Rita M. Gross
26 Sep 2001

This article is an exercise in Buddhist "theodicy." I wish to take seriously the traditional Buddhist perspectives that multiple lifetimes occur and that karma is inherited from previous lives. But I also wish to take seriously the question of whether one can, at the same time, evaluate some experiences that occur in the "present," in this lifetime, as unjust or oppressive, rather than merely the result of karma inherited from past lives. I believe that for Buddhists to be concerned about social justice, rather than an individual practice of kindness and compassion, it must be possible to evaluate present occurrences as unjust, and therefore, needing to be changed rather than endured. And, though the question is not wholly contained within Buddhist categories, I want to try to solve the riddle posed in my title wholly within Buddhist explanations.

My initial curiosity about this question stems from my long-term concern with the traditional Buddhist idea that female rebirth is a result of "bad karma" inherited from former lifetimes, with its subtle pressure simply to accept current male dominant social institutions, and my long-term discomfort with that explanation of why women's lives are so difficult. What about male-dominant cultural, political, social, economic, and religious systems that occur in this present lifetime? Why aren't they cited as at least partially responsible for the difficulty of women's lives? Doesn't anyone notice that men's self-interest in those systems provides fuel for maintaining them? Doesn't anyone notice that maintaining and benefiting from oppressive systems might not provide the most fortunate karmic basis for the next life?
While these questions initially occurred concerning gender issues, I would suggest that the questions and the attempted solutions are basically the same for any social justice issue. I also want to emphasize that my concern is with social justice in general. I locate gender issues within that context rather than segregating them from issues of social justice in general, as is so common today. I would argue that it is a serious conceptual mistake to regard gander justice as anything except one instance of questions about social justice in general. I would also claim that considerations of social justice that leave out gender issues, or regard gender justice as a trivial special case compared with the "real" issues of class, race, the environment, or war and peace, are quite incomplete and are unlikely to provide adequate solutions to those issues.
Trying to think about karma and justice is one of the most difficult tangles of differing assumptions and world-views that I have encountered in my work as a Western Buddhist constructive thinker. I have often thought about the way in which Buddhist ethics seems to stress compassion, but not rights, while Western social ethics often seems to be the reverse. If one takes traditional ideas of karma completely at face value, the question of justice would not occur. There are no mistakes in karmic reckoning, it is generally said, so, however things may appear in the short run, ultimately there could be no injustice. Whatever is meted out to me, I "deserve." But why then all the emphasis on compassion in traditional Buddhist teachings? Doesn't attempting to help people try to circumvent their appropriately earned karma? And is there no merit in Western notions of rights, of the idea that people deserve and can demand certain ways of being treated? What of the judgment informing any movement of social action that people do not "deserve" certain ways of being treated and do not have to tolerate them? Would that claim not amount to a claim that some of the things that happen to people are not the result of karma from past lives but are due to other causes in the present? Can both perspectives be held simultaneously without serious self-contradiction? Is the phrase "engaged Buddhism" an oxymoron?
These questions are so difficult in part because they bring up words and concepts with deep emotional charge--"blame," "deserve," "fault," "responsibility," "wrongdoing," "defensiveness." It is very difficult to sort out the emotional charges still clinging to these words, as I learned to use them in a Western cultural context, from their Buddhist connotations. My suspicions are that being reared in psychological-spiritual environment that stresses "original sin" forms a different psyche from one reared in an environment that stresses "indwelling Buddhahood," or "basic goodness." I would suspect that being trained to think that one is "basically bad" would result in much more defensiveness and sensitivity about what is or isn't "my fault." I would also suspect that being trained from the beginning of one's life to think that this life is part of a continuum of multiple lives would have some impact on how one evaluated a present, seemingly unjust situations. Finally, I think that it will take several generations to sort out these basic questions of cultural translation.
The one perspective seems to stress that, as an individual, I have rights. There are certain things I can expect and demand, and others have obligations to accord me those rights. Because of the dignity of each individual, social systems can be evaluated as to how well they promote the well being of those who participate in that system. Therefore, words like "oppression" and "justice," describing the effect of the social system on individuals, are important elements in ethical discourse. I have both the right and the ability to judge whether justice is being rendered or whether I am being oppressed, though others may not agree with my assessments. Some of the fiercest battles concern disagreement about what rights people actually have and what constitutes oppression. It is not uncommon for some to claim that their rights to self-expression and autonomy are being violated while other claim that such self-expression would violate their own rights not to be subjected to such expressions. Nevertheless, there is an over-riding concern that justice be rendered and oppression avoided.
The other perspective seems to stress that whoever I am now is the result of a vast network of interdependence, both past and present. There is little point in arguing about whether or not my situation should be different; it is as it is. Because my embedded situation is as it is, there is little point in evaluating it as "just" or "oppressive." Thus, social systems are not evaluated as to how well they promote individual well-being because only individuals can promote their future well-being through present actions of accumulating merit and wisdom, especially merit. The main concern of my present existence is not to "express myself" but to live well in a way that will result in the most fortunate possible future. Non-harming and compassion to all sentient beings, which does include oneself, is the recommended method to achieve this goal. In this perspective, as traditionally presented, my primary question is not whether others are harming me or being compassionate to me, but whether I am engaging in non-harmful, and compassionate activities. Commonly, it is said that this stance is recommended because the only way to improve the situation of the world is to fix our own attitudes and behaviors. It is recommended not to evaluate the activities of others, but always to evaluate ourselves and improve our own attitudes and behaviors. This recommendation stems, in part, from the fact that our own equanimity and detachment ultimately depend on our own minds, not on the actions of others. If we make equanimity and detachment, which give us peace and happiness, dependent on the acts of others, we are likely to be very disappointed and angry, whereas if we learn how to experience equanimity and detachment in any circumstances, we are invulnerable.

To begin to inquire how karma and justice might be part of one framework for social ethics, or, to be more precise, to explore whether questions of justice and oppression can have any place in a Buddhist ethical system, let me begin with the fundamental principle of Buddhist ethics. All suffering is caused by self-cherishing, by attempts to protect and enhance a non-existent self that we take to be eternal and separate from the rest of reality. Therefore, all human suffering is caused by human beings; it is not random, inexplicable, or due to the will of God. We suffer because of our own desires, including an often strong desire to want things that are impossible to have.

This proposition seems indisputable to me. Nevertheless, two questions arise almost immediately. First, how do we know what is impossible? Is a just society impossible? Second, is this statement made of the collectivity of human beings, or of individual human beings? That human beings collectively cause human suffering is rather obvious. Wars, poverty, racism, sexism, homophobia, are all caused by human beings rather than given in the nature of things. However, the statement that we cause our own suffering is often applied to the individual; otherwise inexplicable misfortune in the present is attributed to misdeeds in a past lifetime and even suffering as a civilian in the path of rampaging armies or suffering due to others" prejudices is explained as karma of one"s own making. In the past I hunted animals, so now I am suffering the effects of war in the place where I live; or I was cruel to someone in a past life, so now people are prejudiced against me.
But Buddhism teaches all-pervasive interdependence with the same intensity that it teaches that the cause of all suffering is self-cherishing. In a worldview in which the individual has no ultimate reality, and in which everything is said to be connected with everything else, the notion that I, personally, cause all the suffering I now experience strikes me as much too individualistic. It would fit with a certain rhetoric, common in some political circles today, that emphasizes individual freedom and responsibility while discounting government and society, but it hardly seems to take account of the radical interdependence that Buddhism teaches. If I am interdependent with all other beings, then it would seem that their actions would have to have some impact on me and my well-being. To say otherwise, to claim that how well or poorly I manifest is completely independent of the matrix or container within which I find myself, seems to me, comes close to positing the independent self that Buddhism so carefully dismantles. The only level at which it could be claimed that others" actions are irrelevant to my suffering, that I alone am responsible for my suffering, is rather steep and advanced. Whether I respond to being a victim or war or prejudice with aggression or with compassion and equanimity is my own doing and that response will either ease my pain or cause even more pain. However, that reality does not deal with or undo the initial pain of being on the receiving end of warfare or prejudice.
To help think about justice and karma, it would be helpful, first, to recall what "karma" is about. The word itself means "an action." As usually used, the term designates that fact that actions lead to inevitable reactions--the law of cause and effect. But in reflecting more carefully on karma and justice, I suggest that is it helpful to distinguish somewhat sharply between two aspects of karma, what I am calling "vertical" karma and what I am calling "horizontal" karma. By vertical karma, I mean the karma that comes from my infinite past as well as the past of this life, and which, depending on my present actions, determines what kind of future I will have, both in this life and other lives extending into the infinite future. By horizontal karma, I mean the karma that extends out infinitely from this moment, this point, into all directions. This distinction is not new; Buddhists have always discussed cause and effect as both linear and simultaneous. Furthermore, the effect of recognizing the simultaneous dimension of karma is profound. A single cause for any event cannot be located because any single arising depends upon a multitude of causes and conditions; if any one of them is changed, the event itself would be slightly different. Making the topic of karma even more complex is the fact that it can be difficult to distinguish between cause and effect, since anything experienced in this movement is, first an effect from previous causes, but secondly, it can easily become the cause that produces effects both in the future and in the karmic matrix of the present constellation of events.

I want to suggest that the way in which we can meaningfully talk about both karma and justice, and the way in which can discuss justice within a wholly Buddhist framework of explanation is to distinguish between vertical and horizontal karma, and to explore and emphasize horizontal karma more than is typical. I make this suggestion because if only vertical karma is emphasized, there is little opportunity to talk of present injustice or to justify, on Buddhist grounds, a critique and reformation of social institutions as they currently manifest. And vertical, linear karma is the type of karma that seems to predominate in explanations of present personal suffering. To be reborn as a woman in a male dominant religious and cultural setting certainly fills one's live with suffering. Unlike some Westerners, Buddhists have never disagreed that it is unfortunate to be a woman in a male dominated system. But it can't be helped, seems to be the traditional reaction.
There are two components to the reaction that present suffering, such as being a woman in a male dominant system, can't be helped. One component takes it for granted that the social system must be structured as it is currently. Buddhist traditions include two well-known explanations for why female rebirth is less desirable than male rebirth, known as the "five woes" and the "three subserviences." Of the five woes, three are a male assessment of female biology--menstruation, pregnancy, and childbirth--as woeful, while the other two are social--having to leave one's own family to live with the husband's family upon marriage, and having to work hard all the time taking care of one's husband. The three subserviences are social rules; a woman must always be under the control of a man. In youth it is her father, in midlife her husband, and in old age her son. Why things must be this way, whether these are the only options, is not asked. Instead, what is explained is how some people get to fill that unfortunate slot in society, which is the second component in the reaction that the way things are can't be helped. Being reborn as a woman is the result of misdeeds done in some prior lifetime; it's too late now to improve one's lot for this life, though meritorious actions in this life will probably mean a male rebirth in the future. Similarly, a single woman pregnant by rape in a culture in which single women who bear children will be ostracized for life, irrespective of the circumstances leading to the pregnancy, attributes her misfortune to karma from a past life and resolves to rear the child herself, despite the almost insurmountable difficulty of that task, in order to earn merit for a more fortunate rebirth.
If one accepts both the proposition that different social or economic arrangements are impossible and the reality of future lives, everything computes very well and the category of "injustice" dissolves. Furthermore, one has a perfect rationale to justify the status quo and to quell any thoughts of social criticism or rebellion, any assessments that I'm being mistreated. If I "deserve" this treatment because of past misdeeds, what grounds can there be for seeking to change economic, social, or sexual systems even though they cause great suffering? The idea of karma, taken in this way, can function very much like the concept of "the will of God," as employed by social reactionaries.

I am hesitant to attribute suffering so clearly connected with actions taken by other humans in the present to vertical, linear karma. I would claim that vertical or linear karma should be confidently employed only to explain suffering that is truly inexplicable and mysterious, apart from the possibility of karma from past lives or the will of an inscrutable deity, such as disabilities with which one is born or finding oneself in the path of a powerful storm. Any suffering which can be traced to human agency, which could include some birth disabilities or deliberately settling somewhere that is known for its regular ferocious storms, might more cogently be explained by reference to horizontal or simultaneous karma. Certainly the suffering caused by war, poverty, sexism, racism, etc. is due to human agency, not given in the nature of things in the same way as are the seasons or the elements in the periodic chart. And suffering due to present human agency, to horizontal karma, is certainly not inevitable and unavoidable in the way that suffering due to vertical karma, or the inevitabilities of birth, aging, sickness, and death, is unavoidable.
Whether we are considering horizontal or vertical karma, one of the most crucial issues is to locate the arenas of freedom, the points at which one can make choices. If there were no such points, karma would be merely predestination and any talk of accruing merit and virtue would be nonsense. I would be predestined either to do virtuous acts, thus improving my chances for a better future, or I would predestined to commit evil deeds, thus planting the seeds for an unpleasant and unfortunate future. But the teachings of karma not only state that I have created my present by my past, but also that I am creating my future by what I do in the present. Therefore, in each present moment, no matter how strong habitual patterns and familiar ways of reacting may be, Buddhist teachings about karma claim that I have some tiny opening of freedom. I cannot change my present lot, but I can deal with it in many different ways, and how I deal with that present situation will have some role to play in setting up my future situations. I can practice anger and aggression in reaction to my present situation, or I can practice equanimity. The first reaction automatically causes me immediate pain, whereas the second produces peace. In that sense it is accurate to say that we each personally create our own suffering.
Likewise, each person who is implicated in my present matrix has similar freedom. Here is where explaining oppression or misfortune (notice how much changes, depending on which term we use) as being due to vertical karma from the past breaks down. It breaks down because it takes away the freedom of those who share my current matrix, the freedom of my oppressors, of those at whose hands I experience misfortune. It would not do for any genuine understanding of karma to say that, because I "need" to suffer, due to misdeeds I have done in the past, therefore someone in the present is compelled to cause me suffering, must harm me, must deal me misfortune, must oppress me. Rather, those present acts, which cause me suffering, are the deliberate, freely chosen acts of someone with whom I share the present matrix. It would not do to say that because I have been reborn as a woman, for whatever reasons, therefore, men or some specific man must dominate or oppress me, or simply have privileges and comforts that I cannot have. To do so would deny their freedom to decide whether to participate eagerly and willingly in a male dominant system or to resist it. Even more serious, since harming others causes negative karma for oneself, these men are committing deeds that would result in unfortunate future births for themselves. No understanding of karma suggests that the deeds that lead to unfortunate future events are anything but freely chosen acts.

In this way, by focusing on horizontal karma, it is possible to say that I am experiencing injustice in the present from within the framework of traditional ideas about karma. Given that no arising has a single cause and that karmic causes and conditions are very complex, this account does not deny that there could be contributing causes to my present sufferings in my karmic past. The point is not to deny vertical karma but to suggest that it alone is not sufficient to explain present suffering that involves human agency. Looking into horizontal karma more carefully allows us to takes into account what seems to be an obvious and direct cause of present suffering, the self-interest which keeps oppressive social systems going. Thereby, we discern a shorter and more empirical line of cause and effect than is provided by the explanation of vertical or linear karma by itself. And to explore horizontal karma more fully provides a Buddhist wedge for seeking to change present social systems--a wedge which vertical karma by itself cannot provide. We cannot change the past, but change and choices happen all the time in the present realm of horizontal karma. It is important to link the words "choice" and "change" with the words "oppression" and "justice" when discussing the topic of karma.
Looking more closely into present constellations of cause and effect also encourages us to see how systems, rather than individuals alone, cause suffering. I would argue that recognizing systemic oppression is one of the ingredients missing in traditional discussions of karma, which tend to be much more individualistic. This is important because usually, taking gender systems as an example, it is not especially an individual man who causes me to suffer by oppressing me or limiting my options. It is the male dominant system in which he participates, often without intention to harm. Because, according to Buddhism, intention plays such a large part in determining the extent and negativity of any karmic seed that is planted by our deeds, this distinction between individuals who do not intend harm and systems that cause harm is important. For Buddhism, with its intense concern for the practices of non-harming and compassion, it should be a grave concern that well-intentioned individuals nevertheless participate in systems that cause harm. Just as Buddhist explanations for why I suffer can seem strangely individualistic in light of Buddhist teachings about interdependence, so Buddhist discussions of causes of suffering seem strangely individualistic, simply ignoring analyses of social, political, economic, and gender systems and how they perpetuate suffering willy-nilly of individual intention.
Systemic injustice and oppression can easily be connected with more traditional Buddhist concerns--non-harming and compassion. Injustice and oppression hurt people; therefore Buddhists should be concerned to evaluate whether the economic, social, and political systems in which they participate are harming people, should attempt to withdraw from such systems as much as possible, and should work at changing them, using Buddhist principles of non-aggression to do so. It is not compassionate to perpetuate systems that cause harm simply because they are conventional and "that's what's always been done." The motivations for non-harming and compassion would remain the same. Traditionally, one tried not to harm sentient beings because to do so would result in negative karma for oneself. It may be more difficult to think about non-harming as not participating in sexist or racist practices, or economically exploitative practices that are common in one's culture or one's company than to think of non-harming as not hurting one's neighbors or not killing animals, but the principle is the same. Committing harmful acts results in negative karma even if one is acting as part of a collective, part of a system, and not as an individual, especially if one assents to the system. The motivation for compassion is less ego-based. In Mahayana Buddhism, compassion is said to arise spontaneously from the realization that one is not separate from other beings, who want freedom from suffering as much as one does oneself. Therefore, one does what one can to help them. When one begins to contemplate all the suffering that results from conventional economic, social, political, and gender systems, it is hard to understand how Buddhists could not be concerned to do whatever can be done to change those systems.
Thinking about horizontal karma and systemic injustice can be taken one step further. Sometimes, it is said that one should stop others from doing harmful acts out of compassion for them. Knowing how much they will suffer from the negative karma they will accumulate from such acts, one simply stops them, even at the cost of some negative karma to oneself. One of the most popular stories concerns the Buddha in a former life. Knowing that a certain passenger on a ship intended to kill all 500 passengers and take possession of the ship's treasure for himself, the future Buddha killed him to save him from the terrible karma of killing so many people. I do not think the examples need to be nearly so dramatic. We can refuse to laugh at jokes that denigrate certain groups of people, thus discouraging their teller from repeating them. We can speak up against racism, sexism, homophobia, and excessive patriotism. We can refuse to be swept up into the orgy of consumerism. All of these acts undercut their perpetrators and discourage them from engaging further in these behaviors and accruing more negative karma. We might want to consider even one more step. If we do not attempt to stop people from accruing the negative karma of practicing injustice and oppression, if we mindlessly participate in all these oppressive systems, regard them as perfectly normal and unavoidable, or justify them, we may well reap not only the karma due to our own participation in these systems, but the karma of not discouraging others from participating in oppressive, harmful systems.
I would anticipate several objections from other Buddhists that I would like to try to defuse. I would expect many people to respond that the whole point of Buddhism is that samsara can't be fixed; it must be transcended or left behind, and politics, economics, and social systems are simply part of samsara. The Buddha, after all, left conventional society behind to create a monastic counterculture. The Buddhist tendency ever since has been to regard politics, economics and social systems as not the realms most amenable to enlightened activity, which is focused more in universities, retreat centers, solitary hermitages, and in teacher-student relationships. I would reply that it is not so easy simply to divide human activities into worldly, samsaric activities like politics, economics, and social systems on the one hand, and samsara-transcending activities such as study and practice on the other hand, because these two realms are interdependent. Who gets to pursue samsara-transcending activities is often dependent on worldly systems of privilege and deprivation. For example, the Buddha did not observe conventional ancient Indian class and caste privileges when setting up his monastic counterculture, but he did observe male gender privileges. As a result, throughout Buddhist history, half the Buddhist population has found serious Buddhist study and practice more difficult to pursue than the other half of the Buddhist population. This is only one example of the way in which Buddhism's samsara-transcending activities are more available to certain socially elite groups. Regarding something as important as the opportunity to engage seriously in Buddhist practice and study, it would seem unwise and uncompassionate to rely solely on vertical karma to get everything right when the self-interest involved in horizontal karma is so obvious. To put the matter very succinctly, the practice of world transcendence requires a proper, just social matrix.
Furthermore, Buddhists have always recognized how crucial the context, the "container" (to use the jargon on one contemporary Buddhist sect), in which we experience our lives is to our well being. This is one meaning of the practice of "going for refuge to the sangha," part of the Triple Refuge which is so basic to Buddhism. Given that the matrix in which one lives is central to one's well-being and important to one's spiritual practice, providing such a matrix should be a priority for Buddhists. And individual Buddhists should not be constrained from evaluating whether or not their "right" to a proper matrix has been met, as happens when vertical karma alone is used to explain why things happen the way they do. Relying on vertical karma alone does not permit one to evaluate what is happening to oneself and say, "This is not right! I am not being treated properly and certainly not in a way that is conducive to my being able to offer my best talents to the world. I don't deserve this." At least in the contemporary Western Buddhist world, such a comment usually garners one scorn and the recommendation to practice more so that one will accept things as they happen and not complain. But I would argue that it is possible for such a statement to stem from prajna--the discriminating wisdom which can tell the difference between one thing and another--rather than complaint. A lot depends on the level of aggression or equanimity with which the statement is made. Buddhists know how to accept what they cannot change, but that does not mean that what any individual cannot change about his or her life is, therefore, just and right. Much of what I would change about my life, but must accept because I cannot change it myself, could easily be due to the self-interest of others and the systems that foster and feed such self-interest, rather than being anything I have earned by my past actions. I may learn from these experiences, even turn them into fuel for insight, but my ability to work with negativity does not justify negativity nor prove that I "needed" such negativity in order to reach insight.
However, from a Buddhist point of view there is a major problem with many social action movements as they have manifested to date in Western societies, and major psychological and spiritual benefits that come with the more traditionally Buddhist way of dealing with social and systemic evils. These issues must also be acknowledged and addressed in any attempt to meld social activism with Buddhism.
In their pursuit of their "rights," many activists and socially concerned commentators are at least as aggressive and confrontational as are their opponents. The shouting match, yelling and screaming, pushing and shoving, and occasionally resorting to even more violent tactics to make one's point or stop one's opponents are quite common in movements that pursue social justice. Such tactics are often justified by the old argument that the end justifies the means or by claiming that only aggression and confrontation are noticed in a society that lives by the slogan "nice guys finish last." But having the "right" cause does not justify aggression, anger, and confrontation. If we are still fighting, but just fighting for the right things, instead of fighting to maintain our privilege, there is no "victory over warfare," the only goal worth pursuing in seeking social justice. Anger and aggression are regarded by Buddhism as the most poisonous and seductive of all the kleshas or conflicted emotions. They are unworkable and have no redeeming qualities, especially since they reproduce themselves so readily in those to whom one expresses them. Furthermore, they are at least as painful and counterproductive for the one who experiences and expresses them as they are to the recipient. And they are utterly unnecessary to maintaining one's passion for justice; in fact, they contribute significantly to the burnout and self-destructiveness that plagues some activitists. The lack of alternatives to anger and aggression as the fuel to maintain one's activism or one's concern for justice is the greatest weakness of Western approaches to issues of oppression and equity.

By contrast, the traditional Buddhist approach, which is much less concerned with my rights and other peoples" obligations to treat me properly, promotes equanimity and cheerfulness, even in the face of considerable personal suffering, which is a major psychological and spiritual benefit. Such a person may well be happier than their counterpart who is evaluating whether their rights are being accorded them and is valiantly "fighting" for peace and justice. Buddhism stresses that all suffering ultimately comes from our own minds, our own attachments. Therefore, it is recommended that one look inward first and foremost when confronted with dissatisfaction and cultivate inner peace, detachment, and equanimity. One's own mind is the only thing one has absolute power to change.
If the price for being concerned with rights, justice, oppression, and equity were the constant turmoil of emotions of anger, tactics of confrontation, and the attitude or action of embattled fighting, that price would be too high. Equanimity, detachment, and contentment that are not dependent on the external world are too hard won and too precious to discard for any reason. However, one does not have to make a choice between maintaining some level of equanimity and being concerned about justice and oppression. One can pursue peace and justice with equanimity and detachment. The attitude, the mindset of the person concerned with justice and oppression is not the issue from the Buddhist point of view. The issue is thinking about cause and effect in relationship to peace and justice. Why am I oppressed? What causes me to experiences the negativities of being a woman in a male-dominated world? What combination of my own karma from past lives and the present self-interested actions of others? I would argue that an answer which does not take account of horizontal karma is inadequate. I would also argue that, with Buddhist training in equanimity and detachment, it is possible accurately assess and name horizontal karma without falling into either aggression or self-pity.