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26 days ago

Is karma relevant in the West today?

by Denis Wallez (@DenisWallez)
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Karma is among the Buddhist teachings which are largely under-appreciated in the West, yet are critical to those seeking Awakening! Therefore, it seems it'd be worthy to find a presentation of these teachings which might appeal to Westerners, with explicit links to modern Western philosophy, formal logic, the scientific method, etc.

This would be an attempt to reduce what's "lost in translation" from East to West, while also having a critical reappraisal of the notion of karma (for, in light of recent progress, maybe some traditional perspectives do need to be dropped!).


Karma has been dismissed by some Western authors as an antique Indian religious myth, akin to some reassuring “fair world” doctrine; and yet it is first and foremost described in early Buddhist texts as a causal model. The latter suggests the very opposite of some cosmic rebalancing: causes will lead to their effects without any (divine?) judgement on adequacy, appropriateness or equilibrium.

Supporting an agenda to create a Western form of Buddhism, views on karma have also been described as non-essential to Buddhism, notably in contrast with meditative methods and instructions… and yet, perceiving karmic tendencies (in particular the “knowledge of the passing away and rebirth of all living beings”), perceiving causality in terms of dependent origination, are clearly associated with the Buddha’s Awakening. The eightfold path itself depends on understanding the nature of human effort, in terms of causality and of identifying what’s skilfull (based on what it will give rise to).

Therefore, it seems key aspects of the Buddhist teachings on causality might have been lost in translation... This, of course, was not necessarily helped by historical debates between Buddhist scholars themselves (e.g. the first chapter of the Mūlamadhyamakakārikā by Nāgārjuna questions the very concept of ‘conditions’, and it’s relatively easy to misinterpret it as a broad rejection of causal models).



Analytical philosophy is an approach which became extremely influential in Western philosophy during the 20th century, with an emphasis on argumentative clarity and precision.

It went through the hope of creating an ideal language —Gottlob Frege, Bertrand Russell, (early) Ludwig Wittgenstein— to the admission of failure of this enterprise and a renewed appreciation of ordinary languages —(late) Ludwig Wittgenstein, John Langshaw Austin, Gilbert Ryle, etc. This movement helped clarify many notions, concepts and philosophical questions though, including “what’s real?”


Western philosophy has also moved, recently, beyond the “correlation is not causation”, e.g. with do-calculus and the contributions of Judea Pearl, and therefore towards discussing actual causation (an assignment of causal responsibility for some event, based on how the event came to be).

In turn, clarity vis-à-vis causal responsibility has helped discussing ethical questions such as doing vs. allowing harm (cf. e.g. Fiona Woolhard).

In analytical philosophy, the “Vienna circle” already discussed causality directly, and its limits, as seen in e.g. Philipp Frank’s work.


As a consequence, just like the notion of God could recently be revisited in philosophy of religion while benefiting from the influence of analytical philosophy and its emphasis on precision and clarity, the notion of karma may benefit from the recent progress in Western philosophy, to (at the very least) clarify what karma could reasonably mean.

Such an analytical research should help delimit more clearly a core notion of Buddhism, which in turn would help reject some (modern or traditional) presentations on karma —thereby advancing the religious debate.

This research might also help articulating the two main presentations of causality in Buddhism (karma and dependent origination), which are usually treated “in parallel” rather than combined.

It would also help discuss whether the Buddhist teachings on causality might still be relevant today, in the West, be it e.g. as a logical picture of the facts (following L. Wittgenstein) or as performative utterances (following J.L. Austin) —thereby advancing the philosophical debate, if only by justifying in which circumstances statements about karma might be considered nonsense.


Finally, given the rôle of “do no harm”-type precepts in Buddhism, and their relation to causality / karma, the thesis could extend towards formalizing some ethical questions raised in Buddhist texts.

In particular, if individual ownership and agency are indeed at the heart of the distinction between allowing and doing harm (cf. F. Woolhard), then this research could extend to a review how Buddhism distinguishes allowing vs. doing harm in light of teachings on non-self.



Originality and significance:


While there already exist numerous books on Buddhist philosophy and a few on Buddhist causality, they tend to treat their topic in isolation from the recent advances in Western philosophy.

Reference texts are often translations and/or presentations of the doctrines of particular sub- traditions. They’re not necessarily ‘critical’, as in discussing the merits and faults of the doctrine: they present the doctrine. And, given the limits of language (in particular as understood from the contributions of Willard Van Orman Quine on the indeterminacy of translation), the belief that a “good” translation is all it takes to faithfully transmit the teachings to a Western audience seems questionable.

The Buddha appeared to have a view on language: on one hand, he was rejecting Sanskrit as the ideal language, possibly speaking a few local dialects himself, and allowing the Dharma to be translated when conveyed far; on the other hand, he also warned against taking intermediary statements (or statements of which the meaning should be inferred) as conclusions (or statements of which the meaning is already drawn out) and vice versa. So, using analytical philosophy to revisit some early Buddhist teachings isn’t as anachronistic as it might first appear, no more than mentions of Aristotle vs. Plato in 20th century philosophy.

Moreover, Awakening is associated with “seeing reality as it is” and yet, some ineffability is considered inevitable. Some calls to the ‘obvious’ in traditional accounts, an attitude of “not disputing with the world”, would not necessarily have displeased George Edward Moore either.

The originality of this research is to work on clarifying a notion of karma which might make sense today in the West, even if this requires discussing, adapting, or reframing, some traditional perspectives. The research is on whether karma might be a relevant concept today, worth discussing in philosophy, in ethics, in science or in psychology alongside other conceptions of causality; and if it might, then how to delimit the notion rigorously enough to do so?


Some previous works exist.

C. Gudmunsen mainly compares L. Wittgenstein's later philosophy with Mahāyāna (or even specifically Nāgārjuna’s Madhyamaka) views on ‘emptiness’. My research would be more concerned with earlier Buddhism, even if some late critical works (including Nāgārjuna’s) will be considered inasmuch they can inform an analytical approach.

A.D.P. Kalansuriya’s work, also rebounding on L. Wittgenstein, would be the closest from my proposed research, as it also covered early Buddhism as recorded in Pāḷi (but without rejecting the later works of Buddhist scholars). The proposed research would differ from two angles though: not only it’d be narrower in terms of Buddhist doctrine (causality specifically, instead of covering a much broader overview of Buddhist notions including the nature of nibbāna/nirvāṇa), but also it’d be broader in terms of analytic authors.

Other works, by e.g. K.N. Jayatilleke, do link an analytical approach to Buddhism. In particular, Early Buddhist Theory of Knowledge is acknowledged as an important contribution to the field and does present in depth some similarities between the Buddha’s views and analytical debates on knowledge and its limits. It doesn’t cover much on any specific Buddhist notion though, it rather insists on the method, and as such it highlights points the proposed research should be compatible with, but it doesn’t overlap so much in terms of topic.

M. Albahari’s Analytical Buddhism, The Two-tiered Illusion of Self, applied analytical philosophy to another core notion of Buddhism (anatta) than the causality this research would discuss.


Should this research succeed, it shall contribute to present Buddhist thought as a live philosophy, not as a set-in-stone system of beliefs, and to show its continued relevance today.


whether there is an arising of Tathagatas or no arising of Tathagatas, that element still persists, the stableness of the Dhamma, the fixed course of the Dhamma, specific conditionality. 1




Particular attention will be given not to misrepresent Buddhist doctrines by forcing them into Western philosophy, or vice versa, as this would bring confusion rather than clarity. In this regard, statements like Gudmunsen’s "much of what the later Wittgenstein had to say was anticipated about 1,800 years ago in India" shall be avoided. Aristotle hasn’t anticipated analytical philosophy, the Buddha hasn’t either: some insights might have been shared by the wise of different ages, of course, but what they made from these isn’t the same (possibly because their contexts were different).

Even if the point is not to merely compare / contrast philosophical views, clearly this research will nonetheless be inspired by intercultural philosophy. History provided many claims for universality and yet many scholars saw philosophical value only in the Western tradition. A similar criticism could be leveled against Buddhist scholars though, as Buddhism has claims for universality but advances in Western philosophy hasn’t necessarily be articulated in the traditions. In line with Ram Adhar Mall, this research will attempt to make explicit a hermeneutic he calls analogous (between two hermeneutic extremes, namely radical difference and total identity).

Philosophical analysis will be the primary tool, in particular by looking into the linguistic features of the discourses on karma: not only how the concept is defined in the sutta, but also when, to who, and how the concept is used, will be considered.

Formal logical reasoning, causal inference and thought experiments will then form the basis to evaluate previous results, and propose adaptations when required. In particular, we will aim to make explicit the contradictions which might appear between various perspectives on karma and see how we could propose possible resolutions.


Can I do it?


The scope of this research might appear very wide, and yet it is much smaller than a survey of historical views between multiple Buddhist (sub-)traditions.

While the contributions of various late scholars and teachers might be considered, inasmuch such contributions would constitute analysis and therefore support this research, the focus should primarily stay on early Buddhism and notably on the speeches of the Buddha as recorded in Pāḷi by the Theravāda tradition. The texts on causality are already well identified, and they only amount to a small share of the records. The analysis found in the abhidhamma (be it in the Theravāda or the Sarvāstivāda traditions) will be considered, but again the causality-specific scope is only a small part of these large corpuses.

The work is on building bridges between East and West, clarifying notions to minimize misunderstandings, formulating doctrines in a way which might prove more intelligible to Westerners. It isn’t per se a comparative work, since it will not contrast analytical philosophy with antique Indian philosophy; by applying the approach and goals of analytical philosophy to Buddhist teachings, the scope is kept smaller than it might appear at first.

Consequently, by maintaining a clear focus on causality and karma (and only opening up to its applications if time permits), I believe it’s possible to complete this thesis in the allotted three years. This is ambitious yet achievable, as a PhD research should be.


Past experience —from my M.Sc. (1996) in computer science and applied mathematics from a top French school, as well as my M.A. (2015) in Buddhist studies (with the acknowledgement of academic excellence, by mention on the Dean’s list)— also gives me confidence that I’m able to plunge into large corpuses (incl. multiple translations of a given text, to consider variations) and emerge with well-received contributions.

I’ve learnt Pāḷi under Prof. Gombrich in 2016, and have maintained my ability to translate by myself since. I’ll never be as proficient a translator as theravādin bhikkhu Bodhi or Anālayo, but I can nonetheless check sources or access commentaries not yet translated in English, thus have the independence and autonomy required for PhD-level research.


Such a research proposal has now been accepted by a university, and I'm looking to fund the corresponding tuition fees, approx. € 17,000 in total: such 3 years of tuition fees are substantial, in particular while working / supporting others on donation-basis! My living expenses will be covered through working.

If you find this academic and spiritual project worthy, please help me fund it!

People interested in will, naturally, benefit from early access to the various results, right as they're achieved! They'd thus get an opportunity to engage with the research, provide feedback, raise related questions, etc.