Karma as fiction

The “as if” view of karma

It was observed at the outset of this section that the law of karma is generally understood by Buddhists as a purely natural law, almost like a law of physics or biology. According to this natural law, noble intentions are invariably followed by contentment and ignoble intentions are invariably followed by discontent. Such an understanding is, I would argue, the least promising way to make sense of the Buddhist doctrine of karma. Simple introspection would, I think, show that this alleged invariability just does not hold. Whereas one does not experience exceptions to, say, the physical law of gravity, one does experience exceptions rather frequently to the law of karma as stated in popular Buddhist teachings. There do, for example, seem to be people who act rather badly in this life without apparently being bothered by guilt and other forms of anxiety, and there are also people who suffer apparently undeserved misfortunes. Moreover, it is evident that the doctrines of karma and rebirth can be preserved only by introducing a number of essentially ad hoc principles into the abhidharma system. The notion that there are special mental properties known as acquisition and non-acquisition were pretty obviously designed for no other reason than to reconcile the doctrine of karma with the doctrine of radical momentariness. And the doctrines of non-phenomenal matter and of hearts made of subtle matter that leave one perceptible body at death and go to the scene of the conception of a next life are equally obviously invoked to preserve the notion of rebirth. Thus it would seem that trying to present the doctrines of karma and rebirth as rigorously defensible conclusions is likely to serve the purpose only of making these doctrines appear, in the final analysis, indefensible and perhaps even ridiculous.

The most promising way of treating the doctrines of karma and rebirth, I would submit, is to recognize them as fictions designed to help essentially selfish people act as if they were not selfish. Such a treatment is suggested by Lati Rinpoche, a modern Tibetan lama, who has said:

You can look at this whole question like this. Of course there is no certainty that we lived in the past, and there is no certainty that we shall live again in the future. These matters are beyond absolute proof. But suppose that you decide to act as if the theory of karma and consequence is true. You then decide to help other beings. This alone will make you feel very good. And it will make other beings love you. They will think highly of you, and they will be very willing to do things to make you happy and to help you when you are in distress. It may be that in addition to all these consequences of your decision to be helpful to others you may also be born into a beautiful pure land in the future life. There is no proof that this will happen, but you have nothing to lose if you act as if it will happen. On the other hand, if you choose to be very selfish and act in ways that harm others, you may run the risk of falling into hell in the future. But even if this is not what happens, it is still true that even in this very life, you will find that other beings fear you and hate you and will be unwilling to help you when you are in distress. So you see, you have nothing to lose by acting as if the theory of karma and rebirth is true. You definitely do have something to gain by acting as if it is true, even in this life. And it may even be that you have more to gain than you realize.1

Even many of Vasubandhu’s statements about karma and rebirth can easily be interpreted to suggest that these doctrines are fictions that make sense only to people who foolishly believe in an enduring self. Vasubandhu holds that the wise person, who is free of the notion of an enduring personal identity, does not produce karma. It would be very easy to argue that this is so for the simple reason that the very notion of karma is incapable of bearing up under close scrutiny in just the same way as is the notion of an enduring person. Vasubandhu also argues that meritorious action belongs only to those who have a desire for personal rewards but ceases to exist in people who have no desire for such rewards. But in arguing that the desire for personal rewards is based upon a fundamental delusion, one could also say that the notion of merit, which is based on a wish for personal rewards, is also ultimately based on a fundamental delusion. In other words, merit and demerit are ultimately delusions.

There is, however, a certain danger involved in saying too directly that the doctrines of merit and demerit and karma and rebirth are merely pious fictions designed to encourage altruistic conduct. For once one admits that these doctrines are directed at fools to help them behave as if they were wise, the very fools for whom these fictions were designed are likely to conclude that there is no reason whatsoever for acting any other way than selfishly. Such people would be like the man who anticipated that he would no longer require his raft once he arrived safely on the other shore. Confidently dismantling his raft while still in midstream, the poor fool is likely to drown. It is just to prevent such disasters that most Buddhists stop short of making sense of the doctrine of karma in the way that I have tried to do here.


  1. The full text of the interview with Lati Rinpoche is a chapter in Richard P. Hayes, Land of No Buddha. (Birmingham, England: Windhorse Publications, 1998). ↩︎

Work cited

  • Hayes, Richard P.  Land of No Buddha: Reflections of a Sceptical Buddhist. Birmingham, England: Windhorse Publications, 1998.

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