So, Nagapriya, what inspired you to write the book?
Well it struck me that everyone has heard of the concept of karma, and everyone has heard of the concept of rebirth, but I find that whenever I talk to people, they tend to be quite unclear about what these ideas refer to. And one of my main concerns was this idea of people understanding karma as explaining everything that happens; this idea that people see moral causation as underlying everything that happens in the world. So anything bad that happens is seen as a consequence of some bad intention somewhere along the line. And my understanding of Buddhism is that this is not correct, and certainly my reading of the Pali Canon indicates that is not correct. Not everything that happens in the world happens as a consequence of moral intentionality.
People who should perhaps know better tend to make the following statement: “karma means that actions have consequences”. But that isn’t what karma means. Actions would have consequences regardless of karma. Karma is about the underlying ethical intentions behind actions, and how this governs the consequences. It’s not simply about consequences. So, for instance, if I drop a ball out of the window, it will fall to the ground regardless of whether I want it to or not. It’s got nothing to do with my intentions, it will happen anyway. Karma actually, I would suggest, governs quite a small sector of existence, which is that area of existence where human beings have will, where they can exercise intention. And I would suggest that the most primary outcome of karma is that how we act changes the kind of person that we are. So, for instance, if we consistently act out of a selfish motive, we will become a selfish person, well, we would be a selfish person because that’s what it means to be a selfish person – to act out of selfishness. But importantly as well, we’ll build up a habit in that direction, so every time we do it, we’ll be more likely to do it the next time, rather than less likely. And so to my mind, that’s how karma works, rather than thinking of it in terms of “well if you act unethically sometime today, then tomorrow you’re going to get run over”.
Can you expand upon this idea of karma as individual intention?
For me, a lot of it is about imagination in the sense of being able to imagine what’s going to happen based on what you do. And obviously we can’t imagine everything, but I think it can be helpful to try to see one’s conduct in its largest possible context, that is the context of the whole universe, rather than just a very narrow sphere of experience. If you think about something that you do as being amplified into the future, then its moral value will become more apparent.
I think that a lot of people understand karma almost transactionally – you do something and then there’s this pay off – but actually, to my mind, it loses its real power when understood in this way. To me, it’s not about thinking in terms of tit for tat or simple action and consequence, but about recognising that every action is like a kind of supernova explosion in the universe, the light of which pours out over billions of light years in every direction. And although obviously many of our acts don’t seem very significant, it can actually sometimes be the seemingly insignificant acts that have tremendous implications in the future. We can’t know all of the time what
these implications are going to be, but I think what we can try and do is to take care of the intentionality behind the acts, and be more attentive to that.
So do you see karma as something that only governs individual intention, or are there circumstances where it could also be understood as a collective phenomenon?
It is possible, but there are difficulties with that. I’ve seen this kind of model applied to the Jews who were exterminated in the gas chambers in the Second World War. Basically, the claim made was that all of those Jews must have done lots of bad things in previous lives to have invited that to happen to them. Personally, I feel that using reasoning of this kind to try and explain the Holocaust is irresponsible at best, and probably criminal at worst. I think it’s totally inappropriate to attribute some kind of moral blame reaching back into past lives for something so evil. Because then how do you explain away the people who weren’t gassed? Is it that they just happened to have done really good things in past lives, and that somehow the universe worked in such a way so that it protected them, and not the others? Then, I think, if you follow that line, karma starts to become something that is quite mystical, rather than something that I think is quite ordinary and pragmatic. And I suppose I’m concerned about this idea of karma becoming almost like a mystical law that protects some and punishes others. For me, it’s something very organic, and in many respects, if one looks closely, it’s actually quite obvious how it works. As I said before, if you act generously, for instance, over a consistent period, you will be a person who is generous, but not only that, you will tend to draw people to you, because people like generous people.
I was wondering more if karma could be seen as a collective phenomenon in terms of the possibility of extending your understanding of karma as personal transformation out to a wider scale, to a collection of people working together in an organisation, perhaps?
I understand where you’re coming from. An institution can have a particular type of culture, and that culture will then impact upon the individuals within that culture. So perhaps if those individuals weren’t within that institution, they would act differently. I think there’s something in that, because you can have good or bad organisations. Let’s think of a work culture. You can have a work culture that develops a kind of atmosphere of bullying, for instance, and in such an atmosphere, because bullying is not particularly frowned upon, it almost invites the tendency to bully to express itself. You could imagine how something like that could get to the point where you’ve got quite an oppressive, unpleasant atmosphere. And the opposite as well. If you’ve got an atmosphere where the culture of the group or the institution is to cultivate friendliness and generosity and so on, then it makes it much easier for the individuals within that culture to express, to experience, to fulfil those emotions. I suppose, in a sense, that’s the principle of Sangha isn’t it? Creating a positive environment where skilful karma can flourish; where skilful karma is rewarded and affirmed, and unskilful karma is discouraged.
I suppose what this highlights is how there is no such thing as the isolated individual in the sense that the individual is related; and the relations in which the individual is embedded are going to have an impact on their karmic development either positively or negatively. This is, I guess, why we tend to emphasise the importance of positive conditions. Within certain conditions we will flourish, and in certain other conditions, we won’t. So it’s not just about our individual will, or individual intentionality. It’s also about the world in which we embed ourselves, the circumstances in which we are living.
Karma and rebirth are principles that grew out of an Eastern context. Do you think they can be truly understood and adopted by Western Buddhists?
I don’t particularly see a problem with Western Buddhists understanding it, but I do see a problem with many traditional Buddhists understanding it, i.e. misunderstanding it. If we’re able to go back to the root principles and early texts and try and explore what these things mean, then I think we can make good sense of them. But if we rely exclusively upon some traditional exposition, then I’m not sure that’s going to be very helpful.
Which traditional expositions do you mean?
Well, for example, the idea that if something bad happens to you it is basically a consequence of your previous bad karma. I don’t find that a helpful way of relating to people’s suffering.
So instead of looking at karma retrospectively, you prefer to understand it as a potential for action?
Yes. I don’t think it’s particularly helpful to see karma retrospectively, on the whole. In some cases, it might have some value in terms of enabling you to accept some present suffering, but I think it could have the opposite effect of making you feel that you have to put up with everything that anyone throws at you. One of the pillars of the caste system in India was the idea that the so-called untouchables and the lower castes were in the state that they were in because of past karma, and that in order to expiate their karma, they simply had to accept their current state. I don’t see that as a good thing.
But could it sometimes be useful to see karma retrospectively in order, for example, to make you aware of something harmful that you have done, so you can then use that knowledge as a basis for personal change? Say I got angry with my mum yesterday, and today I was aware that she was more touchy with me. Could I use this awareness to reflect on my past anger?
Yes, sometimes it can be useful in order to reflect on past action. But say you got angry with your mum one day, and the next day a lamp fell on your foot. So you say: “Ah, a lamp has fallen on my foot because of what happened with my mum; this is my punishment”. Personally, I don’t think that line of reasoning is very helpful because it doesn’t address the problem. The more appropriate thing to do would be to reflect on what you’ve done and go and apologise to your mum, regardless of what’s going on with the lamp. The lamp is just a distraction.
So this goes back to what you were saying about karma not being something mystical, but something very pragmatic that you can actually see and observe?
I think so, yes. I think that to a significant degree one can see how the way that one acts, and the motives from which one acts, impacts on the world and on other people. The world and other people give you fairly immediate feedback on that. And that’s what we need to learn from.
So, in terms of rebirth, do you see any benefit in having faith in this principle?
Well, I think to believe something, you probably have to really understand it – or at least it has to make some kind of conceptual sense. And there are ways in which rebirth doesn’t make conceptual sense to me. First of all, Buddhism says that there is no fixed self. So what can it mean to say that I am reborn, or that I could be reborn? The strongest case could be so say something like: “Another being will arise in dependence on me”. But it won’t be me; I won’t be reborn. Besides this, a lot of what we are – or what we experience ourselves to be – is governed by memory – the previous experiences that we’re constantly remembering and which are constantly informing what’s happening now and what will happen in the future. And so, again, if there is no memory, in what sense would it be meaningful to say that a being in the future is my rebirth? So I guess I’ve got a few issues there.
Some traditional Buddhists have said to me that if I did believe in rebirth in some kind of traditional sense, then that would have a positive impact on the way that I live. But I’m not convinced that this is the case because there are many people in our world who do believe in rebirth but it doesn’t necessarily mean that they act ethically as a consequence. So I don’t simply think that holding a belief in rebirth is, in itself, going to transform one’s conduct.
So would you see any value in rebirth as a principle if it is understood in metaphorical terms, for example as highlighting the fact that we’re reborn from moment to moment?
Yes, I think that is useful, partly because it underlines the possibility that we can change. We’re not fixed, we can be reborn in the future, and that’s an important message. As a Buddhist, one is trying to let go of the unskilful aspects of oneself and move towards the skilful elements, a continual process of being reborn to something more complete, fuller, truer, and that’s a great thing. But the other thing that I would say is that fundamental to the idea of rebirth is an ethical responsibility to the future, whether that is a responsibility to a particular individual that is us in the future, or whether that’s a more generalised responsibility to people who will live on after us. We have a responsibility not to make a mess, not to create more difficult circumstances for them to live in, if we can possibly avoid it.