The epistemology of collective karma
When it comes to discussing the utility of the teaching of karma in general, there is a concern that some people have brought up and that it is not unreasonable to discuss. One way of looking at the doctrine of karma is that it serves as a reminder that conscious actions have consequences and that a responsible moral agent will consider probable or possible consequences before acting. When the Theosophical society talks about karma and rebirth, for example, they talk about life as a learning process through which one learns in each successive life certain lessons that will then become part of the wisdom one takes into a next life. Part of the lesson one might get in one life is experiencing the ripening of karma from a previous life. The problem that arises in connection with that view is that generally speaking lessons about life are most effective when one can remember both the actions and the consequences of the actions. Given that few people recall the actions of previous lives, few people are in a position to learn the lesson that continued rebirth or reincarnation is supposed to provide.
This problem of the opaqueness of rebirth—the impossibility of recalling the specific actions of a previous life that may be ripening in this life—is a problem only at the individual level. It is much less of a problem at the collective level. There is such a thing as what some people call “institutional memory” and what most people simply call “studying history.” On the other hand, speaking of collective karma does not seem to add any explanatory value to how one learns from the past that is not already available in talking about studying history and seeing what kinds of things seem to happen as a result of certain kinds of decisions. Anyone who can read a history book can “learn the lessons” embedded in the story that book tells. One need not be an American to learn about the consequences of the use of slave labor in the early American economy. Any policy that has been formulated by anyone in the human race can be studied by anyone else in the human race, and its consequences can be “learned” (or, more accurately, speculated about) by anyone. There is no need for anyone to be the member of a group to learn the lessons of that group’s collective decisions.
The Theosophical notion of the idea of collective karma does not seem to offer much explanatory value that could not be arrived by other means. What about the Buddhist notion of collective karma? When I discussed that matter with Lati Rinpoche, I found that he had a tendency to keep coming back to the idea that karma is very complex and mysterious and impossible for people to know fully. The following excerpt from the interview, which took place in Toronto, illustrates what I mean:
Lati Rinpoche: Collective karma just applies to group actions and group decisions, such as the decision to go to war. But it should not be understood as applying to individuals. For example it is not the case that a Tibetan in this life was a Tibetan in a previous life or will be a Tibetan in the future. That is not how group karma works at all. The way it works is that if a group of people decide to agree with each other and live together in harmony, then they will experience happiness. But if they decide to be in conflict with each other, then they will experience the hardships of conflict. For example, Toronto is a very beautiful city that has so many wonderful hospitals and beautiful parks and is very peaceful with very little crime. That is because the citizens of Toronto have decided collectively to be civilized people. They have made an effort in that direction. And it is because of what they have done as individuals in their past lives that the individual citizens of Toronto are so fortunate as to be able to live here.
Hayes: I see. So is it possible that the Tibetans made some collective decision to be hostile towards the Chinese and as a consequence of that group decision were overwhelmed? Or is there any way of knowing exactly why a group of people experiences the history that unfolds for them?
Lati Rinpoche: It is not such a simple thing to determine all the factors involved in karma. Karmic roots are beginningless and may ripen at any time.
Hayes: Does that mean that there is no way that an individual or a group can discover what specific actions of the past have made the present turn out as it has? Can we learn something of value from history in order to change the shape of the future?
Lati Rinpoche: We ordinary people cannot understand completely the great complexity of causes and conditions that are behind the consequences we feel in the present time, because they are really infinite. But what I can say is that there are patterns that we can observe.
All things considered, it does not seem as though the Buddhist conception of collective karma is much of an improvement on the Theosophical version that was most probably its source. But while the doctrine may not have a great deal of explanatory value as a philosophical position, it may still have some practical benefits as a convenient fiction. Let us turn now to that question.