Does the doctrine of karma blame victims for their own suffering?

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Charles Jones
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Does the doctrine of karma blame victims for their own suffering?

Post by Charles Jones »

I got an e-mail from a random stranger asking me if the Buddhist concept of karma is anti-Semitic because it forces us to blame the Jews for the Holocaust. I'm not sure I'd want to answer it directly not knowing anything about the source, but it does raise some thoughts.

1. Karma is just cause and effect. It's not moral; there is no judge and there's no concept of "deserving" whatever happens. Unskillful action done in ignorance is a more likely cause of misfortune than deliberate evil. However, it seems westerners are unable to explain fortune and misfortune within any framework other than moral. We can't help asking if victims of evil "deserved" it because in a past life they "did something wrong."

2. Perpetrators of cruelty cannot hide behind karma to excuse their actions. Those who deliberately cause others to suffer cannot justify their deeds by claiming that they are simply carrying out the dictates of karma; they will endure the future consequences of their own actions.

3. The problem is not restricted to any one person or group. These would just be instances of the larger question of whether the doctrine of karma blames victims. Is the gazelle responsible for being caught by the lion? Well....
3a. Hardly anyone remembers past lives, and there is no ongoing self, so whoever did something unskillful in a past life is only "me" in a very qualified way as a prior moment in a chain of events, not an enduring moral agent. That past self is "me" and "not-me," which creates a distancing effect.
3b. People want to know why they suffer. If there is no reason, then our suffering is random and meaningless. For many, even if karma is a faulty understanding, it's still better than having no rational understanding at all.
3b. Looking to the future, karma holds some hope that one can avert future suffering; it gives a bit of a sense of control. If suffering is purely random, then there is no such hope.

Your thoughts?
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Re: Does the doctrine of karma blame victims for their own suffering?

Post by DNS »

Yes and no. The Buddha did talk about karma and the results of karma. There is one Sutta that is so politically incorrect, even Ayn Rand might have liked it:

"So it is the way people live that makes them how they are, whether short-lived or long lived, sickly or healthy, ugly or lovely, insignificant or illustrious, poor or rich, in a low class or eminent family, or witless or wise. Sentient beings are the owners of their deeds and heir to their deeds. Deeds are their womb, their relative, and their refuge. It is deeds that divide beings into inferior and superior.”
https://suttacentral.net/mn135/en/sujato

Moggallana was one of the chief disciples of the Buddha and fully awakened. He was killed at the age of 84 by bandits due to some past karma in a distant past life where he may have killed his parents.

But also no, because we are not to speculate on another's karma (Anguttara Nikaya 4.77) and compassion is the cornerstone of doctrine and practice.

The Buddha once washed a monk who was suffering from dysentery. He didn't just say something like "too bad, that's your karma" and instead cared for him.
https://dhammawiki.com/index.php?title=Nursing_the_sick
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Re: Does the doctrine of karma blame victims for their own suffering?

Post by Charles Jones »

DNS wrote: Wed Feb 21, 2024 9:20 pm
But also no, because we are not to speculate on another's karma (Anguttara Nikaya 4.77) and compassion is the cornerstone of doctrine and practice.
Also a crucial point, and not just for Mahayana Buddhism.
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Re: Does the doctrine of karma blame victims for their own suffering?

Post by PadmaVonSamba »

Charles Jones wrote: Wed Feb 21, 2024 1:42 pm I got an e-mail from a random stranger asking me if the Buddhist concept of karma is anti-Semitic because it forces us to blame the Jews for the Holocaust. I'm not sure I'd want to answer it directly not knowing anything about the source, but it does raise some thoughts.
1. Karma is not some cosmic system of rewards and punishments. This is probably the most common misunderstanding.

2. The effects of karma have to do more with one’s experience of their life situation rather than the situation itself, which is why many poor people still laugh and get by, while rich people commit suicide. Consider that in some Asian cultures, being born female was ‘blamed’ on bad karma. Today more people realize how stupid that is. There’s nothing wrong with being female.
(This should akso shed some light on the sutta cited in the previous post).

3. Throughout history, entire populations have been systematically wiped out. So even if karma was some type of punishment, the Holocaust is only one of the more recent examples. So even then, the concept isn’t particularly antisemitic. But if someone took the point of view that Jews in particular somehow karmically “deserved” the Holocaust, that would clearly be an antisemitic belief. It would also ignore the extermination of other groups of people by Nazis.

4. Although birth in this samsaric reality is, overall, a result of karma, not everything that occurs to a person is the result of previous actions. Getting the flu or having a tree branch fall and hit your head is not the result of karma

5. It can be said that the karmic weight from intentionally and systematically killing 17 million people is very heavy and that WW2 nazis will not likely have fortunate experiences in future lives. But this isn’t due to cosmic punishment but rather because such an unhinged frame of mind is set into motion, that motion continues throughout life, by its own momentum into future lives.

One does not intentionally become a victim, but one intentionally becomes a perpetrator, and it is intention which is the dynamic principle of karma.
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Re: Does the doctrine of karma blame victims for their own suffering?

Post by Astus »

The teaching of karma is meant to show how skilful and unskilful intention resulting in action influences one's state of mind, and that in turn defines one's experience. Although it is generally viewed as things happening out there, the main point is still what is happening in here. As far as the external manifestation of karma is relevant is ethical behaviour, the first part of the threefold training. Grasping that teaching wrongly can easily lead to long series of conjectures that are quite unfounded, like the idea that it blames victims. Grasping it correctly shows that virtuous and unvirtuous actions readily produce happy and unhappy experiences, and that there is a way to make an end to karma.
1 Myriad dharmas are only mind.
Mind is unobtainable.
What is there to seek?

2 If the Buddha-Nature is seen,
there will be no seeing of a nature in any thing.

3 Neither cultivation nor seated meditation —
this is the pure Chan of Tathagata.

4 With sudden enlightenment to Tathagata Chan,
the six paramitas and myriad means
are complete within that essence.


1 Huangbo, T2012Ap381c1 2 Nirvana Sutra, T374p521b3; tr. Yamamoto 3 Mazu, X1321p3b23; tr. J. Jia 4 Yongjia, T2014p395c14; tr. from "The Sword of Wisdom"
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Re: Does the doctrine of karma blame victims for their own suffering?

Post by Kim O'Hara »

I recall a long discussion here which concluded (if I remember rightly) with general agreement that there is no such thing as "group" or "collective" karma.
If that's the case, "the Jews" can't suffer karmic consequences (and nor can "the Palestinians").

That's not an answer to the topic title question, but it may be an answer to the question which prompted the topic.

:namaste:
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Re: Does the doctrine of karma blame victims for their own suffering?

Post by Aemilius »

AKB of Vasubandhu explains atleast one form of collective karma. The idea and teaching of collective karma is also included or implied in the teachings of Yogachara. As is explained by Alex Berzin (and Asanga) below:

"Jonathan Landaw: Many people nowadays ask, “Could collective karma cause something like an earthquake, for instance the one that just devastated Haiti?”
In answer to that, it is generally explained that the collective karma of all the beings on this planet is responsible for the general characteristics of this planet and the elements that make it up. With these elements in place, the impersonal laws of physics take over. For example, heat rises and various motions result, such as the shifting of continental plates, and so forth. One manifestation of such motion is earthquakes. From this point of view, earthquakes are the inevitable outcome of our planet’s having arisen as it is; and it has arisen as it is as the result of the very broad collective karma of all the beings who have ever lived on this planet. Could you comment on this?

Dr. Berzin: Karma, or more specifically, positive or negative karmic forces (bsod-nams or sdig-pa) and karmic tendencies (sa-bon), whether individual or collective, ripen into various types of results. One of these results is a dominating result (bdag-po’i ’bras-bu). A dominating result is our experiencing of the type of environment or society in which we are born or enter, and the way it treats us, or objects such as our possessions, and what happens to them.

[See: Mechanism of Karma: Asanga’s Presentation, Part 3]

In the case of the dominating result of the collective karma – the technical term is actually “shared karma” (thun-mong-gi las) – of a group of limited beings, this refers mainly to their shared experiencing of environmental or societal situations or occurrences when this group experiences them. However, we can also say that the dominating result of collective karma also refers to the environmental or societal situations or occurrences that provide the circumstances for this group to experience them.

This last statement does not imply that the collective karma of this group is the only cause for the environment, for instance, that they experience when they experience it. The environment they experience, such as the make-up of the earth or the universe, is the result of innumerable other causes and conditions. In the case of the universe, its obtaining cause (nyer-len-gyi rgyu) – namely that from which we obtain the universe as its successor and which ceases to exist when its successor arises – is the Big Bang."


In Abhidharma there are the Five causes (hetu) and Four conditions (pratyaya), namely:

1. associated cause (saṃprayuktaka-hetu),
2. simultaneous cause (sahabhū-hetu),
3. homogeneous cause (sabhāga-hetu),
4. universal cause (sarvatraga-hetu),
5. ripening cause (vipāka-hetu).

1. Causal condition, (hetu-pratyaya),
2. Immediately preceding condition, (samanantara-pratyaya),
3. Object condition, (ālambana-pratyaya),
4. Dominant condition, (adhipati-pratyaya).



https://studybuddhism.com/en/advanced-s ... -disasters
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Re: Does the doctrine of karma blame victims for their own suffering?

Post by KathyLauren »

Charles Jones wrote: Wed Feb 21, 2024 1:42 pm
2. Perpetrators of cruelty cannot hide behind karma to excuse their actions. Those who deliberately cause others to suffer cannot justify their deeds by claiming that they are simply carrying out the dictates of karma; they will endure the future consequences of their own actions.
Actions are not the result of karma. They are the causes of karma. Karma causes circumstances, not actions. How we respond to those circumstances generates new karma.

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Re: Does the doctrine of karma blame victims for their own suffering?

Post by heartagramadios »

PadmaVonSamba wrote: Wed Feb 21, 2024 9:57 pm ... because a frame of mind is set into motion, that motion continues throughout life, by its own momentum into future lives ... and it is intention which is the dynamic principle of karma.
Yeah, I believe this point is what's most crucial in understanding how the doctrine of karma differs from that of a punishment for sin being imposed by a deity.
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Re: Does the doctrine of karma blame victims for their own suffering?

Post by Queequeg »

I was taught, our present circumstances are the results of past thoughts, words and actions. Full stop.

This can be hard to accept, especially if one's present circumstances are marked by suffering that feels unfair. This feeling of unfairness stem from seeing this life as the only one. If one accepts rebirth, then we must accept that present circumstances are the ripening of karma in past lives.

If we understand that our present circumstances are the result of karma, then we know the future results will ripen in kind from present actions. This gives us assurance that our efforts are never in vain, but also, evil will ripen as well, if not this life, then in a future life.

Without this certainty of cause and effect, it would make no sense to take any actions toward goals that may not be immediately attainable and hedonism is the only path that makes sense unless its attenuated with some sort of social ethic that tempers it and makes hedonistic pursuits a social thing.

As stated above, there is no fair or unfair, or blame in karma and its fruits, anymore than mathematical equations are balanced.

Agree with the sentiment that we must strive to look with compassion on all beings regardless of their circumstances.

Its a difficult subject because it may not be what people want to hear and it is not something I would ever lead with. It can also be a basis of arrogance and haughtiness for those enjoying present circumstances. The corollary to that is, if one does not continue to make good causes, the enjoyable effects will eventually be exhausted, and in the long game of samsara, the fall is inevitable unless one escapes the cycle.
There is no suffering to be severed. Ignorance and klesas are indivisible from bodhi. There is no cause of suffering to be abandoned. Since extremes and the false are the Middle and genuine, there is no path to be practiced. Samsara is nirvana. No severance achieved. No suffering nor its cause. No path, no end. There is no transcendent realm; there is only the one true aspect. There is nothing separate from the true aspect.
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Re: Does the doctrine of karma blame victims for their own suffering?

Post by Inedible »

The question implies that there are victims. Karma suggests that if you could look far enough in the past, you could find a cause for present suffering. Buddha taught that if you see someone suffering it is wrong to do nothing. He attended to sick monks who were being ignored. We all have done things in the distant past. That is why compassion is important. We all deserve better than we get.
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Re: Does the doctrine of karma blame victims for their own suffering?

Post by PadmaVonSamba »

Queequeg wrote: Sun Feb 25, 2024 3:35 am I was taught, our present circumstances are the results of past thoughts, words and actions. Full stop.

This can be hard to accept, especially if one's present circumstances are marked by suffering that feels unfair.

Your circumstances are those thoughts and feelings. Nothing is experienced outside of the mind. Conditions themselves are empty of inherent reality. So, even if outwardly or physically the circumstances are either good or bad, how one experiences those circumstances is all that karma can carry (and our experiences are all that we have).

The Buddha taught that karma is one of many causes for the conditions encounter. But getting sick of being attacked may simply be the result of being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
In other words, bad luck.

Still, we can say, for example, that if one chooses to walk down a dangerous dark alley and gets mugged, that what they encountered was partly the result of the choices that they made. But this isn’t really karma per se.

One issue that gets discussed a lot these days is victim-blaming, and the common example is in saying that a woman was assaulted because of how she was dressed, therefore she had only herself to blame, and it’s her own fault blah blah blah.

Ultimately, it is not her fault. It’s the fault of the sexist and violent perpetrators of the assault. Ultimately, this is true.

On the other hand, every woman is cautions about how she dresses in certain circumstances, where she goes, and so on, not because she is to blame for the violence that others commit, but because she knows full well that her reality is life in a world dominated by violent, creepy and misogynistic men. There is wisdom in understanding this and it would be foolish to ignore this unfortunate fact.

So within that specific context, one’s actions have to do with exercising wisdom or ignoring reality, and it can be said that if one knows of dangers, then one is responsible for their circumstances. This choice is no different for a man doing dangerous things foolishly.

But of course this doesn’t apply to situations you logically assume to be safe but in fact are not. This includes adults a child should be able to trust but who molest them, and it also applies to being Jewish in Berlin before 1930. After all, it was a modern city. And sure, you know there are antisemitic people, but you’d never expect to have your windows smashed or being sent to death camps. People couldn’t believe what was happening even when it was happening in front of them.

This is the difference regarding circumstances resulting from karma and not from karma, because every situation really has to be broken down into parts. Is it one’s karma to be born into a Jewish family? Perhaps. Is it your karma to he born in Germany? Maybe. Is it your karma for Hitler to come to power? No. But the two circumstances happened together.Maybe it was Hitler’s ‘karma’ to be able to manipulate the latent antisemitism in modern Germany.

But the question of Jews as a whole (or any group), suffering “their karma” is a muddled combination of generalized concepts to begin with. And the idea of “collective karma” is even more widely misunderstood than just “karma”. It has more to do with dependent origination rather than identifying individual groups.
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Re: Does the doctrine of karma blame victims for their own suffering?

Post by Queequeg »

I think it is a mistake to reduce Buddhadharma to mere psychology. The interdependence of consciousness and form is much deeper than merely saying, reality is what we make it. The teaching on the 12 linked chain, in fact, is that consciousness gives rise to form, and there are teachings about the arising and perishing of the universe that due to our ignorance, we actually, literally create form.

I understand the impulse to assure people that they are not at fault when bad things happen to them. To get beyond trauma, sometimes its necessary to create that distance.

I would also caution against distinguishing consciousness and form so sharply. Perhaps such a view can help a traumatized person develop distance from the trauma. But that distance would also need to apply when good things happen.

Thinking things happen capriciously is, btw, a wrong view.

This is different than the Buddhist approach to suffering, which is to overcome ignorance. Perhaps its harder, but it maintains the deep connection between mind and form, which I think is critical to developing right view.

As for group karma - I agree there is no such thing. However, similar actions have similar results. If everyone plants acorns, we can expect there will be a lot of oak trees, not palm or walnut trees.

We also, apparently, tend to transmigrate with the same beings. Devadatta, for instance, appeared as the Buddha's foil over and over. Their connection to each other was profoundly deep.
There is no suffering to be severed. Ignorance and klesas are indivisible from bodhi. There is no cause of suffering to be abandoned. Since extremes and the false are the Middle and genuine, there is no path to be practiced. Samsara is nirvana. No severance achieved. No suffering nor its cause. No path, no end. There is no transcendent realm; there is only the one true aspect. There is nothing separate from the true aspect.
-Guanding, Perfect and Sudden Contemplation,
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Re: Does the doctrine of karma blame victims for their own suffering?

Post by PadmaVonSamba »

Queequeg wrote: Tue Feb 27, 2024 12:29 am I understand the impulse to assure people that they are not at fault when bad things happen to them. To get beyond trauma, sometimes its necessary to create that distance.

I would also caution against distinguishing consciousness and form so sharply. Perhaps such a view can help a traumatized person develop distance from the trauma. But that distance would also need to apply when good things happen.

Thinking things happen capriciously is, btw, a wrong view.
Would you include being born with dark skin or as a female the result of positive or negative karma?
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Re: Does the doctrine of karma blame victims for their own suffering?

Post by Queequeg »

PadmaVonSamba wrote: Tue Feb 27, 2024 12:37 am
Queequeg wrote: Tue Feb 27, 2024 12:29 am I understand the impulse to assure people that they are not at fault when bad things happen to them. To get beyond trauma, sometimes its necessary to create that distance.

I would also caution against distinguishing consciousness and form so sharply. Perhaps such a view can help a traumatized person develop distance from the trauma. But that distance would also need to apply when good things happen.

Thinking things happen capriciously is, btw, a wrong view.
Would you include being born with dark skin or as a female the result of positive or negative karma?
Inconclusive.

There is no actual good or bad karma. Our actions conduct us to bodhi, or they don't. The rest is samsara.
There is no suffering to be severed. Ignorance and klesas are indivisible from bodhi. There is no cause of suffering to be abandoned. Since extremes and the false are the Middle and genuine, there is no path to be practiced. Samsara is nirvana. No severance achieved. No suffering nor its cause. No path, no end. There is no transcendent realm; there is only the one true aspect. There is nothing separate from the true aspect.
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Re: Does the doctrine of karma blame victims for their own suffering?

Post by Inedible »

Charles Jones wrote: Wed Feb 21, 2024 1:42 pm I got an e-mail from a random stranger asking me if the Buddhist concept of karma is anti-Semitic because it forces us to blame the Jews for the Holocaust.
I think it would be more fun to guess what Jesus would have said if someone asked him about the Holocaust.
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Re: Does the doctrine of karma blame victims for their own suffering?

Post by Aemilius »

Charles Jones wrote: Wed Feb 21, 2024 1:42 pm I got an e-mail from a random stranger asking me if the Buddhist concept of karma is anti-Semitic because it forces us to blame the Jews for the Holocaust.
In Buddhism we have the story how King Virudhaka destroyed the whole population of Shakyan people. It is said that both Shakyamuni and Mahamaudgalyayana tried to prevent it, but finally nothing could be done to prevent it.

"While surveying the world with his psychic powers, the Buddha sees that the Shakya clan is about to be massacred by King Virudhaka of Kosala, who had a grudge against them from childhood. According to some versions of the story the Buddha intercepts King Virudhaka once and convinces him to turn back, but the king later changes his mind and continues the invasion. In other versions of the story the Buddha intercepts King Virudhaka two times, and in some versions three times before ceasing to intervene in the next attempt. When the Buddha does not intervene, Moggallana, one of the Buddha's disciples, offers to save the Shakya clan using his own psychic powers but the Buddha discourages this, stating that the massacre is the result of the Shakyas' past karma and that no amount of supernatural powers can stop the power of karma. Regardless, Moggallana attempts to save some Shakyas by using his powers to move several hundred of them to safety, only to find that they had died anyway. According to one source, the karma that caused this massacre was that in a past life, the people of the Sakya clan had collectively poisoned the river of an enemy city-state. Following the massacre, the Buddha predicts that King Virudhaka will die in fire in seven days. Upon hearing about this, King Virudhaka builds a house on the water to live on for seven days. On the last day, a fire starts from sunlight hitting a magnifying glass on a cushion and burns down the house, killing King Virudhaka."

Pu, Cz (2013). "Chinese Versions of Virudhaka's Massacre of the Shakyan". Indian International Journal of Buddhist Studies: 36.

Xingyun (2005). Opening the Mind's Eye: Clarity and Spaciousness in Buddhist Practice. Lantern Books.

Nakamura, Hajime (2000). Gotama Buddha: A Biography Based on the Most Reliable Texts. Kosei.
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They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.
Sarvē mānavāḥ svatantrāḥ samutpannāḥ vartantē api ca, gauravadr̥śā adhikāradr̥śā ca samānāḥ ēva vartantē. Ētē sarvē cētanā-tarka-śaktibhyāṁ susampannāḥ santi. Api ca, sarvē’pi bandhutva-bhāvanayā parasparaṁ vyavaharantu."
Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 1. (in english and sanskrit)
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