Karma Doesn't Explain Anything

Balances the universe

The karmic explanations of individual differences and what happens to us after death constitute an ordering principle in the universe. Good is rewarded, not necessarily tomorrow or the next life, but some time in the future. Bad is punished, again, not necessarily tomorrow or in this life, but some time in the future. The time frame may be vast, but the order is established: good actions lead to good experiences, bad actions to bad experiences.

Allows projections of human values on world of experience

We tend to project human values onto the universe. Several years ago, I taught a class on karma. I asked everyone what they thought karma was. Over 80% replied that they felt karma made the universe just. The idea was comforting. The desire for justice is a human desire. It means that the individual is recognized as an individual by the society he or she lives in. Karma is viewed as the universe’s recognition of us as individuals. The universe is just — everybody gets what they deserve.

Can be used to justify political/social systems

Once we accept the idea that karma ensures that the universe is a just place, the prevailing political system can use karma to “justify” the inequities that it produces. If you are born into a ruling family, you enjoy the results of the good you did in past lives. If you are born a slave, then your fate is the result of what you did in past lives. Your effort in this life is not to strive to be a ruler or king, but to work out your karma, whatever it is. Countless conquerors, kings. and warlords have, over the centuries, used karma to justify their actions. Countless others have taken the attitude “It’s their karma” to avoid helping others in need.

Rigidity in moral position

The acceptance of karmic explanations easily solidifies into a belief system. In this context, “belief” is an idea that we accept without verifying it through our own experience. Since beliefs are the underlying structure that tells us who we are and what our place in the world is, we resist very strongly (sometimes violently) any interpretation of events and experiences that bring them into question.

Beliefs about the world and about who we are form the basis for our determining what is morally right and wrong. When beliefs are firmly in place, we find it very difficult to accept actions that, however appropriate for the situation, violate our sense of right and wrong.

Example of innocent children

So we return to the children killed in the civil war. How do we explain this event if we believe in karma? Our only explanation is that, yes, these children did commit horrendous actions in past lives and the karma has now ripened.

For me that “explanation” is not only unconvincing but also unnecessary. The children died. They did nothing to “deserve” such deaths. The reason I look for an explanation is to avoid the mystery of their deaths, to protect myself from the pain it brings up in me, a pain that reminds me that I, too, am subject to tragic and arbitrary death, that my life could end at any time, and that I have no idea what the future holds for me. That is the mystery of life.

Ironically, when we probe deeper into classical treatments of karma, we find that the explanation karma appears to offer isn’t much of an explanation. Traditionally, only a fully awakened being (a buddha) can see exactly how an action develops into a result. Karma, itself, is a mystery.

I feel that karma as explanation adds very little to our lives. It lulls us into the belief that there is an order to the universe, it allows us to project a universe that we would like to exist, it can be used to justify horrific inequities and rigid moral positions and in the end only replaces one mystery with another.

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