Karma’s Ontological Work in Buddhism (MacKenzie)
The Concept of Karma does Important Ontological Work within Buddhist Philosophy (from Enacting Selves, Enacting Worlds: On the Buddhist Theory of Karma, by Matthew MacKenzie, in Philosophy East and West, Honolulu, April 2013)
In addition to the important role it plays in Buddhist moral theory, moral psychology and soteriology, the concept of karma does important ontological work within Buddhist philosophy. Self, world, and action are taken to be three interdependent aspects of an ontologically and phenomenologically more basic and universal process of [inter]dependent co-arising (pratityasamutpada). Thus, not only do actions, as common sense would have it, arise from selves interacting with the world, but also, Buddhist philosophers insist, selves and the world are enacted in and through the process of dependent origination. It is perhaps not clear which idea is more paradoxical – that we enact ourselves or that we enact the world – but in any case I will begin with the former idea and take up the latter in the next section. [Neither exposition in this short excerpt.]
One central focus of Indian Buddhism is the examination of the structure and dynamics of lived experience in the service of identifying and addressing the distortions and afflictions that perpetuate human suffering (duhkha). What is distinctive about Buddhist thought – both within its own historical and intellectual milieu and, to some degree, within the context of philosophy more generally – is its radical rejection of substantialism in favor of an ontology of interdependent events and processes. In the Buddhist view, phenomena arise in dependence on a network of causes and conditions. Thus, the Buddhist analysis of any particular entity, event, or process will not be based on the categories of substance and attribute, agent and action, or subject and object. Rather, the analysis will focus on the dynamic patterns of interaction within which events arise, have their effects, and pass away. The identity of any persisting object, then, is determined by its place in this vast pattern of relations. Indeed, even what we would normally conceive of as enduring substances are reconceptualized as more or less stable patterns of more basic and more ephemeral events and processes. It is against the backdrop of these basic analytical and ontological commitments, then, that we can understand the Buddhist account of the self and the claim that we create and recreate ourselves through karma.