Karma: Did They Deserve It?
Santikaro Bhikkhu

Many Buddhists treat Karma teachings as if they were some sort of absolute truth. Various notions and beliefs concerned with Karma are taken as givens, without much questioning. Elaborations are made on the basis of such beliefs and confusion about Karma's place in Buddha-Dhamma. At times, this involves a deleterious error. In the case of the 9-11 tragedy, such errors become harmful. Thus, I would like to consider Karma teachings in the light of this situation.
This essay is addressed to Buddhists. If I were speaking to an audience of non-Buddhists, such as the general public, I would not explicitly use the word "Karma". The popular culture is already confused about what this term means. Neo-Buddhists toss it around without knowing the tradition, increasing the confusion. Using it in the current context creates too many possibilities for misunderstanding. Buddha-Dhamma offers important perspectives on the current situation. Clumsy use of language and thoughtless repetition of Buddhist terms will not get across those perspectives in meaningful ways.
As I understand it, the basic message of Buddhist Karma teachings is that:
our actions have consequences (vipaka)
we choose our actions due to motivation (cetana)
the character of the motivation determines
the character of the results or consequences
we are responsible for our actions and their consequences
our choices subjectively determine our world.

These Karma principles raise questions concerning recent events. What are the motivations of the hijackers, their supporters and leaders, our governments, the media, ordinary citizens, and so on? What consequences will follow for those involved? What will be the character of such consequences - good, bad, or mixed? Were the people in the WTC towers and other victims of hideous crimes responsible for those crimes and their own victimhood? How are the rest of us responsible, if at all, for what happened on Sept. 11th and the ensuing events?
Before considering such questions, let's revisit the traditional view. This perspective holds that we are reborn into this samsara due to past Karma (not that the Buddha ever used the term "past Karma" in this traditional sense). Through choices, we constantly re-invent ourselves within a system governed by ignorance, craving, and clinging. Ignorance means we see no alternative or don't know how to actualize it when we have glimmers of the possibility. Craving means the self-interested seeking of what I like and the avoidance of what I don't. Clinging is the grasping at a sense of "somebody", the "agent", the "Me", who moves through all this. This creates conditions for the "flow of consciousness" to carry on after the death of a particular body and seek a new physical structure through which to work out its desires and ego projects until ignorance ends.
Applied to the 9-11 crimes, we might observe that through very ordinary human pursuits, many tens of thousands of people choose to be in the WTC on September 11th. Why? Motivations such as earning a living to support one's family, pursuit of stimulating careers, seeking affluence and maybe power, meeting a friend for sight-seeing, attraction to the prestige of the location, wanting to be at the heart of the world's economic systems and close to the hum & buzz of America's economic might, and finally the desire to help others (e.g. firemen). Some mix of these motivations and others brought the fifty thousand plus souls to the WTC that day.
Over five thousand of those souls died there. Did they choose to do so? I don't think so. The traditional Buddhist view does not get so specific. "Karmic formations" are cumulative, not one-to-one causation, let alone simplistic determinism. The classic perspective is that we choose to be born into this world which means that we must eventually die. This doesn't mean that Karma determines how we will die, where, and when. Such details are complex and involve more than our personal "Karmic accumulations." For example, to use a traditional formulation, the causality of the physical world, such as weather; the causality of the botanical world; the causality of mental processes; and the causality of Dhamma. Karma is just one form of causality among these five niyama (natural orders).
People were in the WTC due to their choices and this put them in harm's way, as well as providing certain opportunities and benefits. Some of the dangers that their career and other choices brought them to are:
the dangers of living, working, and traveling in a big city
the dangers of working in big skyscrapers
the dangers of being enmeshed within the world's economic system
the dangers of being so close to the heart of that system (one which many people, rightly or wrongly, blame for their suffering)
Life is dangerous and some places and modes of living are more dangerous than others. Right now, Kabul is very dangerous. It seems to me that Manhattan is more dangerous than where I have been living. But no place on this planet - within this samsara - is not dangerous. In short, the Buddhist perspective asserts that people have some responsibility for what we encounter, be it dangerous or happy. This does not mean that we caused those dangers or are to blame for them. After all, there is danger everywhere (even in love), though illusions, denial, and repression often veil them. Nonetheless, are involvement with them usually tends to help perpetuate them.
Things in this world have their causal lineages and we may be connected with them somehow, more or less. We need not, however, assume close connections. Sometimes the connection has just happened and is not necessarily due to previous direct connections. Beware the pop-karma thinking that simplistically assumes that every happy happening comes from some prior karmic connections, e.g., that meeting a particularly suitable mate must be a result of relationships in previous lives. Please think through such ideas carefully. It leads to an endless regression into the deep timeless past. Before you know it, you have selves locked into some cosmic square dance since beginningless time.
Here, it might be wise to recall that the Buddha included kamma-vipaka among the four imponderables (acinteyya) that transcends the power of thinking and therefore should not be pondered. Given the other three in the set, the range of the Buddha's mind, wisdom, and powers; the range of the jhanas; and brooding over the world - I take this to mean one may think about these things profitably only with the understanding that they can never be fathomed by thought. A bit of thinking about them may inspire and guide spiritual practice, but speculating about them too much will get one into trouble. The historical Buddha was not interested in metaphysics and speculation. Traditionally, it is held that only the profound wisdom of a fully awakened Buddha can penetrate the complexity and subtlety of such things. The rest of us should be mindful of our limitations.
Who Crashed the Planes Into the WTC Towers?

Did the collective Karma of the people who died in the WTC suck those airliners into the towers?
I phrase the question so baldly to caution Buddhists to look very carefully at the implications of their Karmic mouthings. Too often, Karma statements seem to go much further than what I have ventured above. For example, not only has a young Thai woman walked down a dark lane at night (because she supports her family by working at a restaurant that closes at midnight) she somehow deserved to be raped. Walking down that street may have been "her karma," but the rape was the "rapist's karma." More broadly we might speak of the collective karma and collective responsibility of all of society for the cultural, economic, and political conditions that allow rape and make it far to common. In speaking on this level, please remember that the woman and the rapist are not personally responsible; they are merely part of the complex webs of social inter-relationships that spread responsibility around.
Similarly, the collective Karma (actions) of those individuals brought them together at the WTC on Sept. 11th. There is nothing mysterious about that, just many choices and people acting out those choices. (Others chose to take a day off, go to the doctor, arrive late, etc.) Further, a larger web of causality and collective choice has built a global economic system, financial mechanisms, and the other things that went on at the WTC. A related web of causality and collective choice has built the modern air transport system. A related web of causality and collective choice has manifested in the USA's foreign policy and many adventures abroad ... in militant Islam ... in suicide bombers ... in ...
All of these webs and others created the conditions for the WTC tragedy. However, no one individual brought this about through their personal choices, not even Osama bin Laden or Mohamed Atta or George Bush.
The various hijackers made choices but couldn't have acted without many others making choices, e.g., the flight instructors and industry in Florida and elsewhere who chose to make money in that way and also chose to be very loose about security. The airlines who have chosen to maximize profit and handle airport security as cheaply as possible. The many travelers, such as myself, who value speedy and convenient travel. Political-economic orthodoxy that wants to deregulate and privatize seemingly everything. etc. etc.
What confuses many Buddhists here is that we tend to think of Karma as good and bad. That's fine. But when we try to apply it to a complex causality, the good and bad distinctions get increasingly complicated. At some point, the attempt falls apart and looks silly.
When it's a matter of an individual lying or stealing, the label "bad" may apply without much ambiguity. What about when about when a number of bankers pursuing their own self-interest (supposedly that of stockholders as well) are seduced into bad loans in Latin America to the degree that the national financial system is endangered and the federal government must bail them out with money taxed from the broader population (in which the wealthy pay a smaller proportion of their income than the middle class)? Is that theft? Is it bad? Is it simple?
What about when cancer increases in society because of complex causal processes, complicated further by the diversity of the many forms of cancer? Most people consider cancer bad. But what bad karma caused it? Some of us don't mind blaming cigarettes. Some blame pesticides while others pesticides are good because more food is grown through using them.
What about our air travel system? Many people think it is good because it gets them where they want to go more quickly and easily than alternatives. Yet, this system burns up huge quantities of fuel, which in turn pollutes the skies. Chemicals used to de-ice planes and maintain runways are quite hazardous. Planes occasionally crash. These results seem "bad" to most of us, but tracing them to specific bad karmas (actions) is tricky business, perhaps imponderable.
In short, if the people who died in the WTC are somehow responsible for the planes crashing into them, so are the rest of us. In certain broad ways, we are all responsible through our collective karma.

Personal Karmic Responsibility

If we wish to look at the level of personal responsibility, then the hijackers themselves are most directly and primarily responsible. Their specific choices and actions were the main causal factors that created the death and destruction. Somewhat further removed but still significantly responsible are the accomplices, knowing supporters, handlers, and bosses of the hijackers. All of these consciously, intentionally aided and abetted these bloody karmas. The structure of the terrorist organizations may have separated the various players from each other, but they knowingly participated in preparations for some act of terror. (While we can guess at their motivations from the public statements of Al Qaeda's leadership, it remains difficult to know what really motivated the hijackers and the rest.)
It gets more murky when we look at more indirect linkages. What of the flight instructors who taught the hijackers how to fly? Surely, none of the instructors did so with the knowledge that their students would crash planes into large, inhabited buildings. Yet, some of the instructors may have been motivated by greed. Some may not have did sufficient background checks. Such checks weren't required by law; this brings law makers and enforcers into the chain of causality. Business interests (greed) encouraged such laxity = more indirect responsibility. Similar arguments apply to the airline industry's sloppy attitude towards security, encouraged by the attitudes of travelers and the complicity of federal bureaucrats. Many other areas can be drawn into the web, such as immigration policy, foreign policy, the behavior of American multinationals abroad, profligate use of oil, the American obsession with cars, and much more.
Further removed are the rest of us. Collectively linked in many ways, yet not directly and personally responsible.
Victimhood is tricky. It involves a fair amount to clinging to "me" and "mine." May involve holding onto a hurt in order to define oneself. (Cf. Amos Oz on the Israeli-Palestinian situation.) This can be both individual and collective. Clinging to and identifying with wounds, past injustices, "what he/they did to me/us," and misfortune in itself creates and perpetuates suffering.
This is one reason why Buddha-Dhamma sees beyond Karma into the more fundamental level of paticca-samuppada (dependent co-origination) and sunnata (emptiness of inherent self-existence). These realizations see through - but do not negate - the conventional level of persons, actors, and victims. They provide a way out of victimhood and guilt by removing the basis for all forms of greed, hatred, and delusion.
Did you know that the Buddha mentioned a "karma that goes beyond all karma"? Ordinary karma is usually spoken of in terms of good, bad, and mixed. Then there is the transcendent karma of the noble eightfold path.
Why Bother with this Karma Talk?
It is crucial, here, to ask what purpose is served by these musings. If Buddhists try to make sense of these tragedies for their own mental comfort, and employ Karma & other teachings to do so, they must not forget their motivation. There's nothing wrong with wanting to make sense of what happened, but we should realize that our "sense" may not suit others. Keep such musings to yourself and other Buddhists. Otherwise, the musing themselves become bad karma.
If our purpose is to participate in the collective social discourse on what happened and what our responses will be, skillful means require using concepts and language that non-Buddhists can understand. "Karma" is grossly misunderstood in the mainstream culture, including among mainstream Buddhists. Raising the term risks stirring up these misconceptions and burdening the discussion with unnecessary confusion. Which terms and concepts can get useful Buddhist perspectives across? This begs the questions, which perspectives are useful in this situation?
The purpose of Karma perspectives are to provide a moral world view. (They are conventionally rather than ultimately "true.") Actions are done by "actors" who make choices as to how they act according to their motivations. Thus, there is moral responsibility and consequences for our actions, that is, choices. The Buddha spoke of this moral causality in broad terms. He didn't analyze it as precisely as he did paticca-samuppada and those perspectives intended to bring deeper insight. His purpose, it seems to me, was to provide a moral foundation and world view as a basis for social peace, child raising, character formation, and personal Dhamma practice. Stretching it into elaborate Karma theories and truth claims about the workings of the universe may be a mistake. While it sells to the converted, it becomes an isolating belief that separates Buddhists unnecessarily from those who have theistic notions of causality and the scientific causality of mainstream Western society today.
One level on which the Karma discourse can be useful is to ask ourselves what actions have we done that facilitate what happened? While we are not directly responsible, many of us consciously involve ourselves in the travel, economic, and political systems that facilitated - not caused - this tragedy. If we benefit from an American standard of living, then we benefit from the financial power of Wall Street. If we fly on plans, we are involved. If we drive or ride in cars, we are involved. This involvement does not mean blame. It means that we have an opportunity to reflect on our personal involvement in complex systems that are implicated in a horrible tragedy and may have persistent connections to other instances of death anddestruction.
Another level is the level of collective involvement and indirect responsibility rather distant from the direct causes. This might help us to see the importance of collective social structures, especially now that the world for Americans is no longer as safe and pleasant as it once seemed. Are we ready to look more carefully at out collective national behavior?
I feel it would be much better to speak of these in terms of causality, conscious choices, direct and indirect responsibility, personal and collective responsibility, and other terms I've used here. If you wish to speak in terms of "Karma," please prepare yourself for long complex clarifications that may not do any of us much good.
Thursday 11 October 2001