Karma as a Moral Principle

Karma as a Moral Principle May 5, 2011

I’m slowly digesting and enjoying The Six Perfections: Buddhism and the Cultivation of Character by one of my favorite Buddhist scholars, Dale Wright. Chunks are available on Google Books. Click here.

Wright is one of the generation of scholars that is also a practitioner, and he confesses in his introduction that despite the notion in academia that the field of study and the person who studies are best kept separate, “… I still sought to be fundamentally reoriented in my own life by means of what I studied.”

This, it seems to me, is one of the distinguishing characteristics of dharma study. And the fruits of Wright’s study and character are clearly present in his examination of the paramitas as he first looks at each based on a wide range of sutras and then exams them critically in light of contemporary culture. 

In the chapter “The Perfection of Morality,” Wright argues that the principle of karma is “… one of the most ingenious cultural achievements to emerge from ancient India. It has enormous promise for future world culture – a way to understand the relationship between moral acts and the kinds of life that they help shape.”

This is a view that I share as karma is one of the central responses in Buddhism to nihilism and its close buddy meaninglessness so prevalent and problematic today. I’ll be blogging more about this soon when I review All Things Shining: Reading the Western Classics to Find Meaning in a Secular Age by Dreyfus and Kelly.

Here’s a little taste (p. 65) of Wright’s section on karma:
“Every choice we face provides us with an opportunity either to embrace or to break the hold that the past has had on us. No matter how often we have chosen a certain way in the past, so long as we are human, we retain the freedom (to varying degrees) to disown earlier patterns and to break out onto a new path. But all of our previous decisions are weighing heavily in the direction of the character we have formed for ourselves through previous actions, thus making decisive change difficult. 
“Decisions made do weigh on us, and their presence is lasting. This is why human freedom is so profound in its significance, awesome in its magnitude. All of us, to the extent that we are human and free, remember with terror and regret bad decisionis that we have made in the past. These memories sensitize us to the responsibilities that accompany our freedom and help us to grasp just what is at stake each time we choose.”

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