Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Are disasters in Burma and China caused by bad karma?

Some people have speculated that the earthquake in China is bad karma due to the actions of that state over Tibet. Similar opinions have been expressed about the cycone in Burma/Myanmar and its treatment of its own people - particularly its monks.

But this is a superstitious worldview not one based on understanding. Karma is not divine retribution. Buddha never talked about karma in a collective sense like this. However this is not dissimilar to the sorts of rationalisation that were used in feudal Tibet to justify the continued enslavement of a whole class of people - they were working off bad karma from previous lives.

Many people think that karma was the Buddha's concept. It wasn't - it was part of the dominant worldview of his culture. Buddhism - in particular the original teachings of the Buddha - can only be properly understood in context - as an expounding of or response to Brahmanism and the Upanishads. The latter teach that not only do all actions have consequences, but those consequences continue after bodily death affecting how one is reincarnated. What Buddha did was tell the same story in terms of interdependent conditionality instead of essential self.

For the Buddha, reincarnation and consequences which revisit us after death were given aspects of the understanding of his time. They are not given aspects of the understanding of our time. And there is no evidence that he was omniscient. That's not what Bodhi means. When he debated with others, he appealed to their reason and their experiences. We don't need to accept something is automatically true just because the Buddha said it or allegedly said it. Buddha emphasised direct experience. Zen Buddhism perhaps even more so.

Karma means action. Karma is action and the consequences of action. It is just cause and effect from the perspective of something that perceives itself to be an agent, a self. All actions have consequences of course, so in that sense it is indisputable that karma exists. But what the exact consequeces of any given action are not clear. From observation, some actions do indeed seem to lead to 'good' or 'bad' consequences for myself or others, but actions deemed morally 'bad' by society don't always lead to suffering for the perpetrator. I can't eliminate the possibility that this would be redressed in future rebirths but there's no evidence for this and it seems to beg a lot of questions given the current understanding we have of the universe. Why should there be a coincidence between the morally 'bad' and later suffering? What sort of mechanism allows this chain of cause and effect to continue after death? Where did this mechanism come from? How does this fit in with biological evolution? etc.

We also understand through science that chains of cause and effect are effectively infinitely complex and open-ended involving effectively the whole universe to some extent or another. A butterfly flapping it's wings in one part of the world can cause hurricanes in another. This validates the Buddhist concept of interdependent conditionality but it makes karma highly unpredictable and unstable.

Karma is not divine retribution. And I can't help but think that those who use karma either to justify some sort of inequality or as a 'divine revenge' for a perceived injustice are projecting their own subconscious desires onto the cosmos. This is every bit as hateful as those who have said that AIDS is God's punishment on homosexuals or that Hurricane Katrina was God's punishment on hedonists or 9/11 was His punishment on 'infidels'. In a sense, it's even worse since Yahweh/Allah at least is supposed to do His own Dirtywork, whereas Buddhists rely on impersonal and unaccountable cosmic forces.

Tens of thousands have been killed and many more have been made homeless by natural disasters. Most of us don't like the behaviour of the Burmese regime or the actions of the Chinese government over Tibet. But let's not delude ourselves. The causes of natural disasters are largely beyond our control, but we can still do things to help in the aftermath such as not making callous comments which are transparently our own violent desires projected onto the cosmos.


  1. Excellent post. I completely agree that comments like Sharon Stone's are "transparently our own violent desires projected onto the cosmos," and they raise my ire when I hear or read them. Wishing ill fortune on others or taking pleasure in it is the opposite of what is needed to promote peace and freedom.

  2. I don't think she had any idea of how offensive she as being. It doesn't matter whether we agree with all the actions of the Chinese government or not - what these people need is support and understanding.

  3. Anonymous11:34 pm

    tens of thousands of people have been killed by natural disaster? I think the number is a little bit higher....great post though