Collective Karma and Conservative Buddhists

Last week I put up a video titled “Collective Karma and Conservative Buddhists.” Before I made that video, I typed out what I wanted to say. Here’s what I typed out for myself. I didn’t follow this script precisely, but what I said on the video was pretty similar.

Tomorrow some kind of online forum of American Buddhists is taking place in which the keynote speaker will present an academic paper, part of which is a hit piece on me. When I first read the paper myself I thought the author was just making stuff up because I didn’t recall ever saying most of what the author says that I said. But the author provides references, so I looked at the actual articles of mine that are cited. It turns out that the author paraphrases things I said in ways that distort their meaning in order to make them fit the points the author is trying to make. But my writings remain as they are and any interested reader can do their own research and see what I actually said.

I thought about going point-by-point through the paper to explain how wrong it is. But that would take a lot of effort, and it just doesn’t seem worth the trouble.

There is one point, however, that I do think is important enough to address. The author takes me to task for not knowing about the concept of “collective karma,” which is a concept that the author seems to be very fond of. But the author doesn’t address the reasons which I clearly stated about why I reject the idea of “collective karma.” So let me state them here.

The idea of “collective karma” is that if the racial, ethnic, or national group that one is seen as belonging to did bad things in the past, then each member of that group is responsible for those bad things. This is a disgusting idea and I reject it completely. 

I’ve always said that karma is something you should only point at yourself. When I was a kid, my dad would let us play with toy guns but only if we never pointed the gun at anyone else. That was the rule. I apply that rule to talking about karma and the consequences of my actions. I never point karma at someone else and say, “You or your ancestors must have done something bad in the past and that’s why you’re suffering now.” 

The concept of “collective karma” is too much like the Christian idea of the Curse of Ham. Here’s how Wikipedia describes the Curse of Ham. “The curse of Ham occurs in the Book of Genesis, imposed by the patriarch Noah. It occurs in the context of Noah’s drunkenness and is provoked by a shameful act perpetrated by Noah’s son Ham, who “saw the nakedness of his father”.[1] …

“The story’s original purpose may have been to justify the subjection of the Canaanite people to the Israelites,[3] but in later centuries, the narrative was interpreted by some Christians and Jews as an explanation for black skin, as well as a justification for slavery of black people.[4] Similarly, the Latter Day Saint movement used the curse of Ham to prevent the ordination of black men to its priesthood.[5][6]

Similarly, the idea of “collective karma” is often used in India as a justification for the caste system, and in Japan to justify the mistreatment of the burakumin people, whose ancestors were in the butchering industry, which was considered a sinful profession by many Buddhists. That is why I don’t like the idea of “collective karma.” No matter who you point the notion of “collective karma” at, nothing good can come of it.

And just FYI, here’s some of what I said about collective karma in one of the articles that gets criticized by the author of that paper: 

The major problem for me with the notion of ‘collective karma’ isn’t that it feels like an attack upon what is seen as my own personal collective of white males. Rather it’s the extraordinarily obvious ugliness that follows [from that idea].

…For example… a belief in collective karma can be used to say that Jews living in Europe in the 1930’s must have done terrible things in their past lives and thus the Holocaust was their collective karma. Or what about West Africans in the 17th through 19th centuries? Was it their collective karma to be taken as slaves? 

And if we want to keep going, what about those much talked about privileges enjoyed by white men of today? Wouldn’t that indicate some kind of positive collective karma? If we take the idea of collective racial and gender karma to its logical conclusion then it would seem to be perfectly karmically justified and fair that white men get to be in charge of so many things. Which is a terrible idea!

This is why I reject the idea of collective karma. Not because it points fingers at me as a white man who shares collective blame for the many bad actions of white men, but because it can be used to justify and perpetuate some really terrible ideas.

The rest of the paper is about how American Convert Buddhism, which is Buddhism in America practiced by people like me who were not  born into it, has traditionally been very left-leaning in its politics. But nowadays it is being corrupted by right wing forces like me. Actually I am referred to as a “reactionary centrist,” which is someone whose politics are centrist but who “punches left,” i.e. criticizes leftist politics.

This is a pretty popular idea among some American Buddhist these days. But there are problems with this idea that I think are worth discussing.

The author of the paper fails to point out that the leftism of American Convert Buddhism is an anomaly. In the rest of the world, Buddhists tend to be mostly politically conservative. This is what I discovered much to my surprise when I lived in Japan. 

It’s just like any other religion in that regard. Christians, Jews, and Muslims tend to be politically conservative. There are liberals in those religions too, of course. But they’re the minority. The same is true for Buddhists in the rest of the world, which is the vast majority of Buddhists overall.

This makes perfect sense if you think about it. Religious people tend to be people who like to conserve traditions from the past. They also tend to think the same way about political matters.

 The reason that leftists tend to dominate American Convert Buddhism is because of the way Buddhism first became significant among non-immigrant Americans. It was part of the sixties hippie movement in which members of the Baby Boom generation, who were born in the decade and a half after the end of World War 2, rejected the conservatism of their parents’ generation. To become a Buddhist in the sixties and seventies was to reject tradition. Also, Buddhism first became popular in those days in large coastal cities like San Francisco, Los Angeles, and New York, in which leftist politics are predominant. 

As Buddhism has grown in America it has left that bubble of Coastal Baby Boomers and has been embraced by more and more people in the so-called “Flyover States,” including people like me. As it continues to be embraced by people other than those on the coasts and those of the Baby Boom generation, and as Buddhism becomes more of a tradition in this country rather than a novelty, I expect American Convert Buddhism to become more and more politically conservative. We’d better get used to it, I think.

One of the really bad ideas that seems to be embraced by a lot of American Buddhists from the Baby Boom generation and from the large coastal cities is that leftist political values are more in line with the values of Buddhism. Buddhists are into “saving all beings” and treating people with “loving kindness,” and isn’t that what leftist politics is all about?

I used to think so myself. So what I’m about to say is something that it took me quite a long time to come to terms with. I really struggled with this. So I expect some of you out there hearing it will find it difficult like I did.

But the idea that only liberals or leftists care about saving all beings and treating people with loving kindness is incorrect. One example of how this plays out would be the difference in liberals and conservatives views about the military. A leftist tends to think, as I tended to think, that if a person is anti-war he must also be in favor of cutting military budgets and ending things like the testing of advanced weapons. Zero Defex (the band I play bass in) played a lot of anti-nuclear rallies and I used to wear a pin on my shirt that said “Nuclear Freeze.” Therefore, many people think, as I did, that anyone who is in favor of increased military spending and the continued testing of advanced weapons must therefore be pro-war.

But this is not necessarily the case. Many conservatives favor military spending and weapons testing because they are anti-war. They believe that having a strong military is the best way to prevent war. 

I don’t want to argue which position is correct. I just want to say that we shouldn’t automatically attribute bad motives to people with whom we disagree. It’s better to learn more about those who hold different views from you on these kinds of things. When you understand why they hold these views you might be surprised, like I was. Then perhaps you can find ways to achieve common aims.

Also, from the Buddhist point of view, I think we should understand that those who oppose us are not ultimately different from us. We all spring from the same source. We’re like a jigsaw puzzle that has been broken apart. We can only form the big picture when everyone finds a way to live with each other’s differences.