council Edition. The point about karma is in red.

Cattārimāni, bhikkhave, acinteyyāni, na cintetabbāni; yāni cintento ummādassa vighātassa bhāgī assa.

Katamāni cattāri?

Buddhānaṃ, bhikkhave, buddhavisayo acinteyyo, na cintetabbo; yaṃ cintento ummādassa vighātassa bhāgī assa. Jhāyissa, bhikkhave, jhānavisayo acinteyyo, na cintetabbo; yaṃ cintento ummādassa vighātassa bhāgī assa. Kammavipāko, bhikkhave, acinteyyo, na cintetabbo; yaṃ cintento ummādassa vighātassa bhāgī assa. Lokacintā, bhikkhave, acinteyyā, na cintetabbā; yaṃ cintento ummādassa vighātassa bhāgī assa. Imāni kho, bhikkhave, cattāri acinteyyāni, na cintetabbāni; yāni cintento ummādassa vighātassa bhāgī assā. (AN ii.80)
Bhikkhus, four things are unthinkable and not to be thought of. Thinking of them will bring a share of madness and vexation.

What four?

Bhikkhus, the buddha-domain of a buddha is unthinkable and not to be thought of. Thinking of it will bring a share of madness and vexation. The range of jhāna-domain of a meditator is unthinkable and not to be thought of. Thinking of it will bring a share of madness and vexation. The consequence of an action (kammavipāka) is unthinkable and not to be thought of. Thinking of it will bring a share of madness and vexation. The lokacintā is unthinkable and not to be thought of. Thinking of it will bring a share of madness and vexation. These four things bhikkhus are unthinkable and not to be thought of. Thinking of them will bring a share of madness and vexation

The point here is that some things are being defined as acinteyya. I'm not going to look at all of them, because there seems little point. I just want to look at the word itself and how it might apply to karma-vipāka.

This is the only discourse in which the word acinteyya is used in the entire Sutta-piṭaka. Grammatically, it is a future passive participle and thus indicates something to be done, something desirable to do, something able to be done. The root is √cint, which is used for all kinds of cognitive activity, such as "thinking", "reflecting", and so on. So cinteyya would mean "something (able) to be thought about, considered, reflected upon" and with the addition of the negative prefix, acinteyya "something not to be thought about, considered, reflected upon". However, this participle is being used as an adjective: some things are being described as "not to be thought about" or "not able to be reflected on". Or some such. Many translators take it to mean the latter and substitute and English compound like "inconceivable".

So, the text is saying the consequence of action (kamma-vipāka) is something not to be thought about or reflected on. And we have to hold this alongside the idea that "actions have consequences" is often used as an English language summary of Buddhist ethics.

Sometimes translators try to tell us that it is the "exact workings" of karma, the complex processes involved that are the problem. It's all so complex and fiddly that we shouldn't worry our little heads over it. So, for example, Thanissaro translates kammavipāko, bhikkhave, acinteyyo, na cintetabbo as "The [precise working out of the] results of kamma is an unconjecturable that is not to be conjectured about." But this is not what the text says, so where is he getting "precise working out of the" from? It turns out not to be the commentary, which is the usual source of these kinds of divergent translations. The commentary makes a veiled reference to the Theravāda doctrine of the different times at which karma may be experienced and that's it.
Kammavipākoti diṭṭhadhammavedanīyādīnaṃ kammānaṃ vipāko (ANA 3.107)
"Consequences of actions" refers to the consequences of actions that are to be experienced during this life time, etc. [where "etc." means upapajjavedanīya "to be experienced at rebirth, and aparāpariyavedanīya "to be experienced in later births"]
I think "precise working out" is the kind of gloss that I would call a fig leaf. Something that we don't want to see is protruding and we want to cover it up. Because for a Buddhist to be told not to think about the consequence of actions is nonsensical - at some level, thinking about the consequences of our actions actually is Buddhism. So we fiddle with the translation without reference to the original text or the traditional commentary until what it says does make sense. This is putting the ideological cart before the scriptural horse.

By the way, in this translation Thanissaro uses one of his trademark bizarre neologisms—unconjecturable—for acinteyya. We can see what he is getting at. Sometimes a future passive participle will express potential: √kṛ "do" → kāranīya "that which should be done; doable". But would it mean to describe something as "conjecturable"? The language around conjecture is awkward. We can use the word as a noun, "a conjecture"; i.e., a proposition about something that is in need of evidence. But we can also use it as a verb, "Einstein conjectured that mass would bend the path of massless photons, because gravity bends space rather attracting mass". What Thanissaro means is "something about which we should not makes conjectures". Clearly karma is conjecturable in the sense that we can and should make conjectures about the consequences of our actions.

Now, we can boil down this sentiment to this statement about karma-vipāka: We should not  make conjectures about the consequences of actions, for fear of the consequences (i.e., if we do we might go mad). It is asking us to think about the consequences of thinking about the consequences! So whatever else is wrong with the sutta, it is blatantly self contradictory. And this is what passes for wisdom amongst us.

Furthermore, of course, the precise working out of the consequences of actions is a very frequent subject for conjecture or even for the confident assertion of knowledge elsewhere in this same literature. This is exactly the premise of the jātaka, for example, including the several hundred such stories in the official Jātaka collection, and the dozens more scattered throughout the Nikāyas and the Vinaya. And it is at the very heart of Buddhist ethics.

Chinese Parallel

There is a Chinese parallel, or at least a partial parallel, in the Ekottarāgama 增壹阿含經 (29.6). This version doesn’t include a warning about going mad. And kamma-vipāka is not one of the four items we are warned not to think about.

云何為四?眾生不可思議;世界不可 思議;龍國不可思議;佛國境界不可思議。 所以然者,不由此處得至滅盡涅槃。(T 2.657.a.19)
What four? The arising of people (眾生) should not be thought about; the worldly realm (世界 = lokadhātu) should not be thought about. The land of the dragon (龍國) should not be thought about, the objects of cognition in the Buddha-land (佛國境界) should not be thought about. Why is this? Because they are not conducive to cessation and extinction. (My translation).
When we talk about this text being a "parallel" what we mean is that it is a version of a text that shares some features with the Acinteyya Sutta. Here, the Chinese 不可思議 means the same as na cintetabbo. So this much is held in common. And remembering that the word is only used in one Pāḷi sutta, the use of it here definitely suggests some kind of connection.

But there the similarities end. The Chinese text doesn't mention karma and the reason for not thinking about things is more comprehensible - it doesn't go anywhere. When aiming for cessation the more things you have to think about, the longer it takes. Cessation is approached by not thinking about things. Although this contradicts what I said above at one level, it is because they are on different levels that there is no absolute contradiction. Ethics involves, amongst other things, paying attention to consequences of actions. In meditation we try to leave all such concerns behind to explore the mind in the absence of sensory stimulus. The two methods are complementary, not exclusive.

Note, not that it really matters, but I haven't been able to figure out what 龍國 means. I've given a literal translation for what it is worth. But I can't see how it would affect my argument unless it turned out to mean karma-vipāka and even then it wouldn't affect my conclusions.

Vizzini: He didn't fall? Inconceivable!
Inigo Montoya: You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means."
So this is a strange little sutta. It's quoted quite often, but apparently almost no one thinks about what it means. In other words, some Buddhists don't think about what it would mean to not think about the consequences of actions. This is partly because most people are reading fig leaf translations that opt to say something other than what the text does, so the fact that is it nonsense is obscured. Mostly the text is used in apologetics for traditional beliefs to combat people who do think about karma and come up with unanswered problems. Labelling karma-vipāka as acinteyya is the polite Buddhist way of saying "we can't explain it, so just shut the fuck up and do what you are told."

But the sutta is arguing from consequences to a conclusion about not thinking about consequences resulting in a bald-faced contradiction, which is why most translators pad it out till it says something less batshit.

Learning Pāli is empowering because it allows you to see when translators are going off piste. It is disappointing, in the sense that you realise how crap many translations are, and how much translators are interpreting for you so you don't see inconsistencies. But it is empowering to be able to think about it for yourself, I find. If one is only willing to read.

The problem with defining the outcome of action (kamma-vipāka) as unthinkable or inconceivable (acinteyya) and saying that we should not think about it (na cintetabbo) is that the basis for morality disappears. If we truly believe that the consequences of actions are unknowable then we have no basis for saying “Actions have consequences”. Our slogan should rather be “Actions may well have consequences, but we have no idea what they might be and we avoid thinking about them for fear of going mad.” Which would force us into being moral relativists, at best. In fact, most Buddhists take a decisive stand on morality because we believe that actions do have knowable consequences, and this seems to be entirely rational (and not mad or ummāda).

This idea that kamma-vipāka is acinteyya, that we should not think about the consequences of actions, seems like a classic example of an incoherent idea in Pāli that nobody ever really thinks about carefully just because it is in Pāli. Or if they do notice that the sutta cannot be taken on face value they simply add a fig leaf. The axiom is that the Pāli Canon always makes sense and therefore one is free to tweak any translation, without reference to the source text, until it does make sense.

I keep saying to my colleagues that we need to be more discerning in our use of these texts. We really do need to think about the consequences of our actions as users of religious texts.

“The devil can cite Scripture for his purpose.”
—William Shakespeare. Merchant of Venice. Act 1, Scene 3.

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