Vasubandhu’s analysis of karma
The fruition of karma, as was said above, is a special case of the general law of cause and effect. So before we can come to terms with the special laws of karmic causality it will be necessary to review three general principles of causality discussed by Vasubandhu.
- No composite thing whatsoever arises from a single cause.
- Whatever is composite is innately unstable and liable to change. That is, every composite property has an innate potential to decompose.
- Whatever is composite must decompose in the very moment that it arises.
The third principle is not one that can be derived from empirical observation. Rather, it that can be derived only by reflecting upon what it means to say of a thing that it has an innate potential to do something.
When we say that a thing has an innate potential to act in a certain way, we are saying that nothing outside that thing is necessary to prompt it into acting in that specified way. If we say, for example, that fire has an innate capacity to give off heat, we are saying that fire in and of itself gives off heat quite independently of any other factors. So when we say that a composite thing has an innate potential to decompose, we are saying that no further factor is necessary to prompt it into decomposition. Rather, composite things decompose entirely on their own.
If we now pursue this notion of innate potential to its logical conclusion, claims Vasubandhu, we arrive at the conclusion that whatever has an innate potential to act in a certain way must act in that way in each moment of its existence. Fire, for example, if it has an innate potential to give off heat must give off heat in each moment that it exists as fire. For if it were not the case that fire realized this potential in each moment of existence, we should have to find some explanation for why it realized its potential in some moments of its existence and not in others. If it were the case that fire sometimes gave off heat and at other times did not, this variation in its behavior would have to be due to some factor outside the fire that was acting upon the fire to enable it to give off heat in some moments but not in other moments. But if this were the case, then the potential to give off heat would be accidental to fire and not innate. Applying this line of reasoning to a composite property, it can be seen that if a composite property has an innate potential to decompose, then it must decompose in every moment of its existence. But when a composite thing decomposes, it ceases to exist as a composite thing. Therefore, a composite thing must cease to exist in every moment that it exists. In other words, a composite thing exists for only one moment.
Vasubandhu’s conclusion that no composite thing exists for more than a single moment is evidently in harmony with the general Buddhist tenet that there is no enduring identity for any composite thing. A special case of this principle is that a person has no identity, or to state the matter in another way, that any belief in an enduring self is a delusion. But this conclusion also raises a number of difficult problems for the doctrine of karma. For example, if an action perishes in the very moment that it is performed, how can it have any consequences in the future? And even if this problem can be solved, the question still remains how can it be said that the composite “person” who performed the action in the first place and also decomposed immediately is the same “person” who experiences the consequences of that action at some future moment?
The problem of how an action that perishes in the very moment that it is performed can have any effects in the future is a special case of the general problem of how any composite property can have an effect in any moment after its single moment of existence. According to Vasubandhu, all composite properties have an innate potential to decompose, but some composite properties also have an innate potential to cause another property to arise in the immediately subsequent moment either in exactly the same place or in an immediately adjacent place.