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Enacting Selves, Enacting Worlds: On the Buddhist Theory of Karma Matthew MacKenzie

Philosophy East and West, Volume 63, Number 2, April 2013, pp. 194-212 (Article) Published by University of Hawai'i Press DOI: 10.1353/pew.2013.0022

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Matthew MacKenzie Department of Philosophy, Colorado State University

The concept of karma is one of the most general and basic for the philosophical traditions of India, one of an interconnected cluster of concepts that form the basic presuppositions of Indian philosophy. And like many general, pervasive, and basic philosophical concepts, the idea of karma exhibits both semantic complexity and a certain fluidity and open texture. That is, the concept may not have a determinate application in all possible cases, it can be fleshed out in quite different ways in different contexts and philosophical traditions, and it should be understood as open in its future applications. Thus, any complete account of the concept of karma must take into consideration its diverse uses across philosophical traditions and across time. Finally, and perhaps most important for my purpose, ‘karma’ is a living philosophical concept  —  it continues to guide Hindu, Buddhist, and Jain thinking and it continues to evolve in the process. My purpose here is not to give an exhaustive account of the notion of karma, even for the Buddhist tradition, let alone for the other philosophical traditions that employ the concept. Rather, I shall give a reading of certain key aspects of the Buddhist theory of karma that will bring it into direct contact with recent work in philosophical psychology and phenomenology in the hopes of achieving a degree of mutual illumination between Buddhist and Western philosophy. In particular, I will draw on the ‘enactivist’ work of Francisco Varela, Evan Thompson, and Eleanor Rosch  —  which is itself deeply influenced by Buddhism  —  in order both to make sense of certain traditional aspects of the Buddhist approach to karma and to give an  indication of what a contemporary reconstruction of the concept might look like.1  Thus, in Gadamerian fashion, my account will be both interpretation and appropriation. ­ My focus, then, will be on two interrelated aspects of the Buddhist theory of karma. After some preliminary comments on the general philosophical notion of karma and on the enactivist approach to philosophical psychology, I will explore the distinctively Buddhist idea that through the karmic process we enact ourselves  —  that is, we make and remake ourselves through our actions. Second, I will discuss the idea that we also enact our world(s) through karma  —  that is, that our patterns of action and reaction bring forth meaningful worlds, which, in turn shape these very patterns for better or worse. In this process, we shape and are shaped by the possibilities for action disclosed within these worlds. And crucially, we enter enacted worlds midstream, as it were  —  already at birth the products of this ongoing process. Finally, I will briefly discuss the character and cultivation of enlightened action, action free from the production of karma. ­


Philosophy East & West Volume 63, Number 2 April 2013 194–212 © 2013 by University of Hawai‘i Press

meaning ‘action’ and in particular referring to a properly performed ritual action.5 Compare the statements above to Aristotle’s assertion: Men become builders by building houses. Unskillful actions plant karmic seeds (bīja) in one’s stream of consciousness that.6 Thus. according as one conducts himself. while the special theory concerns relations between successive lives of the same individual (or mental continuum). Similarly. so does he become.The Doctrine of Karma The word ‘karma’ originally derives from the Sanskrit karman (√kṛ). unless otherwise specified. Skillful or wholesome (kuśala) actions will tend to have positive consequences for oneself in this life.4 This core conception of karma is likewise accepted in the Buddhist tradition. and harpists by playing the harp. In the Bṛhadāranyaka Upaniṣad we find an early statement of the general theory of karma: According as one acts. It is action that distinguishes beings as inferior and superior. we find the meaning of the term expanded to cover moral actions and. An action performed once might be said to be out of Matthew MacKenzie 195 . and dispositions over the long term. beings are owners of their actions. Further. habits. have their actions as their refuge. the Buddhist theory of karma emphasizes the deep interdependence of action and character. The doer of evil becomes evil. she may find it that much easier to steal (or that much harder to avoid stealing) in the future. The doer of good becomes good. self-controlled by exercising our self-control. one’s actions affect one’s character. and courageous by performing acts of courage. in the Majjhima Nikāya the Buddha explains: ­ Student. bad by bad action. heirs of their actions. grow into negative consequences (phala ‘fruit. That is. are bound to their actions. Throughout this article I shall be concerned with the general theory of karma. Furthermore. we can distinguish between what Roy Perrett terms the general and the special theories of karma. while unskillful (akuśala) actions will tend to have negative consequences. by extension. given the appropriate internal and external conditions. the core conception or general theory of karma deals with the shortand  long-term effects of moral or immoral actions for the agent of those actions. The two ­ theories are logically independent and the general theory does not require belief in rebirth. It is thus claimed that there is a reliable causal connection between virtuous action and long-term well-being.3 The general theory concerns the relations between one’s actions and one’s well-being and character in one life. One becomes virtuous by virtuous action. the fruits (phala) or consequences of these actions. Each time the thief steals. For instance. a claim that is at the center of Buddhist ethics and ­ soteriology. they originate from their actions. we grow just by the practice of just actions.’ vipāka ‘result’) for the agent.2 By the time of the Upaniṣads.

’ that will be central to my interpretation of the Buddhist theory of karma. but if repeated it becomes less appropriate to say that it does not reflect the individual’s true character. Thus vices are harmful to oneself in that they detract from one’s objective well-being. the general theory of karma expresses a regulative normative commitment to the idea that. Moreover. and the contrary activities control its contrary. internal relation between virtuous action and genuine well-being. In the final analysis. and spiritual (dharma-niyama). values. ­ emphasizing the ways in which action. Indian Buddhists understand sentient beings and their world in terms of dependent origination (pratītyasamutpāda). is on patterns of dependence between events or processes. desires. one may interpret the theory of karma. for instance. biological (bīja-niyama). rather than on. such as worldly happiness or wealth. on this account. ethical (karma-niyama). insofar as an individual’s attitudes. habits. and it would be a mistake.10 ­ 196 Philosophy East & West . Indian Buddhists identify five modes or domains (niyama) of dependent origination: physical (utu-­ niyama). The focus. ­ Another key point to recognize about the theory of karma is that it involves both descriptive and normative claims. There is no fact/value dichotomy in the Buddhist tradition. karma focuses on the often subtle and intricate feedback mechanisms in the human psyche. In any case. perceptions. to assume that everything that happens to a person is determined by her karma. unwholesome actions may have rather pervasive or unexpected negative effects.7 The proper understanding of an event may involve some or all of these modes. mental (mano-niyama).”8 According to the doctrine of karma virtues are both means to the end of genuine happiness or wellbeing (sukha) and partly constitutive of the end itself. the key point here is that. then. and character are mutually reinforcing. The specifics of this connection may rest on empirical claims about human action and psychology. then. Karma. as a part of Buddhist moral psychology. the operation of external forces on ontologically independent objects. as Aristotle put it. but commitment to the internal relation itself will not be a merely empirical generalization. In addition. generally referred to as the ‘enactive approach. in addition to positing certain kinds of causal connections. The world is understood as a dynamic network of interdependent events. intention. Specifically. vices will tend to undermine one’s ability to enjoy other things of value. and so forth are interconnected. is a mode (niyama) or special case of dependent origination and is not co-extensive with it.9 The Enactive Approach Having sketched the outlines of the general theory of karma in Indian Buddhism. let me now turn to some recent work in philosophical psychology and cognitive science. and the theory of karma is meant to provide a framework for interpreting the complex relations between the moral dynamics of human experience and the larger causal order. “activities in accord with virtue control happiness. then.character for an individual. Moreover. and the sentient beings within it are understood in the same terms. as expressing a commitment to a fundamental.

The water glass is perceived as graspable. while certain concepts Matthew MacKenzie 197 . emerge from this more fundamental dynamic process of enaction. Rather. because perception and action are so tightly intertwined. cognition is neither projection nor passive mirroring. Perception. And affordances are inherently agentrelative. in addition to being the product of the environment and the evolutionary history of organisms of its kind. from the enactive perspective conceptual thinking is also a form of action. that cognition bears a constitutive relation to its object.”13 Likewise. autopoietic systems  ­ —  that is. certain propositions afford certain inferences. as distinct phenomena. “cognitive structures and processes emerge from recurrent sensorimotor patterns of perception and action. its contents as drinkable. from an enactivist perspective organisms are autonomous. dynamic patterns of neural activity. The enactive approach to perception rejects representationism in both its objectivist and subjectiv­ ist varieties. First. equally. Thus.”11 Several related claims are involved in the development of this basic conviction. Finally.”12 Fourth. the ‘domain of distinctions’ that constitutes one’s world will not necessarily be. [we] enact a world as a domain of distinctions that is inseparable from the structure embodied by the cognitive system. in agreement with many Buddhists. one’s world will be a domain of affordances. such that motor activity orients perception while perceptual systems guide activity. Second. for embodied. Hence. Likewise. Perception and action evolved together. is not the passive reception or recovery within the mind of a pregiven world. of opportunities for action. because perception and cognition emerge from patterns of interaction between subject and world. The world of perception. mobile creatures is a world of affordances. perception is part of a larger system of ongoing transaction between organism and environment. our minds are also enacted in this process. but is rather the enactment of a world and a mind on the basis of a history of embodied action. cognition more generally is grounded in embodied action. living organisms quite literally enact themselves. Both mind and world. or perhaps more fundamentally. then. Rather. The doorway is presented as passable. but rather a form of know-how. Third. the table as hide-under-able. In addition. the organism’s future structure and organization are products of its earlier activity. a domain of distinct objects. that is. the enactive approach maintains. “instead of representing an independent world. self-organizing systems that maintain and reinforce their own structures through the process of living.As Evan Thompson summarizes. As Thompson explains. first and foremost. which in turn inform sensorimotor ­ coupling. perception is not the mere projection of internal representations onto the world. the formation of ­ endogenous. That is. and so on. “the conviction that motivates the enactive approach is that cognition is not the representation of an independent world by an ­ independent mind. the enactive approach proposes that perception is to be understood in terms of perceptually guided activity. as perceptually guided activity. Sensorimotor coupling between organism and environment modulates. but does not determine. it is not the construction of an internal representation or model of an objective world.

we find a deep interconnection between agent. then. agent and action.  Vedanā: affect 3. The identity of any persisting object. world. Enacting Selves In addition to the important role it plays in Buddhist moral theory.  Saṃjñā: perception and cognition 4. the Buddhist analysis of any particular entity. and pass away.  Rūpa: the body or corporeality 2. Buddhist philosophers insist. arise from selves interacting with the world. Self. even at the level of abstract thinking. within the context of philosophy more generally  —  is its radical rejection of substantialism in favor of an ontology of interdependent events and processes. phenomena arise in dependence on a network of causes and conditions. In the Buddhist view. selves and the world arise from actions (karma). to some degree. Indeed.may afford extrapolation or association in various ways. we may say that both the self and the world are enacted in and through the process of dependent origination. One central focus of Indian Buddhism is the examination of the structure and dynamics of lived experience in the service of identifying and addressing the distortions and afflictions that perpetuate human suffering (duḥkha). or process will not be based on the categories of substance and attribute. then. Rather.14 Thus. moral psychology. It is perhaps not clear which idea is more paradoxical  —  that we enact ourselves or that we enact the world  —  but in any case I will begin with the former idea and take up the latter in the next section. but also. and world. action. have their effects. as common sense would have it. event. and soteriology. is determined by its place in this vast pattern of relations. and action are taken to be three interdependent aspects of an ontologically and phenomenologically more basic and universal process of dependent co-arising (pratītyasamūtpada). Rejecting the existence of the substantial self. even what we would normally conceive of as enduring substances are reconceptualized as more or less stable patterns of more basic and more ephemeral events and processes. It is against the backdrop of these basic analytical and ontological commitments. the analysis will focus on the dynamic patterns of interaction within which events arise. The five skandhas are: 1. or subject and object. Thus. not only do actions.  Saṃskāra: conditioning and volition 5. What is distinctive about Buddhist thought  —  both within its own historical and intellectual milieu and. the Buddhists argue that the existence of a person (pudgala) consists in the existence of the five skandhas (bundles or aggregates) organized in the right way. the concept of karma does important ontological work within Buddhist philosophy. that we can understand the Buddhist account of the self and the claim that we create and recreate ourselves through karma. That is. The point is that.  Vijñāna: consciousness 198 Philosophy East & West .

Moreover. but there has been a great deal of disagreement as to the full ontological implications of the rejection of the existence of a substantial self.15 The operation of this capacity depends on sensory contact (sparśa) with the environment as well as sensorimotor skills (such as exploratory behavior). including the ability to identify and re-identify objects of experience.”17 This minimal self (what is called the ‘mere I’ or ‘mere self  ’ [Tibetan: nga tsam]) is not the ontological ground of either the Matthew MacKenzie 199 . and formations  —  such as sensorimotor skills. in our very way of being in the world. it is a matter of there being a causally and functionally integrated series or stream of skandhas. substantial self. aversion. The vedanā-skandha denotes the affective dimensions of the person and her experience (pleasant. capacities. As the Dalai Lama explains. On the other hand. changing skandhas and we are not left with a constant. The saṃjñā-skandha denotes the more fully cognitive faculty of perception. Take away the complex. even while we ignore  —  or remain ignorant 16 of  —  the causes and conditions that have given rise to them. memories. The rūpa-skandha (material form) refers to the corporeal aspect of the human being. impermanent. unpleasant. In the Buddhist view.” Finally. the Indian Abhidharma schools tended to hold a radically reductionist form of empiricism in which all composite entities were rejected as mere mental constructs. There is every indication that the I exists. habits. Therefore. some later Buddhist thinkers allowed for an ontologically deflationary account of the self. in which the conventional self is said to have a certain phenomenological and practical reality. the saṃskāra-skandha (conditioning) includes the various dispositions. there is no separate independent entity of I. under investigation. while still insisting that this minimal notion of self is not to be reified. and ignorance. we are left with nothing. the vijñānaskandha denotes discerning or discriminating intentional consciousness. As Dan Lusthaus remarks. “such predilections are always already inscribed in our flesh. For instance. an ‘aggregate-stream’ or ‘bundle-continuum’). Indeed. yet. typically one’s whole being in the world is driven by this sedimented conditioning  —  and not always for the better. or neutral). it cannot be found. the basic conative impulses often manifest in pathological ways. but. This category also includes our basic conative impulses  —   attraction. such as the ‘three poisons’ of greed. in the standard Buddhist analysis. including the organizational structure of the person as an organism. Next. and cognitive schemas  —  that both enable and constrain the person and her experiences. the person is not an entity that can exist independently of the five skandhas. aside from mind and body. This account of the selflessness of the person (pudgalanairātmya) is held by all major Buddhist schools. “both body and mind are things that belong to the I. emotional dispositions.These five skandhas are not to be taken as independent things. but instead are seen as interdependent components of a causally and functionally integrated psychophysical (nāma-rūpa) system or process (skandha-santāna. and indifference  —  which are in turn closely tied to our feelings and the affective modalities (vedanā) of experience. the diachronic identity of a person consists in the appropriate degree of continuity and connectedness of the skandhas  —  that is. and the I is the owner. volitions. hatred.

ahaṃkāra.22 Autopoiesis involves what Varela terms a ‘logical ‘ bootstrap’ or ‘loop’ in which a network or process creates a boundary and is sub­ sequently constrained by that boundary. The karmic arc is a circuit or dynamic loop wherein actions (karma) shape conditioning and volitional dispositions (saṃskāra) and lead to certain results (vipāka) in the life of the agent.19 We may begin with the distinction between heteronomous and autonomous systems. an autonomous system primarily will be understood in terms of its “endogenous. Hence.. we must begin with the more basic autopoietic structure of sentient beings. It is a dependent phenomenon that. Humberto Maturana and Varela call this type of autonomy ­autopoiesis’ (self-production). ii above). in turn. According to both the Buddhist and enactivist accounts.18 So how does the minimal self emerge from karma? To approach this question I want to focus on two deeply intertwined processes: ‘I-making’ (ahaṃkāra) and the ‘karmic arc. autonomous systems are understood in terms of perturbation and response. and (iii) determine a domain of possible interactions with the environment. External factors perturb the ongoing endogenous dynamics of the system. The relations that define the autonomous organization hold between processes (such as metabolic reactions in a cell or neuronal firings in a cell assembly) rather than static entities.” and “does not have inputs and outputs in the usual sense.’ I-making is a dynamic process of self-appropriation that arises from the more basic autopoietic structure of the sentient being. In this section I will take up I-making. In order to understand I-making.23 The completion of this loop gives rise to a distinct biological entity that maintains its own boundary in its environment. In an autonomous system. while in the next section I will discuss the karmic arc. the term autonomous refers to a generic type of organization. self-organizing and self-controlling dynamics. at the cellular level. a self-organizing process of biochemical reactions produces a of experience or the person. A heteronomous system is exogenously controlled and can cleanly be modeled as an input-output system.e. In contrast. sentient beings are organized dynamic systems. our sense of self. an understanding of such systems requires that we pay close attention not just to the system’s components but also to its organization. yielding a response that must be understood in terms of the system’s dynamics and its overall organization. because it is not a reified separate thing. (no. (ii) constitute the system as a unity in whatever domain they exist. but is rather a product of both the immanent structure of experience (i. This new level of coherence is a ‘virtual identity’ that is to be understood in terms of both boundary maintenance or 200 Philosophy East & West . constrains the process that created it. disappears under analysis. This is the system’s organizational closure. which. For instance.”20 Instead of an input-output model. This conditioning in turn shapes action and the way in which the results are assimilated into the life of the agent.21 In biochemistry. that arises from our internal access to our own states) and the network of linguistic and social practices within which we find ourselves. the constituent processes (i) recursively depend on each other for their generation and their realization as a network. More specifically: In complex systems theory.

we have ‘structural coupling’. That which is constructed in the appropriating of them is said to be the appropriator. regarded as a constitutive property. In my enactivist interpretation. In this is generated [the activity of   ] ‘I’-ing. involve emergent processes. is the dependence relation between the pre-personal. and does not belong to a single element. because from the beginning it has in its scope a sense of self. As Thompson describes it. autopoietic systems are characterized by operational closure. i above): ­ “the property that among the conditions affecting the operation of any constituent process in the system there will always be one or more processes that also belong to the system. autonomous systems.”25 When two systems (organism and environment) develop a history of recurrent interactions leading to a ‘structural congruence’ between them.28 Matthew MacKenzie 201 . through autopoiesis we quite literally enact ourselves from moment to moment. but rather as dynamic autonomous systems  —  necessarily coupled to the environment. in this view. exhibit two forms of determination. In addition. the performing (niṣpādaka) self. the thinker. but also self-controlling. but the constituents acquire their existence as distinct parts of the stream of mental and physical events only by being associated with a single self. It is precisely this reason which keeps the Mādhyamika from regarding the constituents as ultimate existents (dravya) and the self as merely imputed (prajnāpti). autopoietic skandha-santāna and the enacted self  ? A common analogy for the relation between the self and the skandhas is the mutual dependence of fire and fuel. which.”24 Furthermore. iii above). are understood not as heteronomous mechanical input-output systems. the self appropriates as its own the various mental and physical events that make up the skandha-santāna. Sentient beings. autonomous systems are always coupled to their environments (no. arises spontaneously or self-organizes from the locally defined and globally constrained or controlled interactions of those elements. just as the fire appropriates (upādāna) the fuel to perpetuate itself. in particular living and sentient systems. Jan Westerhoff notes in this context: Not only does the self depend for its existence on the constituents. In o addition. then. “Two or more systems are coupled when the conduct of each is a function of the conduct of the other. in this view. Hence. while the global order constrains the local interactions. As Candrakīrti comments on Nāgārjuna’s use of the analogy: That which is appropriated is the fuel. “An emergent process belongs to an ensemble or network of elements.”26 Emergent processes.27 Furthermore. and the systems in which they arise. the five [types of   ] appropriated element. produces the basis for postulating the individual in which the various properties of the self inhere. Thus self-organizing systems display circular causality: local interactions give rise to global patterns or order. (no. As Thompson explains. What. Global-to-local determination involves macro-level processes and structures constraining local interactions. Local-to-global determination involves the emergence of novel macro-level processes and structures based on changes in the system components and relations. this circular causality is the fundamental action from which the self or I-making emerges.­ rganizational closure and a new mode of interaction with the environment.

Appropriation. and yet Candrakīrti insists that “the self is not a real.’ unavoidable in any description of the most elementary instance of life. indicates the emergence.32 Indeed. The environment becomes both the source of survival (self-preservation) and the greatest threat to it. ‘I’-ing is an inherently perspectival activity. coupled with past conditioning (vāsanā). [T]he being that they earn from this doing is not a possession they then own in separation from the activity by which it was generated.e. autopoiesis is just a particular kind of dependent origination. At the very root of our embodied existence is a form of living organization that simultaneously constitutes an interior (a living being) and an exterior (a world  —   Umwelt or loka) and an internal relation between the two.’ ‘exteriority. the self is ‘I’-ing (ahaṃmāna) or ongoing self-­ appropriative activity. but also by virtue of. its self-isolation too from all the rest of reality.” Of course. I think. yields a deeply entrenched 202 Philosophy East & West . A recursive process is one wherein the results of the process are fed back into the process itself.The self. the self lacks inherent existence (i. but is the continuation of that very activity itself. Rather. And with the emergence of biological and psychological interiority comes a deeply ambivalent relation to the larger environment. there is. but biologically and psychologically. according to the early Buddhist account of the five niyamas. the vicious cycle of saṃsāra is understood in terms of the recursive process of dependent origination. then. “organisms are entities whose being is their own doing. by indexing (or tagging) them to the I. not all dependent origination counts as karma. More specifically. . So what’s the point in saying. and. with life as such. as we see in the Pāli canon. In the Buddhist view.29 Furthermore. it appropriates phenomena as ‘me’ and ‘mine. such as attraction and aversion. continuous matterenergy turnover. “The introduction of the term ‘self. the emergence of the sentient being leads to the development of behaviors geared toward survival and self-protection. Furthermore. is able to subsume or appropriate both bits of the environment and elements of the organism itself. then. As Hans Jonas remarks. a profoundly important existential point in seeing clearly the way in which sentient beings and their sense of identity emerge from action. Indeed.” That is..’ and the relations between them are not defined primarily in spatial or physical terms. Indeed ‘interiority. existent thing. At the level of the human being.”30 In order to survive. the emergence of sentient individuality. Correspondingly. the root of the enacted self is the recursive nature of lived experience. The viable organism. that beings are “heirs of their actions” and that they “originate from their actions”? Beyond the fairly obvious moral force of the Buddha’s assertion. is the appropriator (upādātṛ) and the various elements are the appropriated (upādāna-skandha). . functions as a self-referential loop or a form of self-grasping (ātmagrāha). as Jonas remarks. the organism must maintain its own dynamic organization in the face of. it is empty) and it is not ­ any kind of thing or object. through its organizational and operational closure. without the whole network of non-karmic causes and conditions. living itself is a recursive process. as one with that 31 emergence. no sentient beings and no sense of self could arise. .’ incorporates them into its own ongoing dynamic. of internal identity  —  and so.

autopoeitic character of our existence.34 Moreover. eye-consciousness arises.sense of an independent self (ātma-dṛṣti). monks. the Buddhist theory of karma is in fact a central component of an ontological alternative to the duality of subject and world that is so deeply entrenched in the Western tradition and from which both objectivism and subjectivism arise. is the passing away of the world. As we have seen above. With contact as condition. dejection. with craving as condition. clinging. craving. [And so on for the six sensory modalities. with birth as condition. [And so on for each link in the chain. it is not just one’s situation in a world or even into which world (of all the possible realms) one might be reborn. the idea that the arising and passing away of the world is fundamentally linked to the karmic process may strike one as a particularly outrageous form of subjective idealism. aging-and-death. monks. feeling [comes to be]. I think that interpretation would be a mistake. and despair come to be. And this deep sense of an independent self is the lynchpin of saṃsāra. . This.”35 Now. But in my interpretation. the Buddhist theory of karma highlights the recursive. The meeting of the three is contact. the Buddhist theory of karma also maintains that one’s very world is somehow a product of one’s karma. on the face of it. But with the remainderless fading away and cessation of that same craving comes the cessation of clinging.1) Vasubandhu proclaims “The world in its varied forms arises from action. but the world itself that is a product of karma. pain. With contact as condition. eye-consciousness arises. For instance.”33 However. in the Saṃyutta Nikāya we find the origin and passing away of the world linked to the karmic process in terms of the twelvefold chain of dependent origination: And what. one’s accumulated karma is the experientially embodied record of the ‘history of embodied action’ that is the basis from which the self is enacted.] Such is the cessation of this whole mass of suffering. Indeed. Enacting Worlds In my enactivist interpretation. as Varela puts it. lamentation. . is the origin of the world (loka)? In dependence on the eye and forms. birth.] And what. with feeling as condition. existence. The meeting of the three is contact. with existence as condition. feeling [comes to be]. craving. However. sorrow. monks. with clinging as condition. the Buddhist concept of a world (loka) is in an important sense subject-relative. That is. Or. then. “The cognitive self is its own implementation: its history and its action are of one piece. is the passing away of the world? In dependence on the eye and forms. in the Abhidharmakoṣabhāśya (IV. The arising and passing away of the world depends upon such Matthew MacKenzie 203 . a subjective idealist interpretation of the Buddhist theory of karma will be hard to resist if one assumes a strictly objectivist conception of the term loka (‘world’). with feeling as condition. .

[and so on. and a sensory consciousness. and situations that are experienced as attractive. but a relational domain enacted or brought forth by that being’s autonomous agency and mode of coupling with the environment. these two formulations point out different aspects of the process that keeps beings bound to saṃsāra. feeling [comes to be]. and clinging. What one is able to sense is. In the terms of the enactive approach. dejection. a  lifeworld (Lebenswelt). craving. nor a merely subjective projection. birth. sensory contact (sparśa) involves the meeting and correlation between a sense faculty. with clinging as condition. What one feels. at bottom. with craving as condition.things as sense-consciousness. These depictions are not meant to be in conflict. and conative phases. With contact as condition. sorrow. with birth as condition. that one apperceives. Let us further examine some of the Buddhist depictions of this process. eye-consciousness arises. affective. the term loka does not denote an absolutely objective world of entities whose existence and properties can be specified independently of a  subject. from action and the effects of action. repellent. that one thinks about (vitakketi).38 Clearly. a function of one’s environment 204 Philosophy East & West . and present forms cognizable through the eye. up to] mind-objects cognizable through the mind. Generalizing a bit. First. lamentation. The meeting of the three is contact. With contact as condition there is feeling. events. we find ourselves in a world of persons. that are identified as ‘self  ’ or ‘not-self  ’. we can discern a process that has sensory. “a cognitive being’s world is not a prespecified. however.”36 Hence. aging-and-death. apperceptions and notions tinged by conceptual proliferation beset a man with respect to past. The fundamental claim is that. a sensible form. or indifferent. and despair come to be. craving. that one conceptually proliferates (papañceti). Here are two different depictions of the karmic mode of dependent origination: Dependent on the eye and forms. What one thinks about. Hence. And further. activity. Rather a loka is a relational domain of significance and involvement within the vast network of dependent origination. with existence as condition. ultimately. In the Buddhist view. The first emphasizes the role of conceptual proliferation (prapañca). both the subject and her world arise within the karmic process. with feeling as condition. With what one has conceptually proliferated as the source (nidāna). visual-cognitive awareness arises. per­ ceptual. The meeting of the three is contact. a loka is a world of experience. and we can find other depictions with different combinations and emphases. external realm. cognitive. a loka is neither a strictly objective readymade domain. the specific character of a subject’s world will depend in part on the subject’s psychophysical makeup and karma. and that are. pain. future. Thus sentient beings enact themselves and their worlds in dynamic interdependence over time.37 And: In dependence on the eye and forms. unsatisfactory (duḥkha). rather. feeling. objects. while the second emphasizes the role of distorted motivations such as craving (tṛṣṇa) and grasping (upādāna). clinging. represented internally by its brain. existence. What one apperceives. and meaning  —  that is. of course.

affect. In addition. Fourth. . what we have here is a process in which each aspect conditions and is conditioned by the others (i. the object is given in its sensory-affective salience and against the background of one’s associations. ideological and moral situation. we have a shift from what Husserl calls affectivity. Further. of sensibility and motility. and cognition. the primordial meaningfulness of the experienced world and our ability to grasp its meaning through our practical engagement with it is grounded in the ongoing sensorimotor and affective coupling between the lived body and its environment. our human setting. as in some cases of neuropathology. of intelligence. Merleau-Ponty writes: Beneath intelligence as beneath perception. Thus. .. In phenomenological terms. the sensory awareness (vijñāna) operates through discrimination or contrast (‘this. our future. . Yet.40 For Merleau-Ponty. The three basic affective modalities here are pleasure. . An action.e. The sound is experienced not just as high-pitched. Rather. perception. Perhaps we can gain purchase on the karmic circuit by comparing it to MerleauPonty’s notion of the intentional arc.39 Briefly put. and indifference. it is operationally closed). dispositions.and one’s specific sensory faculties. It is the intentional arc which brings about the unity of the senses. but a what. and motivations. saṃjñā is synthetic. makes them exist in a more intimate way. on sedimented conditioning (saṃskārā). and mind/body. Second. a person’s world can in important respects fall apart. we discover a more fundamental function . We do not merely perceive an object. the basic ‘pull’ or ‘allure’ of the object. Furthermore. which involves perceptual identification of the object  —  it is no longer a mere that. . is conditioned by sensation. displeasure. Let us therefore . say . the intentional arc is a continuous loop or circuit between a subject and his world that underpins the subject’s practical engagement with his meaningful world. the life of consciousness  —  cognitive life. Note that the object has sensory and affective salience even before it is fully perceptually iden­ tified. Finally. Third. that is. . And the way in which our experience unfolds through time is largely a function of the ongoing operation of this karmic circuit. then. sensation leads to feeling (vedanā). impulses. before bringing objects to our sight or knowledge. note that the ongoing dynamic of the intentional arc involves the temporality Matthew MacKenzie 205 . and conditions each of these in turn. . our physical. inner/outer. to receptivity. We understand the meaning of the doorknob by knowing how to use it. Indeed. but the key point is that now the sensory object is given as affectively salient. the active orienting to the object. but as annoying. which . perceptual identification relies on prior experience and asso­ ciations. while vijñāna is discriminating. . and we express our understanding of the subtle facial expression by our appropriate response. or rather which results in our being situated in all these respects. note that the intentional arc cuts across such distinctions as self/other. These impulses and motives in turn inform and guide one’s action. when the intentional arc is disrupted. the life of desire or perceptual life  —  is subtended by an ‘intentional arc’ which projects round about us our past. habits. the affective valence and perceptual identification of the object lead to impulses such as desire (or aversion) and motives such as grasping. for us. the object is perceptually cognized (saṃjñā). not that’).

which help us to understand current experience and to anticipate its future course.e. the karmic arc lays out the Buddhist account of the dynamic. In severe cases of neuropathology. Insofar as the karmic arc is affected by afflictions (kleśa) such as ignorance.of experience.  Conditioning (saṃskāra)   3. the arc helps to explain both the nature and course of the subject’s experience and the construction and reconstruction of her experienced world. as we have seen. in my interpretation.41 In contrast. and related in complex ways both synchronically and diachronically. grasping. recursive process whereby sentient beings enact their worlds as domains of significance inseparable from their own structure and activity. Both the intentional arc and the karmic arc.  The body-mind or sentient embodiment (nāma-rūpa)   5.42 Moreover. it is important to note that these factors or links (nidāna) are viewed as mutually conditioning.  Desire (tṛṣṇa)   9. our bodies and minds are structured by conditioning (saṃskāra) from both our own past actions and experiences and those beings with whom we are physically or psychologically continuous (i.  Birth or arising (   jāti) 12. the normal operation of the karmic arc is ultimately pathological. discussed above:   1.  Becoming (bhava) 11. In short.. The first four factors can be seen as the enabling and constraining conditions of our sentient embodied being. Through the intentional arc. the Buddhist concern is with a karmic arc that works all too well. Thus. are (forgive the expression) sensorimotor-affective-conative-cognitive loops that subtend a subject’s practical engagement in a meaning-laden world.  Grasping (upādāna) 10. it constructs and reconstructs saṃsāric experiences and worlds. and self-centeredness. we are of course embodied and conscious. Further. 206 Philosophy East & West . It is interesting to note that Merleau-Ponty discusses the intentional arc in the context of its failure due to traumatic brain injury. we carry our past into the present and project toward the future.  The six sensory domains (ṣaḍ-āyatana)   6.  Ignorance (avidya)   2. sentient beings (nāma-rūpa).  Death or ceasing (maraṇa) The twelvefold cycle is a model of the perpetuation of saṃsāra both across lifetimes and within a lifetime. Past experiences help us to acquire habits and skills (such as using doorknobs or recognizing subtle facial cues). As living. In both accounts.  Sensory contact (sparśa)   7.  Feeling (vedanā)   8. the distortion of the intentional arc can cause dramatic disintegration of an individual’s experience and world.  Consciousness or cognition (vijñāna)   4. The basic pathology of the karmic arc can be seen in the broader view of the Buddhist model of the twelvefold cycle of dependent origination. inter-defined.

A sentient being’s milieu involves not just actual conditions but also conditions that must be effected or procured  —  that is. with the co-emergence of an organism and its lived environment. The final two factors. with the environment. in a sense. Therefore. The actual process of sensation. embodied history of past patterns of action. bhava (10). the human body-mind is a condensed. When the twelvefold cycle is used to analyze ­ the moment-to-moment dynamics of a sentient being. which presupposes consciousness or cognition (3). there emerges a dynamic sensory-affectiveconative karmic circuit that is enabled by and reinforces prior body-mind conditioning (saṃskāra).43 In this interpretation. The recursive. objects (potential or actual) of desire and appropriation. sparśa (6). we see that a human being is understood in terms of a specific form of sentient embodiment (4). from ignorance and conditioning to death and rebirth. then. Thompson explains: Individuality in this case [i. the existentially primordial ignorance being referred to here is the instinctive sense of oneself as a substantial entity (ātma-dṛṣti) and its close cousin. An autopoietic system is thus an individual in a sense that begins to be worthy of the term self. but what of the first factor of ignorance? As mentioned above. maintained. as well a conditioning (2). These sensory fields are central to the constitution of the organism’s milieu or lived environment (loka). for example sights and sounds. Along with sensory coupling there emerges (7) feeling or affective tonality (vedanā).through rebirth or biological evolution). If we refer to the twelvefold cycle of dependent origination. the six sensory domains (ṣaḍāyatana). self-reinforcing aspect of this circuit. the sensory-affective coupling with the environment feeds into the basic conative orientation in that milieu. The co-emergence of organism and environment. the reification of both the self and worldly objects ­ (satkāya-dṛṣti). desire (tṛṣṇa) and appropriation (upādāna). This seems fairly unproblematic considering what we have discussed thus far. is reflected in the transition from the first four factors to factors 5 through 9. The fifth factor. of an autopoietic system] corresponds to a formal selfidentity  —  to an invariant dynamic pattern that is produced. includes both the sense faculties  —  the five external senses and the inner sense  —  as well as their correlative sensory objects. if successful. This coupling is not merely causal. birth (   jāti) and death (maraṇa). but also intentional  —  it involves the organism’s most basic sensory directedness toward objects. emerges from ongoing sensory contact or coupling.. and realized by the system itself. the terms mean ‘arising’ and Matthew MacKenzie 207 . have different connotations depending on the context of analysis. of interiority and exteriority.e. drives the continued existence or becoming. the emergence of bounded identity through organizational closure. in turn. Indeed. sets into motion the entire cycle. of the sentient organism. Thus. These modalities in turn condition factors 8 and 9. In this view. we can see this more clearly when we take up the enactive perspective. while the system undergoes incessant material transformation and regulates its external boundary conditions accordingly. This ignorance is the root problematic of human existence  —  leading as it does to the dissatisfaction (duḥkha) that pervades saṃsāra  —  and is therefore existentially primary.

each factor. conditioning. is a type of spontaneous fluid responsiveness to one’s circumstances that is in sharp contrast to both the stereotyped reactions of karmic conditioning and explicit willful effort. the pose of the inactive body.”45 He writes: This intention of the active body is poise in dealing with the things and persons around us. the karmic arc keeps human beings bound to saṃsāra. this process feeds into the larger dynamic of birth and death that is the existential situation of all sentient beings (11–12). then. Rather. however. action. pose is a way of separating oneself from these objects. then. An enlightened being. when the target of analysis is a longer time frame.’ respectively. is dependent and impermanent. and circumstance that is absent in poise. The highly advanced practitioner may have reduced her ignorance.‘ceasing. and modes of perception and action. are correlative and co-emergent (5). and acts without centanā. On the other hand. poise is its own effect. involves the progressive disman­ tling of those habits and forms of conditioning that lead to reactivity over responsiveness. embodied responsiveness to one’s circumstances that is. has overcome ignorance. “the primary form of directed action. which closely follows Merleau-Ponty.’ In Todes’ view.46 Poise. Ultimately. life and mortality  —  and the fact that death leads to rebirth (and ignorance) and a continuation of the entire cycle. poise is a form of living. in this interpretation. and. Todes explains: 208 Philosophy East & West . when successful. enlightened activity. the goal of practice is to improve one’s karma by developing skillful rather than unskillful habits. ‘coincide’ or ‘agree’ with its later ‘effects. the enactment of identity through organizational-operational closure and body-mind conditioning is at the root of sentient being (1–4). and increased her ability to act on good intentions (cetanā). of dealing with. objects around one. perceives directly. in the Buddhist view. or interiority and exteriority. the sentient being is coupled with and oriented toward the environment through a dynamic and self-reinforcing sensory-affective-cognitive-conative circuit (6–9) and when effective (survival) perpetuates the existence of the sentient being (10). liberation requires the dismantling of negative karmic patterns and the end of karmic accumulation. The result is said to be wise and compassionate spontaneous responsiveness  —  that is. Poise is always a way of responding to. displays what the phenomenologist Samuel Todes calls ‘poise. these factors indicate both the mutual entailment between birth and death  —  that is. organism and environment. what is the proposed solution? Initially. As phases in a complex process. however. finally.44 Overcoming karma. In sum. he says. Freedom from Karma So if. when successful. In both reaction and willful effort there is a separation between agent. It is sharply to be distinguished from its correlate. Poise does not. and indeed the being itself.’ as does will with its achievements. Responsive action. cultivated skillful habits.

Our afflictions and delusions blind us to the opportunities for wise and compassionate action all around us. But through practice. the affordances of the situation. active experience. based on distorted perception and reactivity. then.47 In a stereotyped reaction. . To forget one’s self is to realize one’s emptiness. that a distinction appears between what I was trying to do and what I did. true poise does not involve cetanā (explicit intention). poise is nondual  —  it is not characterized by a subject-object dichotomy. Rather. viz. In a willful effort. as well as the skillful means (upāya kauśalya) to cope with them in wise and compassionate ways. a key quality of a bodhisattva’s actions. Thus. In the Buddhist sense. .’ The suggestion.49 On this enactive account of action. but only the perfect fit of me-in-my-circumstances. We can also say that in acting with poise one engages in an “effortless deed” (anābhogacarya). My poise is the way I make of my circumstantial objects  —  merely the circumstantial objects that they originally are. poised way. It is only in failure of response. those of felt. one does not have the ‘perfect fit’ of poised responsiveness. Varela asserts that. I can clearly distinguish my own act from what it makes of my circumstantial objects. As Varela insists. In the meantime.. “mastery of the skillful means of ethical expertise results in the elimination of all habits so that the practitioner can realize that wisdom and compassion can arise spontaneously out of wisdom. . But in poise. When one is the action. brings about action. both from what it makes them out to be. no such distinction is possible. it is not merely that what I was trying to do is in agreement with what I (distinguishably) did do.When I act in an effective. One does not need an intervening representation of the kind ‘I intend to x. eventually. . the practitioner strives to displace unskillful actions and habits. The idea here is that in poised action one does not need to have an explicit conceptual representation of one’s goal and one’s intended action. that is. one may develop greater sensitivity to the moral affordances that saturate our world. and is then simply triggered by the circumstance.48 Likewise. . When non-dual action is ongoing and well established. with skillful actions and habits. the action is already fixed. it is experienced as grounded in a substrate that is at rest and at peace. Todes writes: In willing. then. which drives karma. no residue of self-consciousness remains to observe the action externally. and loss of poise. to develop sufficient attentive responsiveness so that one no longer reinforces or acquires stereotyped reaction patterns.”50 The virtues that arise from this Matthew MacKenzie 209 . is that we may see the Indian Buddhist path to liberation from karma as involving the cultivation of poise or spontaneous responsiveness (and the stable attentive awareness that grounds it) in order to dismantle karmic conditioning and. one’s direct apprehension of one’s environment. based on awareness and responsiveness. there were no two things to compare. and from what it makes them become. one has a determinate and explicit intention and goal. good or bad. to realize one’s every characteristic is conditioned and conditional. In either case. .

2     –     Christopher Key Chapple.5. the First Book of the Abhidhamma Piṭaka. Pe Maung Tin. pp. Consequences of Compassion: An Interpretation and Defense of Buddhist Ethics (New York: Oxford University Press. 166. Cūla-kammavibhanga Sutta. IV. ed. I hope to have given an indication of the richness of the concept of karma. 61. cognitive processes. I think a contemporary and fairly full-blooded theory of karma can be a source of real insight. 1992). 6     –     Aristotle. 40. and ethical theory. 1976). ­ 210 Philosophy East & West . Far from being an outdated conceptual framework. and they are essentially active. MA: MIT Press. 1998). Rhys Davids (London: Pali Text Society. Thus enlightened beings help to enact enlightened worlds. Nichomachean Ethics. Notes 1     –     Francisco J. The Thirteen Principal Upanishads (London and New York: Oxford University Press. 2009). Ostwald (New York: Prentice Hall.4. Nichomachean Ethics. MN 135 : III 202–206. p. p. ed. moral psychology and phenomenology. p. and Eleanor Rosch. 1986). Hindu Ethics: A Philosophical Study (Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press. 7     –     Buddhaghosa. 3. The Embodied Mind: Cognitive Science and Human Experience (Cambridge. quite independently of questions of rebirth. trans. Conclusion Through bringing it into contact with recent work in philosophical psychology and phenomenology. distributed by Routledge and Kegan Paul. trans.. 360. 9     –     Charles Goodman. 1962). by Mrs. Varela. 8     –     Aristotle. the theory can help to highlight the subtle and complex connections between evolution. For. The Expositor (Aṭṭhasālinī): Buddhaghosa’s Commentary on the Dhammasangaṇī. Indeed. 4     –     Robert Ernest Hume. 2005). better left to the historians of religion. 5     –     Bikkhu Bodhi. M.practice are primarily perceptual and affective rather than discursive or calculative. 2. vol. reprint. and introd. Karma and Creativity (Albany: State University of New York Press. Evan Thompson. 20–21. p. p. [1920-1921]. In the Buddha’s Words: An Anthology of Discourses from the Pāli Canon (Boston: Wisdom Publications. and rev. 3     –     Roy Perrett. from an enactivist perspective  —  and commensurate with the bodhisattva ideal  —  enlightenment cannot be separated from enlightened activity. And I believe the theory of karma has much to contribute to contemporary thinking. 1103b. 1100b7–11. 1931).

rev. Buddhist Phenomenology: A Philosophical Investigation of Yogācāra Buddhism and the Ch’eng Wei-shih lun (London: RouteledgeCurzon. 1996). Rather. MD: Rowman and Littlefield. “The Mindful Body: Embodiment and Cognitive Science. 43. p. 60. 163..10     –     My purpose here is not to argue for the truth of the enactive approach. ‘knowledge’) is cognate to ‘cognize’ and can have the sense of ‘synthesis’ as well as ‘association. 12     –     Evan Thompson. of course. 22     –     Francisco Varela. p. Autopoiesis and Cognition: The Realization of the Living (Dordrecht and Boston: D. 14     –     My use of the term ‘self  ’ does not. ‘to put together’ + jña. by extension. 24     –     Humberto R. ed. 19     –     The following discussion of autonomous systems closely follows Thompson. 27     –     Jan Westerhoff. 1 (2010) : 75–99.” in  The Incorporated Self: Interdisciplinary Perspectives on Embodiment. those sentient beings that have a sense of self.. ­ Matthew MacKenzie 211 . and ed. 49. Nāgārjuna’s Madhyamaka: A Philosophical Introduction (Oxford: Oxford University Press. 44. 21     –     Ibid. 2000). MA: Harvard University Press. 26     –     Ibid. 15     –     The term saṃjñā (sam. MA: Wisdom Publications. 15. p. 65.” Phenomenology and the Cognitive Sciences 9. trans. chap. 128. Mind in Life. ed. The Meaning of Life: Buddhist Perspectives on Cause and Effect. M. Maturana and Francisco J. Varela. 11     –     Evan Thompson. 2007). p.’ 16     –     Dan Lusthaus.. p. 2002). 45.” Topoi 28 (2009) : p. Jeffrey Hopkins (Somerville. All Buddhists reject outright that there is a substantial self. Reidel. 17     –     Tenzin Gyatso. 13     –     Varela et al. 20     –     Ibid. “Extended Life. 25     –     Thompson.” Edge 86 (2001). 13. p. p. 2009). p. 23     –     Ezequiel Di Paolo. 1980). The Embodied Mind. 18     –     Matthew MacKenzie... Mind in Life (Cambridge. but rather to deepen the dialogue between this active research program and the Buddhist tradition. Mind in Life. no. “The Emergent Self. 3. ‘self  ’ here refers to the dependently originated sense of self and. “Enacting the Self: Buddhist and Enactivist Approaches to the Emergence of the Self. 140. O’Donovan-Anderson (Lanham. p. refer to the ātman or substantial self. p.

In the Buddha’s Words. foreword by Lawrence Vogel (1966. 65. Lawrence Vogel (Evanston. trans. 36     –     Thompson. 65. 34. p. 70. 44     –     Cf. The Phenomenon of Life: Toward a Philosophical Biology. Waldron. 1962). p. 2001). 2007). 42     –     Thus. etc. Colin Smith (London and New York: Routeledge. 358–359. no..” Sophia 45. Ethical Know-How: Action. p. p. p. 45     –     Samuel Todes. 35     –     karmajam lokavaicitrayam. with introd. 33     –     Francisco J. p. 72. or when one can no longer recognize faces. 46     –     Ibid. 47     –     Ibid. 358. Body and World (Cambridge. 86. Jay Garfield. p. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 212 Philosophy East & West . Varela. 29     –     Ibid. SN 12:44. it is self-similar at different time scales. 2001).. ­ My interpretation here is much indebted to Waldron. p. chap. 40     –     Maurice Merleau-Ponty. p. 30     –     Hans Jonas. IL: Northwestern University Press. 1999). 43     –     Thompson. 201. p. that one can find later Buddhist texts that assimilate the two. 32     –     It should be noted. 179–183.73–74.. The Concealed Art of the Soul (Oxford: Oxford University Press.28     –     Jonardon Ganeri. II. 136. p. 13. pp. ed. “Why did Bodhidharma Go to the East? Buddhism’s Struggle with the Mind and the World. and Cognition (Stanford: Stanford University Press. however. 1996). pp. p. 41     –     For instance. 2 (2006) : 61–80. 49     –     Varela. Mind in Life. Mortality and Morality: A Search for the Good after Auschwitz. 37     –     William S. 5.. Wisdom. 31     –     Hans Jonas. 2003). 75. Buddhist Phenomenology. 54. 50     –     Ibid. 34     –     Bikkhu Bodhi.. Ethical Know-How. The Phenomenology of Perception. 66. in cases where one can no longer properly orient one’s body in space. p. 163. The Buddhist Unconscious: The Ālaya-vijñāna in the Context of Indian Buddhist Thought (London: RoutledgeCurzon. 48     –     Ibid. 82– 83. 39     –     Lusthaus. 203. MA: MIT Press. p. In the Buddha’s Words. 38     –     Bikkhu Bodhi. pp. Mind in Life. pp.