The metaphysics of collective karma

Let us begin by discussing how collective karma might “work” at the level of traditional Buddhist metaphysics. The first problem we encounter is that most Buddhist doctrines of metaphysics do not regard complex objects as having an independent reality. Given that an individual person is regarded as an abstraction and a convenient fiction, a group of people would be even more of an abstraction. It is difficult to imagine what kind of status in traditional Buddhist ontology a race, or an ethnic group, or a nation, or a business corporation such as KLM might have.

A second problem that arises when one looks at this from a traditional Indian Buddhist perspective is that karma, as we saw in earlier lectures, is described as being part of the cluster of volitions (saṃskāra-skandha) that accompanies an individual consciousness continuum (citta-saṃtāna), which is described as an unbroken chain of causal events wherein each event is both a consequence of previous events and a cause of future events in the mentality of what we would call an individual person. If collective karma or group karma were talked about in similar ways, then there would have to be some sort of collective consciousness and collective saṃskāra-skandha that is not merely the sum of the individual continuums of consciousness of the individual members of the group, but rather an independent entity of some sort. And this collective consciousness and collective saṃskāra-skandha would have to be, as it were, larger than any individual person but smaller than the totality of all consciousness. It would have to be (if one can speak in such terms at all) the size of, say, the Jewish population or the Dutch population.

To make matters even more complicated, the number of these “group consciousness” entities would be uncountable, since almost all individuals belong to any number of groups. So a given person might be the citizen of a city, and of a county, and a nation, and an ethnic group (whatever that is), and labor union or professional society, and the supporters of a football club, and the Taylor Swift fan club, and each of these groups would presumably have its own collective consciousness, its own saṃskāra-skandha and its own particular karma and karmic ripening.

A further complication would be how to connect the individuals to all the groups to which they belong. Lati Rinpoche suggests that each individual’s individual karma plays a role in which group she belongs to. So presumably it is the ripening of an individual’s karma that leads to being born in, say, a Dutch-speaking Roman Catholic family in Antwerp and therefore an heir not only of her previous individual karma but also of the collective karma of the Belgian nation, the city of Antwerp, the Roman Catholic church and all speakers of the Dutch language. An interesting question to think about is whether a person who voluntarily learns to speak another language thereby participates in the collective karma of the speakers of that language. Do people who speak Dutch fluently with a French accent have a somewhat different collective karma from those who speak Dutch more falteringly or who know only how to read Dutch? Of course, many of these questions of group identity would not be seen as having any karmic consequences whatsoever. Karma enters the story only if a group of people make a collective decision to form a particular policy. Simply being part of the group of people who speak French would not have karmic consequences according to Lati Rinpoche’s explanation, while being a voting member of L’Academie française might well have some sort of karmic consequences. When group decisions are decided by a vote, one might well wonder whether the group of those who voted in favor of a policy or a particular political candidate have the same collective karma as those who voted against that policy or for a different candidate, or those who for whatever reason did not vote at all.

Once one begins to think about some of these questions, it is difficult to find a reasonable place to stop asking. The more one asks, the more potentially complex this whole notion of collective karma becomes. To those who like relatively clear, simple and elegant explanations, the very idea of the metaphysics of collective karma and karmic ripening becomes a nightmare. That does not, of course, make the idea false. There is no reason why truth must be simple and more like a pleasant dream than a nightmare. Suffice it to say that those who talk in terms of collective karma owe the rest of us quite a few explanations, especially if they claim that collective karma is more than a fiction that may serve some kind of convenient way of talking about things it is useful to talk about.

The next question to consider is: How does one know that what is being experienced is the ripening of the previous collective karma of a group?

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