Latest post:

Collective karma
January 23rd, 2014

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

Collective karma

In Buddhism, there's an insistence that karma is individual… but there's also the core teaching on selflessness… So is there a 'collective' aspect to 'individual' karma?

Karma refers to an 'appropriation', a "making it your own" clinging (e.g. in an attempt to reassure yourself that you 'know' who you are, i.e. in an attempt to reify a 'permanent' self).

This appropriation mechanism is important to explain the difference between 'reincarnation' and 'rebirth'.
If there was one sole stream of causal continuity, you would have a 'self', you could call this one  causal stream a 'me'.
But each action has multiple causes and multiple consequences: there isn't just one causal stream involved. So there's no inherent, trackable, active-but-unchanged 'self'. 
However, the causal streams you appropriate as 'yours', the causal chains you cling to as defining a 'me', do manifest with practical, visible, causal consequences; so there is karma, it isn't just an old Indian story.

If you can see that individual karma is an appropriation of the consequences of an act as consequences of 'your' act (in an attempt to define yourself), then you may see that collective karma is —in some respect— possible: it is when you appropriate the consequences of a 'collective' phenomenon as consequences of 'your' act.

This can be seen e.g. when you appropriate 'identifications' in relation to skin colour, culture, gender, social categories ("middle class") or castes…
Karma might make you e.g. 'male' but 'male' is very much defined 'collectively', it isn't just about physical characteristics but also social roles, etc. You didn't single-handedly define in your previous birth how a 'man' is expected to behave (even if you participated in the debate or perpetuation of the idea, hence carry some  individual responsibility too), it is very much a collective expectation / projection. So there's an individual component in 'picking' a rebirth as a man vs. picking a rebirth as a woman, but there's also a collective component in defining what a man is, what a woman is. When a boy is told "be a man", it doesn't mean "grow some physical organ you don't have yet"…

Karma refers to 'tendencies'. Expectations and social roles are very much collectively-defined tendencies.

Social responsibility

I previously wrote about 'capitalism' being one of the manifestations of karma (

Last night, +Peter Strempel brilliantly addressed the moral question associated, in his post "Fear of social conscience?" (
I don't know the facts enough in the related story to even start having an opinion (true or false, relevant or irrelevant, wise or biased…), but I think Peter's questions are relevant for all of us [the comment thread of the original post is also worth reading]: in Buddhist terms, the "ethical life" is 3 spokes of the Eightfold Path…
'Ethical' or 'moral' capitalism might be seen by some as a Middle Way, an active engagement with, and enquiry into, views; 'laissez-faire'  capitalism is an extreme.

#Buddhism #engagedbuddhism   #socialresponsibility  
photo © Michael Amsler