As a Buddhist teacher, I have long recognized the significance of collective karma (共業). In original Buddhism, karma is seen as personal and individual-based. But there is a notion of collective karma in Chinese Buddhism. Master Sheng Yen, for example, once talked about this. Collective karma is a well-accepted concept in Chinese Mahayana Buddhism.
Yesterday, a reader responded to my article on how the Coronavirus can be seen as the karmic result of humans’ destruction of nature and the environment. She said she never took part in the destruction of nature or the pollution of the environment, so why is she suffering the consequences together with everybody?
This is a great question. The notion of collective karma is consistent with the notion of collective punishment in many theist religions. In the Old Testament, for example, we often see how an entire people was punished as a group. Some may complain that it is not fair.
The rise of individualism is a relatively new development in the long history of humankind. In ancient cultures, there is no clear concept of the individual. To the best of my knowledge, the Buddha never talked about collective karma. But he did not need to. We should note that Buddha taught a doctrine of no self (anatta). In this teaching, the self is an illusion. We have no independent existence from the rest of the world. Where do we get our ideas, our tastes, our preferences and our values from, if not from our cultural environment? As an author, I wonder how many of my ideas are truly original. If the self is a myth, then the notion of originality has to be also a myth.
Is collective karma “fair”? It seems that “fairness” becomes an issue only if we assume that there is a personal God who supervises and intervenes in the universe. If it can be said that I believe in “God,” then mine is “Nature’s God.” And my understanding of “Nature’s God” is a blind watchmaker, borrowing a phrase from Richard Dawkins.
There is no “fairness” issue if there is no personal God. The key is to understand our interconnectedness. My neighbor’s action would have an effect on me, and my action will have an effect on my neighbor. It makes sense to look at the entire world as an ecosystem. We may believe that we are each an individual player in this system. But any thing that happens to any of the players in the system will have an effect on me. Most of us probably think of mosquitoes as annoying little critters. But would it be a good idea to annihilate the mosquitoes? Remember, many other animals feed on mosquitoes — the frogs, the birds, the bats, the dragonflies, etc. Eliminating all mosquitoes also means eliminating a food source for all these other animals. What will be the chain effect? What are the ramifications?
I think that the whole idea of collective karma needs to be emphasized today. It is part of system thinking. It is also part of good environmental thinking and ecological thinking. It is a good reminder of Buddha’s teaching of Dependent Origination — things arise or fall, not by themselves, but together with and are dependent on everything else. Using a Hindu metaphor, we live in Indra’s Net. Especially today, we ought to cultivate a sense of togetherness. Man does not live alone. He lives together with the other animals, the plants, the rivers and the mountains. We share a common home. Very good reason to be extra careful in doing things which may harm our neighbors.