If karma implies that people’s situations are the result of their own actions in the past, do we still work to alleviate what we see as injustice?
Jeffrey Hopkins: It is a huge mistake to take the doctrine of karma as being simply deterministic. The mere fact that suffering that I undergo or others undergo is due to former karma doesn’t mean that one wouldn’t work hard to alleviate it now and in the future. Karma has the dual meaning of past actions that shape the present, and present intentions and actions that will shape the future. Intention is the heart of karma, the very heart. What does intention mean? It means will.
I wouldn’t call this justice. In a way, it is indeed just, in the sense that we are getting our just desserts. But justice also has the sense that it is right. Quite simply, I did something and I’m suffering from those earlier actions in this lifetime or former lifetimes. The question to ask is, what can I do to turn this all around for myself and for others? It is an absolute call to work very hard for social betterment and for the betterment of oneself.
One of the great pitfalls for Buddhists is to think there is nothing we can do about the condition we find ourselves in—it is simply karma. That is a pitfall. But pitfalls are somehow built into the system. The system opens up this pit for us to fall into. Maybe another pitfall is saying, “Well, karma says I can direct my future.” The pitfall there is to think, “Well, let me change for a couple of days, and I’ll be able to change my entire future.”
Bhikkhu Bodhi: Earlier when I used the phrase “moral justice in the universe,” I was using “justice” in a somewhat metaphorical sense. I didn’t intend to imply that a person’s past karma can justify having them live in poverty under very unbearable circumstances in this present life. The principle of karma implies obligation to alleviate the sufferings of others and try to establish a just and peaceful social order.
Quite independently of the doctrines of karma and rebirth, Buddhism can lay a kind of blueprint for establishing social and political justice, derived from the concept of dharma. Dharma in this case refers not to the Buddha’s formulated teaching but rather to the universal law of righteousness. A number of the sutras speak about the ideal king, the Cakkavatti raja, the universal monarch who rules on the basis of dharma. In one of them from the Anguttara Nikaya, it says:
“The Universal Monarch, the just and righteous King, relying on the dharma, the law of righteousness, honoring it, regarding it highly and respecting it, with the dharma as his standard, banner and sovereign, provides lawful protection, shelter and safety for his own dependents, for the warrior nobles, for his army, for the Brahmans and householders, for the citizens of town and countryside, for ascetics and Brahmans, and for the beasts and birds. He is also obliged to keep the country free of crime and to give wealth to the poor.”
These kinds of principles, which were ascribed in earlier times to the ideal Buddhist monarch, can now be transferred to present-day governments, and we can regard it as their obligation to fulfill these basic principles that flow from the dharma—justice, establishing social harmony, alleviating poverty, providing protection of the people.
Jan Chozen Bays: Buddhism is the ultimate action for social justice. To teach people the way of liberation is the most fundamental way to help relieve suffering in the world. If that is not social justice, I don’t know what is. According to the laws of karma, everyone is created equal in terms of their ability eventually to become free. If we are made of emptiness and cause and effect, we are all the same. Because we know a path out of suffering, our way of acting in the world as Buddhists and applying social justice is to teach others the path, so that they themselves can use these tools and become free and happy.
You can, of course, relieve suffering in a simple way by giving someone a meal, for example, if that is within your means. Not to do that would be unwholesome karma, for you and for them. I work in the field of child abuse, even though I know that some of the things I do are going to have unintended effects because they get mixed up in the sea of bureaucracy. Nevertheless, I try to do the best I can with the child or the family in front of me. The most nourishing food, however, is the food of the dharma. That’s what everybody wants.
Bhikkhu Bodhi is an American Buddhist monk and scholar. He lives in Sri Lanka.
Jan Chozen Bays is a Zen master in the lineage of Maezumi Roshi and a pediatrician working in the field of child abuse.
Jeffrey Hopkins is Professor of Indo-Tibetan Buddhist Studies at the University of Virginia.