What is collective karma?

The basic idea

In a previous module reference has been made to an interview with Lati Rinpoche in which the topic was karma and rebirth. One of the topics that came up in that interview was the notion of collective karma. That portion of the dialogue went as follows:

Hayes: What is the most frequently encountered question when you are speaking to Western audiences?

Lati Rinpoche: People always want to know why the ways of the world are as they are and who created these things. People want to know why there is so much pain and suffering in the world, and why there are so many thieves and other bad people causing so much suffering for others.

Hayes: That reminds me of a question that was once put to me when I was giving a public lecture about Buddhism. A Jewish person in the audience asked me how the Buddhists would explain why during the Second World War in Europe so many innocent Jewish children, who had never done anything wrong to deserve punishment, were put to death in Nazi concentration camps or were left as homeless orphans. That situation was completely lacking in any justice in that so many of the victims were apparently totally innocent. How would Lati Rinpoche answer that question if it were put to him?

Lati Rinpoche: The proper Buddhist answer to such a question is that the victims were experiencing the consequences of their actions performed in previous lives. The individual victims must have done something very bad in earlier lives that led to their being treated in this way. Also there is such a thing as collective karma.

Hayes: Do you mean that the Jewish people as a whole have a special karma?

Lati Rinpoche: Yes. All groups have karma that is more than just the collection of the karma of the individuals in the group. For example, a group of people may decide collectively to start a war. If they act on that decision, then the group as a whole will experience the hardships of being at war. Karma is the result of making a decision to act in a certain way. Decisions to act may be made by individuals or by groups. If the decision is made by a group, then the whole group will experience the collective consequences of their decision.

Hayes: What can an individual do to change the karma of the group that he or she belongs to?

Lati Rinpoche: You can change all karma through practice. You can persuade the group to adopt pure attitudes and to develop pure practices.1

According to Wilhelm Halbfass, this notion of collective karma is not part of traditional Indian thought. The origin of the idea seems to be the doctrine of karma as taught by the Theosophical Society, which was founded in 1875. Halbfass also notes that it was the Theosophical Society that introduced the expression “the law of karma.” In traditional Hindu and Buddhist texts, karma is never referred to as a law in any of the several senses of that English word, although it is described in ways that naturally make Western people think of it as being somewhat like other laws of nature, such as the law of gravity or the law of diminishing returns.2

The history of the idea of collective karma is not the topic to be explored here. Rather, the focus of this lecture is what kind of sense can be made of the idea of collective karma in a traditional Buddhist framework and in a modern Western Buddhist framework. The first question to ask is: How does collective karma work?

  1. The full text of the interview is in Richard P. Hayes, Land of No Buddha. (Birmingham, England: Windhorse Publications, 1998). ↩︎
  2. Wilhelm Halbfass, “Karma and Rebirth, Indian Conceptions of,” ed. Edward C. Craig, Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy (New York and London: Routledge, 1998). ↩︎

Works cited

  • Halbfass, Wilhelm. “Karma and Rebirth, Indian Conceptions of.” ed. Edward C. Craig, New York and London: Routledge, 1998.
  • Hayes, Richard P. Land of No Buddha: Reflections of a Sceptical Buddhist. Birmingham, England: Windhorse Publications, 1998.

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