The Doctrine of Karman in Buddhism

- through Fabrice Groult

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The Sanskrit word “karman” means, in ancient Vedism (4th century before the common era), the sacrifice, then the ritual act in general insofar as it is commanded by the Veda. In the sixth century BC, the word takes, in esoteric compositions called Upanishad, the meaning of moral act, by which we mean the act that directly benefits the person who performs it, because he has awareness of doing well, to put it quickly, and indirectly to other people. In what does this benefit which the act produces consist? The Upanishads evoke it in these terms: “He who does a pure act becomes pure, he who does an impure act becomes impure; one becomes good by a good act, bad by a bad act. (Brihadaranyaka-Upanishad IV. 5. XNUMX)

In this sense, the doctrine of karman designates from this time the theory of moral acts: it is the good acts that make the person good, which clearly means, and this takes on all its importance in a civilization where the ritual act is central to social life, that a person is morally determined by the acts he performs. There is, however, a major difference between the ritual act and the moral act: the former obeys a Vedic injunction in the form "Perform the sacrifices if you wish to reach Heaven", while the individual who does good cannot not always find the reason for doing so in the commandments of the Veda. No general injunction commands him to help one neighbor rather than another because, for that, it is necessary to exercise judgment, to be aware of the means at our disposal, to be sensitive to the misfortune of others, and so on. The Veda is of no help in deciding when to act, who should benefit from it and so on. Nor can one answer that a person speaks the truth because he is good, because "one becomes good by a good act", as the Upanishad teaches. It is because he never lies that a person is considered good. The problem therefore arises: why do we never lie and tell the truth? In other words, why do we do good? If the Veda is set aside, because it is not enough to know what is Good (dharma) to do good, then one must ask what is the moral source of moral acts.

Where does the mental act at the source of the moral act come from?

The doctrine of karman asserts, in response, that only moral acts can cause other acts of this nature. For what ? We must return to the act. We find in the culture of ancient India a theory of action common to Brahmanism and Buddhism, where it is taught that the human being acts in three ways: by thought, speech and body. We deduce that the individual acts morally by his thought, his word and his body. Thinking thus constitutes a mental act, as experience and history confirm, since human thought makes individuals act as much as their speech and their body. In the same way, a certain mental act, whether it is called "intention, will, choice", is at the origin of the morally good or bad act. But where does the mental act at the source of the moral act come from? It is on this point that Brahmanism and Buddhism enter into debate.

Brahmanism affirms, in accordance with the causality of acts, that a mental act, a choice for example, results from unconscious impressions deposited in the mind by previous lives, where other choices were made mentally, themselves in relation to older choices, and so on ad infinitum. When the act of choice operates in the mind, the individual has nothing else to do but take note of it: the choice having been made, he still has to perform a certain number of actions, "to say truth, rescue, uphold justice, etc. ". However, we know from experience that an individual can act badly with good intention.

tion or, conversely, to act well with a bad intention. It is therefore the proof that between the mental act and the action which concretizes it can dig a gap. Yet the doctrine of karman teaches that deeds produce other deeds. There are two solutions here. Either it is the mental act that is morally good, and the individual only has to translate it into actions in conformity with it; or it is the action, namely the concretization of the mental act, which is judged good, because the mental act never completely corresponds to the action. The first solution is retained by Buddhism, while the second is chosen by Brahmanism, in the philosophical school of Yoga. What are the consequences ?

The doctrine of karman asserts that only moral acts can cause other acts of this nature.

Buddhism emphasizes the good intention of the individual in full conformity with the Fourth Noble Truth, the Eightfold Way, as understood according to the Pali canon, more precisely according to the Basket of Sermons (suttapitaka). Indeed, it is taught that of the eight factors which lead to the cessation of human suffering, there is one which is directly related to the question of intention, it is sammâ sati "right attention". . What is it about ? As detailed in the sermon entitled satipatthana "Establishment of mindfulness", the Buddhist must pay attention to the mind (citta), its fluctuations, its emotions, its ideas, as if he were attending a theatrical performance, where he observe what the different characters are doing and saying on stage. By practicing in this way to bring his attention to what is going on in his mind, the adept learns to know if his mind is calm, agitated, crossed by ideas or emotions, thinking or dreaming. More precisely, he is attentive to all the factors that can contribute to producing what is schematically called a moral “intention”.

Do not be fooled by personal beliefs or desires

In truth, there does not exist a clearly discernible intention, but rather a bundle of factors producing intention, such as the presence of emotions, the nature of ideas, the state of concentration, the survival of impressions. We know that the ancient literature called abhidharma, in Sanskrit, literally "supreme truth", endeavors to detail all the factors, there are more than a hundred of them, whose action can, certain circumstances being given, produce in mind a moral intention. This means that Buddhism attaches the greatest importance to the study of these factors, but on condition that one has a particularly analytical mind, which is not the case for everyone. This is not the goal of Buddhism either, because it is especially important to understand that everyone must observe their mental state constantly without being fooled by their personal beliefs or desires. It may even be that this observation of the mind makes the human subject more lucid about himself, and that he learns to go beyond mental appearances to try to discern the factors in activity. For example, I may believe in good faith that I have the moral intention to help someone because I feel compassion for them. But I may be led to discover, through the practice of "right attention", that I am actually helping this person because I am sensitive to their beauty, their grace, or because they remind me of an aunt or a childhood friend.

Before even acting, the human being is therefore in the process of acting through his mind, because there are a multitude of mental factors, more or less discernible, whose concurrence produces conscious moral intention.

photo of author

Fabrice Groult

Fabrice Groult is an adventurer, photographer and Buddhist who has traveled the world since a young age. After studying Buddhism in India, he embarked on an eighteen-month journey through Asia that took him to the Himalayas, where he discovered his passion for photography. Since then, he has traveled the world capturing images of Buddhist beauty and wisdom. He was a guide for ten years, and is now a journalist with Buddhist News.

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