Karma and rebirth are principles that grew out of an Eastern context. Do you think they can be truly understood and adopted by Western Buddhists?
I don’t particularly see a problem with Western Buddhists understanding it, but I do see a problem with many traditional Buddhists understanding it, i.e. misunderstanding it. If we’re able to go back to the root principles and early texts and try and explore what these things mean, then I think we can make good sense of them. But if we rely exclusively upon some traditional exposition, then I’m not sure that’s going to be very helpful.
Which traditional expositions do you mean?
Well, for example, the idea that if something bad happens to you it is basically a consequence of your previous bad karma. I don’t find that a helpful way of relating to people’s suffering.
So instead of looking at karma retrospectively, you prefer to understand it as a potential for action?
Yes. I don’t think it’s particularly helpful to see karma retrospectively, on the whole. In some cases, it might have some value in terms of enabling you to accept some present suffering, but I think it could have the opposite effect of making you feel that you have to put up with everything that anyone throws at you. One of the pillars of the caste system in India was the idea that the so-called untouchables and the lower castes were in the state that they were in because of past karma, and that in order to expiate their karma, they simply had to accept their current state. I don’t see that as a good thing.
But could it sometimes be useful to see karma retrospectively in order, for example, to make you aware of something harmful that you have done, so you can then use that knowledge as a basis for personal change? Say I got angry with my mum yesterday, and today I was aware that she was more touchy with me. Could I use this awareness to reflect on my past anger?
Yes, sometimes it can be useful in order to reflect on past action. But say you got angry with your mum one day, and the next day a lamp fell on your foot. So you say: “Ah, a lamp has fallen on my foot because of what happened with my mum; this is my punishment”. Personally, I don’t think that line of reasoning is very helpful because it doesn’t address the problem. The more appropriate thing to do would be to reflect on what you’ve done and go and apologise to your mum, regardless of what’s going on with the lamp. The lamp is just a distraction.
So this goes back to what you were saying about karma not being something mystical, but something very pragmatic that you can actually see and observe?
I think so, yes. I think that to a significant degree one can see how the way that one acts, and the motives from which one acts, impacts on the world and on other people. The world and other people give you fairly immediate feedback on that. And that’s what we need to learn from.
So, in terms of rebirth, do you see any benefit in having faith in this principle?
Well, I think to believe something, you probably have to really understand it – or at least it has to make some kind of conceptual sense. And there are ways in which rebirth doesn’t make conceptual sense to me. First of all, Buddhism says that there is no fixed self. So what can it mean to say that I am reborn, or that I could be reborn? The strongest case could be so say something like: “Another being will arise in dependence on me”. But it won’t be me; I won’t be reborn. Besides this, a lot of what we are - or what we experience ourselves to be - is governed by memory – the previous experiences that we’re constantly remembering and which are constantly informing what’s happening now and what will happen in the future. And so, again, if there is no memory, in what sense would it be meaningful to say that a being in the future is my rebirth? So I guess I’ve got a few issues there.
Some traditional Buddhists have said to me that if I did believe in rebirth in some kind of traditional sense, then that would have a positive impact on the way that I live. But I’m not convinced that this is the case because there are many people in our world who do believe in rebirth but it doesn’t necessarily mean that they act ethically as a consequence. So I don’t simply think that holding a belief in rebirth is, in itself, going to transform one’s conduct.
So would you see any value in rebirth as a principle if it is understood in metaphorical terms, for example as highlighting the fact that we’re reborn from moment to moment?
Yes, I think that is useful, partly because it underlines the possibility that we can change. We’re not fixed, we can be reborn in the future, and that’s an important message. As a Buddhist, one is trying to let go of the unskilful aspects of oneself and move towards the skilful elements, a continual process of being reborn to something more complete, fuller, truer, and that’s a great thing. But the other thing that I would say is that fundamental to the idea of rebirth is an ethical responsibility to the future, whether that is a responsibility to a particular individual that is us in the future, or whether that’s a more generalised responsibility to people who will live on after us. We have a responsibility not to make a mess, not to create more difficult circumstances for them to live in, if we can possibly avoid it.