Negative uses of the doctrine
While questions arise about positive uses of the doctrine of collective karma, it seems fairly clear that a notion of collective karma could have some unquestionably negative effects. I believe that one reason why many Western people feel uneasy talking about events in karmic terms is that discussion of karma can easily sound like what some people call “blaming the victim.” It was, for example, frequently the strategy of lawyers defending men accused of rape to question the character of the woman who was the victim of rape by suggesting that somehow her behavior provoked or invited the assault to which she was subjected. Recall that Lati Rinpoche said that the Jews who died in the holocaust must have done something very terrible in a previous life to be born as Jews during the time of National Socialism in Germany. He also suggested that the treatment of the Jewish population as a whole must have come about because of collective Jewish karma. He also said that this collective karma, like all karma, could be modified through practice. From that point the interview continued as follows:
Hayes: Is what constitutes purity of practice and purity of attitude the same for every group? Let’s return to the example of the Jews. According to Jewish belief there are certain practices that the Jewish people should perform in order to remain pure. Other groups do not have to follow these same laws of purity. Is your suggestion that the Jews may have suffered the humiliations of the holocaust because they failed to live up to Jewish standards of purity, or rather because they did not live up to Buddhist standards of purity?
Lati Rinpoche: There are attitudes that all peoples regard as pure. Being kind to other people, for example. I don’t know specifically about the history of the Jews.
The example of purity of behavior that Lati Rinpoche gave was kindness. Normally one thinks of kindness as an individual virtue, but it is not at all difficult to imagine that a group could make a decision to be kind. A nation might, for example, provide aid to another nation that has undergone a severe crisis. Or a collection of industrialized nations might work together to curb their greenhouse-gas emissions. The disturbing implications of Lati Rinpoche’s statement is that somehow or another, the Jewish people of Europe had collectively made a conscious decision to act in some way that everyone would agree was impure, such as deciding not to be kind. By this logic, we would have to suggest that the people of Africa had collectively made a decision to act in some impure way so that being enslaved was a natural karmic consequence of that decision.
Something else one can observe in Lati Rinpoche’s answer is that it bears a close resemblance to the kind of thinking one finds in the pronouncements of the Hebrew prophets. Throughout the pronouncements of Jeremiah we encounter references to how God had freed the Hebrews from their captivity and led them to a land of milk and honey, and how the ungrateful Hebrews had then worshiped false gods and things that are impure in the eyes of God, and God says to these people through the prophet Jeremiah “Therefore I will yet contend with you, and I will contend with your children’s children.” (Jeremiah 2.9) The notion that the descendants of sinners shall pay the wages of sin is well documented in Hebrew prophetic literature. The captivity of Jews by the Babylonians was already blamed on the sinful ways of those who had been their ancestors of those who were captured. To anyone who finds that kind of discourse of questionable value, the doctrine of collective karma is not an attractive alternative. Indeed, the message is very much the same: there is nothing unjust in some people suffering because of the bad actions of others.