copyright Robert M. Ellis 2008

'The Trouble with Buddhism' Chapter 4

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The trouble with karma 

This chapter offers a critique of Buddhist beliefs about karma and rebirth. Whilst recognising the positive ideas of moral responsibility that often motivate Buddhists to believe (or try to believe) in karma and rebirth, it concludes that many of the defences of such beliefs put forward by Western Buddhists are misleading or even dishonest, and that the effects of karma and rebirth beliefs lead not towards moral responsibility, but towards dogmatism.

Click on the summaries below to view the full text of each section.

a) Cosmic house points

Both traditional Buddhist and 'reformed' views of the workings of karma take all our deliberate actions to be requited by morally equivalent effects, even if these effects lie far beyond experience. This makes karma a metaphysical belief going far beyond 'actions have consequences'.  The perfect justice of the effects karma is said to create by natural law is contradictory, as perfect justice for past acts cannot be applied to a changing self in the future. Far from supporting moral responsibility, belief in karma requires the dogmatic defence of beliefs that can't be shown through experience. Addressing conditions through the Middle Way provides a much clearer basis for moral responsibility.

b) Karma vs. nirvana

The idea of karma as a moral motivator also conflicts with nirvana as an ideal state beyond all karmic effects. Good karma cannot lead to no karma, and no karma would be best produced by inaction. Only a dogmatic appeal to the Buddha's authority has kept the contradictory ideas of karma and nirvana glued together in Buddhist tradition. We would be better off abandoning both of them and adopting an incremental understanding of moral progress based on addressing conditions within experience.

c) Ridiculous rebirth

The Buddhist tradition presents rebirth in conflicting ways as sometimes the rebirth of a person, sometimes not. However, if we take anatta seriously we cannot possibly 'deserve' our rebirth, and the whole doctrine becomes contradictory as a supposed support to moral responsibility. The supposed evidence for rebirth (e.g. infant prodigies, hyponosis etc) is not worth investigating closely, because all such evidence could be equally well explained by a variety of other wacky theories, and it is only the authority of tradition that pins such evidence to the doctrine of rebirth specifically.

d) Buddhism without karma

Buddhism is quite conceivable, and would work much better, without the alienating doctrines of karma and rebirth. The probability that good actions will produce good consequences, and bad ones bad, is quite enough of a moral motivator in our experience to help us address conditions, without making absolute metaphysical claims. The term 'karma' is much better abandoned than fudged.


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