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Karma and Critical Thinking

The idea that the Buddha encouraged thinking and critical analysis is rooted in the teachings of Buddhism, which emphasize the importance of discernment and understanding (See Kalama Sutta). Generally saying, do Buddhists really think through what they are taught, or do most easily accepts what Dharma lessons they receive?

Factors such as the rise of social media, information overload and the fast-paced nature of modern life can sometimes lead to a more superficial or reactive approach to information. In general though, majority of Buddhists will simply accept what is said at a Buddhist talk without questioning.

Let's take the example of karma. How many times have you listened to a talk on the topic and ask if what the speaker is saying is ALL true? I've heard once when a reasonably senior Dharma speaker said that "accumulating good karma leads to good life". Well, not quite so. While cultivating positive karma can lead to more favorable conditions and experiences, Buddhism does not promise a perfect life as a result. Life is inherently marked by impermanence and suffering and even individuals with good karma will encounter challenges.

Karma is after all, is just one of the five natural orders (Pali: Niyama; the other four are law of nature, biological law, law of Dharma and the mind). Let us take the case of the 2004 Asian Tsunami. It was recorded that 39 Buddhist temples were destroyed by the tsunami tidal waves in Galle, Matara and Hambantota in Sri Lanka.

It was said that some devotees were meditating and attending to regular chores when the disaster occurred. I am sure that some of the devotees who perished in the temples were doing what any good Buddhists would do - be mindful and lead a morally upright life. And yet when the deadly waves came, their "good karma" could not prevent death. As the late Chief Ven. K Sri Dhammananda once said, "karma got cancelled by nature". It was a classic case of the law of natural order in action.

Modifiability of Karmic Effects

Critical thinking is actually critical when it comes to something like Karma. The Buddha made it clear that it is not purely a system of reward and punishment, nor is it fatalistic and neither does it always happen instantly. One area which few Dharma teachers touch on is its "modifiability", which is often overlooked but crucially important. While karma is typically viewed as a strict law governing actions and their consequences, the Buddhist teaching of karma's lawfulness allows for a considerable range of modifications in the outcomes of our deeds.

If karmic action always produced results of the same magnitude without any modification, liberation from suffering would be impossible due to an inexhaustible past generating obstructive results. The Buddha emphasized that karma's results are variable and can be experienced differently depending on external and internal factors. He explains it like this:

"If one says that in whatever way a person performs a karmic action, in that very same way he will experience the result - in that case there will be no (possibility for a) religious life and no opportunity would appear for the complete ending of suffering.

"But if one says that a person who performs a karmic action (with a result) that is variably experience-able, will reap its results accordingly - in that case there will be (a possibility for) a religious life and an opportunity for making a complete end of suffering." - AN 3.110

Conditions for Karmic Ripening

External conditions, such as supportive, counteractive, or destructive karma, can strengthen, weaken, or annul karmic results. Moreover, the "internal field" of an individual's mind, including their moral and spiritual qualities, can also modify the outcome of karma. Therefore, a good or bad karmic action may have different effects on individuals depending on their respective characters and past actions.

It is, however, not only these external conditions which can cause modification. The ripening also reflects the karma's "internal conditions", which is, the total quality of wholesomeness of the mind from which the action is generated.

To one rich in moral or spiritual qualities, a single offense may not entail the weighty results that the same offense will have for one who is lacking in such protective virtues. To use secular human law as analogy, a first offender's punishment will be milder than that of a re-convicted criminal.

It is of this type of modified reaction the Buddha speaks of, as clarified in the following sutta:

"Now take the case when a minor evil deed has been committed by a certain person and it takes him to hell. But if the same minor offense is committed by another person, its result might be experienced during his lifetime and not even the least (residue of a reaction) will appear (in the future), not to speak about a major (reaction).

"Now what is the kind of person whom a minor offense takes to hell? It is one who has not cultivated (restraint of) the body, not cultivated virtue and thought, nor has he developed any wisdom; he is narrow-minded, of low character and even for trifling things he suffers. It is such a person whom even a minor offense may take to hell.

"And what is the person by whom the result of the same small offense will be experienced in his lifetime, without the least (future residue)? He is one who has cultivated (restraint of) the body, who has cultivated virtue and thought and who has developed wisdom; he is not limited by (vices), is a great character and he lives unbounded (by evil). It is such a person who experiences the result of the same small offense during his lifetime, without the least future residue.

"Now suppose a man throws a lump of salt into a small cup of water. What do you think, monks: would that small quantity of water in the cup become salty and undrinkable through that lump of salt?" - "It would, Lord." - "And why so?" - "The water in the cup is so little that a lump of salt can make it salty and undrinkable." - "But suppose, monks, that lump of salt is thrown into the river Ganges. Would it make the river Ganges salty and undrinkable?" - "Certainly not, Lord." - "And why not?" - "Great, Lord, is the mass of water in the Ganges. It will not become salty and undrinkable by a lump of salt." - AN 3.110

Where Does Karma Take Place?

So where then does karma appear and what can we do to minimize its negative consequences? The "world" of which the Buddha speaks is comprised in this aggregate of body-and-mind. The six physical and mental sense faculties is the world that we can experience, interact and respond to. The sights, sounds, smells, tastes and bodily impressions which we perceive and our various mental functions, conscious and unconscious - is the "world" in which we live in.

And it is in this "world of ours" that we must learn to mindfully thread through the minefields of physical and mental aggregates with its respective processes that produces the karmic act of craving, leading to rebirth and suffering. The Buddha said it best:

"If, Ananda, there were no karma ripening in the sphere of the senses, would there appear any sense-sphere existence?" - "Surely, not Lord." - AN 3.76

To Understand Karma, Use Your Critical Mind

It is crucial to understand that our actions primarily affect our own minds, shaping our character and future experiences. Good deeds might not always be received positively by others, but they still have a positive impact on the doer's mind. Similarly, harmful actions may not always harm others but can damage the doer's character. This is the true meaning of karma-vipaka, action and result.

Do not be cowed by threats and fears such as "do that and you get bad karma." Being threatened with bad karma, especially by persons one deems as a "higher in spirituality" is called "religious blackmail". Spiritual practice is never defined by fear or coercion, so if one finds oneself in such a spot, please go elsewhere and seek another advisor. It is imperative therefore - and to emphasize again - to be always in a mindful evaluation mode, to critically think over what one is being taught. Investigate, probe, reflect, question. Never cease doing this.

The Buddha's teaching on karma stresses the responsibility of individuals for their own actions and their potential for liberation from suffering through the elimination of greed, hatred, and delusion. The Noble Eightfold-Path is presented as a therapy to break free from karmic bondage and achieve liberation from suffering. The ultimate goal is to end the perpetual cycle of craving and suffering by understanding and wisely responding to karma in our lives.


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