17 May 2013

Does Karma Break the Rules?

Great Chain of Being
In this essay, I'm going to outline a little quandary that occurred to me recently. It concerns how karma works. Let's begin with the general statement of paṭicca-samuppāda. 
imasmiṃ sati idaṃ hoti,
imass' uppādā idaṃ uppajjati.
imasmiṃ asati idaṃ na hoti, 
imassa nirodhā idaṃ nirujjhati.

This being, that becomes;
on the arising of this, that arises.
This not being, that does not become;
on the cessation of this, that ceases.
As I have noted before (A General Theory of Conditionality) This formula occurs just 14 times throughout the Nikāyas, and not at all in the Vinaya. But it is perhaps the best known of all the formulas related to paṭicca-samuppāda. 

Here we see an example of a grammatical form known as a 'locative absolute' - a participle (sati) and a noun or pronoun (imasmin) both in the locative case. With a present participle, we read this as temporally simultaneous with what comes next. We might translate our phrase 'while this is'. What follows happens, we may say only happens while the first phrase is true. While X exists or is present, then Y exists.  The existence of the entity Y, indicated by a second noun or pronoun is predicated upon the continued presence of the entity X indicated by the first. This is the fundamental equation of conditionality. The conditions have to be present for the dharma to arise.

So far this ought to be all very familiar, if perhaps not with the emphasis on spelling out the implications of the grammar.

Now karma allows for immediate consequences for our actions - the technical term being: kammaṃ diṭṭha-dhamma-vedanīyaṃ 'actions to be experienced in this life'. But generally speaking, karma manifests in whether or not we are reborn and which realm we are born into. That is whether we have a good or bad destination: sugati/duggati after we die (kāyassa bhedā paraṃ maraṇā. M iii.203). 

And here is the problem. Because if a result can only occur when the condition for it is present, and the fruits of actions manifest long after the action was performed then there is a fundamental contradiction. Something is wrong with the equation. Either karma ought to result in immediate and short-lived consequences, or some mechanism other than paṭicca-samuppāda must be invoked to explain it.

This is even more problematic when one considers the passage, which admittedly only occurs once, that equates karma with cetanā or intention. (See also Action and Intention). Cetanā simply does not last. It changes all the time as our attention wanders from object to object. When we say "everything is changing" what we really mean in a Buddhist context is that dharmas are constantly arising and passing away. If the dharma arises, results in a cetanā, that has karmic consequence, but then fades away as the next object comes into view, then how on earth (or in heaven) does karma linger about long enough to affect our rebirth. Indeed how does it haunt us after death?

Historically some solutions have been proposed for this. In Abhidharma and Madhyamaka thought there is a chain of intermediate states which lead from action to consequence. The analogy is that a seed is the condition for a tree, but the seed does not directly result in the tree. It goes through a very large number of infinitesimal increments where each dharma is the condition for the succeeding dharma. This is known as samanantara-pratyaya or the 'immediate antecedent condition' and involves short moments (kṣāṇa) following in succession. The downside of this is that we can never tell what the ultimate condition for any fruit is, even if we know the immediately antecedent condition. Also, it is still difficult to explain how such conditions survive the death of the actor and somehow manifest in another being. It is more difficult again to explain how this fair. After all, if we consciously chose to live very holy lives it hardly seems fair that we are stuck with the consequences of the actions of a now dead being to whom our connection is tenuous at best!

Another solution to this problem is the idea of karmic "seeds" (bīja) which are stored in the ālaya-vijñāna - usually translated as 'storehouse consciousness' though ālaya literally means 'grasp'. In this model, actions produce seeds that ripen at a later date. This helps with the post-mortem problem, but it moves into rather eternalist territory by positing an entity which provides continuity between lives. Of course, the continuity problem is the major stumbling block for the theory of karma. Any attempt to link consequences in this life to actions in a past-life are bound in invoke something like a soul which is the medium of exchange between lives. Something must logically connect me to those actions carried out by a being I never knew and who in the strict sense was not me! And what that something is, generally remains rather vague.

Neither of these two solutions is very familiar to me, nor are they, as I understand them, very satisfactory. I cannot immediately think of a solution based in Pāli terms. It seems to me that without a solution the thread that links actions to consequences must be broken if it is described by paṭicca-samuppāda. I have no problem with not believing in karma or with not seeing paṭicca-samuppāda as a theory of everything, but this seems like an annoying loose end.

So what is the solution to this?

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