Saturday, February 20, 2010

Grand-aunt, Buddhism's karma, and Christianity's eschatology

(My grand-aunt on the right side with a piece of tissue in her hand)

During the fourth day of Chinese New Year, my family visited my late grandma's younger sister who is now staying in an old folks home. That was my first time visiting her there. From what I gathered, every time whenever someone visit my grand-aunt, she will complain about her second son, Ah Meng. Grand-aunt has six children, and Ah Meng is the one that has never visited her, not even during Chinese New Year.

Grand-aunt always cry whenever she talks about Ah Meng. Among all her children, Ah Meng is the most wealthy. However he is the least caring for her. All her children share the monthly fee for the old folk home except Ah Meng. Most of her children are well to do. One of them own a house with 4 bedrooms with only one child, yet they prefer to send her to stay in the old folks home. Grand-aunt mourns over the fact that although she has 5 sons and 1 daughter, yet none of them welcome her to stay with them, to be taken care by them. As she told us, her hand with a piece of tissue was busy wiping away the tear from her eyes.

She is living through a very disappointing and sad experience.

On our way back home, my dad being a faithful Buddhist who believes in karma, said that in the future Ah Meng's children will treat Ah Meng in the same way how he treats his mother. This is a karmic cycle.

Hearing that, I then suggested that if that is the case, then grand-aunt must have mistreated her own parents last time since she is now ripping her own bad karma. Both my parents went silent. Their silent was not unexpected because my suggestion detached their sympathy from grand-aunt. I unveiled to them that the doctrine of karma turns their object of sympathy, my grand-aunt, into an object of just-punishment. When grand-aunt's current predicament is seen as the effect of her own bad karma, an alienation came between love and justice. It is as if grand-aunt does not deserved to be sympathized anymore since she deservedly ripping her own karma.

What is obvious in this conversation is human's longing for justice. All major religions talk about justice. Buddhism views it as karmic cycle while Christianity anticipates God as the final judge who has restored justice and love through Jesus Christ. Christians able to condemn the mistreatment of grand-aunt and therefore enable us to feel for her and sympathize rightly. Our perception of justice guides humans' relation to one another. Relational emotion such as sympathy and love are upheld in this perception. Christian eschatology binds alienated humans to each other through the finished work of Christ. While the doctrine of karma alienates human from human, upholding justice by breaking down human's relation to each other.


reasonable said...

wow u have captured a very "teachable moment" to make them ponder on the idea. The effect created during such moments tend to have deeper impact. Spiritual teachers tend to use such moments to point their disciples to the light. (e.g. Jesus' comments on giving when his disciples were looking at a widow's donating of her coins; a zen master using the moment when the tea was overflowing from a cup to teach about teachability)

SHWong said...

Well, did your grandaunt mistreat her own parents?

Yueheng said...

May I suggest that both yourself and your father have an incomplete understanding of the Buddhist teaching on karma. The Buddha never taught that all misfortune is due to karma.

In fact, the Buddha categorized Pubbekatahetuvada (The belief that all fortune and misfortune arises from the karma of a previous life) as a "wrongful view". Such a belief promotes a kind of fatalistic determinism. The Buddhist understanding of karma is that it is not static and that human beings always have the potential to change their karma for the better or for the worse.

The Buddha taught that life is characterized by dukkha (suffering) which is caused by various conditions, of which karma is an important but not sole cause.

For more information on the Buddhist understanding of karma, you can check out this link.

Yueheng said...

Hi Sze Zeng:

I have written a blog post in response to the points you made regarding Buddhism and karma. You can read it here.

Here's wishing you and your family a Happy New Year! :)

Sze Zeng said...

Hi Yuesheng,

Thank you for engaging my post. Allow me to clarify certain details.

First, neither me nor my father have an incomplete understanding of karma. I know that Buddha did not teach that "all fortune and misfortune are caused by past-life conditions." In fact in my earlier post responding to NUS Buddhist Society, I have highlighted this notion, "Buddhism distinguishes karma from niyati (deterministic fate). In the Anguttara Nikaya, the Buddha doesn't think that current experience are the consequence of previous action." I have stated there that the doctrine of karma is not fatalistic (and it is precisely on this point the doctrine negates itself and collapses, as I have demonstrated in the post). If you had read that earlier post, you wouldn't have accuse me for having an incomplete understanding of karma.

Second, the doctrine of karma certainly provides the liberty to interpret event as karmic consequences, so it is legitimate within Buddhism's teaching itself that my grand-aunt's predicament can be interpreted as a karmic effect. Whether is it really a karmic effect is unknowable for sure. Yet this fact does not negate the validity to perceive my grand-aunt's predicament as a karmic effect according to the doctrine of karma. So my father, given the liberty provided by the doctrine of karma, is epistemically justified to interpret my grand-aunt's predicament as a karmic effect. The point is that the doctrine of karma itself validates his interpretation even though whether is that predicament is really a karmic effect is another matter altogether.

Third, I do not falls into Thomas Merton's category of those who assumes in advance without really understanding the subject he is critiquing. I was a Buddhist, grown in the Mahayana tradition who has assumed monk-hood for a period of time. While being a Buddhist, I attended a diploma in Buddhist studies course at Than Hsiang Temple (which founded the International Buddhist College). So when I critique Buddhism, I do it from within Buddhism instead of presuming a strawman.

Fourth, "just-punishment" in the post does not mean a judgment carried out by a "celestial monach". Bear in mind that I am critiquing from within Buddhism, so when I used "just-punishment", it means the punishment meted out by the individual's karmic causes and not by a celestial monarch (as I already know that Buddhism does not teach such thing). The only way you are able to interpret my "just-punishment" as one that carried out by a celestial monarch is because you already assumed in advance that I was using Judeo-Christian belief to describe "just-punishment". Such strawman can be easily avoided if you had clarified with me before reading your own assumption too much into my post.

Hope this helps to clarify many of the mistaken notions you have over
my conversation with my parent.

Happy New Year to you & your family too!

Blessings. :-)

Sze Zeng said...

Hi SHWong,

I really have no idea...

Yueheng said...

Sze Zeng:

Thank you for replying. I have written a response to your comment. You can read it here.

sloo said...

The reasoning in this discourse is based on your own assumptions over a matter that could have been interpreted in many ways.

Christian justice here, defined liberally, can be seen as being judgemental, which in itself runs against certain bilbical teachings. I don't see how judging and allotting punishment can bind one human being to another; in your instance, the ties that bind are rather tenuous considering they are based moral judgements, not empathy or forgiveness.
As to whether karma alienates one being from another, i tend to see it the other way round. Even if your parents felt that your great aunt could be living out the consequence of her past misdeeds (based on their misunderstanding of karma) the fact is that there are many factors that define this consequence ( as you and YurHeng so clearly pointed out).
By playing up your parents (mis)understandings of karma, you yourself created the 'alienation'. You could have clarified and explained their misunderstanding (considering your training and education in buddhist philosophy) instead of using 'liberal' definations of karma to further muddy the waters for them.
By doing so, you chose the path that suited your needs best - that it to point out the flaws of karma, to instill an iota of doubt into your parents' faith. Hardly an admirable endeavor.

Sze Zeng said...

Hi Yue Sheng,

I have posted the following reply on your blog:

Seems that we (or at least me) are learning about each other more through these correspondences. We can clarify matters further in the ethos of the Buddha (for enlightenment and in compassion) and Jesus (in grace and truth).

Why I suggest "grand-aunt must have mistreated her own parents last time since she is now ripping her own bad karma” is the logical syllogism building on my parent's legitimate suggestion. I attempted to explore the logical end continuing from his proposal. So when I use the "must", I was bringing out the logical subsequent syllogism based on the previously provided premise. And this is a common practice in dialog, especially those concerning reality.

My father cannot refute my suggestion simply because my suggestion is the syllogism building on his premise. So the only way to refute such subsequent syllogism in a dialog is to refute the premise which it is build upon. But hence will defeat what he has suggested earlier on, you see.

The last two paragraphs that state my suggestion turned the perception of grand-aunt from an object of sympathy to just-punishment in my parents' mind is no doubt need further elaboration. So please bear with me.

First, let me be clear that I was not saying that Buddhism doesn't teach compassion. What I was describing is the psychological process that happened to humans in general. When we came to know that our object of sympathy is actually deserving his/her current predicament, then there will exist an alienation between sympathy and justice. For example, imagine you have a friend who was being sentenced to imprisonment for a crime which he denies committed. To you, he is innocent and doesn't deserve to be rip that bad consequences. So you sympathize him, and rightly so. And then one day, you found out the truth that actually he did committed the crime. At that moment of realization, there came an alientation between your sympathy and justice. Your sense of justice came into the picture vis-a-vis your sense of sympathy. And the doctrine of karma allows the notion to interpret all predicament to be the consequences of bad karma. Hence in this way, this particular doctrine alienates human from human. So your citation of Meta Sutta does not negate the implication of this particular doctrine to human relation since the Sutta is not expounding on the doctrine of karma.

So I was not saying that Buddhism doesn't teach compassion (or compassion even to those who are ripping their bad karma). What I was exploring was our psychological process in such situation and how the doctrine of karma works within that process. And then I proceeded to suggest that Christianity's framework able to put into perspective the paradoxical relation between our sense of sympathy and justice together.

Regarding my language of "just-punishment". The doctrine of karma does not make it clear whether is it impersonal or personal, or distinguish between the two, or clearly compartmentalize the two. A person's karmic effect is due to the person's karmic causes. In such case, it is personal. The person ripped what he/she has sown as a person if the fruit of the karma is ripe when during the person's lifetime (though the effects are indeterminate). Hence there is an element of the personal. Yet however, the karmic cycle is impersonal as we recognized. So when I use the word "punishment", it meant the punishment meted out by the individual's karmic causes and not by a celestial monarch.

The passage Itivuttaka undercuts both of us if it works at all. That means it could be me who is ignorant as well as it could be you who are so. Or it could be both of us ignorant of the true Dhamma and each other's point of view. So such passage though well-meaning, but it has very limited contribution to our constructive correspondence.

Sadhu, Sadhu.

Sze Zeng said...

Hi sloo,

Thank you for your comment.

Everyone interpret based on assumptions, so I doubt there is any contribution by your first sentence to the discourse here.

The Christian's view of justice is seen through the finished work of Christ. Through Christ, the divine justice and love are fulfilled and manifested, hence judgment and forgiveness are shown through the crucifixion. And it is through this perspective that bind broken human with broken human. So this is very different from your one-sided view of justice based on moral judgment.

I have clarified to Yue Sheng that this is not a misconception as it is doctrinally legitimated by the docrtine of karma. So I am not going to repeat my response here.

My parents know about karma as those spelled out by Yue Sheng and myself here. I didn't clarified and explained because they already know about this. No point clarifying and explaining something they already know. I don't treat my parents as idiots. We were having a conversation and what I had suggested is that which build on my parent's doctrinally legitimate premise. So I didn't muddy the waters for them. So it is not a loathful endeavor as you want to believe.

Sze Zeng said...

Hi Yueheng, sorry that I spelled your name wrongly as Yue Sheng.

Shravasti Dhammika said...

I would just like to make two comments on your idea of karma. Your first and most serious mistake is to assume that your father’s comments on karma represent authentic Buddhist doctrine. If I want to know what Jesus taught I will read the Bible, not rely on the opinions or mums or dad’s, uncles or aunties, who may or may not know Christianity well. Give the Buddha the same courtesy. For a more accurate scripture-based explanation of karma please go to and look at ‘Kamma’. Your second mistake is to assume that what is so of karma is not also so of your world-view. If belief in karma makes it less likely that we will sympathize with someone, then surely that is same with the ‘judging God’ alternative. If God condemns sinners and unbelievers to eternal hell and you consider that ‘just’, then surely you would have difficulty sympathizing with them and this belief must ‘break down human’s relation to each other’ also. If it does not, then maybe the Buddhist doctrine of karma doesn’t have that effect either. Trying to understand rather than trying to find fault, always helps clarify our own thinking.

sloo said...

ze Chung

Again i dun see how Christian 'judgement' in this instance binds 'broken humans' together. Just as this is an concept you understand, in reality, it is an one that others may not necessarily will understand.

When it comes to moral judgement in this world, it would take a lack of empathy with the guilty to award just punishment. his is definitely non-binding in any way you look at it. Based on the bible, Christ on the cross was the perfect example of forgiviness; in reality, not everyone is Christ-like that they would sacrifice themselves to redeem the guilty in this world.

Just as you built your discourse about karma based on a premise (which you and your father understands) this does not mean this premise is valid or universally accepted; its just one understanding of Buddhist theology just like there are many other interpretations of biblical concepts.
Is it not ironic then that you yourself has based your entire discourse on premises, assumptions and personal understanding?

Because of the Buddhist emphasis on compassion for all, it means that buddhist should share empathy and sympathy and bind with beings that may be guilty of past misdeeds. That they may be living out the consequence of their karmic cycles does not necessarily degenerate our feelings for them. in fact as a true buddhist, we would try, through advice and actions, to help them break this cycle.

Based on this understanding and premise, how can that be seen as alienation?

Again my point is that your own argument rise from a biased starting point rather than a logical rational enquiry leading to a logical conclusion.

Btw, not admirable is certainly not the same as loathful. Perhaps everything here is just a discourse on the defination of words and terms.

Sze Zeng said...

Hi Shravasti Dhammika,

Thank you for your comments. I would like to pursue them further.

Concerning knowledge derived from believers, you mentioned that my "most serious mistake" is to assume that my father's comments represent authentic Buddhist doctrine. It is not a mistake to have the assumption that we can derive knowledge of a religion from its followers. Everyone work on this assumption, including you and those under your advisory at Buddha Dhamma Mandala Society. In the same way as those who listen to you at Dhamma talks assumed that your sharing, as a learned Buddhist, represents authentic Buddhsit doctrine, I ,assumed my parents' sharing, as learned Buddhists, to represent authentic Buddhist doctrine. You draw a parallel that if you want to know about Jesus, you read the Bible (presumably the New Testament). Is not the New Testament document written by believers, hence we need to assumed that they are representing authentic description of Jesus? The same assumption works here. Even the parallel you drawn point to the fact that we need to assumed that we derive knowledge about a certain view by those who propound it. Even the site is written by believers. So I have to assumed the believers who wrote those articles there as representing their religion. And I have to assumed that you are representing authentic Buddhist doctrine in order to engage with your comment. In the same way I assumed my parent was representing Buddhism in order to engage his thoughts. So the assumption that we are able to derive knowledge about a religion from its proponents is not a mistake at all. Whether what they said really represents authentic Buddhist doctrine is of course another matter.

And on this other matter, the doctrine of karma certainly provides the liberty to interpret event as karmic consequences, so it is legitimate within Buddhism's teaching itself that my grand-aunt's predicament can be interpreted as a karmic effect. Whether is it really a karmic effect is unknowable for sure. Yet this fact does not negate the validity to perceive my grand-aunt's predicament as a karmic effect according to the doctrine of karma. So my father, given the liberty provided by the doctrine of karma, is epistemically justified to interpret my grand-aunt's predicament as a karmic effect. The point is that the doctrine of karma itself validates his interpretation even though whether is that predicament is really a karmic effect is another matter altogether.

Concerning your parallel between Buddhism's karma and Christianity's God of love and justice. (Firstly, I appreciate you for allowing the possibility that the belief in karma 'break down human's relation to each other'). Christianity's God is known through the life and ministry of Christ (hence Christianity). Hence the idea of divine justice and judgment in Christianity's perspective is known only through the Christ event. Through the passion of the Christ as seen at his crucifixion, the requirement of divine justice is fulfilled, and at the same time the divine love is manifested. And by the Christ event, Christianity is able to put into perspective justice and love, and hence bind broken human with broken human.

As for the doctrine of karma, the doctrine does not have this effect and function. So instead of parallel with Christianity's idea of justice and love, as you attempted to invoke, there hardly is a parallel given the assymetry between doctrine of karma and Christianity's idea of justice and love.

Our correspondence is the first step to clarify our own thinking.

Sze Zeng said...

Hi sloo,

It's "sze zeng" :-)

Christ's deed that binds human to human is one thing while whether do human binds another human together is another thing.

My and my parents' understanding of Buddhism is not universally accepted in the same way your understanding on Buddhism is not universally accepted, so no issue here. Every discourse is done within a context and hence validated within the context. Hence the validity of my discourse should be discerned from the context, and not by invoking non-universality principle or personal bias which undercut also your own understanding and argument.

The doctrine of karma allows the notion to interpret all predicament to be the consequences of bad karma. Hence in this way, this particular doctrine alienates human from human. So your mentioned of Buddhist's compassion which does not belong to the doctrine of karma is irrelevant to this discourse.

Joshua said...

Hi SZ,

While I must commend you for spotting the logical inconsistencies in your parents' understanding of karma, may I ask if it were really the best moment to make a case for Christian eschatology given that they possibly were outraged as well with your Grandaunt's treatment by her son? I'm not sure how your understanding of eschatology lead you not to be sympathetic to your parents' feelings at that moment.

Sze Zeng said...

Hi Joshua,

Thank you for your comment.

I didn't told my parent about Christian eschatology after he made the remark. I just opened up a further possibility based on his premise. So eschatology was not in our conversation or in my mind at that moment.

kelvintan73 said...

Interesting point of view Sze Zeng. I guess the closest similar story in the Bible to this idea of karma is John 9:1-12

1As he went along, he saw a man blind from birth. 2His disciples asked him, "Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?"
3"Neither this man nor his parents sinned," said Jesus, "but this happened so that the work of God might be displayed in his life.

So from this, what do you think of the Christian view towards karma?

Sze Zeng said...

Hi kelvintan73,

John 9 is only highlighting one possible similarity with the doctrine of karma.

Karma is basically about "cause & effect". You reap what you sow. In that case, other passages in the Bible such as Job 4.8 and Psalm 126.5 describe well this "cause & effect" principle.

All is well up till the point when we talk about post-death existent. The divergent comes when Buddhism extend the effects of one's deed beyond current life into the next, and in the same way from previous rebirth to the current one. Christianity does not have the idea of rebirth in the sense of Buddhism where a consciousness assumes into different form conditioned by the karmic effect.

Hope that helps to put things into perspective.

rk said...

this is an interesting dialogue, way better than how the Rony Tan incident went. this is how a subject should be discussed - by engaging the topic under discussion in a fair and logical manner keeping focus on the subject at hand without getting all sensitive and emotional. all parties have their opportunity to present their case. i noticed that some of you have wandered out of point midway but generally i have learned much, so thank you to all.

i am not an expert like some of you, so i will write from a layperson's perspective and using simple english. :-)

personally, i am able to follow SZ's arguments. i felt that he made his case clear enough. at least for a layperson like me to understand.

from what i gather, SZ is saying that it logically follows from the doctrine of karma that a person's current "lot in life" is partly a result of his own actions (past and present). he is not saying that it is the only determining factor but it is one of them. we also know that it is not the end of the story bcos his "lot" is ever shifting since his future actions will play a part as well. even the link (for Buddhist understanding of karma)that YH gave states

"In this world nothing happens to a person that he does not for some reason or other deserve"

so SZ is not wrong at all to interpret as he does.

it is also interesting to note that the quote from the buddhist link also used the word "deserve" which i think was how the talk about "alienating human from human" came about. it's like saying, "since he got what he deserves, so why the need for sympathy?"

ok, this is entirely my own but i am also thinking, if a person is suffering as a result of the working out of his karma, would i be interfering with the process if i try to alleviate it? should i just let his karma work itself out so that he can "move on" and be cleared for the next fruit to ripen? or maybe many fruits ripen at the same time. nevertheless, won't i be interfering with the process if i have compassion on him and intervene. or perhaps his karma determines that i wld eventually intervene. meaning, if i do intervene, it was only because another of his karmic fruit is ripening. if i don't, it is also because his karmic fruit determines so.

now, all that was to give meaning to the situation of the suffering person. what about the bystanders? what does it mean for us? knowing that the person deserves his suffering (as explained above) should we then not be concerned about interfering with his karmic process and just do what is good for our own karma? it's like saying " forget about why he is suffering, just do the right thing now" if we attempt to alleviate his suffering we wld be doing good to ourselves bcos we will reap our good karmic fruit one day but at the same time we wld be interfering with his karma. in the process of us doing ourselves a favour, we are also doing him good in the natural BUT what about the the karmic process? unless like i suggest earlier, the interference is also part of his karmic fruit. any comments?

lastly, the part about christ binding human to each other. my simple understanding is that christians see all of humanity as fallen and in need of mercy. everyone is in the same boat. we can identify with each other's brokenness, hence there can be compassion. they found that mercy and receive what they don't deserve (grace) in christ. hence christ is the glue factor. it's like saying, "hey, i know sometimes life sucks and surely we all screw up one way or another. but i have good news for you! there is a place we can all find mercy and forgiveness. over there we get what we don't deserve because the price has been paid. that place/person is Jesus Christ!"

Sze Zeng said...

Hi rk,

Wow, you summarized well!

Perhaps there is one point which I did not make in the post or in my comment is that one on whether is karma the only force conditioning reality. :-)

Your mentioned of the interference on karmic process is a very good point. I share your thoughts over this too. The Buddhists' common response to this is by emphasizing that the karma principle is not deteministic and hence does not entail fatalism. And it is precisely on this point that I highlighted its incoherence.

Thank you for this re-cap. :-)

rk said...

Hi SZ,
Since we are on the topic of Buddhism, can I ask for your comment on a post I wrote on "self-refuting statements". Looking back, I feel I have not presented a solid enough case. Would love to hear what you think.

also, have you writen anything on psychic law, psychic abilities or psychic energy? i found its mention in the buddhist link YH gave. drawing from your past buddhist experience, any idea whether such activities are out of bounds for buddhist like it does for christians or are they actually complimentary? reason i ask is because a buddhist friend of mine is very interested in all things psychic and new age currently and it doesn't seem to bother him that they might have occultic links. i'd be open to hear from other buddhist here as well.

(btw, in my confusion i had linked myself in my earlier comment to my old blog instead of the new one.)

Yueheng said...

Sze Zeng:

Thank you for your prompt and thoughtful reply. You can read my reply here.

Sze Zeng said...

Dear Yue Heng,

Thank you for this correspondence.

You wrote, "your interpolation that your grandaunt must have abused her parents in the past is a leap in Buddhist logic because while the Buddha taught that unskillful acts leads to suffering, he did not have a deterministic view of karma which sees all suffering as necessarily stemming from a previous lifetime."

It is not an interpolation as I already explained in my previous reply. It is the logical syllogism building on my parent's legitimate suggestion. Rather than an interpolation as something foreign introduced into the conversation or belief system, I was just playing by the rule of the system by extrapolating from it. So there is no leap in logic or attempt at Reduction ad absurdum.

Now you are interpolating into my illustration by your "a person of true compassion". My illustration was describing "the psychological process that happened to humans in general. My illustration was grounded on a general observation, so if you want to invalidate the observation you have to engage it on its term: General. The reason why you do not see the illustration serving my argument is because you are not having my illustration in mind but one that you interpolated: A person of true compassion (which few, if not none, of us are).

I appeared contradicting to you not because I contradicted my own logic but because I was describing a contradicting object. When one describes something contradicting, of course the object of description appears contradicting. If my object is contradicting, yet it appears as not contradicting in my description, then I am not describing the object correctly. So, your finding that I appeared contradicting in my description of the doctrine of karma was only because I was describing my object faithfully and correctly. The doctrine of karma is contradicting, as I have described, so it is okay for you to note such contradiction in my description. If you found my description as not contradicting while I was describing a contradiction, then my description is problematic.

I have described the two levels of perspective on karmic causes and effect. One is impersonal and the other personal. You have rightly noted the impersonal aspect and agent of the karma principle, while I was pointing out the personal aspect and agent of the same principle. These two aspects are two sides of the same coin. The person ripped what he/she has sown as the personal agent if the fruit of the karma is ripe during the person's lifetime (though the effects are indeterminate). Hence there is an element of the personal. Yet however, the karmic cycle/principle is an impersonal agent as both of us recognized. So when I use the word "punishment", it meant the punishment meted out by the personal agent's karmic causes and not by a celestial monarch. Yet that does not negate the impersonal agent that is working to bring such effects into occurrence. If you persist to insist only to see karma effect through one side, while I persist to see it from only the other side, then we are talking across one another. So allow me to suggest that we should have this holistic view on karma. In this way, we can account for the karma principle in much richness.