Collective Kamma and other Misunderstandings

Collective Kamma

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 a whole nation can supposedly suffer the results (as usual, positive collective kamma never seems to be discussed, it’s 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 explicitly mentioning the idea of collective kamma is found in the Buddha’s teachings and there is no Pāḷi or Sanskrit terms for collective kamma in the traditional lexicons. The idea also seems to be absent from later Buddhist texts. However, in his Abhidharmakośabhāsya Vasubandhu has a comment that could be interpreted as suggesting 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’.” [1]

If indeed Vasabandhu was positing collective kamma the example he gave for it is not very convincing. Let us consider it carefully. All the persons mentioned in this example would have come together with a common negative purpose and thus would have all committed some negative kamma, as Vasubandhu 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 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 quite likely differences into consideration, it is only realistic to imagine that the vipāka 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 a convincing argument for collective kamma, if indeed that is what it is meant to be.

One incident from the Buddhist tradition that could be suggesting something like collective kamma is a story about the Sakyans, the Buddha’s kinsmen. Viḍūḍabha, the king of Kosala, massacred “all the Sakyans” including even “the suckling babes”, and they suffered this fate supposedly because “the Sakyans” had sometime previously poisoned a river in a dispute over its water (Ja.IV,152). In reality, only a few Sakyans would have committed this evil deed, and although the Sakyan chiefs probably authorized it and a number of others may have approved of it, the majority, particularly the babies and children, would have had nothing at to do with it. Thus the idea of collective kamma idea is implicit in this story. How are we to explain this? The story is not in the Tipiṭaka but comes from the of the Jātaka commentary, a text of uncertain but late date. Some scholars consider it to have been composed in Sri Lankan rather than India. But whoever the author was it seems likely that he was just storytelling, rather than positing the idea of collective kamma as a specific doctrine. The fact that no later commentators took the story as a cue to develop the idea of collective kamma strengthens this assumption. Also, another version of the story, from the Mahāvaṁsa Ṭīkā, says that there were survivors of the massacre, thus undermining that claim that “all Sakyans” suffered the negative vipāka of the kamma created by others.

The version of collective kamma which maintains that the consequences of deeds done by some within a group can be experienced by others within the same group, contradicts one of the most fundamental Buddhist concepts; that each individual is responsible for themselves.

The earliest unambiguous mention of collective kamma that I have been able to find is in the writings of the 19th century occultist Helena Blavatsky. 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 teachers, 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 false. After all, Buddhism does not have an exclusive claim to all truth. Perhaps Madam Blavatsky and others had insights 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 negative kamma. Another version maintains that a small number of innocent individuals belonging to a group can suffer the negative kamma made by a larger number of individuals within that group. In these first two versions the suffering supposedly comes in the form of war, famine, plague, earthquakes or other natural disasters. Yet another version of this second theory is that individuals can suffer for evil they have done by having something horrible happen to someone related to them. I have heard people, in one case a senior monk, say that giving birth to a handicapped child is not a result of the victim’s bad kamma but of the parents’.

The dilettante exponent of Buddhism and so-called “perennial philosophy”, Ananda Coomaraswamy, was unable to understand how kamma could be transmitted through a series of lives without a soul and so he read into Buddhism a kind of universal heredity kamma. “No man lives alone, but we may regard the whole creation…as one life and therefore as sharing a common karma, to which every individual contributes for good or ill…(T)he great difficulty of imagining a particular karma passing from individual to individual, without the persistence of even a subtle body, is avoided by the conception of human beings, or indeed of the whole universe, as constituting one life or self. Thus it is from our ancestors that we receive our karma, and not merely from ‘our own’ past experience; and whatsoever karma we create will be inherited by humanity for ever.” [2]

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 prominent 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 doctrinal, logical, evidential, moral and even common sense 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 work that would be 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? 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 really operates something like this would have be necessary. Kamma would have had to somehow construct 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. It would have had to pre-plan decades ahead to 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 too timid to oppose it. And when the required six million victims had suffered sufficiently for their past evil deeds, kamma would then have had to arrange and manipulate innumerable complex causes and effects in such ways that the war ended when everyone had got their just deserts. Kamma must be as omnipotent and as omniscient as any supreme being!

Now let us examine the 2004 tsunami, another event often cited 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 the tsunami 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 affected area, either because they were reborn there and lived there, or that they were visiting the area at the required 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 the tsunami to be an example of collective kamma would require accepting that kamma is able to influence, not just humans, but even the Earth’s tectonic plates, making them move to just the right extent and at just the right time so that the resulting waves were able to play out on thousands of people’s vipāka. There seems to be no end to the extraordinary abilities that speculation is able to attribute to kamma. And of course all this may be true. Just let it be known that nothing even remotely like this was taught by the Buddha.

The Realms of Existence

When a person who has not yet attained awakening dies they are reborn and they have to be reborn somewhere. According to the Buddha there are various states one can be reborn into: the heavenly realm, the human realm, the animal realm, the realm of deprived spirits, the realm of jealous spirits, and purgatory, the (41 Before proceeding further let us briefly explain some of these terms. Here the word purgatory is used instead of hell, and with good reason. The word hell is inextricably linked in the Western mind to the Christian concept of a place of eternal punishment. At death one is judged and as a punishment is cast into everlasting hell. The Buddhist state in some ways equivalent to hell is not the result of a decision by or the judgment of an agent external to the individual, but one created by the individual’s own mind, the contours of which have been shaped by their intentional thoughts, speech and actions throughout their life, i.e. their kamma. More importantly, because this state is not eternal but only lasts as long as the kamma that created it has not played itself out, it is more appropriately called purgatory rather than hell. The most common Pali words for purgatory are apāya ‘loss’, duggati ‘the difficult road’, niraya ‘to descend’ and vinipāta ‘ruin’.

Nowadays words such as heaven and hell (or purgatory) often raise a sceptical smile on many people’s faces, and perhaps with good reason. So what are we to make of the Buddha’s teachings about the realms of existence, particularly of purgatory? Many ‘modern’ Buddhists brush the concept aside and focus on teaching ethics and meditation, much as liberal Christians try to avoid any mention of hell. But the realms of existence are an integral part of the Buddha’s teaching and to pretend they are not there is disingenuous. In his discourses the Buddha’s usually described heaven, purgatory and the other non-human, non-animal realms much as they were understood by people in his day; lovely palaces in the case of heaven and cauldrons of boiling pus in the case of purgatory. But not always. One ancient Indian idea of purgatory (in this case pātāla, abyss) was that it was at the bottom of the ocean and concerning this the Buddha commented: “When the ordinary uninstructed person says ‘Purgatory is under the great ocean’ he says something that is not true or real. Purgatory is actually a name for painful feeling.” (S.IV,206) This comment deserves more attention. In it the Buddha was saying that purgatory is not a location in space but an experience. If this is so then presumably heaven, the realm of afflicted spirits, etc, are not necessarily always places but can sometimes be experiences. This model fits much better and is more consistent with the primacy the Buddha gives to the mind. “Mind precedes mental states, mind is their chief, they are all mind-made”, “By mind the world is made” (Dhp.1; S.I,39). Thus heaven can be conceived of as a human existence that is predominantly one of ease, comfort, pleasure and delight; purgatory as one characterized as distressful and unfulfilled, and so on.

Why So much Misunderstanding?

It may well be asked why it is that if kamma is such an important and central doctrine in Buddhism it been so widely and so badly misunderstood? There are probably several reasons for this. The first would be because kamma is a complex concept. Human consciousness, of which kamma is an aspect, is an intricate and multifarious phenomena with subtle crosscurrents of thoughts and feelings, intentions, emotions and other experiences coursing through it. For most people, the false but simple idea that if you are generous you will be reborn rich, and similar notions, is so much easier to grasp. Perhaps it also appeals to people’s “let the punishment fit the crime” notion of justice. Because of this, from an early period in the history of Buddhism text were written presenting kamma in just such simple and simplistic terms. The Pāḷi Vimānavatthu, Petavatthu (cira 3rd or 2nd century BCE), and the Dhammapada Aṭṭhakathā (4th or 5th century CE) and Sanskrit works like the Kammavibhaṅga would be examples of this. Another work in a similar vain to these is the Buddha Teaches the Sutra Cause and Effect in the Three Times (Fo Shuo San-shi Yinguo Jing). This text was supposedly spoken by the Buddha and translated into Chinese by Kumārajīva (344-413). In fact, all the evidence points to it being composed in China many centuries after Kumārajīva. Its apocryphal origins did not prevent it being enormously popular in China and even today it is often printed and distributed for free in Chinese Buddhists temples. Its role in distorting the Buddha’s teaching of kamma and perpetuating ignorance about it has been profound.

According to this text if you have fine clothes to wear this is because you donated robes to monks in past life. If you are constantly hungry this is because you were gluttonous in the past life. Those who have many children and grandchildren released captive birds and animals in their former lives. Barren women are so because they were sexually promiscuous in former lives. Offering lamps in front of Buddha statues leads to having good eyesight, refusing to show travellers the way results in being born blind, and to laugh at those who bow before Buddha statues is to be reborn with kyphosis, i.e. hunchbacked. The Fo Shuo San-shi Yinguo Jing and other texts like it may have encouraged simple illiterate peasants to live kinder and more ethical lives. On the other hand, their distorted version of kamma was and still is accepted and sited even by learned monks, nuns and lay people.

Another reason why kamma is so widely misunderstood may be the traditional approach to religious education in Buddhist cultures. It is not uncommon to encounter Christians or Muslims who are familiar with their respective scriptures. In traditional Buddhist countries a familiarity with the sacred texts is not common. There are understandable reasons for this. Until recently the majority of lay Buddhists were either illiterate or only marginally literate. Further, unlike the Bible or the Koran the Pāḷi Buddhist scriptures are huge, over 40 volumes in the English translation, and their contents are not in an easy-to-read style. Added to this is the fact that the scriptures were not translated into vernaculars until well into the 20th century, and even now are not widely available in that form. Even monks and nuns, some of whom were and are very learned, tend to read the scriptures through the ancient commentaries, rather than allowing them to speak for themselves, and some of these commentaries lack the wisdom of the Buddha’s words. The upshot of all this is that the majority of Buddhists rely more on hearsay or popular secondary writings for their knowledge of Dhamma than on the actual words of the Buddha, much of which embodies the misunderstandings highlighted above.

In the west, the concept of kamma became familiar to the general public piecemeal and from a variety of sources; from an early amateur knowledge of Hinduism, from Theosophy, from so-called “esoteric wisdom” and more recently from New Age literature. While these sources agree about kamma in the broadest and most general sense, they are very diverse and even contradictory as far as details are concerned. Thus kamma has become a catch-all word for a jumble of vague, poorly thought-out and incoherent notions, some of which get attributed to the Buddha.

Common ways of talking about kamma in the west have also reinforced confusion about it. Some early western Buddhists referred to what they called “the iron Law of Kamma”. Even today the word “law” almost always precedes the word kamma. Other words widely used together with kamma are “retribution”, “reward”, “punishment” and “inescapable”. It is interesting to note that there is no equivalent to the term “law of kamma” in the early Buddhist scriptures. So how did kamma go from being whatever it is to becoming a law? And how did an impersonal process of psychological causes and effects become a system of rewards and punishments dispensed by a vaguely suggested rewarder and punisher? The first western scholars of Buddhism, like the first western Buddhists, usually came from Christian backgrounds and not surprisingly this influenced their understanding of Buddhism. God’s commandments are known as “the Law”; precise, unalterable and compulsory rules the flouting of which brings forth “retribution”. This divine retribution is inescapable and so is kamma. The pioneering western Buddhist Christmas Humhreys’ comments on kamma are typical of this kind of thinking. “This law of merit and demerit, Karma in the sense of the reign of moral law, is neither particularly Hindu, Buddhist nor Theosophical. It is fundamental to all Oriental philosophy and was preached by St. Paul. ‘Brethren, be not deceived. God is not mocked, for whatsoever a man soweth that shall he also reap’.” [3] Underlying this sort of terminology and the thinking stemming from it, is the notion of a rewarding and punishing deity. And as mentioned above, kamma is typically conceived as a supreme being in everything but name.

The Results of Misunderstanding

What has been the results of misunderstanding the doctrine of kamma as detailed above? Observers have long pointed out what they see as significant differences in attitudes to social problems between traditional Buddhist cultures and the Western/Christian world; the former being more passive, the latter more proactive. Having lived in Buddhist Asia for more than three decades I would have to agree with this observation. Traditional Buddhists are for the most part a kindly, generous and gracious people. But this kindliness only sometimes manifests as a concern for and sense of urgency towards social problems and concrete actions to deal with them. One hears time and time again that those disadvantaged in one way or another are suffering the consequences of their kamma. Mahasi Sayadaw, probably modern Burma’s most revered Buddhist scholar and meditation master, summed up this attitude well when he wrote: “In this world nothing happens to a person that he does not for some reason or other deserve.” [4] As mentioned above, this claim is directly contrary to what the Buddha taught. In her novel Fruit of Karma the Thai authoress Sudassa Onkom has a dialogue between a novice and the protagonist of the story, the wise old monk Phra Khru, who the author uses to elucidate Buddhist doctrine. In one dialogue Phra Khru mentions the problem of corruption within the Sangha and the novice asks: “ ‘How can we help to improve the situation?’ ‘Pardon me. Did you say we? No, we cannot do anything. We are only a drop in the ocean. Neither can those with political power, who are many thousands of times more mighty than we are. We have to leave it to the process of karma,’ said Ven. Phra Khru sorrowfully.” [5] Given the almost universal belief that everything that happens to persons, institutions and societies is due to past kamma, a misunderstanding repeated endlessly in sermons, tracts and books, Phru Khru’s fatalism comes as no surprise.

Prof. Dale S. Wright, a scholar of Buddhism, writes: “Karma may be socially and politically disempowering in its cultural effect, that without intending to do this, karma may in fact support social passivity or acquiescence in the face of oppression of various kinds.” [6] Prof. David Loy, both a Buddhist and a scholar of Buddhism, writes: “Karma has been used to rationalize sexism, racism, caste, economic oppression, birth handicaps, and almost everything else. Taken literally, karma justifies the authority of political elites, who therefore deserve their wealth and power, and the subordination of those without them, who are also experiencing the results of their behaviour in previous lifetimes.” [7] The sad reality is that some of the misunderstandings about kamma have led to or been used as an excuse for social passivity and indifference.

But while they have been used to retard some actions they have also been used to justify others. An example of this is found in the Milindapañha. In dialogue with the monk Nāgasena King Milinda quoted two passages from the scriptures: “By harming none in the world you will be loved and cherished,” and “Punish that which deserves punishment and encourage that which is good.” (Ja.IV,71 and Ja.V,116) The king then pointed out that just punishment might require harming, even to the extent of amputating limbs of or executing wrongdoers, and that this would contradict the Buddha’s praise of not harming anyone. Nāgasena, supposedly an arahat, replied that someone who inflicts punishment on a wrongdoer is not responsible for the harm they do. Rather, the wrongdoer would be suffering because of their own evil kamma and the person administering the punishment would incur no blame (Mil.185-6). This spurious argument could be used to justify any action and indeed history is full of examples of this being done. The Tibetan King Langdarma who persecuted Buddhism was assassinated by a monk in 842. The traditional justification of this act is that the monk was actually acting out of compassion in that he was saving the king from making even more negative kamma for himself. This political murder is celebrated every year in Tibet, Bhutan and Ladakh with the famous Black Hat Dance. During his career as a judge the pioneering western Buddhist Christmas Humphreys passed down numerous death sentences and in his autobiography he justified this by saying that the judge is only “an instrument for the law for kamma”. [8] One of the people he sentenced to hang was Timothy Evans who was later proved to be innocent, although Humphreys did not explain how this tragic miscarriage of justice fitted in with his view of kamma. Perhaps he would have explained it as vipāka for a murder Evans had committed in his last life.

Of course people have always distorted religious beliefs to suit their own ends, justify their actions and put a pious gloss on them. But doing this is one thing; incorporating such distortions into the sacred literature is another. The Milindapañha and the Pāḷi commentaries, which both contain spurious interpretations of kamma, are considered authoritative texts in the Theravada tradition, almost on a par with the Tipiṭaka. In fact, as mentioned in the Introduction, few expositions of kamma and rebirth ever make a distinction between the two. Was the Milindapañha’s misuse of the doctrine of kamma to justify judicial torture, amputation and capital punishment one of the reasons why all Buddhists countries continue to maintain capital punishment and why there has never been agitation from within either the Sangha or the legal profession to abolish it? I doubt it. But common misunderstandings of kamma that prevail throughout the Buddhist world most certainly would have had.

On a personal level false views about kamma can have and do have an immediate and extremely negative effect. Two examples from my own experience will suffice to illustrate this. A man and his wife once came to see me, both of them looking noticeably depressed. They told me that their joyful expectations at having an addition to their family turned to dismay and sadness when their first child was born with Down’s Syndrome. Is it true, they asked, that this was really the result of both of them having done something evil in an earlier life? I did my best to try to explain the subtleties of kamma to them but with only limited success. The monk who had told them that they were responsible for their child’s condition was not only many years senior to me but had recently been awarded some mark of esteem by the Thai king. My explanations of the Dhamma counted for little besides his. Later I came to know that this couple abandoned Buddhism for another religion.

On another occasion I was conversing with a man who had a real interest in the Dhamma and a fairly good knowledge of it as well. As we spoke I noticed a swelling on the side of his neck and asked him about it. He told me that he had cancer of the thyroid which was now in its terminal stage. He said that his regular practice of meditation was helping him to have a degree of acceptance and that he was reconciled to dying. Then he added: “And besides, it’s my fault for having done something wrong in my last life.” All this was said with forced cheerfulness but it was not difficult to detect the fear and sadness behind his words. The natural feelings of fear and anxiety he was having about his approaching demise was almost certainly compounded by believing that he was responsible for his illness. So misunderstanding kamma is not just a doctrinal or theoretical matter, it can affect people’s lives. It can burden them with guilt, regret and self-reproach.

The coming of the Dhamma to the west has heightened the need to revisit the Buddha’s concept of kamma, become familiar with it and make a distinction between it and how later commentators and modern expositions interpret it. Buddhism generally has “a good press” in popular western perceptions. But as soon as the subject of kamma comes up this perception changes. Amongst thoughtful people at least, kamma sounds like a form of crude determinism leading to shrugged shoulders in the face of suffering and to blaming victims for their personal tragedies. This makes the precious Dhamma look less attractive and convincing than it would otherwise. It even opens it to justified criticism.

One of but many examples of such criticism appears in Dr. Richard Dawkins’ book The God Delusion, a trenchant critique of religion. Dawkins makes only one reference to Buddhism in his book and predictably it is about kamma. He writes: “Julia Sweeney is also right on target when she briefly mentions Buddhism… Buddhism is often cracked up to be the nicest of all (religions). But the doctrine of demotion on the reincarnation ladder because of sins in a past life is pretty unpleasant. Julia Sweeny went to Thailand and happened to visit a woman who was taking care of a terribly deformed boy. ‘I said to his caretaker, It’s good of you to be taking care of this poor boy. She said, Don’t say poor boy. He must have done something terrible in his past life to be born this way’.” [9] Judging Buddhism by the comments of a single individual who almost certainly knows little or nothing of Buddhist philosophy and psychology is as unfair as it would be to judge biology or evolution entirely on the comments of someone who was ignorant of those sciences. Nonetheless, there is little doubt that Julia Sweeney’s informant derived her misunderstanding of kamma from sermons or tracts by Buddhist clergy.

Some have even suggested that Buddhists should scrap the doctrine of kamma altogether. David Loy again: “What are we going to do about karma? There’s no point in pretending that karma hasn’t become a problem for contemporary Buddhism. Buddhism can fit quite nicely into modern ways of understanding. But not traditional views of karma.” [10] The western teacher of Tibetan Buddhism, Shenpen Hookham, is uncomfortable with the idea that millions in the Third World are starving because of their past kamma and think that the best way to sidestep this embarrassing ideas is to deny the reality of kamma. She writes: “…the idea of karma is untrue”, it is just “a provisional truth that is only helpful when we are caught up in confusion. It is not ultimately true…” [11] Once again we have the problem of the inability to distinguishing between what the Buddha taught in the Pāḷi Tipitaka, the earliest evidence of Buddhism, and later versions of it. Nothing in the Buddha’s Dhamma need imply that people suffer starvation, sickness, social oppression, etc, because of their past kamma.

Transferring Merit

An issue related to the doctrine of kamma is that of transference of merit. This is the idea that it is possible to do good and then ‘transfer’ the vipāka of that good to a person who has passed away. The possibility of transferring merit is now almost universally accepted by Buddhists despite not having been taught by the Buddha and, it would seem, being contradictory to some of the things he did teach. The idea of transferring merit was probably adapted from the Brahmanical saddha ritual in which small balls or rice or barley were believed to be transmitted to departed loved ones so as to satisfy their hunger by means of chanting certain formula. Apparently at an early period some Buddhists adopted this idea and applied it to merit. The materialist Carvaka school quite rightly poked fun at the saddha ritual saying: “If the saddha can really satisfy beings who are dead, then in this world when travellers embark on a journey it would not be necessary to provide them with provisions because their relatives back home could eat for them.” [12]

Anyone with a good grasp of the Buddha’s teaching could think of quite a few more serious problems with the idea of transferring merit. For example, if it were possible to transfer merit to someone, logically it should also be possible to transfer demerit or evil to them too. This would mean that one could benefit from the good kamma one never did and avoid evil kamma one did do. This would undermine the whole notion of kamma. The Buddha made it clear that: “By oneself is evil done, by oneself is evil shunned, by oneself is one purified. Purity and impurity depend on oneself. No one can purify another” (Dhp.165). In the Sutta Nipāta he said: “When they are overcome by death and are going from here to the next world, the father cannot assist the son, any more than other relatives can” (Sn.579). The Jātakas seem to represent a period when the early Buddhists were in two minds about the possibility of transferring merit. True to the original Dhamma, one Jātaka says: “One makes one’s own good fortune. One makes one’s own misfortune. For good fortune or lack of it cannot be made for another by another” (Ja.III,263). But in another story a virtuous man says he will give all the merit he has accumulated to a man lacking virtue (Ja.II,112). By the time of the Dhammapada Atthakathā it had come to be believed that it was actually possible to buy someone’s merit from them (Dhp-a.III,12a). But even after the transference of merit had become widely accepted there were voices still holding out against this popular superstition. In the 2nd century CE Aśvaghoṣa wrote: “It is impossible for one to do good and then give it to another, even if one wants to the other cannot receive it. The result of one’s own acts are not destroyed, they are experienced by oneself, but that the effect of what one had not done can be experienced is not factual” (Buddhacarita XX,28).

It is not uncommon for religions to present believers with what is at first said to be an insurmountable problem and then offer them an easy way to avoid it. The Brahmanism of the Buddha’s time taught numerous ways to avoid the consequences of evil one may have done; reciting special mantras, praying to certain deities, bathing in sacred rivers, visiting certain sacred places, and so on. The belief that performing some ritual can make a fundamental difference to a person’s life, especially by benefiting them spiritually, is contrary to the Buddha’s teaching. Then why, it could be asked, do so many Buddhists accept the idea of transferring merit? I have asked a number of senior and learned Sri Lankan monks whether transferring merit is really possible and the responses have generally been the same; slight embarrassment, equivocation and finally a reluctant admission that it is not possible. When I have further asked: “Then why is it done?” the answer is usually this, that people feel the need to do something for the benefit of their deceased loved ones, that the Buddhist understanding of reality does not allow for that, and so out of compassion monks perform the merit transferring ceremony during funerals and on the successive death anniversaries. Doing things out of sensitivity for peoples’ feelings, particularly when they are grieving, is commendable. But explaining the Dhamma is even more commendable. Ultimately, the best consolation, the strongest armour against the vicissitudes of life, is the truth.

While it is not possible to transfer merit to another it is possible to give them the opportunity to rejoice in good and virtuous actions done on their behalf, a practice called puñña anumodana (Sinhala, pin anumodanaya). Although such a thing is not directly mentioned by the Buddha it appeared in Buddhism at a very early stage and does not contradict the Dhamma. In this practice the family and friends of a recently deceased person do some generous or virtuous action and then in a simple ceremony announce that what they did was done on behalf of the deceased person. If the deceased is still in the in-between state (antarabhava) they can sense or otherwise come to know of this and it can give them joy and comfort. Traditionally the good deed was usually to provide a meal for a group of monks in the name of the deceased. But I know of cases in Sri Lanka where people have undertaken to provide meals for patients in one ward of a hospital or a home for the aged, have made a donation to a charity that was of interest to the deceased, or bought a set of encyclopaedias and donated it to the local school library. Puñña anumodana has a variety of benefits. It can uplift the deceased, it gives consolation to the grieving, the recipients of the good deed benefit from it, and of course it is in harmony with the Dhamma.

Kamma and Rebirth. A Miscellany

We will finish this exploration of the Buddha’s doctrine of kamma and rebirth by looking at some of implications of them and attempting to answer some of the questions often raised about them.

(A) Since the idea of rebirth has become well-known in the West and to some degree acceptable, there has been a plethora of books by people claiming that they can remember their former lives. There are even guidebooks explaining how to recover supposed past life memories. Few of these claims stand up to careful or sometimes even casual scrutiny. A friend of mine tells me that he knows at least four people who can vividly remember being Cleopatra. Most so-called past life memories are probably a result of suggestion, an overly-vivid imagination, the desire to be appear more interesting than one really is, or crypto-amnesia. [13] But certainly not all. The late parapsychologist Prof. Ian Stevenson of the University of Virginia School of Medicine has published a series of studies of children who appear to have been able to remember a past life. Stevenson’s findings have earned him at least some attention from the scientific community. Others who have followed in Stevenson’s footsteps are Dr. B. Jim Tucker and Prof. Erlendur Haraldsson.

So if we really are reborn, some people ask, why cannot most people remember their former lives? But perhaps they can, at least while they are infants. Children not uncommonly say things that could well be the result of past life memories but because rebirth is not widely accepted beyond the Buddhist world, their parents disregard such things and dismiss then as just childish prattle. As the child grows the impact of all the new sensory impressions in his or her present life simply smother the past life memories, or past life memories get confused with memories from the present life. For the majority however, it seems likely the nine months in the womb, which could be considered a natural sensory-deprivation tank, erases all but just a few fragmentary and disconnected past life memories. Apparently such memories usually only become accessible again in the period just prior to awakening, when the mind is, as the Buddha described it: “focused and purified, cleansed and unblemished, pliant and free of defilements, malleable, stable, firm and imperturbable”.(D.I,76)

(B) Throughout the Buddhist world rebirth is taken for granted. In the west however, many people find it curious and improbable. The idea of eternal heaven or hell still has some acceptance, at least in a vague sense. But objectively speaking, rebirth is no more or less improbable. The main problem with rebirth in many people’s minds is its unfamiliarity. And no doubt many intelligent people dismiss it as unworthy of consideration when they are presented with half baked “esoteric” and New Age versions of what in circulation. But rebirth has won at least some acceptance from certain intellectuals and serious thinkers. Philosopher Paul Edwards has highlighted what he believes to be serious evidential and logical problems with rebirth/reincarnation. But others like philosophers C. J. Ducasse and J. M. E. McTaggart and academics such as Susan Blackmore consider rebirth to be a plausible post-mortem explanation. [14]

(C) According to the Buddha, the three characteristics of existence are suffering (dukkha), impermanence (anicca) and no-self (anatta). No-self asserts that the idea of an eternal, unchanging self, soul or essence in things is an illusion. When some people hear this they ask, perhaps understandably: “If there is no self, soul or spirit what passes from one life to the next?” The problem is more apparent than real. The Buddha did not teach that there is no self as such; he taught that there is no permanent, unchanging, metaphysical self. In Buddhism as in contemporary psychology, the self is understood to be the constantly evolving cluster of impressions and memories, traits and dispositions that together form consciousness. When one identifies with this it gives the feeling of being autonomous and separate from others and of persisting through time. This empirical self clearly exists in that it is a real experience, although it is in a constant state of flux. It is this “self” that passes from one life to the next.

Imagine three billiard balls in a line, each touching the other and a fourth billiard ball some distance from the three and aligned to them. Now imagine that a man hits the fourth ball with his cue and it speeds across the table and hits the first ball in the line. The moving ball will come to an immediate halt, it and second balls will remain stationary while the third ball, the last in the row, will speed across the table and into the pocket. What has happened? The energy in the fourth ball has passed through the first and second balls in the row, then into the third ball, activating it so that it moves across the table. In a similar way, the mental energy that makes up what we can conveniently call the self, moves from one body to another. Indeed, the very thing that allows it to pass through a medium and animate another object is its changeability (anicca). It is not this, but the idea that a soul or spirit can go from one location or dimension to another without changing that is difficult to explain.

(D) Following from this is the question of identity. If the consciousness that makes up the self is indeed constantly changing, is it legitimate to consider the individual who is reborn the same as the one who died? And if the individual who is reborn is different from the one who died, is it legitimate to say that one can experience the results of kamma done in the former life in the present life? Interestingly, the Buddha addressed these very questions. He said that to say that the one who acts is the same as the one who experiences its result would be extreme, but to say that they were entirely different would be extreme too. He then proceeded to reiterate his position that the individual is a conditioned, constantly evolving flow of interconnected psycho-physical factors giving the “impression” of a self.(42)

Using an analogy might help clarify what the Buddha meant. Think of a football team which has been going for 60 years. During that time scores of players have joined the team, played with it for five or ten years, left and been replaced by other players. Even though not one of the original players is still in the team and the earliest ones are not even alive, it is still valid to say that “the team” exists. Its identity is recognizable despite the continual change. The players are hard, solid entities but what is the team identity made up of? In part of the players, but also its name, memories of its past achievements, the feelings that the players and the supporters have towards it, its esprit de corps, etc.

Similarly, a mother might take out the family photo album and show her children photos of herself when she was a child. Science tells us that not one molecule in her body is the same as when she was young. Her thoughts, ideas and beliefs are all different from when she was a child. Even her facial features when young, although vaguely similar, are hardly recognisable to her children. Even so, when the curious children ask their mother: “Is that you mummy?”, and she answers “Yes”, no one would accuse her of lying. Despite the fact that both body and mind are continually changing, it is still valid to say that the person who is reborn is a continuation of the person who died – not because any unchanging self has passed from one to another, but because identity persists in memories, dispositions, traits, mental habits and psychological tendencies. Thus it is valid to say that an individual passes from one life to another and that one can experience in this life the vipāka of kamma done in the previous life.

(E) One of the arguments posited in favour of belief in a supreme deity is that ethics only become meaningful when there is a god, an eternal arbiter of values. People supposedly have a clear idea of right and wrong because it is dictated by the deity’s commandments. They adhere to these moral commandments, so the argument goes, either out of love of the deity or because they fear his punishment here or hereafter if they do not. Thus without a god there would be no motivation to do good and avoid evil. Indeed, we would not know what was good and evil were without God. Dostoyevsky famously summed up this argument when he wrote: “Without God everything is permitted.” There are major problems with this argument, not the least being that almost every conceivable wickedness has been committed with a god, even sometimes by people who had a deep faith in a god.

But is it really the case that the only two choices available are theism and moral nihilism? Although kamma is never included in the debate between those who believe in a supreme being and those who do not, kamma offers a third alternative worth considering. The Buddhist doctrine of kamma provides a basis for a moral universe, it justifies and encourages sound ethical precepts and it provides the motivation to do good and avoid evil, without having to posit the notion of a divine being. Although Buddhist philosophy does not include the concept of a supreme being it has arrived at moral principles for the most part the same as those taught by the major theistic faiths. The reality is that there can be morality without a god. The Buddha said we should adhere to the good because it leads to “love, respect, kind regard, harmony and peace” (A.III,289), and we should shun evil out of compassion for others and because its kammic consequences can be very unpleasant.

(F) Those who believe that life ceases at death sometimes maintain that all theories of post-mortem existence, rebirth included, are just a product of wish-fulfilment. Because humans have a natural fear of death and desire to live forever, they create in their imagination some form of happy afterlife. The belief in post-mortem existence is, so the argument goes, just a consolation. It would be difficult to argue with this claim. However, such a claim could hardly apply to the Buddhist idea of rebirth. Whereas almost all religions consider eternal life in one form or another to be a desirable thing, a reward for doing good or having faith in the true god, something to be hoped for, Buddhism regards it as a problem to be solved. According to the Buddha, continual rebirth into the world exposes one to all the problems ordinary embodied existence entails: sickness, accidents, loss of loved ones, social upheavals, decrepitude and eventually death, etc. The Buddha said that one should be “turned off, repelled and disgusted” by the idea of eternal life in heaven (A.I,115), a goal he considered decidedly inferior to Nirvana. Even eternal life in heaven, if such a thing were true, must, sooner or later, entail boredom and a sense of meaninglessness. The raison d’etre of Buddhism is to end saṃsāra, the process of birth, death and being reborn. So however much the wish-fulfilment theory may apply to other post-mortem theories it could not apply to Buddhism.

(G) One of the strong points of the Buddha’s doctrine of kamma is that is fits well into most peoples’ idea of fairness and justice. Eternal hell seems to be a disproportionate punishment for acts of evil, even a lifetime of evil or of worshipping a false deity. And even 50, 80 or 100 years of virtuous living is, some would say, a very modest outlay for eternity in paradise. The vipāka we experience for the kamma we do is, by contrast, approximately proportionate. The picture on the cover of this book is of a relief from the great Borobudur temple in Java depicting a scene from the Karmavibhaṅga. On the right people are cooking fish and tortoises and on the left, as a result of this they are reborn in purgatory where they are boiled alive. While such a cause-and-effect scenario is simplistic and naive in the extreme, it does convey the idea that the strength and duration of vipāka reflects the kamma that caused it. A man like Hitler deserves to go to hell, but does he deserve to go to hell forever? That would seem to be an act more terrible than the atrocities he had committed. Kamma is equitable in that the good experience good and the bad bad whatever religion they belong to or whatever deity they worship. Kamma can also be seen as embodying a form of restorative justice. The vipāka of even the most evil people; Jeffrey Dahmer, Idi Amin, Pol Pot, Himmler, Stalin and others, will eventually peter out and they will have another chance to redeem themselves. In every sense the doctrine of kamma is equitable, fair and just.


  1. Abhidharmakośabhāsya. Vol. 1, translated into French by Louis de La Vallee Poussin, English translation by Leo M. Pruden 1991, p. 649. [back]
  2. Buddha and the Gospel of Buddhism, 1916, p.233-4. [back]
  3. Karma and Rebirth, 1994,p.16. Humphries was in fact much more a Theosophist than he was a Buddhist. [back]
  4. The Theory of Karma, p.3. [back]
  5. Fruit of Karma, 1994, p.113. [back]
  6. ‘Critical Questions Towards a Naturalized Concept of Karma in Buddhism’, Journal of Buddhist Ethics, Volume 11, 2004. [back]
  7. Money Sex War Karma, 2008, p.55. [back]
  8. Both Sides of the Circle, 1978, p.48. [back]
  9. The God Delusion, 2006 p.394. [back]
  10. p.53. [back]
  11. There is more to Dying than Death, 2006, p.62. [back]
  12. Sarvadarśanasaṁgraha, Bibilotheca Indica, 1858, p.10. [back]
  13. On crypto-amnesia see Ian Wilson’s Mind Out of Time: Reincarnation Investigated, 1981. [back]
  14. Paul Edwards, Reincarnation: A Critical Examination, 1996; C. J. Ducasse, A Critical Examination of the Belief in a Life after Death, 1961; John McTaggart, Human Immortality and Pre-existence, 1916; Susan Blackmore, Dying to Live: Science and the Near-death Experience,1993. [back]