The term karma, which literally means "action," is frequently used in the context of what can be called the doctrine of karma: the belief that acts bring about their retribution, usually in a subsequent existence. This belief is nowadays shared by many Hindus, Buddhists, Jainas, and others, but the details can vary considerably between different believers. In order to understand the doctrine of karma in Indian Buddhism it will be necessary briefly to explore its historical background.
Buddhism was originally one of the religious currents that made up the so-called Śramaṇa (mendicant) movement. Other religious currents belonging to the same movement were Jainism and Ājīvikism; there were no doubt more such currents, but no details about them have survived. All these currents shared the conviction that acts will bring about their retribution. Moreover, they all seem to have shared the aspiration to end the endless cycle of rebirths that results from acts and their consequences. Buddhism, too, was based on these convictions, and it, too, was driven by the aspiration to free its practitioners from the results of their acts, that is, from rebirth.
The surviving sources indicate that, outside Buddhism, especially two methods believed to lead to the desired goal had found acceptance among practitioners. On the one hand there were those who drew the conclusion that, if acts are responsible for the consequences that one tries to avoid, the solution can only lie in the practice of complete motionlessness of body and mind. This form of asceticism, preferably performed until death, found followers among the Jainas, the Ājivikas, and elsewhere. There were, however, others who preferred a second method. This method is, in its conception, as simple as it is elegant. If acts lead to undesired consequences, it is sufficient to realize that one has never committed those acts to begin with. And indeed, one has never committed those acts, because that which one really is, one's true self (ātman), does not act by its very nature. This second method, in which transcendental insight plays a central role, found entrance into the Vedic Upaniṣads and is almost omnipresent in later Hindu religious literature.
Both of these methods are based on a simple and straightforward notion as to what are acts; clearly all forms of bodily and mental motion, and only bodily and mental motion, are involved here. Complete physical and mental immobility would obviously be a poor, or exaggerated, response if only certain acts (such as, for example, only morally relevant acts) have karmic consequences.
Early Buddhism did not accept these two methods because it did not share with the other religious currents of that period this specific notion of karma. Early Buddhism does not identify bodily and mental motion, but desire (or thirst, tṛṣṇā), as the cause of karmic consequences. Neither physical and mental immobility nor insight into the true nature of a presumed self will have any effect on the presence of desire, which means that Buddhism had to find a different method. This is what the Buddha is reported to have done; his method is psychological, and it is said to destroy desire.
It should be clear from the above that the Buddhist understanding of the doctrine of karma and the Buddhist path to liberation are intricately linked. Both the rejection of extreme ascetic practices and the doctrine of no-self (though variously interpreted, even by the later Buddhists themselves) owe their origin to the specifically Buddhist understanding of the doctrine of karma.
The authentic Buddhist path to liberation, however, is difficult to understand and difficult to practice. Moreover, it appears that the canonical passages that describe it were not sufficiently clear even to many early Buddhist converts. This would explain why Buddhism in India, from its early days onward, time and again reintroduced, in various shapes, the methods that had been rejected by its founder. In particular, already in canonical times, ascetic practices that were centered on the suppression of mental activity made their way into Buddhism. More recent texts speak of the suppression of all activity, both mental and physical, as a desirable aim. An idea that is structurally similar to the non-Buddhist ātman doctrine found its way into the Buddhist canon in the form of the Buddhist anātman (no-self) doctrine; in both cases the doctrine implies the realization that one does not really act. More recent developments in Indian Buddhism introduce notions, such as that of the tathĀgatagarbha, that are even more similar to the initially rejected ātman doctrine.
The causal process leading to karmic retribution is described, from canonical times onward, in terms of the causal chain of items called pratĪtyasamutpĀda (dependent origination). This causal chain has been variously interpreted and elaborated in the Buddhist scholastic tradition.
However, problems linked to karmic retribution remained. How, indeed, should one imagine that a bad deed committed in one life will give rise to punishment in another one without the intervention of a conscious and all-powerful agent who keeps account of all the acts carried out by all living beings? The problem of karmic retribution presented itself to various non-Buddhists in India as well, who often solved it precisely by postulating the existence of a creator God who was in charge of it. Buddhism, on the other hand, had no place for a creator God. The workings of karmic retribution, though essential to Indian Buddhists, remained therefore a mystery to many of them.
A daring attempt to solve this mystery finds expression in the YogĀcĀra school of Buddhist thought, and most clearly in the writings of Vasubandhu (ca. fourth century c.e.), who presumably converted to Yogācāra later in life. It starts from the question of what exactly links an act with its (often much later) retribution. In his early work, the AbhidharmakoŚabhĀṢya, Vasubandhu stated already that this link is constituted by a series of mental events. Furthermore, he conceived of the initial intentional act, too, as a mind-event. Its fruition, however, is not normally a mind-event, but an event in the world. How is this to be explained? Vasubandhu does not attempt to answer this question in his Abhidharmakośabhāṣya. In his later Viṃśikā (Twenty Verses) he does. In this work, he offers the solution that the fruition of an act, like the act itself and the intermediate sequence, must be a mind-event. That is to say, acts and their consequences, and therefore the whole world, are nothing but mind-events. Vasubandhu opts here for idealism in order to solve a problem that resulted from the doctrine of karma.
The Buddhist doctrine of karma, then, is intimately linked to the specific ways to liberation accepted by Indian Buddhists in the course of time, but also to certain doctrinal developments.
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