Tuesday, January 28, 2014

More On Collective Kamma

In my  previous post I discussed the notion of collective kamma. I  maintained that the idea is not mentioned in any classical Buddhist literature. However, at least one story from  pre-modern times that I know of could be interpreted to imply collective kamma - a story  about the Sakyans, the Buddha’s kinsmen. Viduudabha, the King of Kosala, massacred “all the Sakyans” including even “the suckling babes”, and they suffered this fate supposedly because “the Sakyans” had sometime previously poisoned a river in a dispute over water (Ja.IV,152). In reality, only a few Sakyans could have committed this evil deed, and although the Sakyan chiefs  may have authorized it and  a number of others may have approved of it, the majority, particularly the babies and children, would have had nothing at all to do with it. Thus the collective kamma idea is implicit  in this  story. How are we to explain this?
The story is not in the Tipitaka but comes from the  Paccuppannavanna of the Jataka, a text of uncertain but late date. Some scholars consider it to have been composed in Sri Lankan rather than India. But whoever the author was   it seems  likely that he was just storytelling, rather than positing the idea of collective kamma as a specific doctrine. The fact that no later commentators took the story as a cue to develop the idea of collective kamma strengthens this assumption. Also, another retelling of the story, from the Mahavamsa Tika, says that there were survivors of the massacre, thus undermining that claim that “all Sakyans” suffered the negative vipaka of the kamma created by others.
That version of collective kamma which maintains that the consequences of deeds done by some within a group can be experienced by others within the same group, contradicts  one of the most fundamental Buddhist concepts, that each individual is responsible for themselves. 

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Collective Karma. Myth Or Reality?

In recent decades something  referred to as collective kamma or group kamma has been posited and discussed. According to this theory,  groups of people or even whole nations can supposedly   suffer the results (positive collective kamma never seems to be discussed, its always negative kamma). The revered Tibetan master Lati Rimpoche recently claimed that the suffering of the Jewish people during the Holocaust was the result of great wickedness they had all committed in previous lives. Others have claimed that the murderous rule of the Khmer Rouge was likewise kammic retribution for past evil done by the Cambodian people. 
Nothing like the idea of collective kamma is found in or even hinted at in the Buddha’s teachings. There is no Pali or Sanskrit words for collective kamma in the traditional lexicons. The idea is also absent from later Buddhist texts. In his Abhidharmakosabhasya Vasubhandu has a comment that could be interpreted  as suggesting   something like collective kamma.   He says: “When many persons are united with the intention to kill, either in war, or in the hunt, or in banditry, who is guilty of murder, if only one of them kills? As soldiers, etc., concur in the realization of the same effect, all are as guilty as is the one who kills. Having a common goal, all are guilty  just as he who among them kills, for all mutually incite one another, not through speech, but by the very fact that they are united together in order to kill. But is the person who has been constrained through force to join the army also guilty? Evidently so, unless he has formed the resolution:   ‘Even in order to save my life, I shall not kill a living being’.” (Vasubandhu, Abhidharma-kośa-bhāsya. Vol.1,   translation by Leo M. Pruden 1991.
Let us consider Vasubhandu’s words  carefully. All the persons mentioned in this example would have come together with a common negative purpose and thus would have all made some negative kamma, as Vasubhandu correctly says. However, the nature and intensity of their individual intentions may well have varied. Some might have been enthusiastic about what was planned, others less so, one or two may have had serious reservations. Further, the kammic background of each person would have been different. One could have been a hardened criminal who had committed many crimes before. Another   might have been a novice in crime, while a third might have been  basically good  but weak and easily led into evil by his friends. With such a variety of motives and backgrounds how each member of the gang would have felt and acted subsequent to their crime is likely to have been  just as diverse, ranging all the way from cruel satisfaction, to cold indifference, to regret.   
Taking all these quite plausible  and even likely differences into consideration, it is only realistic to imagine that the vipaka of  each person in the group would be of very different strength and that it would manifest at different times and in very different  ways. Thus a second  look at this passage will show that it is not suggesting collective kamma.  
The earliest unambiguous mention of collective kamma that  I have been able to find is in the eclectic and highly dubious writings of the occultist Helena Blavatsky (d.1891). In her The Key to Theosophy, 1889, Blavatsky make  reference to what she called “National Karma”. The idea seems to have subsequently been taken up by various believers in the occult, then absorbed into New Age thinking, from where it has spread to Buddhism. It is surprising how many Buddhist teacher, learned and otherwise,  speak of collective kamma as if it were a part of authentic Dhamma, despite its recent origin and it having no precedence in traditional Buddhism.
Nonetheless, it could be argued that just because collective kamma is not mentioned in any Buddhist scriptures does not mean that it is not a reality.   After all, Buddhism does not have  an exclusive claim to all truth. Perhaps Madam Blavatsky had insights into kamma that the Buddha or later Buddhist masters lacked. So it will be worthwhile to examine the idea of collective kamma more carefully to see if it has any validity.              
There are various versions of the collective kamma idea.  One    maintains that large numbers of people can be reborn into a particular group which then suffers together because of their shared  negitive kamma.  Another versions of the  idea maintains that a large number of innocent individuals belonging to a group can  suffer the negative kamma made by a smaller number of individuals within the group. In both cases the suffering  supposedly comes in the form of war, famine, plague, massive natural disasters, etc.  The most recent mass tragedy to be dubbed an example of collective kamma was the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami. In the days immediately after this disaster a senior Singaporean  monk was reported in the local newspaper as saying that most of the tsunami victims were fishermen suffering the kammic consequences of decades of killing fish. 
There are numerous logical, evidential, doctrinal and even commonsense problems with the collective kamma idea in any of its forms. Let us examine some of them. Proponents of collective kamma are long on generalizations but noticeably short on details. How, for example, does kamma organize all its mass causes and effects?  How and in what form does it store and process all the data needed so that one individual experiences this kammic consequence and another one experiences that? How do  the logistics needed to guarantee that a large number of individuals are reborn at this time, within  that  group and  at a certain location so as to experience the required suffering work?  And what is the force or energy by which kamma makes all these extraordinarily complex arrangements?  No explanations are forthcoming.  
If we explore specific examples of what is claimed to be collective kamma we will see just how problematic  the idea is. Let us look at the monstrous crimes the Nazis committed against  European Jewry during the Second World War.  If some form of collective kamma operates something like this would have be necessary. Kamma would have had  to manipulate things so that  six million evil-doers were reborn in what was to become Nazi occupied Europe and be living there between 1939 and 1945.  Then it would have had to pre-plan and arrange the social and political situation in Germany so that a fanatical anti-Semite came to power. Concordant to this it would have been necessary to select millions of other people to be reborn in Germany with attitudes and outlooks that either supported Nazism, or were   too apathetic or to frightened to oppose it. And when the required six million Jews had suffered  sufficiently for their past evil deeds, kamma would have had to then arrange and manipulate  innumerable  complex causes and effects in such ways that the war ended. Kamma must be as powerful and as intelligent as any supreme being!  
 Let us examine the 2004 tsunami, another event often sited as an example of collective kamma. The tsunami killed some  200,000 people, injured another million and left hundreds of thousands of others homeless. Even the most ill-informed  person knows that the directly observable cause of the tsunami was an earthquake that shifted the tectonic plates on the floor of the ocean off the coast of Sumatra. This released a vast amount of energy  which in turn caused huge waves to form. For this to be collective kamma it would require several things. As with the Holocaust, kamma would have had to pre-plan things so that vast numbers of people were in the effected area, either because they were reborn there and lived there, or that they  were visiting the area at the chosen time, i.e. in the late morning of the 26th December.  Extraordinarily, amidst the chaos of the deluge, the panic, the collapsing buildings and the debris being swept  along, kamma would have had  to arrange things so that the thousands of victims involved got their exact kammic retribution, no more and no less – so that those whose kamma required them to be killed were killed, that those whose kamma required them to be seriously injured  were so injured, that those who only had to sustain minor injuries did so, and those whose kamma required only that their houses be destroyed suffered only that loss, and so on. But even more extraordinary, for kamma to be responsible for the tsunami  would require accepting that it is able to   influence  the  Earth’s tectonic plates so that they moved to just the right extent  and at just the right time so that the resulting waves play out thousands of people’s kamma. Apart from stretching credibility beyond breaking point, I reject the idea of collective kamma because if such a thing existed the Buddha would have mentioned it. And he does not.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

One Of My Heroes

The highlight of my trip to Japan last year was visiting Toshodai-ji, the temple built by the great Chinese monk Jianzhen(Ganjin in Japanese) and where he is buried. Jianzhen has long been one of my heroes; a learned, dynamic monk who loved the Dhamma enough that he was prepared to sacrifice much to make it available to others.  Living  during the Tang Dynasty,  he could properly be called a renaissance man.  He was born in what is now Jiangsu Province in 688 he became a monk while young and studied Buddhism in the Chinese capital for six years, his main field of study being Vinaya. In the succeeding years he mastered many arts including medicine, horticulture and even architecture. His two great achievements during this time were to found a hospital and to organize the copying out of 33,000 scrolls of the scriptures to be distributed to various monasteries.
In 742 a delegation from  Japan arrived in  China and invited Jianzhen to visit their country to re-establish the correct  ordination procedure for monks and nuns. Despite the protests of his disciples and supporters, Jianzhan accepted the invitation and the next year set out for Japan by ship. Bad navigation and unruly weather forced his ship back to China. Three more times he tried to get to Japan and failed. During the fifth attempt his ship was blown off course as far as Hainan Island and in the three years it took him to return home the rigors of the journey were such that he developed an eye infection and lost his sight. Undeterred by his earlier failures and despite being blind he tried to reach Japan yet again and finally succeeded in 753. He arrived in Nara, the Japanese capital, and was greeted by the emperor who put him in charge of the great Todaiji Temple. Over the next two years Jianzhen trained some 400 monks and then ordained them in the proper manner. After this Jianzhen built a temple for himself where he was to reside and teach until his death in 763. In designing and constructing this temple he introduced to the Japanese architectural techniques unknown to them until that time. He also introduced the art of bonsai and the technique for making soybean curd.
But Jianzhen’s greatest gift to the Japanese was pharmacology and medicine Despite his blindness he could identify numerous herbs by smell alone and he was highly skilled in classifying and storing medicines so as to retain their potency. He also corrected the many mistakes in the earlier translations of Chinese medical texts. Right up to the end of the 19th century many packets of medicine in Japan had Jianzhen’s face on them. Shortly after he passed away Jianzhen’s disciples made a statue of him so lifelike that it was to radically change Japanese sculpture from then on. This statue can still be seen in Nara.
Jianzhen’s influence and reputation continues to resonate even today. He is still considered the father of Japanese medicine. In 1973 China and Japan jointly constructed a Jianzhen Memorial hall at the master’s home temple to mark the restoration of their diplomatic relations. A successful play based on his life has been written by Inooe Yasusi with a musical score by the renowned composer Dan Ikuma. More recently, Jianzhen’s life has been presented in comic book form.
The Toshodai-ji is a  immaculately  preserved, quiet temple set in beautiful gardens. To get to Jianzhen’s grave  you enter a walled garden through a small gatehouse to find yourself in a forest of trees growing on the moss-covered ground. A path leads through the forest to an earthen mound which again is surrounded by shady trees. I led my friends in chanting some suttas in honor of this great Buddhist monk.