Collective Karma In Buddhism?

Collective ActivationIs there collective or national karma?

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.


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7 thoughts on “Collective Karma In Buddhism?

  1. bert0001 July 1, 2013 at 3:53 pm Reply

    Very interesting article

    • thesevenminds July 2, 2013 at 1:36 pm

      What’s your take on it?

    • bert0001 July 2, 2013 at 3:02 pm

      I’m not very sure … What about people who don’t belong anywhere? What about slave traders who have been ancestors in a certain culture where you have not directly anything to do with. Are the Germans carrying the karma of a runaway dictatorship, 70 years ago?

      The law of karma is always dangerous in the hands of the ignorant to whom I belong myself. We cannot know karma with our minds. Anything we word or think about it must be incorrect.

      I don’t know whether karma goes further than cause and effect in our 4d world. I think that there could be some traits in the ‘subtle’ mind that move on from this to a next life.

      Anyway, it sounds all very metaphysical, and I prefer to stay in the unknowing. I have not experienced karma directly while having been conscious about it happening. So I really don’t know anything about it.

      But whatever people say about it sounds interesting. And I really liked reading this article.

    • thesevenminds July 2, 2013 at 6:18 pm

      This may be spiritual nerdiness, but It is very interesting. I used to think that karma was very simple. “You reap what you sow.” To then find that you may be reaping what was sown many lifetimes ago. Then to find that you may be reaping what you have sown together with your neighbor. He gets off, and now you ‘suffer’ more. On and on. But, maybe it is like some people say: “there is no such thing as karma.”

    • bert0001 July 2, 2013 at 7:15 pm

      To be fully honest: all indications point in the direction that our learning time is spread over multiple lifetimes. However I don’t understand how it works. My mind is not evolved enough to understand that. If learning stretches over multiple lifes, something is needed to remain from a previous life. That thing that remains might as well be called karma.
      But again, I cannot ‘know’ this with my limited mind.

  2. mommymystic July 3, 2013 at 5:39 pm Reply

    Very interesting, I will have to think more about this. I don’t think of karma as so ‘fixed’ – it is more a flow of energy momentums – like the momentum created when we roll a stone – it will go as far as conditions allow. The choices we make are the conditions – we may ‘roll it downhill’ and strengthen a certain karma as it arises in our live/minds, or we may ‘stop’ it through self-awareness (which is spiritual practice in Buddhism.) So in this sense, energies are of course all interweaving and interdependent, and so of course are karma is linked to that of others. But I don’t think of it as being a kind of ‘sentence’ for a whole nation etc.

    • thesevenminds July 3, 2013 at 10:17 pm

      Thus, it seems like karma has a life of its own. It can grow strong and then we seem at its mercy in life. Or we grow stronger and then karma becomes insignificant or a directable tool to reach total liberation from the spell of karma.
      The collective karma can be as simple as a nation not understanding how to reach spiritual maturity. Then that whole nation remains under the spell of karma. Everyone in that nation reincarnates into the same ignorance. It is collective, yet the individual karma decides on whether one can escape from that collective. It is difficult to say. More is written on collective responsibility than collective karma. I will have to think about it some more too.

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