Home Teachings Articles and talks Karma, Rebirth, and Mental Causation – By Christian Coseru – Part 1

Karma, Rebirth, and Mental Causation – By Christian Coseru – Part 1



By Christian Coseru


Christian Coseru

Department of Philosophy

College of Charleston

Attempts to provide a thoroughly naturalized reading of the doctrine of karma
have raised important issues regarding its role in the overall economy of the
Buddhist soteriological project. This paper identifies some of the most
problematic aspects of a naturalized interpretation of karma: (1) the strained
relationship between retributive action and personal identity and (2) the debate
concerning mental causation in modern reductionist accounts of persons. The
paper explores the benefits of a phenomenological approach in which
reductionist accounts of karma are replaced with accounts that interpret virtuous and compassionate actions as emergent properties of consciousness that can be further enhanced through socialization.

The notion that actions have retributive consequences across innumerable
lifetimes is ingenuous to the Buddhist and Hindu worldviews. For the Buddhists in
particular it is clearly articulated in the canonical literature, where the Buddha
declares that his clairvoyant powers enabled him to see beings being reborn in
various stations of existence due to their karma.1 However, the metaphysical
underpinnings of a view of human agency operating on a cosmic scale are not
easily reconcilable with modern secular views of humans as socially and
biologically conditioned agents. This is in part why reductionist interpretations of
the doctrine of karma, which seek to telescope the cosmic dimension to a more
manageable this-lifetime-only stream of events, have met with all sorts of
methodological and theoretical difficulties.

As Buddhist ideas and practices penetrate deeper into the fabric of Western
societies, the question of whether modern humanistic approaches to karma are
suitable or not is no longer a purely historical or exegetical question. It becomes
also a sociological and psychological question, as we seek to address both the
relevance and the appeal of a system of ethics grounded on the idea that there is
a natural connection between actions and their results. It is above all a
methodological question, now that research into Buddhist culture can be pursued
across a variety of disciplines.

One response to the humanistic approach is to step outside the norms of
scientific rationalism and adopt a thoroughly indigenous perspective. From the standpoint of the Buddha’s psychological and moral teachings, it is not karma
that stands in need of explanation but rather our modern secular attitude vis-à-vis
a conceptual system that invites radical reassessment of human agency. To be
sure, there are several ways to articulate an indigenous Buddhist perspective on
karma, not all of which require that we endorse its metaphysical presuppositions.
This is precisely where the naturalist paradigm finds its niche, for it seeks to
justify the natural connection between human actions and their results, the
central tenet of karma, by appealing to modern scientific models of natural and
social interaction.
Another example of a methodological difficulty is the historical bias characteristic
of any attempt to explain divergences within the conceptual schemes of karma
and rebirth as reflecting “divergent historic traditions” and thus to transform
karma into a historically contingent notion. Whether such divergences have a
historical basis or not, or even if it makes sense to look for historical causes, is a
methodological not an empirical question. As such it calls into question the
interpretive strategies of the interpreters themselves rather than the purported
divergence of the “historical account.” Illustrating the dilemma modern
interpreters face when approaching the conceptual scheme of karma and rebirth
in the Indian and Buddhist contexts, Gerald Larson notes that it is
methodologically unwarranted to seek a “historical” explanation of the doctrine of
karma when “history,” as an interpretive notion, “has no demonstrable place
within any South Asian “indigenous conceptual system” (at least prior to the
middle of the nineteen century).”2

While I recognize the value of operating within the bounds of the traditional
account, in the present inquiry I wish to go one step further and take advantage
of the new array of methodological tools at our disposal. Specifically, I explore
the potential benefits of a neurophenomenological account of karma.
Acknowledging the demand for naturalist explanations of human and social
interaction, such an approach nevertheless recognizes the irreducible nature of
conscious experience. Neurophenomenology, a neologism introduced by the
neurobiologist Francisco Varela, is here used in the broader sense of its original
definition as the attempt “to marry modern cognitive science and a disciplined
approach to human experience.”3 In the idiom of the tradition of
phenomenological inquiry initiated by Husserl, we need to move beyond thirdperson
objectification and return to “the things themselves,” to a world where
experience is not an abstract process to be analyzed in its constitutive elements
but a directly felt immediacy.

The theme of this article is that the doctrine of karma invites a reassessment of
our understanding of the psychology of voluntary action and of the nexus of
causal and motivational forces that inform and sanction our valuing judgments.
This understanding relies on three axiomatic principles. First, when and where
deeds are performed intentionally, retributive consequences will inexorably
follow. In other words, once performed the chain of causal consequences set in
motion by the karmic process is never destroyed.4 Second, the underlying
dynamics of the karmic process is not transparent, at least not with respect to the
specific consequences of one’s actions and, from the viewpoint of the Buddha,
not without an insight into the interdependent nature of all phenomena. Third, in
addition to the accumulation of past deeds, present circumstances also impinge
on, and constantly reshape, the karmic process. Thus varying circumstances can
alter the results of actions, either by attenuating or precipitating a given outcome.
Of these three aspects of karma, the idea that factors constitutive of voluntary
action represent the maturation of actions that could be sufficiently remote to be
inscrutable, this aspect of karma is the hardest to reconcile with a thoroughly
modern and secular perspective.

As Buddhist philosophers would argue, our cognitive propensities are
beginningless, each thought being merely the continuation of an endless series
of previous thoughts, which constantly inform, influence, and direct our cognitive
capacities.5 These cognitive propensities manifest most vividly as traces of
memory and conceptual construction. Buddhist philosophers came to reject
memory (smṛti) as a reliable source of knowledge and regarded conceptual
construction or imagination (kalpanā) as a secondary, somewhat imperfect,
cognitive modality that served as a counterfactual example for how perception,
the most authentic source of knowledge, was defined. Conceptual construction
thus came to be completely dissociated from direct perception.

For the early Buddhists the rejection of a permanent self as the agent (karman)
and enjoyer (bhojin) of sensory activity posed a significant challenge.6 For
instance, Harvey aims to correct the view of early scholars,7 who interpreted
certain canonical passages (e.g., AN I, 149–50) as advocating the notion of self
as an unchanging witness (sakkhi). As Harvey contends in his criticism of the
above view, “the ‘self’ which witnesses … probably refers to deeper aspects of
citta acting as ‘conscience”.’8 Harvey’s suggestion is that the Buddha did not reject the notion of a personal, empirical self, but rather that of a metaphysical
self. Similarly, Collins delineates several points in support of the notion of no-self
as the right view: (1) that self-view is a form of perversion (attādiṭṭhiparāmāsa);
(2) that the body is falsely taken to be the self (sakkāyadiṭṭhi); (3) that
consciousness is not the self (viññāṇaṃ anattā); (4) that it is not possible to
speak of a self apart from experience; (5) that the false sense of self comes from
using the personal pronouns ‘I’ (ahaṃkāra) and ‘mine’ (mamankāra).9

In his analysis of the Abhidharma theory concerning rebirth and causation,
Vasubandhu defines karman as volition (cetanā) and its ensuing result.10
However, karman involves two distinct forms of activity, the volition itself and the
intentional act (cetayitvā). In his commentary on the above definition of karman,
Vasubandhu further explains that the action itself, although conceived as a dual
gesture of volition and its result, in fact consists of three discrete stages: bodily,
verbal, and mental action (kāyavāṅmanaskarmāṇi). These respectively
correspond to the basis (samutthāna), the self-nature (svabhāva), and the
original cause (samutthana) of the action. Each of these three actions, although
apparently separate, as a matter of fact are the same action viewed from three
different angles. From the perspective of its basis, the action is grounded in the
body, which serves as its instrumental manifestation. From the perspective of its
nature, the nature of action consists in verbal expression. Finally, from the
perspective of its originating cause, the action finds its ultimate cause in the
realm of the mental.11

According to the Abhidharma account, as found in Vasubandhu’s
Abhidharmakośa, conception and verbal expression represent forms of activity
that manifest an individual’s intention to express certain ideas or engage with a
certain object of experience. This intentionality springs from continuous residual
impressions (vāsanā) resulting from the association between things and names
in the past. In the Karmasiddhiprakaraṇa, Vasubandhu expands on his idea that
the impressions of past experience are instrumental in effecting the activity of the
karmic continuum that constitutes the individual personality.
In his exposition of the relationship between volition and action, Vasubandhu
uses the example of the traces of volitional acts to suggest that the intention to
engage in a certain action is not entirely determined by the present volition, but
also stems from the traces left by past volitional actions. An action — such as, for instance, the intention of a breaking rules (āsaṃvara) — is guided by volition and
by the traces left by this volitional act.12

The naturalist paradigm in epistemology, at least as framed by its proponents, is
primarily concerned with one of the two concepts of mainstream epistemology:
that of knowledge (the other being justification). Those pursuing a naturalist
agenda operate on the assumption that the sciences of cognition, having turned
their focus toward investigating the nature of mind, are best suited for answering
questions about knowledge and belief formation, while the problem of justification
can still be pursued in a traditional fashion. However, the sciences of cognition,
like other sciences, rely on observation, and observation leads to the old
philosophical problem of the difference between “seeing” and “seeing as.”13 In the
Buddhist philosophical tradition this distinction is instrumental for distinguishing
conception-free from conception-laden cognitive states, and for stating that only
the former deserves the proper label of perception.

Although the examples provided in the Buddhist literature illustrate this distinction
are drawn from ordinary experience (for instance, being able to attend to
perceptual input while thinking of something else, etc.), the ultimate proof for this
decoupling comes from the testimony of yogic perception. It is this decoupling
which raises important issues concerning the ultimate support of cognitive
activity, and which, in the end, leads to questions about causation, personal
identity, and intentionality.

In the Western context, the naturalistic approach to cognition revolves around the
problematic nature of embodiment. Contemporary debates on the problem of
embodiment revolve around the issue of whether consciousness ought to be
regarded as a mere epiphenomenon or as something that has causal powers,
with various gradations of these positions in between.

Read more
Part 2

Source Journal of Buddhist ethics

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