Karma isn’t justice

Carmelight: Can we talk more about karma? General understanding of karma relies on the just-world fallacy or just-world hypothesis, which is a cognitive bias — a belief — that the world is fair and everyone gets what they deserve. Karma is believed to be a powerful force or mechanism for ensuring fairness and giving everyone their just desserts.

Believing in a just world, and believing that karma is an instrument of justice — these are similarly biased and mistaken beliefs, in my opinion. People believe in a just world because they want to and choose to, not because justice is a factual reality. Believing in the fundamental fairness of life requires deliberate or perhaps unconscious blindness regarding abundant evidence to the contrary — such as the suffering of innocent children. It’s delusion to think that life is fair and that karma somehow ensures fairness.

Montepulciano: If this understanding of karma is deluded, then Nichiren and thousands of other Buddhist teachers are deluded.

Carmelight: I ask you, though, what was Nichiren’s understanding of karma? He speculated about his own karma often. But he also said it is impossible to fathom one’s karma. Further, he wrote many times that he was doing the Greatest Thing Ever by upholding the Lotus Sutra, which was his karmic destiny, he claimed.

What happened to him as a result of doing this Great Thing? He was hated and banished. People tried to kill him. This, too, was his karma, he said. He interpreted this abuse as a sign that he was on the right path! Instead of winning praise and respect — as one “deserves” for doing good deeds — Nichiren was despised. Nichiren said many times that he felt he was being praised by Buddhist gods and teachers, even though he was being maligned by people. His “karmic reward” was not to be found in this world, but in the world of faith.

Therefore, Nichiren’s core understanding of karma is NOT that everyone gets what they deserve because the world is fair. Rather, his emphasis is on doing what his faith inspired him to do, regardless of how this was interpreted by other people. He was willing to be judged by Buddhas rather than by society at large.

Jutta: People thought he was nutter during his lifetime. Today, a religious zealot like Nichiren still would be considered a nutter. Look at religious extremists today, and even secular people with extremist views in the news. Maybe they think they’re going to gain a great “karmic reward” in heaven or some place.

My point is that ALL nutters believe that while society may condemn them, they are doing holy work. Nichiren is not much different. This is why some of us are trying to focus less on the person of Nichiren and more on the teachings of the Lotus Sutra.

We all desperately want to believe that this is a just world, and that goodness and righteousness will triumph in the end. We all wish to be vindicated, even Nichiren. When we open our eyes and look at the realities of our world, we can see that fairness does not always prevail. Believing in karma as the mechanism of fairness is wishful thinking. I agree that it’s irrational and contrary to observable reality.

Hillcrest: I admit to thinking that things generally work out for the best. Bad guys lose, good guys win. I want to believe, as MLK said, “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” I’m starting to think MLK was wrong. Just looking at the state of civil liberties and basic humanitarianism, the moral universe seems to be bending backward, and crooked. Maybe my mistake is thinking, “The moral universe can take care of itself. It knows what it’s doing. Besides, I have no control over it.”

We are all part of the moral universe, right? It’s not some magical entity that exists independently of us. The moral universe depends on us. It doesn’t bend by itself. We have to bend it toward justice.

I agree that it’s wishful thinking, or delusion, to believe that everything somehow works out for the best. I agree that this way of thinking relies on cognitive bias, which means perceiving and interpreting reality in a way that is selective, subjective, and mostly wrong.

But, then, if this is an UNJUST world, where does that leave us? It takes the wind out of my sails, you know. It’s a very bleak, despairing way to look at the world.

Brooke: Like saying, “God has a plan.” Maybe God does have a plan. But does this mean we should just accept everything as is? Like we are helpless fools choking ourselves to death on air pollution and poisoned water because, oh well, if God didn’t want it that way, he’d do something about it? I think this is a much more bleak, despairing way to look at the world. Like, if we’re suffering needlessly, we should just trust that God knows what he’s doing? Ugh.

We cannot measure the goodness or badness of people by looking at the material circumstances of their lives. I mean, obviously. Nichiren was reduced to eating tree bark for survival, all because he championed religious concepts that offended other religious leaders. And, sure, maybe he was a nutter.

Nichiren eating tree bark reminds me, though. Did you see the movie Mr. Jones, starring James Norton as Welsh journalist Gareth Jones? If not, go watch it. I streamed it on Hulu or maybe Prime. It’s a true story of a journalist who exposes the Holodomor, a Soviet-made famine in Ukraine, basically a genocide against the Ukrainian people during the early 1930s. The Soviets took over and ruined farming in Ukraine, and stole whatever food was produced. Millions of people starved to death. When you watch that movie, you see echoes of what’s happening now with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and their blockade of grain shipments.

Looking at the realities of suffering in Ukraine, you can see how heartless and stupid it is to suppose that Ukraine has bad karma, and assume they must’ve done bad things in the past and now are getting what they deserve. As if invasion and mass starvation would be a fair way of dealing with a past transgression. I mean, what? You’ll have a hard time convincing me that “bad karma” is an authentic Buddhist analysis of current events.

Hillcrest: I would pay money for authentic Buddhist analysis of current events. I agree that we can’t sit back and assume that everything is working out for the best. My question remains: What can we do? I can’t go to Ukraine and fix it and make it better. What can I do in my own life to bend the moral arc of the universe toward justice?

Montepulciano: Ah, everything circles back to the truth that we live in the Saha world, a world characterized by suffering. As has been said by people more educated than me, the nature of our lives is suffering. The world is an irreparably broken place. It cannot be fixed. Buddhism teaches that although this world is an inferno of suffering, we can free ourselves from it by becoming enlightened.

Hillcrest: Even if we become enlightened — especially if we become enlightened — we have to try to deliver others from the suffering of the saha world. We have to try to help. This is the bodhisattva imperative. So what can I do?

Montepulciano: People in every age have warned of apocalypse because every age is apocalyptic. Human existence is by nature apocalyptic. We will die. All our friends and loved ones will die. Our lives are fundamentally apocalyptic in this way. How can we make inevitable apocalypse better or less distressing?

Brooke: What if we focused on not making it worse? Things are bad, so don’t make them worse.

Montepulciano: What would make it worse?

Brooke: Being a dick about it all. Telling people that they created their own suffering. Telling people they are in pain because they deserve it. This makes everything exponentially, pointlessly worse.

Wade: I want to propose that a cognitive bias (in today’s parlance) is what old-fashioned Buddhists would have called a devilish influence.

Whether we say cognitive bias or devilish influence, we are talking about something which causes us to abandon reason or logic, and see the world as we wish it was rather than how it really is. Isn’t this the very nature of delusion? As a result, we view our world and the people in it irrationally. We are too sympathetic toward people who wish us ill. We are too suspicious or skeptical of those who intend good.

Remember, though, that the Lotus Sutra is a universalist teaching. The sutra teaches that all people will attain Buddhahood no matter how horrendous they have behaved on earth. To many, this seems unfair and outrageous, considering the legions of unrepentant criminals who have walked the earth. Why should they get to become Buddhas when they have added to the suffering of others?

Hillcrest: This is where we started. The injustice of the world. People don’t get what they deserve. Other people are dealt disproportionate misfortune. Why? Karma is an attempt to answer the question WHY. Granted, it’s an unsatisfactory answer. Still, what are we supposed to DO?

Brooke: We always seem to circle back to the simplicity of just chanting. Chanting daimoku is an action we can take. It wouldn’t make things worse, IMO.