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(4/12) The Karma Judge
November 13th, 2018 (November 17th, 2018)

illustration (attribution, if any possible, is at the end of the article)

(4/12) The Karma Judge

(intro to the series at
Question 4, and its answer provided by the spam:
Who is the Karma Judge?

If, as Buddhism teaches, there is no personal God interacting with His creation, who determines whether or not a person has done something to merit either “good” or “bad” Karma? If this decision is made at the end of one’s life, who is actually making the decision? How can an impersonal force “decide” anything? Who is the final judge of Karma, and mustn’t this judge by necessity be a personal being (capable of making a decision)?

OK, in fairness, many people struggle with kamma/karma… Even some Buddhists do!
Every time the Buddhist teachings reached a new place, local distortions first affected the teachings on karma. Sometimes, distortions were later corrected, but not always. Thus, the 'retributive' presentation of karma is still found in Asian countries with strong Buddhist history, e.g. in Japan (a modern example is the discrimination against hibakusha, atomic bomb survivors. Fellow Japanese considered them ineligible for work and marriage: it was assumed the victims somehow “deserved” the trauma of the “unforgettable fire,” so these were surely people with extremely bad karma, a baggage which might bring other calamities to fruition).
And yet, there are minor misunderstandings, nuances… and major misrepresentations! Some misunderstandings tend to associate too strongly karma to individuals, in contradiction with the core doctrine of self-less-ness; some misunderstandings confuse forward-looking teachings promoting ethics with backward-looking excuses not to practice; these are minor and correctable as long as it's still understood that causality doesn't require a 'judge' to unfold! One of the biggest errors, if not The biggest, one can make about karma is demanding a 'judge'.

There's no need for anyone to determine whether or not a person has done something to merit either “good” or “bad” Karma.
First, all intentional acts create karma. Because 'intentional' is sometimes misunderstood as 'conscious', let's precise that this means "all acts biased by a personal agenda"… so there's no need to determine which act will create karma and which won't.
Second, there's no need either to determine which will be "good" and which will be "bad". Funnily, in fact, the very notion of 'good' vs. 'bad' is rejected here by Buddhism, and 'wholesome'/'constructive' vs. 'unwholesome' is preferred. ['constructive' in the sense of supportive of the attainment of nibbāna/nirvana, supportive of the cessation of dukkha ].
Any response to a situation is 'wholesome' if it is weakening processes with a tendency to cause suffering down the road; and/or if it is strengthening processes with a tendency to prevent (or weaken) suffering down the road; if it is appropriate to the situation at hand; if it is unbiased by personal preferences, agendas or desires; if it is based on seeing reality as it is, neither through tinted glasses, nor with blind spots… And vice versa.
To know if an act is wholesome or not, understanding dukkha (or 'unsatisfactoriness', or 'suffering'…) is key, which is why understanding dukkha (what it is, how it arises, how it is conditioned, how it ceases…) are the four tasks of the noble one, or why the associated knowledge constitutes the four 'truths' of Buddhism!
What's required here is an understanding of causality, it's not a judgement call and it doesn't require a judge: it requires understanding how the various processes making up a situation will interact and unfold into future experiences by various beings, on a spectrum from very unpleasant to very pleasant. And it takes to consider that no being seeks suffering (even if they often get the unpleasant out of ignorantly, unwisely seeking the pleasant).

How can an impersonal force “decide” anything? Karma is not a force, and it doesn't need to "decide".
Gravity doesn't need to decide on what to apply itself or not, it just affects everything: it might lead to pleasant results (putting the basketball through the net) or to unpleasant results (crashing the plane down). It doesn't make judgements about that. It doesn't 'reward' or 'punish', there's no moral 'value' it considers. It's just a description of observable tendencies. And although we regularly speak of a 'force' in relation to gravity, it isn't really one if you look at it as a consequence of the curvature of spacetime caused by the uneven distribution of mass (which then informs preferential directions or tendencies in spacetime, but isn't "a personal being" grasping with its invisible hands various objects to pull them together…).
In the same way, karma is a description of observable tendencies, in relation to what tends to arise after this-or-that 'intention' has come to be… and also in relation to what cause people to perpetuate intentions, what cause beings to cling to intentions, or what cause the transformation of mere thoughts into full-fledged intentions then acted upon… It's not a force, and there's no entity grabbing sentient beings and pushing them in situation with specific experiences expected from there… it's a description of observable tendencies in relation to intentions.

And frankly, it's sometimes mystifying that people struggle so much with the notion.
Let's assume you don't clean your home. There's no need for a 'judge' or a 'force' for you to end up living in an uncleaned home; there's no cosmic rebalancing either; it's just a direct consequence of prior acts. If you eat unhealthily, you'll most likely end up unhealthy; no need for a judge, it's just a consequence of how various phenomena work, interact, unfold together from moment to moment.
Let's assume you routinely treat others badly. There's no need for a 'judge' or a 'force' for you to end up experiencing their revenge, or at least being little respected, or not receiving help the day you need it, etc; it's just a direct consequence of prior acts (DN 15: feeling ⟹ craving ⟹ seeking ⟹ acquisition / gain ⟹ ascertainment / decision-making ⟹ desire and passion ⟹ attachment ⟹ possessiveness ⟹ stinginess / avarice ⟹ defensiveness / safe-guarding ⟹ various evil, unskillful phenomena (the taking up of sticks and knives; conflicts, quarrels, and disputes; accusations, divisive speech, and lies)).
You lead by example: when you legitimise some unwholesome behaviour (e.g. brutality, or even simply negligence), others might more easily consider it's legitimate to do the same to you… When you delight others with wholesome behaviours, they might indeed be inspired to do the same… You might reap what you sowed, but there's no judge needed: if you plant an apple tree, there's no need for a personal being to decide if you'll get oranges or apples as fruits!

The key point is (intellectually) simple: there's no other world to go to. Even if heavens and hells are part of Buddhist cosmology, they're interdependent with the human realm, they're neither completely separate nor independent. And so, whatever influence (positive or negative, good or bad, wholesome or unwholesome) you have onto the world, will dictate (by causality, without judge) the world you'll have to live in! Simple: no God to take you to heaven and shield you from negative acts, after some judgement balancing good and bad; no God to send you to hell if He dismisses the few good acts drowned by a sea of bad acts. All intentional acts create karma. And [as per episode 3/12 of this series,] it's possible to shape the context in which karma triggered in the past will unfold, thus to affect how karma will be experienced, or even to free oneself from karma!

The difficulty with karma is not intellectual, it's emotional: we naïvely dream of not having to take responsibilities for our mistakes or our poor choices, or we hope for the existence of a God shielding us with His unconditional Love from the consequences of our ignorance, of our selfishness, of our ill-will, of our lapses in moral judgements, of our lack of generosity, etc.
The teachings on karma are emotionally difficult because they reject all these childish hopes, and instead talk about individual responsibility for all our intentional acts.
They're empowering teachings, but they also frighten people by rejecting any easy cop-out or way-out (like an omnipotent God 'forgiving' us, without much reason to do so… just because He loves us sooooooo much that He's become blind?). They're nobody to ask some Grand forgiveness from, some pardon. According to Buddhism, that's simply not how it works. Even if there are gods, in Buddhism, they themselves have to deal with their (mostly wholesome) karma, some of which might lead to unsatisfactoriness (e.g. from witnessing how stupid humans are, even when/after some godly guidance is sent to them… e.g. from witnessing humans turn a guidance on generosity, on community, and on helping the migrants, the poors, and those rejected, into stinginess, the apologia of individual greed and the bigot rejection of others).

#Buddhism #Dharma #karma