In a recent blog entry, “Emptiness: Violent or Compassionate?“, I highlighted a book review from the Times Literary Supplement by Katherine Wharton entitled “Buddhists at war.” In her review, Wharton is critical of Dale Wright’s new book, The Six Perfections. In the comments section of “Emptiness: Violent or Compassionate?” Wright responds to Wharton’s critique and defends his position on karma. As Wright explains, it’s not that we should drop the concept of karma altogether, but rather that we need to rework our understanding of karma so it’s useful to us as a moral principle.
Wright’s response to “Buddhists at war”:
Katherine Wharton’s review makes two important points. First, that Buddhist Warfare is a fine book and that it will help educate western Buddhists about the complexities of Buddhist history where many instances of evil are present. As western Buddhists become more knowledgeable about Buddhist history, it will be easier to recognize that all religions are human creations and that so far we have no model of a perfectly enlightened culture. Non-Buddhists resent the fact that Buddhism is often uncritically taken to be the perfect religion of peace and compassion, and, like Wharton, they are pleased when scholars focus their attention on the “dark side” of Buddhist history. This is understandable to me and I too would praise the book Buddhist Warfare.
The second admirable point about Wharton’s review is one that she makes in critique of my book, The Six Perfections. She claims that nothing can prevent Buddhist emptiness or any other teaching from being used to justify violence, and that the “curative value of interdependence” is often naively overestimated in Buddhism. On this point, she is surely right, although I find it hard to understand how a reading of my book could have suggested that I presume such a thing. As we all know from the political realm, some strong individualists take interdependence to be profoundly regrettable and no amount of meditation on that concept will lead them to compassion. Thieves concede interdependence too, and they are happy to recognize all the ways their professional success depends on others. What matters is what you do with the concept of interdependence.
Beyond those two points of praise for Wharton’s review, I’m stumped, even incredulous. I have been misunderstood before, but this sets a new standard. Let me just make two points.
First, by naming her review, “Buddhists at war,” it is clear what she has on her mind. Her complaint about The Six Perfections is that it fails to do what Buddhist Warfare does—describe the harsh, sometimes warlike realities of Buddhist history. She could have picked any other book off the shelf and found that it too failed to do what she wanted done in telling the story of the “dark side” of Buddhist history. In fact, The Six Perfections wasn’t even “describing,” was not about Buddhist history at all. Instead it sought to take Buddhist ideals up into contemporary reflection by asking, in effect, how these resources might be used in our own efforts to articulate what kinds of human lives we might admire and what we might be justified in regarding as true human excellence. That is a different task from the one Wharton wants done, but at least as important. Does Wharton really think that it is “naive” to give critical consideration to the ideals that give orientation to her life? Does she really think that if she studied all the instances of evil in the long and diverse history of Buddhist cultures she would have gotten pretty much everything valuable that can be learned from this tradition? I hope not.
Second, Wharton is distressed that the book’s “…abandonment of the principle of karma has many negative implications…” In fact, chapter two is a concerted effort to reconstruct the principle of karma so that it’s potential as a powerful moral principle might be better realized. The reason Wharton thinks that I have abandoned the principle of karma is that, like many Hindus and Buddhists, she defines karma in terms of a belief in cosmic justice. My claim in the book was that this definition is unfortunate because it undermines the potential of karma to function as an honest moral principle in our time. My reason for saying that is that if you define karma as cosmic justice then you must also be a literal believer in reincarnation in the same way that Christian beliefs in cosmic justice necessitate belief in heaven and hell in order to straighten out the obvious injustices that we all experience in life. When corporate criminals lead long and prosperous lives and when good people suffer inordinately, the only way you can still insist that there is cosmic justice is to assume that this takes place in another world or another life. Better, in my view, to see karma as the Buddhist principle of “dependent arising” as it applies to human freedom—what you do in life shapes the kind of person you become, regardless of whether the cosmos rewards with riches and happiness or poverty and suffering. That seems true to me. Beyond that I have no reasonable evidence for heavenly worlds or souls passing from one body to another, and would therefore be hesitant to suggest that people adhere to such beliefs, even if I were naively convinced that believing what you cannot possibly know to be true is good for people.
But if Wharton is correct that in The Six Perfections “the clear demarcation of good and evil in karma theory is abandoned,” then she is surely right to condemn it. And if she is right then I was badly deluded to hope that the book might stimulate serious, critical reflection on the idea of the good in our own time and place. I am clearly in no position to decide that, but neither is Wharton. You’ll have to do it.
Start your day with a fresh perspective
Thank you for subscribing to Tricycle! As a nonprofit, we depend on readers like you to keep Buddhist teachings and practices widely available.