02: One to one correspondence in a one to many causation

by Konchok Dorje

In the first anecdote that kicks off this blog, the lama posited that a given action would result in a given condition or circumstance. This type of rhetoric is heard pretty frequently in Tibetan Buddhism and to a lesser degree, in the other schools, as well.

I’ve heard varying teachers say different things relating to this one one correspondence of karmic arrays. There seem to be two predominant approaches, at least from the teachers I’ve known. The first approach is that it acts as a pedagogical goad to get students to consider more deeply the ramifications of their actions. The second is often folded into or follows on the first one; of course the contributing factors that come together to create a future rebirth are myriad and only a buddha could know those in their entirety. However, I rarely hear this said aloud to larger gatherings and to be sure, I’m less concerned about this aspect of karma and rebirth than fellow sangha mates who seem genuinely scared that destined for the hell realms.

What is lacking are a number of discussions about the epistemology that lies beneath the assumption of karma and rebirth and how cause and effect work in the context of Buddhist psychology and cosmology. These will be enumerated and dealt with accordingly, in due course, but one observation needs to be made at the outset as it will be repeated later.

Buddhism is often touted as being scientific and frankly, I don’t think it is. It is empirical, but this is considerably different in a fundamental respect. Science and scientific method rest on hypotheses and experiment. When an experiment yields objective, verifiable results repeatedly in a controlled environment that support any given hypothesis, the experiment is considered successful. Buddhism doesn’t traffic in the objective, nor should it, nor does it have to; but it is open to fair criticism when its practitioners make claims that it is, in fact, scientific.

That meditators of all stripes have taken part in neurological experiments and that these are yielding fascinating and I think, meaningful results, is wonderful. That a number of Buddhists, from His Holiness the Dalai Lama to S. N. Goenka, have shown interest in and appreciation of breakthroughs in quantum physics is wonderful. But the issue that sometimes goes unstated is that the similarities between results derived from studies in quantum physics and the pronouncements of traditional Buddhist cosmologies are correlative. The one does not necessarily follow from or influence the other.

I stress this because there is at the heart of many discussions of karma, rebirth, cause and effect in Buddhist philosophy, the assumption – taken as a given – that one’s internal psychological state, or content, determines the physical result of where and under what circumstance that person will find themselves reborn. This isn’t born out by experimentation under laboratory conditions. Again, nor can it be, nor should it be. However, as long as Buddhists tout the “Buddhism is scientific” position, they are losing a sense of the marvelous that resides in the dharma, diminishing the depth and very real contributions made to humanity by this vast and varied corpus. Additionally, by emphasizing the “scientific” aspects of Buddhist praxis, they are diverting themselves with a kind of advertising in an effort to make dharma more appealing to the materialist.

I recognize that very real strides are being made in the twin inquiries of meditation and neuroscience that are both fascinating in themselves and beneficial for others, but nothing done in this area has supported the claim of karma and rebirth, and this is where practitioners need to be aware that when they venture to discuss these two parts as actual, verifiable processes, they need to be extremely careful of what they’re touting.

There is a logic to the theories, certainly nested in the pratitya-samudpada, but this is a metaphysical leap. The literature that has grown up in the Abhidarma is replete with descriptions of the process for rebirth and the hows and whys of how this or that change transpires, but this is not the result of scientific investigation. That said, what about the claim of Buddhism being a science of mind? We run into a different set of circumstances here, slightly; but it’s one that may actually help the claim that Buddhism is scientific in a conventional sense.