A Buddhist was saying to me that anything bad that happens to someone is deserved because they must have had bad karma as a result of having done something bad, either in this life or a previous incarnation. I don’t believe in any of this personally, but I think it would be helpful to understand the idea of karma a bit better, because this seems problematic to me on its own.

Wouldn’t it logically follow, then, that it’s fine for any person to choose to commit harmful actions on another person, since if those harms did happen to befall the person (even if it was as a consequence of our willful decision to cause them), it would be deserved due to bad karma they had from a previous life (even if they were a young child/baby in their current life for example)? And then couldn’t we use this to justify literally any harm we choose to do as being deserved due to assumed bad karma, making the idea of avoiding causing harm (ahimsa/nonviolence) meaningless or pointless?

Also, another way that this idea seems to contradict for me, is that if us choosing to harm someone else automatically means that they’d done something bad in a previous life to “deserve” it, then since we’re physically capable of doing that to any individual that exists, wouldn’t that mean that literally everyone has done something wrong in a past life, has bad harma and is deserving of that punishment? What if someone bombed all of humanity, would that mean that everyone had been bad in their past lives? Surely there would be some individuals that hadn’t done anything particularly bad even in their past lives, didn’t have bad karma and didn’t deserve that punishment? Or is everyone just terrible (or has everyone been terrible in a past life) and therefore we all deserve to be punished for it, and it’s okay for anyone to enact this punishment as they see fit?

By the way, I also believe in forgiveness and mercy even for those that DID do something wrong, but that’s a separate idea I guess.

If I was going to try to rationalise this idea of karma in a way I was more comfortable with, I guess I would interpret it that if someone does something wrongful, they may bring bad karma back upon themselves, but that’s something for the universe to decide how to address (it may even come about in ways that don’t involve decisions of individuals) and it doesn’t mean it’s acceptable for us to choose to dole out punishments on any individual because we assume they deserve it. Not only does that seem highly likely to be causing injustices to innocent individuals, or at least showing a lack of mercy, but it also just seems like a way to justify or rationalise the harm we cause that we’re actually doing for other reasons that have nothing to do with a perceived duty to serve karmic justice.

By the way, for context, the Buddhist person I was speaking to used this idea of karma to defend the evils humans cause to other animals in factory farming. Supposedly, all those animals must have had bad karma from a past life and therefore it was okay what we do to them. Which seems like a pretty gross idea to me, and very far away from the principle of ahimsa/nonviolence…

  • Hazzia
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    2 months ago

    While not buddhist myself I have a lot of exposure to it in my life and from what I know this is the best answer in this thread atm. Thank you for the nuanced approach to their question. Especially important is your point about judgement; western society especially tends to think strongly in abrahamic terms like that when trying to understand other philosophies. I would also like to point out how important the first precept is for OP’s question - that seems to be where the buddhist view regarding karma separates itself from, say, hinduism, where karma becomes the entire basis for the caste system and reinforces the very logical ends OP was wondering about. One simply uses it as an explanation while discouraging any judgement or negative action on the part of the practitioner, while the other built injustices into their class structure with “you earned it in your past life” as an excuse. OP’s friend absolutely seems like the type that’s just loosely using Buddhist ideas to justify what they want to do without understanding the source material…

    • g_g [they/them]@hexbear.net
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      2 months ago

      Yes and/but -

      that seems to be where the buddhist view regarding karma separates itself from, say, hinduism, where karma becomes the entire basis for the caste system

      “hinduism” (itself a colonial term with little basis in material reality regarding actual practices and beliefs) is just as multifaceted and diverse as buddhism, if not moreso. i largely agree with your comment, i just think it’s important to point out that among vedic traditions you will get very different thoughts on the caste system and it’s justifications and it’s relation to karma. a dualistic vaishnavite will likely see the castes very differently than a follower of non-dual tantric shaktism. both are likely to have perceptions of karma, but one might argue that it justifies castes, another might argue that castes are entirely an illusion as is the whole imminent world (as in some forms of advaita vedanta), and yet another might argue that castes are merely part of god’s play but don’t have any more significant implications than that.