Emptiness of Karma

Talking about karma and empitness, Nagarjuna says that ultimately speaking there is no karma — no perpetrator, no action, no recipient of action. So karma is empty. This is one of the most difficult teachings in the Fundamental Verses on the Middly Way. But we can unpack the difficulty as follows:

First of all, for karma to take effect, there must be the perpetrator of the karma (let’s not forget that karma is just Sanskrit for ‘action’). And since there is the doer of the action, there also has to be the action itself and the benefiary or recipient of the action. These follow logically. So for example, I am offering a flower to a monk. I am doing a karma. There is the I who offers the flower; there is the action of offering, of putting the flower inside the monk’s almbowl, and so on, and there is the monk who receives the flower and gives me blessings. So far, so good.

However, the main doctrine of the Fundamental Verses is that everything whatsoever is empty of its own inherent characteristics. Ultimately speaking, there is just no thing. Everything that seems to exist, be it flowers, monks, laypeople, etc., are results of conceptual imputation – the act of naming things and thus apparently grasping the names things as if they exist by themselves. So at this ultimate level there is no giver, no thing given, and no receiver.

But if that is the case, then how could Nagarjuna explain the fruits of karma? In the Tipitaka there are a lot of stories of people who are reborn in heaven because of their merit making activities in their past lives. So who gets reborn as gods in heaven? Nagarjuna argues that karma has neither existence nor non-existence, and this is his standard way of arguing in the Fundamental Verses. Since karma has neither existence nor non-existence, we can put karma in either way. So it is wrong both to say that karma does exist and also wrong to say that it does not exist. This is a very difficult and mind boggling point.

I think Nagarjuna’s point is this. In arguing that karma does not exist, Nagarjuna is saying that we can’t just get rid of the concept and go on as if there is no karma. In that case, no action would bear any fruit and all the stories about reincarnation and being reborn in heavens and hells would make no sense. This is of course totally wrong. So karma does exist. But it does not exist in its own substantial being. To say that karma exists is just to say that there are some causes and conditions that let to the karma existing. Without these causes and conditions there is no karma.  Karma exists because the perpetrator believes that things have inherent characteristics. Believing that by offering the flower to the monk, a person who has not realized the whole truth still has some grasping to his constructed self, so in a way that self is reborn in heaven. But strictly speaking it is not *he himself* that is reborn because there is no substantial soul in Buddhism. But the god who is reborn is a result of that person’s merit making nonetheless. All this is possible because of the ingrained belief (a false one) that there is a self, and that things exist on their own. And since being a god is just being in samsara, so we see the process of samsaric circle going on here.

Here is Nagarjuna’s point:

Defilements, karma, bodies,

Those doing karma, those receiving fruits of karma

Are like the city of Gandharvas,

Illusionlike and dreamlike.


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