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Karma and personal identity: a response to professor white

  • Paul Griffiths (a1)

I am grateful to Professor White for his stimulating response to my remarks on Buddhist karmic theory. While I cannot follow him in all his criticisms, his response has forced me to clarify my thinking and to make explicit some presuppositions that were not sufficiently developed in the original paper. I hope, too, that this brief response to White's discussion will help in critically assessing the contributions made by Buddhist philosophers to our understanding of the problem of personal identity.

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page 481 note 1 Religious Studies XIX (1983), 223–28. My article, discussed by Professor White, , appeared in Religious Studies XVIII (1982), 277–91.

page 481 note 2 I take this to be the point of White's somewhat confused remarks on page 225 and in his concluding remarks on page 228, but there is some ambiguity in his phrasing. Does he think that the Vaibhāșikas may have held this view but that no other ‘Hīnayāna’ school did? Or does he think that no school presently holds this view? Or that no school has ever held this view?

page 482 note 1 atha yad etas sattvabhājanalokasya bahudhā vaicitryam uktaṃ tat kena kŗtam/na khalu kenacid buddhipūrvakarm kŗtam/kim tarhi/sattvānāṃ KARMAJAṂ LOKAVAICITRYAM/Comment runs: tatra sattvavaicitryaṃ dhātugatiyonyādibhedena/ baājanavaicitryarp merudvīpādibhedena/ Abhidharmakośa & Bhāsya of ācarya Vasubandhu with Sphutārthā Commentary of ācārya υaśomitra, ed. Sastri, Dwarikadas, 2 vols. (Varanasi: Bauddha Bharati, 1981), p. 567.

page 482 note 2 See also the third chapter of the Abhidharmakośa and its Vyākhyā, where it is explicitly said that the vāyumaṇḍala or ‘circle of wind’ upon which the material universe is based is created by the collective actions of sentient beings:…vayumaṇḍalamabhinirvŗttam sarvasattvānām karmādhipatyena…’ (ed. cit., p. 506). A final example: in the second chapter of the same text, as part of a technical discussion about the nature and varieties of causation, it is once more explicitly said that ‘non-sentient objects’ – asattvākhyo'rthaḥ – are the result of karma (ed. cit., p. 330). A full discussion of the philosophical implications of this would take me beyond the limitations of a short reply.

page 482 note 3 It's important to note that not all Buddhist schools held this cosmogonic view, and, as White points out, the Theravādins, by and large, do not. Theravādin cosmogony, in so far as there can be said to be any such thing, is ambiguous and requires discussion of its own. But my original paper was meant as an exercise in philosophical discussion at a fairly high level of generality – as indeed I said on page 280 – and is thus not invalidated by finding examples of schools which do not hold the view under discussion. Historical nit-picking, while interesting, and indeed essential for Buddhological discussion, is not essential for meaningful philosophical analysis.

page 483 note 1 White, , art. cit., pp. 225–6.

page 483 note 2 White, , art. cit., p. 227.

page 483 note 3 The memories of former lives arrived at by the Buddha in his enlightenment experience are not an altogether satisfactory counter-example to this generalization: the interesting question here concerns what it was that the Buddha knew when he realised that event X was an event belonging to his own continuum in a previous life and not to that of someone else; what criteria was he using to decide which events belong to which continuum? It is the answer to this question which proves so difficult for Buddhists; how is it possible to distinguish between intra-continuum and extra-continuum causality?

page 484 note 1 This too was a question which exercised Buddhist theoreticians and there were several answers to it suggested by different schools. The discussion of the nature of the vipākahetu in the second chapter of the Abhidharmakośa is relevant here.

page 485 note 1 The precise manner in which this happens, and the nature of the continuum immediately after death, are matters for debate between the schools; some accept the idea of an intermediate existence [antarabhava] between death and birth, while others assert that rebirth takes place immediately as death occurs. Whichever view is held, the point remains that the continuum loses at death many of the characteristics which made ‘John Smith’ a useful designation and gains at birth others [such as a new body], which may require the employment of a new conventional designation, such as [Ronald Reagan].

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Religious Studies
  • ISSN: 0034-4125
  • EISSN: 1469-901X
  • URL: /core/journals/religious-studies
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