Many modern Buddhists such as Thich Nhat Hanh prefer to suggest the “dispersion of karmic responsibility into the social system,” such that “moral responsibility is decentered from the solitary individual and spread throughout the entire social system,” reflecting the left-wing politics of Engaged Buddhism.
Other modern Buddhists have sought to formulate theories of group, collective and national karma which are not found in traditional Buddhist thinking. The earliest recorded instance of this occurred in 1925, when a member of the Maha Bodhi named Sheo Narain published an article entitled “Karmic Law” in which he invited Buddhist scholars to explore the question of whether an individual is “responsible not only for his individual actions in his past life but also for past communal deeds.”
As one scholar writes, “a systematic concept of group karma was in no sense operative in early Theravada” or other schools based on the early sutras. “Instead,” he writes, “the repeated emphasis in the canonical discussions of karma is on the individual as heir to his own deeds. It is only in this century, then, that one finds a conscious effort to split with this tradition.”
Buddhism does not deny that the actions taken by one generation of the citizens of a given country will have effects on later generations, for example. However, as noted above, all effects of actions are not karmic effects. Karmic effects impinge only on the mindstreams of those sentient beings who perform the actions. As Nyanatiloka Mahathera writes, individuals
should be responsible for the deeds formerly done by this so-called ‘same’ people. In reality, however, this present people may not consist at all of the karmic heirs of the same individuals who did these bad deeds. According to Buddhism it is of course quite true that anybody who suffers bodily, suffers for his past or present bad deeds. Thus also each of those individuals born within that suffering nation, must, if actually suffering bodily, have done evil somewhere, here or in one of the innumerable spheres of existence; but he may not have had anything to do with the bad deeds of the so-called nation. We might say that through his evil Karma he was attracted to the miserable condition befitting to him. In short, the term Karma applies, in each instance, only to wholesome and unwholesome volitional activity of the single individual.
Thus, in the traditional view the effects of the actions of other beings—such as the leader of one’s country, or prior generations of its citizens—might well serve as causes of suffering for an individual on one level, but they would not be the karmic causes of the suffering of that individual—those causes would function in congruence with the karmic causes. There is, therefore, no “national karma” in traditional Buddhism.
One “scholar of engaged Buddhism” wrote an article asserting that the “collective karma” of the United States deriving from the Abu Ghraib torture and prisoner abuse would potentially “play out for generations,” a view that is not supported by traditional Buddhist views of karma. The effects may well be felt by Americans for generations, but they would not constitute “collective karma.”
“Collective karma” could be spoken of only in certain limited senses in the canonical tradition. In Vasubandu’s Karmasiddhiprakarana, among other places, it is asserted that a group of individuals who collaborate and share the same intention for a planned action will all incur karmic merit or demerit based on that action, regardless of which individual actually carries out the action. The fruition of their merit or demerit, however, will not necessarily be experienced by each of the individuals together, and/or at the same time. Likewise, “family karma” is possible only when it refers to karmic dispositions which are similar in each individual family member.
One scholar points out, “statements concerning group karma . . .are subject to conceptual confusion. It is important to distinguish group karma from what might be termed conjunctive karma, that is, the karmic residues which we experience as a result of the actions of everyone or everything operating casually in the situation, but which are justified by our own accumulated karma. . . the actions of many persons . . .mediate our karma to us. But this is not group karma, for the effect which we experience is justified by our own particular acts or pool of karma, and not by the karmic acts or pool of the group, even though it is mediated by the actions of others.”
Is karma just “social conditioning?”
Buddhist modernists also often prefer to equate karma with social conditioning, in contradistinction with, as one scholar puts it, “early texts [which] give us little reason to interpret ‘conditioning’ as the infusion into the psyche of external social norms, or of awakening as simply transcending all psychological conditioning and social roles. Karmic conditioning drifts semantically toward ‘cultural conditioning’ under the influence of western discourses that elevate the individual over the social, cultural, and institutional. The traditional import of the karmic conditioning process, however, is primarily ethical and soteriological—actions condition circumstances in this and future lives.”
Essentially, this understanding limits the scope of the traditional understanding of karmic effects so that it encompasses only saṃskāras—habits, dispositions and tendencies—and not external effects, while at the same time expanding the scope to include social conditioning that does not particularly involve volitional action.