Talking about Karma with Justin Whitaker

In this video, I talk to Justin Whitaker – author of the influential American Buddhist Perspective blog – about Karma (or Kamma for those who prefer Pali to Sanskrit) in the Buddhist context. We tend to concentrate more on Buddhism as represented in the early texts, than in later forms..

In case you’re interested – there is more info about our Religion, Philosophy & Ethics course at – enjoy



  1. Hi Guys. Couple of things. All Buddhists (more or less) believe in karma, but no two sects agree on how karma might work. Linking two lives is deeply metaphysically problematic and arguments about karma rumble on. As early as the Pāḷi kathavatthu there were polemics against other Buddhists for their views on karma. Nagarjuna is similarly critical in chap 17 of Mūlamadhyamakakārikā and a great deal of polemic on this subject is found in Vasubandhus Abhidharmakośabhāṣya. Continuity is the problem. And it only gets worse when we take into account that most Buddhists believe in a liminal state (antarabhāva) between death and life in which one can have experiences but is not embodied. One can choose from many different options for solving it, though none is satisfactory in light of contemporary (post-Kantian) metaphysics. Inevitably one must introduce an element of ontological dualism into one’s discourse to account for karma and rebirth.

    In early Buddhism karma is primarily about determining your gati or afterlife destination, that is which of the lokas you will be reborn into. But there is also in Theravāda (at least) diṭṭhidhammavedanīyakamma – actions [with results] to be experienced in this life.

    Karma is inescapable in early Buddhist texts. It’s the Mahāyāna that really introduces the idea that one can escape one’s fate. And in doing so they really undermine the whole basis of Buddhist ethics. My last article was on this: ‘Escaping the Inescapable: Changes in Buddhist Karma’ Journal of Buddhist Ethics. 2014, 21: 503-535.

    What Justin said about shortening one’s time in Hell sounds wrong. One is in Hell for the duration of what is demanded by one’s previous karma and one cannot die and be reborn somewhere else (and thus escape the un-ending torture of Hell) until one’s time is up. It would be interesting to see where this idea of shortening one’s stay comes from. Mahāyāna? The history of the idea of Hell in India is quite interesting. I think it comes from Zoroastrianism.

    There are a lot of references to suggest that many Buddhists themselves saw karma as deterministic and as related to specific actions or classes of actions. If you are stingy you get reborn poor – that kind of thing. Many Buddhists today are completely deterministic about karma (especially where Buddhism is simply part of a cultural identity). It’s in the earliest texts so it has to be considered along with other views. Of course such views are also contradicted. But then contradiction is a hallmark of Buddhists talking about karma.

    BTW I think it’s very problematic to bring up “free will” without caveats. Free will is never a problem in Buddhism. It’s not discussed or problematised until the 20th century and interactions with Christian theology, which is so tied up in free will as a solution to the Problem of Evil. And you guys didn’t really cover what might be a Buddhist position on free will very well. The unthinking person is hardly all but simply goes through automatic cycles of sensation and craving, while the reflective person can break that cycle entirely. All that is required is that one hears the Dhamma and develops faith (saddhā) to get started (according to early Buddhist texts). Everyone is free to varying degrees, but even the unconscious, more or less deterministic choices we make are morally significant. Greed is always morally significant whether the greedy thought that gives rise to the action is conscious or not. Which is nothing like the Christian or even modern psychological views on free will. Indeed it’s probably best not to even mention free will in this context since it’s such a loaded term. We can see how it slows down neuroscience work on decision making because they’re bogged down in trying to define free will and understand the metaphysics of it instead of focussing on the data and working up a theory from first principles.

    Karma is ubiquitous in Buddhism and yet problematic from beginning to end even *within* Buddhism. It would be great to open up *that* discussion for students of religious ideas. When Buddhists alter the theory of Dependent Arising itself in order to plug gaps in the theory of karma you know something interesting is going on.

    1. Thanks for that- and especially for the link.. Yes, despite the pervasive nature of kamma in early Buddhism, you’re right: it’s both central and also flagged as problematic/source of philosophical awkwardness..

    2. As to free-will: Buddhism is shot through with notions of liberation, freedom, and the non-path-follower, the putthajana- is cast as someone entrapped/bound by mental states and processes they barely notice..

      The idea of free-will is, as you state, imported – and messy (and not getting clearer!) in non-Bst thought.. Maybe set aside is a good idea..

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