Karma and Liberation

  • Bruce R. Reichenbach
Part of the Library of Philosophy and Religion book series (LPR)


Our discussion of the law of karma would be incomplete without consideration of the relation of the law of karma to human liberation. Our current existence, governed by the law of karma, must be transcended into something higher. The goal of life is liberation from the misery and suffering which accompany the cycle of rebirths. This can only occur when we have exhausted our accumulated karma and have terminated that with which we are afflicted: ignorance (which takes the non-eternal, impure, painful and not-self to be eternal, pure, pleasurable and the self), egoism, attachment to pleasure, aversion to pain, and love of life.1 Termination of these occurs by removing ignorance2 (attaining knowledge of ourselves in regard to our true nature and knowledge of the causes of birth, becoming, grasping, craving, feeling, consciousness3), attaining freedom from desires, cravings, and passions, and eliminating egoism and self-concern. Karma, then, is not the final word, only the preliminary word, the word characterizing conscious existence apart from or prior to final liberation. What more can be said about the relation of the law of karma to liberation? The answer to this will occupy our attention in this chapter.


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  1. 5.
    Whether, technically, these are different ethics, or different religious structures, or the one an ethic and the other a religious structure, is debated. This raises two issues which are tangential to our concerns, but important nonetheless, namely, (1) what is ethics and (2) how is it to be distinguished from religion. (1) The study of ethics in modern philosophy, insofar as it has considered normative questions at all, has been concerned largely with interpersonal actions. Yet there is a more classical notion of ethics, recently revived most notably by Alasdair MacIntyre, which also treats of virtue. Of course, not all virtues are moral; there are intellectual virtues as well, and in many respects it is the latter rather than the former which are central to Buddhist and Hindu discussions of liberation. (2) How one distinguishes the moral from the religious is the subject of ongoing discussion. For example, in a recent discussion of the issue David Little and Sumner Twiss suggest that a moral statement is one ‘expressing the acceptance of an action-guide that claims superiority, and that is considered legitimate, in that it is justifiable and other-regarding’, whereas a religious statement is one ‘expressing acceptance of a set of beliefs, attitudes, and practices based on a notion of sacred authority that functions to resolve the ontological problems of interpretability’. [Comparative Religious Ethics (New York: Harper and Row, 1978), p. 96.] For a critique of this, particularly as applied to Theravāda ethics, see Donald K. Swearer, ‘Nirvana, No-self, and Comparative Religious Ethics’, Religious Studies Review 6, no. 4 (Oct. 1980), pp. 301–7.Google Scholar
  2. 7.
    Winston L. King, In the Hope of Nibbana (Lasalle, IL: Open Court Publishing Co., 1964), p. 92.Google Scholar
  3. Edward Conze, Buddhism in India (Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 1967), p. 217.Google Scholar
  4. 20.
    H. Saddhattissa, Buddhist Ethics: Essence of Buddhism (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1970), pp. 64–74.Google Scholar
  5. 24.
    King expresses doubt that the salvific or Nirvāṇic really has an ethic. ‘In one sense we can scarcely say that there is a nibbanic ethic. There is a nibbanic quality of life, and a nibbanic experience, and the hope of final attainment of full Nibbana. But just because of its transcendent position and quality it can scarcely be put in ethical terms. … To seek to give it specific form in the nature of a given code of action, precise definitions of what is right or wrong, or even what attitudes one “should” have, is most difficult’ (p. 161). Explicit ethical analysis, he contends, is confined almost exclusively to matters of external behaviour. Elsewhere he notes that, strictly speaking, morality and ethics in Buddhism refer primarily to the lowest level of self-development, to the ‘minimal external standards of behavior that represent minimal Buddhist morality for the layman’ (p. 29). The highest level, on the other hand, though based on ethical character, is spoken of in non-ethical or only implicitly ethical terms, that is, in terms of psychic development or religio-mystical overtones. Emphasis is placed on mental concentration (samādhi) and wisdom or insight (prajñā). The Nirvāṇic is concerned with inner psychological discipline, mental concentration, and purity, whereas the karmic links moral action with receiving pleasant or unpleasant experiences. The achiever of Nirvāña is the enlightened one rather than the holy one. But if the Nirvāṇic has no ethic, then his further claim that there is a dualistic ethic must be mistaken. There is only one ethic, namely, that found on the karmic level, and no antithesis between karmic and Nirvāṇic ethics is possible. Clearly, to discern whether King is correct in his claim that there is a dualistic ethic we must ascertain what he understands by ‘ethics’. Though he nowhere defines the term, he does characterize it in reference to Buddhism as ‘the steady pursuit of a rationally conceived goodness’ (p. 1). This seems a reasonable place to begin. However, on the following page he notes that ‘Buddhism is not “mere morality” since it aims at goals which completely transcend the ethical and always places its ethic in that transcendent context’. Besides equivocating on ‘ethical’, this statement runs contrary to the first. The goals at which the Nirvāṇic aims are goods. How can they transcend the ethical? The answer he gives is that they are psychological in character, not social. But restricting ethics to consideration of interpersonal actions yields too narrow a conception of ethics. ‘Ethics’ also properly refers to the development of virtues, and the Nirvāṇic, as we have seen, does not dispense with virtues. The virtues recommended for the person in the karmic sphere are presuppositions for Nirvāṇic realization. The Arahant, though he transcends moral virtues, does not depart from them, but simply acts from his virtuous character spontaneously. King might respond that though the ethical aims at producing virtues, it is moral virtues which are the prerogative of ethics, not intellectual virtues. The karmic aims at producing moral virtues (states of character), whereas the Nirvāṇic aims at producing intellectual virtues (states of consciousness, that is, mindfulness, concentration and wisdom). But since the Buddhist conceives of intellectual virtues as goods, they are an appropriate object of human pursuit. They are fitting ends for self-realization, which, as King points out, is the central feature of Buddhist ethics. But if both moral and intellectual virtues are considered human ends and consequently human goods, there is no reason not to see both as the legitimate subject matter of ethics properly or broadly conceived. Indeed, this is the very case in the Buddhist statement of the Noble Eightfold Path. Right speech, action, living and effort are placed alongside right views or knowledge, resolve, mindfulness and concentration. 26.Criticizing King’s placement of meditation to achieve equanimity on the Nirvāṇic level, Aronson writes, ‘It is important to note that the meditative cultivation of these four attitudes [love, compassion, sympathetic joy and equanimity] is karmically efficacious for the attainment of rebirth in the world of Brahma. Thus, King is wrong to identify the first three attitudes as karmic and the last [equanimity] as nirvanic. All four create karma leading to future rebirth. Furthermore, because all four karmic attitudes are cultivated in meditation, there is no basis for King’s view that meditation is nirvanic and not karmic. … Concentration can be of use in securing even more pleasurable rebirth among the higher heavens.’ Harvey B. Aronson, ‘The Relationship of the Karmic to the Nirvanic in Theravāda Buddhism’, Journal of Religious Ethics 7, no. 1 (Spring 1979), pp. 30, 34.Google Scholar
  6. 36.
    James McDermott shows that there is at least one exception to the zero karmic pool notion in the Pāli canon. In the Khuddakapāṭha, Nirvāṇa is the reward for achieving the most meritorious karma. He argues that this is a lay document, which suggests an attempted solution to the puzzle was developed outside the community of the sangha. ‘Nibbāna as a Reward for Kamma’, Journal of the American Oriental Society 93, no. 3 (1973), pp. 344–7.Google Scholar
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    Lambert Schmithausen, ‘Critical Response’, in Ronald Neufeldt (ed.), Karma and Rebirth: Post-Classical Developments (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1986), p. 207.Google Scholar
  8. 38.
    ‘Villagers believe that in the beginning Śiva (Katavul) created the vast array of living beings out of his own bodily substance. He molded each creature and determined its nature, be it good or evil, strong or weak. He then wrote upon the head of each entity its “headwriting,” which was an exact and very detailed specification of every act it would perform, of all the thoughts it would have in its life, and of every event, good or bad, that would befall it. After creation the activities of the world began with each order of creation impelled to act in accordance with its own headwriting as specified by Katavul. As each entity began to act it began to generate good and bad karma according to the nature of its actions. At the end of each entity’s life, Katavul reviewed that entity’s karma, and on this record, caused it to be reincarnated in a new form with a new headwriting. The entity then acted accorded to its new headwriting, generated more karma upon which its headwriting in the next birth was determined, and so on through the cycle of births and deaths.’ Sheryl B. Daniel, ‘The Tool Box Approach of the Tamil to the Issues of Moral Responsibility and Human Destiny’, in Charles F. Keyes and E. Valentine Daniel (eds.), Karma: An Anthropological Inquiry (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1983), pp. 27–8.Google Scholar
  9. 43.
    Majjhima-Nikāya, sutta 72. David Kalupahana argues that this simply means that there is no way of knowing what happens to the saint after death. It supports agnosticism rather than transcendentalism. Kalupahana, Buddhist Philosophy: A Historical Analysis (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1976), p. 83.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Bruce R. Reichenbach 1990

Authors and Affiliations

  • Bruce R. Reichenbach
    • 1
  1. 1.Augsburg CollegeMinneapolisUSA

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