I’ve been writing about karma, not as traditionally perceived by originalist Buddhism, but as something that coheres with modern biology—specifically, the idea that just as Buddhists see karma as being inherent in the nature of the universe, evolutionary biologists perceive evolutionary connectedness as fundamental to all life. Moreover, and at least as significant, just as Buddhists see living beings as created by and therefore a consequence of their karma, evolutionary biologists know that living things have been created by and are therefore a consequence of the selective pressures that have operated on the genetic streams that have preceded the current instantiation of all life forms as they currently exist. In this crucial sense, for Buddhists and biologists alike, we are precisely the consequence of our karma.
We can of course go further, as both biology and Buddhism do, and base a science as well as a world-view on the fact of genetic connectedness—not only among members of the same species, but also among all living things: Genes for most fundamental biological processes are very widely shared, and thanks to evolutionary continuity combined with natural selection’s favoring of some genes over others, the more fundamental the impact of particular genes, the greater the sharing. All vertebrates, for example, are more than 95% karma-connected when it comes to genes that underwrite cellular metabolism, for example. Moreover, the mechanisms whereby genes are integrated into organisms are themselves widely shared, which is why it is possible for biologists to introduce, say, genes for cold-resistance found in deep sea fish into tomatoes. Our evolutionary bequeathal is, in an almost literal sense, our karma. Since we are mammals, we have a different karma than if we were haplodiploid insects such as bees or ants.
The pattern is well known to anyone with a smidgeon of biological sophistication: Homo sapiens (to take just one species, admittedly not at random) share nearly all their genes with other primates, although more with the other apes than with baboons or macaques. And we share more genes with other mammals than with birds, reptiles or fish. And more with other vertebrates than with, say, dragonflies or dung beetles. And so on: A pattern of variation in genetic identity, decreasing in intensity as the focus expands, but nonetheless with no qualitative discontinuities. This is karmic continuity indeed, as each widening circle, incorporating individuals who are progressively more distantly related, represents a diminishing probability of genetic identity and accordingly, less evolutionary self-interest.
When it comes to the moral implications of karma, the matter is somewhat more complicated, and if anything, more interesting. On the one hand, there is much to be said for debunking the oversimplified (and widespread) idea that karma is something that gets attached to our “selves,” a notion that is unreliable on several levels. Thus, it presupposes the existence of a separate and independent self. And it raises, moreover, the problem of how, exactly, does any kind of karma—good or bad—get itself attached to something as slippery as the ostensible human soul. Cosmic glue? Magical vibrating tendrils of invisible, sub-organismic connectivity? Of course, a similar problem inheres with the Christian and Islamic sense of sin, generally conceived as some sort of semi-indelible stain, somehow imprinted upon the soul.
There is also the problem that karma can have a downright ugly side, justifying bad events. Why are some people terribly poor, sick, the victim of accident, crime or abuse? Well, they must have had terrible karma; in other words, they deserve it because of transgressions in a prior life! Not surprisingly, in some Asian societies, karma has a history comparable to the West’s use of Social Darwinism to “explain” (and in the process, justify) the perpetuation of monarchies as well as trodding upon the already down-trodden.
In a world of profound inequity, unfairness and undeserved suffering, I at least categorically refuse to accept that personal or social justice is somehow woven into the fabric of the world, whereby accumulated “bad karma” reveals itself in the suffering of those who seem innocent but who actually misbehaved in a prior incarnation and are therefore getting their just desserts at present. And vice versa, of course, to those born into hereditary wealth and position.
I am thinking of a haunting poem by Thich Nhat Hanh—titled “Please Call Me By My True Names”—that included, as perhaps its most noteworthy image, a young Vietnamese girl who had been raped by a sea pirate and who suicides as a result. Most startling is how Hanh puts the “blame” not only on the rapist pirate but also, notably, on the poet himself and by extension, all of us. By contrast, traditional Buddhist (and Hindu) teaching about karma would place a large share of the responsibility on the young and—by any reasonable standard—innocent victim. I trust that most readers of this blog, and of my recent book, “Buddhist Biology,” would agree that such a perspective is abhorrent.
But this doesn’t mean that Buddhist karma is wholly to be discounted. In fact, I hope to convince you that the exact opposite is true: Karma is real, not as a mystical guiding principle for the reincarnation of souls, or some such poppycock, but as something scientifically valid, closer to the Dalai Lama’s invocation of the law of cause and effect, and to Thich Nhat Hanh’s emphasis on the extent to which our interconnectedness combined with the relevance of action demands that we accept responsibility rather than blame the victim. In fact, I believe a strong case can be made that once we step away from its superstitious dimensions, there is no such thing as a karma-free zone, and that in the realm of karma—as with the other foundational Buddhist concepts we have investigated—there is deep convergence between Buddhism and biology, and that in turn, this has profound moral consequences, notably when it comes to responsibility for our own actions. This is especially true insofar as our karma is something that we create, by virtue of how we choose to live.
And this, in turn, opens the door to an another unexpected convergence: not only between Buddhism and biology, but between “Buddhist biology” and existentialism. More to come.
David P. Barash is an evolutionary biologist, long-time aspiring Buddhist and professor of psychology at the University of Washington, whose most recent book, Buddhist Biology: Ancient Eastern Wisdom Meets Modern Western Science, was just published by Oxford University Press.