Many Westerners have trouble accepting the doctrine of karma. Others say it is not essential. How central is the doctrine of karma to Buddhism? Is it possible to call oneself a Buddhist without believing in karma?
Jeffrey Hopkins: The acceptance of the importance of karma in a former and future lifetime is crucial. Personally, it is quite valuable for my own practice. However, someone might be inspired by stories about the Buddha—or about bodhisattvas or arhats who act with compassion—and seek to help others as a result. If they then call themselves Buddhists, despite not believing in rebirth and that karma carries over from one lifetime to another, I have no problem at all.
Jan Chozen Bays: It confuses me to call it the “doctrine of karma,” because to me that’s like saying the “doctrine of gravity.” It is a fact, not a doctrine. It is a fact that underlies how the universe works. Once you understand that fact and also experience it, it is such a relief. It brings happiness because it relieves your anxiety about how things work.
How central is the “doctrine of karma”? Absolutely central, because it is central to our existence. You may call yourself a Buddhist without accepting karma as a fact, just as you may call yourself anything you want to. In fact, many people call themselves Buddhists having only a vague notion of what Buddhism is about. That’s okay. You could be a beginning geologist and not understand all of geology, but you still call yourself a geologist because you are studying it.
A Buddhist studies their buddhanature, their essential nature, or the essential truth of how the universe works. We could think of ourselves as nursery school Buddhists, who are just beginning to understand and experience the truth of Buddhism. If people want to call themselves Buddhists and say they don’t understand or experience karma, that’s okay. Hopefully, they will simply continue to study it.
Bhikkhu Bodhi: If one sincerely and deeply goes for refuge to the Triple Gem, then one has to investigate what is implied by that act of taking refuge. When I go for refuge in the Buddha, I place confidence in the Buddha as the fully enlightened one. When I investigate his own account of his enlightenment, I find that it includes recollection of previous lives and realization of karmic laws that govern the process of rebirth.
When I take refuge in the dharma and study the doctrine deeply, I see that karma and rebirth are pillars of the teaching. The ideas of karma and rebirth are included in many of the formulations of right view. So if I really accept the dharma, then I should consent to the ideas of karma and rebirth. When I enter the path, I can begin to observe Buddhist ethics, and I could engage in intensive meditation without believing in karma and rebirth. But if my path is really to become part of the Noble Eightfold Path, leading to final liberation, I will find that right view is defined in some contexts as the acceptance of the principles of karma and rebirth.
From the Theravadin point of view, the goal of one’s path is nirvana, the extinction of karma and the release from the round of rebirth. When one takes refuge in the sangha, one understands that the true sangha is the aryan sangha, the community of noble ones. These noble ones are defined precisely by the extent to which they have cut off the root of rebirth.
I would say, then, that the act of taking refuge itself, when it is done sincerely, with clear understanding, will involve consenting to the ideas of karma and rebirth. Some proponents of what I call modernistic Buddhism, or what Stephen Batchelor calls “agnostic Buddhism,” say it is sufficient to base one’s life and practice on the Four Noble Truths, without bringing in ancient Indian metaphysics or the cultural baggage of Asian superstitions. However, if we examine the implications of the Four Noble Truths deeply enough, we will find they are quite inseparable from the ideas of karma and rebirth.
For example, the First Noble Truth of dukkha doesn’t mean simply experiencing sorrow, anguish, greed, worry and anxiety. At the deepest level, it means the continuity of these five clinging aggregates. Without some notion of karmas and rebirth, the very idea of five clinging aggregates at the basis of one’s being becomes incomprehensible. Then from the point of view of the Second Noble Truth, how is craving the origin of suffering? We could look at it psychologically and say that when there is craving, one makes oneself vulnerable to the clinging aggregates. But when one studies the sutras deeply, one finds that craving is the force that brings the renewal of the five aggregates from one life to the next. From this premise, the Third and Fourth Noble Truths follow logically.
The act of taking refuge, then, the act of practicing in accordance with the Four Noble Truths, implies accepting the principles of karma and rebirth.
Jeffrey Hopkins: I think Bhikkhu Bodhi makes many good points. Nevertheless, I think that someone can take refuge in the Three Jewels sincerely and not understand many of the points that I too consider very important. There are simply many levels, and I want to try hard not to be exclusivist. I’m not saying that Bhikkhu Bodhi is exclusivist, because he didn’t indicate that. He has made a very good case about the Four Noble Truths, the Eightfold Path and the Three Jewels.
It is a huge mistake to take the doctrine of karma as being simply deterministic.
Nevertheless, I think one can call oneself a Buddhist because one is inspired by various and sundry aspects of the Buddhist teachings. At some point, I think that one would nevertheless come to see the cause and effect of actions and would eventually see that there were former and future lifetimes.
We have to consider that people are brought up to think many things. A young person in China and Tibet today is propagandized to think that Tibet is just one of the provinces of China. To a great many people, it becomes unthinkable that it is anything else. Just so, people who go through the educational system in America are propagandized to think that the mind is the brain, a physical phenomenon, or at best an epi-phenomenon of the brain.
We are also faced with the very difficult psychological fact that few of us remember our former lifetimes. That is a great stumbling block to thinking that we are going to have to undergo the future effects of what we are doing now. We just plain don’t remember past lives, so we don’t have a sense of continuity from former lifetimes. But we also don’t have a sense of continuity of many of our dreams from the night before. You could be lying with somebody in bed and the next morning the other person will say, “You really went through it last night,” and you say, “What? I don’t remember anything.”
Bhikkhu Bodhi is an American Buddhist monk and scholar. He lives in Sri Lanka.