27 January 2017

Doctrine & Reason III: Madhyamaka Karma

4.4 Multiple Versions of Karma

In a recent online discussion with members of the Triratna Buddhist Order I discovered that we have no common narrative when it comes to karma. A majority believe in karma of some kind, but very often the kind of karma an Order member believes in is mutually contradictory with the kind that another Order member believes in. "Actions have consequences" is a relatively common way of expressing karma, but as we have seen (Part II), it is inadequate. The traditional idea of karma leading to rebirth is supernatural by its very nature, but encouragingly, a sizeable minority are reluctant to commit to any supernatural version of "actions have consequences". There is certainly no explanation to be found for karma in nature.

In a sense, the Order reflects the confused history of karma in Buddhism. Different versions emerged from time to time, presumably in response to perceived needs, and many of them were incompatible with others. More or less the only common features are the word karma and the notion that willed actions are somehow significant.

I've critiqued some of the main versions of karma, especially in an essay called The Logic of Karma (16 Jan 2015). So, for the purposes of this argument, I will focus on my critique of the Madhyamaka version of karma, particularly as set out in Nāgārjuna's Mūlamadhyamakakārikā. I don't think I've given a detailed critique of this version before and it turns out to be the one most resistant to reasoned argument and is thus the view most in need of effective refutation.

5. Madhyamaka

5.1 Nāgārjuna the Nihilist

The most difficult version of karma to argue against is the one that begins with Nāgārjuna and comes down to us via various groups that have assimilated elements of his metaphysics (including those various schools that claim the label madhyamaka). It took me many years of  losing arguments with pseudo-intellectual mādhyamikas to work out what is wrong with Nāgārjuna's explanation of karma. As Nāgārjuna says, near the end of his chapter on karma:
karma cen nāsti kartā ca kutaḥ syāt karmajaṃ phalaṃ |
asaty atha phale bhoktā kuta evan bhaṣyati 
|| MMK 17.30 ||
If action and agent don't exist, how would an action produce a consequence?
And if the consequence does not exist, who would suffer it? 
Ultimately, for Nāgārjuna, there is no action (karma) and no agent (kartṛ), thus there is no consequence (phala), no one who experiences it (bhoktṛ), and thus no rebirth, either. At best, they are like an imaginary city in the sky, like a mirage, or a dream (MMK 17.33). So Nāgārjuna rejects the idea of actions having consequences.

I've read a number of explanations of Nāgārjuna's approach to karma and they all baulk at accepting his dismissal of karma and restate the mainstream Buddhist assertion that actions have real consequences. For example, Kalupahana concluded:
"The most significant assertion here is that the rejection of permanence and annihilation and the acceptance of emptiness and saṃsāra (or the life-process) do not imply the rejection of the relationship between action (karma) and the consequence." (1986: 55)
But, clearly, Nāgārjuna does reject the relationship between action and consequence and, what's more, he rejects the more fundamental notions of action, consequence, and relationship per se. To Nāgārjuna, these concepts are not part of paramārthasatya or ultimate truth. How should we read a statement like Kalupahana's which is echoed in other academic work? It seems that Nāgārjuna's rejection of karma and rebirth does not sit well with anyone who identifies with more mainstream Buddhist ideas. To say that agent, action, patient, and consequence are all just illusions is a form of nihilism.

My sense of Nāgārjuna is that he is trapped by his own articles of faith. In maintaining that nothing persists in the face of plentiful evidence to the contrary, he is left with no choice but to obfuscate and distract us from his dilemma. Ironically, we know this because we still have his actual words. They, at least, have persisted for some eighteen centuries. Mādhyamikās (those who follow madhyamaka ideology) are apt to point out that this is not what commentators have understood him to be saying. However, when the text is clear and the commentary contradicts it, we have little choice but to reject the commentary as driven by motivations unrelated to those of the author.

Nāgārjuna's view is a pernicious one, because it destroys the basis of morality. If actions do not have consequences at all, let alone appropriate and timely consequences, the observation of which allows us to modify our behaviour in the future to obtain different results, then morality is simply not possible. If there is no definite relationship between action and consequences, then there could only be chaos. The view appears to be based on a fundamental confusion.

5.2 Arguing Against Madhyamaka

However, this is also a view that is extremely resistant to rational argument, because part of the madhyamaka ideology, at least in its modern versions, is that rational argument has no place in the Buddhist system. Only personal experience counts towards knowledge and experience, by definition not susceptible to logic. Here we see medieval Buddhist folly meshing with Victorian Romantic folly to produce a persistent delusion. Mādhyamikas further stretch the credibility of a critic through the structure of their rhetoric. In the typical conversation about karma, the mādhyamika asserts their view (some variation on MMK 17.30) as though it were ultimate truth (pāramārtha-satya). If one disagrees on any grounds, they assign those grounds to relative truth, which is simply an illusion and can be safely ignored. Thus, any argument against the asserted view is defeated solely on the grounds that to dissent against the ultimate truth is always wrong. One cannot argue with ultimate truth. The use of reason to undermine the assertion of ultimate truth is dismissed or even mocked, because the ultimate truth allows no role whatever for reason. Having declined to recognise the validity of any objection, the mādhyamika will often emphatically restate their view and then refuse any further discussion.

The view itself is irrational, but the defence that any dissent can only be a manifestation of ignorance is potent. It allows the believer to summarily reject any argument without ever having to consider it. One cannot win an argument with a mādhyamika on their terms, so one must shift the terms and one way to do this is to undermine the foundations; i.e., to point out Nāgārjuna's fundamental errors and argue that the framework itself is flawed.

5.3 The Two Truths

The two truths doctrine is completely absent from the early Buddhist suttas. This suggests that the problem which the two truths were supposed to solve did not exist earlier. I see this problem emerging from the confusion of experience and reality. This happened partly because Buddhists took a description of experience and tried to use it to describe reality. At the same time, they singled out certain rarefied meditative experiences and thought of them as reality.

The early texts are fairly clear that the domain of application of Buddhist practice is experience. There is no word that conveys anything like our word "reality", no discussion of the nature of existence, the nature of objects. The focus is on the nature of experience. As Bodhi has said:
“The world with which the Buddha’s teaching is principally concerned is ‘the world of experience,’ and even the objective world is of interest only to the extent that it serves as that necessary external condition for experience.” (Bodhi 2000: 394, n.182
This is highlighted in the Kaccānagotta Sutta (SN 12:15), a text which Nāgārjuna appears to cite, but completely misunderstand. The importance of this text is emphasised by Kalupahana when he suggests that MMK is a commentary on KS. What KS says is that existence (astitā) and non-existence (nāstitā) do not apply to the world of experience (loka). This means that the usual way of looking at objects doesn't apply to experience. When we have an experience, nothing comes into being; when the experience stops, nothing goes out of being. The ontology of experience, especially in Iron Age Ganges Valley, is difficult to pin down, in a way that the ontology of objects is not.

Experience is what it is, fleeting, insubstantial, and unsatisfactory. This was important at the time because Buddhists were in an argument with Brahmins about the possibility of experiencing absolute being (brahman/ātman). The Buddhist argument was that, since absolute being is unchanging, ever-changing experience could not allow access to it. We could not perceive something unchanging, because experience is always changing. So, even if an object was existent in this absolute sense, our experience of it would constantly change.

The classical texts say nothing much about the world of objects, except that they do acknowledge that some objects (particularly our bodies) persist through time. So the world of experience and the world of objects have a different ontology for early Buddhists (to the extent that they have any awareness of ontology). It is only experience that is governed by pratītyasamutpāda. Also, there seem to be no Pāḷi texts that seek to explain karma in terms of dependent arising, but by the early medieval period when Nāgārjuna was writing this distinction had been lost. By then, everything was understood to be governed in the same way. The description of mental events arising in the meditative mind was taken to be a universal principle. And this means that nothing whatever in the world might persist even for a second. And this in a world where objects do persist for years, decades, centuries, and millennia (the universe is currently thought to be 13.7 billion years old and will continue expanding indefinitely).

So Nāgārjuna's task was to explain away the ubiquitous evidence of persistence in favour of a reality in which nothing persists, based on an Iron Age theory of how experience works. He had to allow for persistence, because all the evidence of our senses tells us that external objects persist, while not allowing for persistence because dependent arising applied universally ruled it out.

By this time the Brahmanical arguments about absolute being seem to be a distant memory to Buddhists, which is puzzling because Brahmanical influence is seen everywhere in the development of Buddhism. The problem of absolute being is still present, but it is seen as a mistake that everyone makes with respect to their own experience. Some Buddhist groups were struggling to explain the connection between karma and phala. A Sanskrit term exists for this problem, i.e., karma-phala-saṃbandha, where saṃbandha means "connection".

Since it was completely implausible to assert that the world did not exist (or that existence did not apply to the world), Nāgārjuna was forced to accept that the world does exist. But he argued that this existence is saṃvṛti, a word meaning 'concealing, covering up, keeping secret'. Saṃvṛti-satya is often translated as "relative truth", but a Sanskrit speaker would be alive to the connotation of "concealing reality". In defiance of early Buddhists' reactions against absolute being, Nāgārjuna contrasted the world with an absolute reality: paramārtha-satya, translated as "ultimate reality", or "ultimate truth".

Both saṃvṛtisatya and paramārthasatya are not true. They are mistaken views that come about when we try to shoehorn dependent arising into everything. This is not to say that the experience of emptiness (śūnyatā) is not profound and transformative, only that it is an experience. It changes the way we perceive the world, which is an epistemological change. Ontology is unaffected by meditation.

5.4 The Confusion of Experience and Reality

Nāgārjuna's method is thus the theory tail wagging the evidence dog. And this methodology is one of the reasons his followers are locked into irrational positions. Evidence is made to fit the theory, not the other way around. And since this requires deprecating reason, rational arguments find no purchase. Compare this to the Pāḷi texts were rational arguments are part and parcel of Buddhism, alongside myth, legend, and inner monologues.

Nāgārjuna's worldview was one in which all domains are governed by dependent arising. He appears to see no alternative to this, despite being familiar with and valuing the Kaccānagotta Sutta. But this creates many problems for him, precisely because the persistence of the world and objects in the world is self-evident. Even something as simple as perceiving movement or change become problematic for Nāgārjuna. And, frankly, his task is not made any easier by composing his answers in metered verse.

The central problem with karma is what I have been calling action at a temporal distance, but which Indian commentators called karmaphalasaṃbandha. Karma requires consequences to manifest long after the condition for them have ceased. And this is forbidden by the formula of dependent arising.

Knowledge that we get by reasoning about experience is useful (i.e., an accurate and precise guide to interacting with the world), as long as we are actually reasoning rather than relying on a bias. Accurate and precise ontology requires careful comparing of notes and critical questioning of which assumptions in our worldview are valid. We have to switch to using abduction and eliminate all the impossible premises.  We did not begin to get this right until after 1543 when Nicolaus Copernicus published De revolutionibus orbium coelestium (On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres). The critical comparing of notes about experience is what enables us to understand the world. Unless we make a strict distinction between experience and reality, and have a very critical eye out for bias, we are apt to come to erroneous conclusions.

Nāgārjuna's fundamental mistake was to mix up epistemology and ontology, which is to say that he mistook experience, especially meditative experience, for reality; and the nature of experience for the nature of reality. Meditators I know continue to make this same fundamental error. Buddhists are constantly talking about the "nature of reality", but nothing about how we go about seeking insight could possibly tell us about reality.

It is entirely possible that we might gain insights into the workings of our minds, seen from the inside; that we might gain insight into the nature of experience. And this kind of knowledge is certainly very useful for avoiding misery. And even though reality is an over-arching super-set, which incorporates the mind and experience, as I have tried to show in my previous essays on reality, it is layered, and descriptions that work on one scale of mass, length, energy or complexity, may not work on another scale. So a perfect description of experience may still be a faulty description of other kinds of phenomena. In fact, the classical texts were wrong about the persistence of mental states - these do persist for short periods of time beyond the stimulating sensory contact, else we could not perceive the passage of time or any kind of change. Language and music both depend on this extension in time.

Nāgārjuna's description of reality is copied from a description of experience. Unsurprisingly, he comes to false conclusions about reality. He takes it as axiomatic that nothing persists. Indeed, he says that if anything were to persists that would contradict dependent arising (MMK 17.6). Note again that the classical Pāḷi texts don't have this problem, because they do not take dependent arising as a description of the world, only of experience (i.e., they take it to be an epistemology, not an ontology). In order to accommodate these obviously false conclusions, he has to bifurcate the truth into two domains, apparent and ultimate, because, for example, it is self-evident that our bodies and identities do persist over time. Nāgārjuna accommodates this by saying that it is true, but only relatively true (saṃvṛti-satya); i.e., true only in the sense that we perceive it to be true. In the ultimate view it is not true. Again this mixes up ontology and epistemology.

5.5 Compatibility with Reason

Ironically for modern Western mādhyamikas, our own intellectual tradition, from Heraclitus onwards, tells us that all existence is impermanent. At no point do we assume that if something exists, it is permanent and unchanging, except in the case of God. And since God no longer features in mainstream Western thought, even he is not a problem. For the Western tradition, persistence is not a problem per se because, unlike Buddhists, we do not associate all being with absolute being. We are not forced into the position of explaining away persistence as an illusion, because temporality is built into our notions of the world. We say quite explicitly that we live in a temporal world.*
* Pedants may be tempted to point out that quantum physics theorists are now suggesting that time might be an emergent property. 1. There is no consensus on this speculation. 2. Even if there were a consensus, descriptions of the quantum level are not relevant to the macro-world that was the whole world until the invention of the telescope and microscope in the early 17th Century. 

Rather than the classical position—that neither existence or non-existence apply to any experience—Nāgārjuna is forced into the bizarre assertion that both existence and non-existence apply to everything. Thus, the obviously false conclusions that his philosophy leads to are rationalised away. This is a philosophy in which obviously false conclusions have to be tolerated; the irrational is valorised, and logic is deprecated in favour of a religious ideal. Paradox becomes the sine qua non. And these conditions fit perfectly with the Romantic threads of modernism. The nihilism also fits the zeitgeist in which people feel that they don't matter and have no influence in the world, despite being bombarded with information about events in the world.

However, in our Western tradition, paradox usually suggests a deeper flaw in our understanding, which has led us to make false assumptions, or to frame the problem ineptly. Or they are curiosities. For example, "this sentence is not true" is a trivial example of a paradoxical sentence that is both grammatically and semantically well formed, but is logical impossible. All it tells us is that there is more to language than grammar and syntax. A glance at anyone's eyebrows as they speak could have told you the same.

For all these reasons, the Mādhyamikā view of karma is not compatible with reason. It's not a rational view. Nor, I argue, is it resolved by insight, because those with insight seem to be beset by the same confirmation bias as all of us: they seek and find confirmation of their pre-existing views. Most meditators spend many years absorbing the rhetoric of Buddhism before making any significant progress in developing insight. Thus when insights arise, confirmation bias prompts us to see them as proof of our view.

My best informant on the process of having insights suggests that each insight both shatters existing views, but tends to set up an alternative view. One finally sees the truth and is prepared to settle down with it. However, if we persist in practising, the next insight shows the flaws in this new view and points to another view. One has to go through this "Aha... Oh. Aha... Oh." process many times before one stops taking the views seriously and realises that all views are just different perspectives on experience. It's not that one gains insight into reality, but that one stops mistaking one's experience for reality.

However, Buddhists tend to treat Nāgārjuna as a god -- someone who had infallible omniscience. His words, or at least the interpretations of his words by commentators, are seen as ultimate truth. I notice that some people are puzzled that I would argue against Nāgārjuna. It seems to cause cognitive dissonance, because they accept what he says as gospel. To dissent from the "ultimate truth" is almost unimaginable to many Buddhists. It is akin to blasphemy, and they often respond the way theists to do blasphemy: with hostility.

So why do modern scholars not take Nāgārjuna to task as someone who mistook experience for reality? After all, they are supposed to bring a certain objectivity to their work, aren't they? Buddhist Studies is all about accepting Buddhism on its own terms, rather than taking a critical stance. So in the 21st Century we still find scholars trying to elucidate Nāgārjuna on his own terms and he is still hailed as probably the greatest Buddhist philosopher. To me, Nāgārjuna is the greatest disaster in Buddhist philosophy because his mistake continues undetected and his influence is pervasive (it goes far beyond Madhyamaka). This is partly because the mādhyamika rhetoric is impervious to reason, but partly also because Buddhists don't use reason when thinking about their views anyway: they only seek confirmation, they do not seek falsification. Of course confirmation bias is a feature of argument production, but religious argumentation discourages doubt and scepticism.

This critique will most like not make any impact whatever on the way people see Nāgārjuna or the way his disciples see the world. The way Madhyamaka is set up employs several cult-like features that make adherents particularly hard to reach. Those who do not simply reject the argument out of hand, will condescendingly explain that I have simply misunderstood the ultimate truth. I'm with Richard Feynman however, "I'd rather have questions that cannot be answered, than answers that cannot be questioned."

This concludes the central argument of this essay. It remains to sum up and conclude.

6. Compatible With Reason?

I set out in this essay to explore the idea that the Buddhist belief in karma is compatible with reason. I argued that both karma and reason are complex subjects on which authorities disagree about almost every detail. Karma has few common features across Buddhist sects apart from the proposition that actions cause rebirth. Also, reason and our ability to employ the methods of reasoning have been widely misunderstood. Reasoning is, more often than not, subverted by cognitive biases and logical fallacies. Even so, I tried to set out a coherent account of how reason works and how we might use it to think about karma in general terms. I then critiqued a particular Buddhist view about how karma is supposed to work, by showing how the reasoning in that view is flawed.

The question I posed in Part I of this essay was, could we come up with the doctrine of karma from first principles. That is, based on experience, can we infer—using deduction, induction, and/or abduction—a doctrine in which our actions lead to rebirth; or the watered down version that our actions infallibly lead to appropriate and timely consequences.

Based on observations across many species of primate, Frans de Waal is able to deduce that we all experience empathy and understand reciprocity. From reciprocity we can induce an understanding of fairness and justice. And from this we can construct a highly plausible, bottom-up theory of morality that has broad applicability and explains a great deal. In this view, morality can be understood as a principle in which the social consequences of actions are appropriate and timely.

To get to a doctrine of karma however, we have to go beyond experience and observation, and make a number of unsupported assumptions. Firstly, we have to assume a just world. This assumption is so common that it has its own name: the just-world fallacy. Secondly, we have to assume that a supernatural afterlife exists, in defiance of the laws of nature. Thirdly, we have to assume that this afterlife is cyclic or a hybrid between cyclic and linear. Many religions have a linear eschatology, a single destination afterlife. There is no credible evidence that we cite to help us choose which is the true version of events. In fact, the way the world seems to work rules out all these possibilities. Fourthly, we have to assume that some mechanism connects our actions to our post-mortem fate.

None of these assumptions is compatible with reason, since none of these assumptions is based on inferences from evidence or experience; i.e., they were not produced by reasoning. They are assumptions that we make so that our doctrine works in the way that we wish it to. All the evidence suggests that these assumptions are simply false (an afterlife is demonstrably false). So assuming that they are true is certainly not compatible with reason. And yet, without these assumptions, there can be no karma doctrine. So karma doctrines, as a class, are not compatible with reason.

Forms of morality in which the social consequences of our social interaction are appropriate and timely are at least possible, even if our social groups seldom attain the ideal. Beyond this, reason, fails.

In my critique of Madhyamaka karma I tried to show that the problem of continuity (saṃbandha) remains unsolved and that it seems insoluble within the traditional Buddhist metaphysics. A completely different approach to ontology would be required because the description of mental-states arising does not work as a general description of the world. In other essays I have proposed such an approach. In my proposed ontology all existence is temporary, both substance and structure are real, and structures (such as our bodies and minds) persist over time, for a time. Morality is explained by bottom-up manifestations of empathy and reciprocity, but karma is ruled out because there is no afterlife, no supernatural, and no just-world.

karma is not
compatible with
Belief in karma fails to meet the standard set in Subhuti's essay (cited in Part I). So, the major conclusion of this long essay is that karma is not compatible with reason. By this I mean that no existing Buddhist version of the doctrine of karma is compatible with reason. I also infer that any theory of karma that involves logical fallacies (such as the just-world fallacy) or supernatural elements (such as an afterlife) cannot ever be compatible with reason. Since no logical fallacy or supernatural element is demonstrable, karma also appears to fail Subhuti's verifiability criterion.


Post Script. 29 Jan 2017. Someone wrote in to say that my understanding of Nāgārjuna's approach to karma was "obviously false", because he talks about karma in more conventional ways in other texts, such as the Ratnāvalī. But the fact that a Buddhist talks about karma in different ways in different contexts is completely consistent with the trend I first identified in 2013. In contexts that emphasise morality, Buddhists maintain a narrative that emphasises continuity between actions and consequences; for example, in the Jātakas, the personal continuity of people across lifetimes is normal; while in contexts that emphasise metaphysics this continuity is denied, and the idea of any persistence of any kind is rejected. And these two narratives co-exist. Buddhists switch between them without even noticing that they are doing so. Our metaphysics denies the possibility of morality; and yet morality is clearly very important to all Buddhists and karma is maintained in defiance of our metaphysics, without even achieving resolution. So the fact that Nāgārjuna exhibits this same kind of duplicity is not evidence that he does not deny the reality of karma in Mūlamadhyamakakārikā


Attwood, Jayarava. (2014). Escaping the Inescapable: Changes in Buddhist Karma. Journal of Buddhist Ethics, 21, 503-535. http://blogs.dickinson.edu/buddhistethics/2014/06/04/changes-in-buddhist-karma

Barrett, Justin L. (2004). Why Would Anyone Believe in God? Altamira Press.

Bodhi. 2000. The Connected Discourses of the Buddha: a Translation of the Saṃyutta Nikāya. Boston: Wisdom Publications.

Kalupahana, David J. (1986) Nāgārjuna, The Philosophy of the Middle Way: Mūlamadhyamakakārikā. SUNY.

Mercier, Hugo & Sperber, Dan. (2011). Why Do Humans Reason. Arguments for an Argumentative Theory. Behavioral and Brain Sciences. 34: 57 – 111. doi:10.1017/S0140525X10000968. Available from Dan Sperber's website.

Subhuti (2007) There are Limits or Buddhism with Beliefs. Privately circulated.

Subhuti & Sangharakshita (2013) Seven Papers. Triratna. See also https://thebuddhistcentre.com/triratna/seven-papers-subhuti-sangharakshita

Yang, J. H., Barnidgeb, M. and Rojasa, H. (2017) The politics of “Unfriending”: User filtration in response to political disagreement on social media. Computers in Human Behavior 70, May 2017: 22–29
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