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.


brahmavihara said...

Collective Karma all sounds a little bit "Old Testament" or Islamic to me and for all the reasons you mentioned. These ideas of collective Karma and Vipaka also drag into focus another fairly unprofitable view, namely fatalism. Fate is regarded as pernicious wrong view in quite a number of Buddhist sources including the Udana. (can't remember the exact verse source) Almost as likely as the old story,rehashed for the 04' Tsunami about the hapless individual swept out to sea, clinging to a log of wood that later turns out to be a crocodile. I guess Mme. Blavatsky et al would have us belive that in a previous life the man saved the crocodile (born at that time as a human being) from being drowned. I read an historic book about the Krakatoa eruption in the 1870's which created similar tsunamis and lo, the story of the crocodile log was there as well. What's that?... Jonah he lived in a Whale?

jason said...

It's an interesting concept. While I'm not as familiar with other traditions, Theravada generally focuses on the individual aspects of kamma since the vast majority of the teachings in the Pali Canon deal with actions on an individual level (e.g., AN 5.57, MN 61, MN 136, etc.). That said, there is one section at the beginning of DN 16, dealing with the "the growth of the Vajjis," that seems to allude to a type of collective kamma at a 'national' level.

The subject of collective kamma bothers me for a number of reasons, though. It's not that I think it's impossible for there to be a concentration of individual kammic results in one place, due to the combined actions of a cohesive whole, such as from the citizens of a country. I think it's a valid frame of reference. But even so, I still tend to view them as individual actions with individual results that are, or least appear to be, similar (i.e., nations don't have intentions, the citizens of those nation do).

Furthermore, the idea of collective kamma bothers me when people use it unskillfully, e.g., when people harbour intense guilt for actions that they themselves didn't commit, and then end up creating more suffering for themselves by cultivating unwholesome mental states in the belief that they're somehow responsible, perhaps out of a desire to be punished or something.

I think that if people use the idea of collective kamma in a skillful way, such as being more active in their country's politics to help steer public policy, giving humanitarian aide, etc., it can be a good thing that helps to lessen suffering all around. But given the tendency of people to harbour guilt in numerous and often unwholesome ways, I feel that the idea of collective kamma can do more harm than good, such as leading to taking on the 'weight of the world' when what we really want to do is cast our burdens aside.

I think if we view the teachings on kamma as teachings about personal responsibility, that our actions not only affect ourselves but those around us, then we're on the right track. When it comes to carrying the guilt of other's misdeeds, however, I think that's a self-imposed burden that we needn't bear. We can't change the past, we can only control how we act right here, right now; and I believe using the past as a lesson in how not to make the same mistakes is sufficient.

Shravasti Dhammika said...

Dear Jason, thanks for your comments. I do not think the Buddha’s statement about the Vajjins prospering or declining was meant to suggests collective kamma, any more than someone does when they say “China is on the rise” or “America is declining.” Both are generally accepted modes of speech ways about the generalities of situations. Neither imply that the speaker believes in a particular metaphysical concept. However, there is one example (a story) from the Theravada tradition that does very strongly imply collective kamma. I am waiting to see if any of my readers mentions it. If they do I will give my comments on it. You mention that you would not object to using the idea of collective kamma “in a skilful way”. If by this you mean that a false ideas can be promoted and hailed if it can help bring about a desired goal, I have no opinion on that. My post did not address the question the ‘usefulness” or otherwise of the collective kamma idea, although generally I think most of its implications would be negative. My post is primarily whether collective kamma accords with the Buddha’s Dhamma, and my conclusion is that it does not.

David ( said...

Is this it?,%20Evil,%20and%20Beyond/4_%20Kamma%20on%20the%20Social%20Level.htm

I agree with you that there is no collective kamma. Additionally, it invites speculation on kamma and nothing wholesome can come of that. The 'evidence' the supporters have for collective kamma is flimsy at best.

jason said...

No, I didn't mean that a false idea can be useful, although I suppose that's possible. What I meant was that one can look at the idea of collective kamma in a way that's valid and can help motive people to be more socially engaged in their community/society. In the passage I was referring to, for example, the Buddha asks Ananda if the Vajjis as whole do certain things (which are arguably skillful), and after Ananda answers yes, the Buddha states that, "So long, Ananda, as this is the case, the growth of the Vajjis is to be expected, not their decline." The Buddha doesn't call it collective kamma, of course, but I think the general principle is there.

MBenson said...

The original collective actions of our distant ancestors kept our species alive under very difficult circumstances. We developed social systems to offset the limitations of individuals and at no point in our history have we abandoned that basic rubric, under which all sorts of permutations are now possible, given our large numbers. We're now unavoidably social creatures.

We also live in a physical universe that has an established law of kamma, whether or not it's recognized by us. Kamma as it manifests as action-reaction or cause and effect. The elements, whether the earth, air, fire, and water elements that the Buddha referred to or hydrogen, helium, etc., that we know today can combine in various ways and influence each other depending on the combinations involved. But earth remains earth regardless of its combination with other elements, hydrogen remains hydrogen, etc. otherwise they would lose their elemental properties. In the same way we can react to and be influenced by other humans but the notion that the law of cause and effect, whereby I reap the rewards or suffer the consequences of my own previous actions, could be subsumed into a larger group is unfounded. I don't see a mechanism by which that would operate, in which I would "lend" my kamma to others, or that they would take over mine. Not in this universe, anyway.

It seems that when the Buddha instructed the Kalamas as a group and said "When you know for yourselves that…" he might have the opportunity to discuss "collective kamma" but in the sutta he then immediately refers to the actions of a "person" as being beneficial or not, as skillful or not.

It seems that the idea of collective kamma is an example of intellectual pandering.

Ariyakumara said...

@Bhante: Do you mean the genocide of Sakyans by Kosalan king Vidudabba?

Shravasti Dhammika said...

Dear Ariyakumara. Congratulations! This is exactly the thing in Buddhism that I think could be interpreted as an example of collective kamma. I will write something about this and post it on my blog in a few days.

Ariyakumara said...


There's another example too, Bhante, that is the story of how 33 youths reborn as devas at Tavatimsa heaven lead by Magha as Sakka. I think this is an example of good collective kamma.

Shravasti Dhammika said...

Dear Ariyakumara, please give me the reference for this story.

Ariyakumara said...

That's from Dhammapada commentary:

Mandy Soh said...

There r not such things as collective karma. Pls dun bullshit.

Prathamesh said...

Collective karma seems kind of apt to me. Not everybody during the Holocaust/Tsunami died. Some escaped with their lives, others had worse experiences than death - perhaps in accordance to their karma. Perhaps the Germans were creating new karma for themselves. More people were displaced than died during the Tsunami. Don't underestimate the complexity/capability/organization of the universe. We are born in a certain place according to our karma. It kind of makes sense our family members/neighbors/countrymen share a part of our karma - at least to a certain extent. If you have done bad things, you will be be in a bad place. Other people who have done bad things may join you there.