Four problems

Four questions for the abhidharmic view of karma

When one looks at the doctrine of karma from an abhidharmic perspective, a number of questions naturally arise. According to the popular version of the doctrine, for example, whatever action a person performs has a consequence that that same person will eventually experience. But according to abhidharma the person is not an ultimate reality. This conviction gives rise to the following challenges:

  • The first challenge facing the abhidharma analyst is to describe exactly what it is that acts. This amounts to specifying which of the various ultimately real components that make up what is conventionally called a person is the agent of a deed.
  • The next challenge is to describe exactly what it is that experiences the consequences of the original action. This amounts to specifying which of the various ultimately real components that make up a person is the experiencer of the consequences of the deed.
  • A third challenge is to give some account of the sense in which the agent of the original deed is the same as the eventual experiencer of the consequences.
  • The fourth challenge is to explain how and where the potential consequences of an action are “stored” until such time as they are realized as consequences that are capable of being experienced.

To illustrate some of the above mentioned challenges facing the abhidharma analyst, let us take an example that is often given in Buddhist literature of how karma might ripen. It is said that a person who commits murder is liable to be reborn as a predatory animal, such as a jackal. What the abhidharma analyst must be able to explain is where this “seed” that has been sown when a human being with a human mind kills a living being is stored until it naturally ripens into the consequence of a jackal’s body being born with a jackal’s mind. Is it to be supposed that the atoms that once made up the human being’s body somehow bear the imprint of this murderous misconduct in such a way that they reformulate later into a jackal’s body? And if so, how? Or is it to be supposed that the karmic imprint is borne by one of the mental properties that makes up the human being’s character in such a way that the human being’s character is eventually transformed into a jackal’s character? If so, then which of the ultimately real mental properties is so imprinted? And how does the imprinting govern the loss of attendant mental properties suitable to a human being and the subsequent acquisition of mental properties suitable to a jackal?

Bearing these questions in mind, let us turn now to Vasubandhu’s abhidharmic analysis of the theory of karma.