Karma is one of the most misunderstood Buddhist teachings, even among Buddhists. For example, a number of medical students in Malaysia reportedly decided to quit their studies because they’d been told by a monk “that patients should not receive medical treatment for their condition as sickness is the result of their karma.” The had become convinced “that they should not become doctors as the act of treating patients [would] interfere with karma.”
The monk seems to be rather atypical, and “allegedly claimed that he had supernatural power and was able to tell the past and predict the future of the students.” It’s possible that he’s a charlatan, or even that he’s mentally ill.
But ideas like this do tend to pop up from time to time, and so here are a few arguments against this particular take on karma.
First, the Buddha specifically stated that not everything that happens to us in the present moment is a result of karma. He pointed to physiological and environmental factors as affecting us, as well as the actions of other people. The earlier Buddhist commentators enumerated a number of forms of conditionality that included physical causality (physical and chemical laws), biological causality (which would include things like viruses and other diseases), mental causality, karmic causality, and also a form of transcendental causality. I won’t go into all of this, but it’s clear that neither the Buddha nor early Buddhists believed that karma was the only thing affecting us. Certainly our mental states and the choices we make can affect our health, but even Buddhas get ill.
Secondly, the Buddha stressed compassion, himself took care of the sick, and encouraged his monks to take care of the sick. “Whoever would tend to me, should tend to the sick,” he is reported as saying.
Thirdly, following from this, there are ample provisions in the monastic code of conduct allowing for medicines. Our unnamed monk would be well aware of this!
Fourthly, the Buddha said that trying to figure out what’s the result of karma is an “unconjecturable that is not to be conjectured about, that would bring madness and vexation to anyone who conjectured about it.” Although perhaps it also works the other way around: that people who are mentally ill are more prone to have delusions about karma.
And lastly, if it was indeed the karma of sick people that caused them to be sick, then wouldn’t it also be their karma that brought them into contact with a doctor?
The Buddha taught compassion. He taught us to recognize that other people’s sufferings are as real to them as ours are to us. And on the basis of this we should empathize with others and seek not to cause them suffering but to relieve suffering when we can. Here’s Dhammapada verse 20:
All tremble at violence
Life is dear to all
Putting oneself in the place of another
One should neither kill nor cause another
This is the Buddhist version of the Golden Rule.
And in the Saleyyaka Sutta the ideal practitioner is described like this:
There is the case where a certain person, abandoning the taking of life, abstains from the taking of life. He dwells with his rod laid down, his knife laid down, scrupulous, merciful, compassionate for the welfare of all living beings.
Now I’m sure that this monk would argue something like “it’s more compassionate to let being suffer from sickness because it allows their past karma to come to fruition,” but a view like that is very far from the kind of compassion that the Buddha advocated.
In a conversation on the now-defunct social network, Google+, Denis Wallez pointed out the corollary that is karma determines everything then it brings sick people into contact with doctors and suggested that the antidote to such gullibility (thinking here of the medical students rather than the monk) was to get people to read more of the Pali canon, which contains ample evidence to contradict the idea that the sick do not deserve treatment, and more importantly to encourage critical thinking. The Buddha himself, in the Kalama Sutta, famously encouraged us not to believe something just because some monk says so!
Excellent, Bodhipaksa. The most misused and sometimes abuse Buddhist notion in my opinion. Seems as if |I spend half my time explaining or unravelling this one. Oh well, maybe in the next life…
I agree. Thanks Bhodipaksa – very nicely addressed. People have some very odd ideas about karma.
Thank you for the article Bhodipaksa. I was surprised to see you say that “…even Buddhas get ill.” My understanding has been that the nature of Buddha mind is to be free of suffering; if a mind/being is suffering then they are still in samasara.
I would appreciate you commenting on this.
Hi, Matthew. Well, traditionally, the kind of suffering that the Buddha is not physical suffering, but mental anguish. The Buddha inevitably experienced physical pain and illness, or dukkha-dukkhata, but he didn’t experience anything beyond that, as when we’re lying in bed with a cold feeling sorry for ourselves. He advised us, “So you should train yourself: ‘Even though I may be afflicted in body, my mind will be unafflicted.'”
Well, to bring it a little further, wouldn’t the monk telling the students to quit also wouldn’t be their patients’ karma?
It seems to me, no matter how far you want to push the source, it makes little sense, unless you deny human free choice completely. Otherwise it ALWAYS runs into contradictions. When we speak of a person’s karma, we somehow have to assume that all other beings are puppets to carry out his karma. But this person must have had free choice, otherwise there would be no karma, would there?
See where I’m going? I hope I’m making sense. If my actions towards another are always fulfilling his karma, then they are condition by that person only, and I have no choice on my part whatsoever, therefore nothing to agonize about and no need for articles like this.
Since I don’t believe that, I don’t really believe in karma. It’s a tough life, seeing suffering as unjust and real, but honesty doesn’t permit me anything else.
Replies highly appreciated, I’d love to talk about this.
Well, the thing is that karma doesn’t seem to be much to do with what happens to you — it’s more to do with how you respond to the things that happen to you. Karma is about human choice: the word means “action” and it refers to how we respond to our experiences either skillfully or unskillfully. Skillful responses will lead to reduced suffering and increased peace and wellbeing. Unskillful responses will lead to increased suffering.
So the idea of karma that you “don’t really believe in” isn’t what the Buddha seems to have had in mind when he talked about karma.
I have read a few books about karma and the concept behind it. In this one book a story was mentioned in Buddha’s time where an individual was attacked and murdered by few bandits in a forest. After tapping into that person’s subconscious, the Buddha explained that in a previous life, that individual had taken his elderly parents to a forest and murdered them because he was tired of caring for them. That action created a negative karmic effect which was expressed in this life time as he experienced a similar fate.
Now, whether this story is true or it was just used by Buddha as a tool to explain that every action brings a reaction, my dilemma is that even-though the victim did deplete his negative karma from the past, at the same time a group of individuals, in this case the so called bandits, created negative karma for themselves. How can this possibly be a step toward the right direction when new negative karma is created as a result of the process?!
I could understand if the individual did suffer a painful and fearful death as a result of a nature’s act, such as illness, accident, animal attack, etc. ; but to see other individuals gain such significant negative karma in the process, makes no sense to me. I have been pondering with this for quite some time and I just can’t find an answer that is even partially satisfying.
Is there an explanation for this?
I don’t take such stories seriously, myself. But you seem to be assuming that someone’s karma ripening should somehow involve a kind of perfect end point, with no further negative karma being produced by others. There’s nothing in the theory of karma that suggests that’s the way it works.
To take an everyday example that doesn’t involve past lives: if you were to have the habit of losing your temper, then you’d likely be setting up conditions for your own suffering. Other people would likely retaliate against you, either by getting angry back at you or by more patient means whereby they get revenge in indirect ways. All this would be painful, and it would be the ripening of your actions (which is what “karma” means). But people who are retaliating against you would themselves be acting unskillfully, and would therefore be creating their own future pain. I don’t think there’s anything mystical about karma — it’s just us setting up conditions for our own suffering.