Karma, Retribution and the Actress

Friday June 6, 2008

Film Reel

Most readers of thinkBuddha will already know about the political fallout from the actress Sharon Stone’s ill-advised comments on the subject of karma to a Hong Kong film crew at Cannes the other week. For those who don’t, the BBC reports (1 and 2) will fill you in on all the necessary details.

What has been interesting in this whole unhappy business is the response from Buddhist commentators, who have almost unanimously claimed that Ms. Stone has misunderstood or misrepresented Buddhism. But is this the case?

The traditions of Buddhism are many and varied, and theories relating to karma are similarly diverse in these different traditions and texts and teachings. And whilst it is no doubt true that there are some of these traditions, texts and teachings clearly at odds with Ms. Stone’s comments, there are many that are uncomfortably close.

An example of this came in an interview between with Lati Rinpoche, the eminent Gelug lama, and Richard Hayes. In the interview, Hayes asked how Buddhists could explain the suffering of the Jews in the Second World War. The answer was troubling.

Rinpoche: The proper Buddhist answer to such a question is that the victims were experiencing the consequences of their actions performed in previous lives. The individual victims must have done something very bad in earlier lives that led to their being treated in this way. Also there is such a thing as collective karma.
Hayes: Do you mean that the Jewish people as a whole have a special karma?
Rinpoche: Yes. All groups have karma that is more than just the collection of the karma of the individuals in the group. For example, a group of people may decide collectively to start a war. If they act on that decision, then the group as a whole will experience the hardships of being at war. Karma is the result of making a decision to act in a certain way. Decisions to act may be made by individuals or by groups. If the decision is made by a group, then the whole group will experience the collective consequences of their decision.

Lati Rinpoche is no renegade, as his biography makes clear. As spiritual adviser to the Dalai Lama, one would imagine that his words carry at least a little weight. And the claim that he is making in this interview is substantially no different from that made by Sharon Stone. It would seem, in the light of this, that her comments are reflective of the most orthodox and learned of sources.

It is possible to claim that Ms. Stone’s comments were profoundly wrong-headed; it is also possible to argue that this retributive view of karma is not only nonsense, but also dangerous nonsense; it is possible make the case for some kind of theory of moral consequence, and to argue that certain Buddhist understandings of karma may help us to formulate such a theory; or it is possible to make the claim that perhaps the theory of karma is so compromised that we’d be better off without it.

What is it not possible to do, however, is to credibly argue that Sharon Stone’s comments were entirely misrepresentative of certain Buddhist ideas. There are many figures and texts of influence in the Buddhist world that have claimed no more and no less than Ms. Stone herself. Would it not be better if those Buddhists keen to dismiss Ms. Stone for her lack of understanding were to turn their attention to the traditions that they revere, so that their own houses might be put in order?

# · rr

Thank you for that unflinching and clear-sighted analysis of the various implications of the incident.

# · Dave

Yeah, thanks for this. I’m really sick of Western Buddhists’ myopic and ahistorical claims about their religion, such as the notion that Buddhists have never started wars or that Buddhism hasn’t reinforced hierarchies the way Christianity and “Hinduism” have. Just the other day, I was reading how the Burmese junta uses the Buddhist doctrine of karma to try and suppress dissent, by arguing that if people are poor it’s their own fault.

# · ramon sanchez

thanks for this ‘ wayward’ blog. we must all check the consequences of our beliefs.Hindu society developed caste at least partly as a result of belief in karma.rebirth and afterlife also act as a brake on action in the here and now.Is it the case that some visions of the world only work inside/personally and cause hurt when projected outside/to other people.? isnt any moral view best used personally ?after all much in the world is unknowable condeming others is mostly/always? destructive.let your actions speak.let others walk their walk live their karma.

# · donna

I think it’s ridiculous to blame victims for their “karma”. However, I do think the consequences on those who victimize others are karma. It’s much more about the result on your self of the actions you do than the result on others of their actions, which we can’t control. The only one you can truly influence is yourself. But to use your religion to excuse the horrific actions of others or to blame the victims of those acts is a mistake.

Religion’s only function ought to be to make you a better person. The other uses of it are those I don’t and cannot support, which is why I don’t belong to any of them.

# · ken

I’ve been exploring Buddhism as time allows, but I can’t quite come to grips with karma in relation to past lives. (Perhaps due to an intense Roman Catholic influence during my upbringing.) I’m left with a “I’m not sure.” In my mind, that isn’t such a bad place to be as long as I actively continue the journey towards understanding.

I believe in “karma-like” historical consequences. People tend to create auras/attitudes around them depending on how they treat other people and other life around them. I’ve seen this on various points in the spectrum and watched people’s different reactions to those people I have observed.

Lati Rinpoche brings up group karma. I completely agree with the point of “If the decision is made by a group, then the whole group will experience the collective consequences of their decision.” Again, I am putting this into my personal perspective of “karma-like” historical consequences.

A question from a karma novice: Does karma differentiate between the sources? In other words, does it matter if your good or bad happenings come from other people, animals, plants, natural disasters, gravity, etc?

# · Chris Dornan

Hi Will,

Sharon Stone’s comments thoroughly deserved the opprobrium they received. It is one thing to explain that any suffering episode, even collective episodes, has causes in past actions of the sufferer and quite another to speculate that an earthquake was retribution for a particular group of recent actions. The first is a correct explanation of the Tibetan Buddhist teachings on karma (possibly all Buddhist teachings on karma); the second a silly and ignorant speculation by someone who doesn’t understand how the Buddhist idea of karma fits into the whole, or even what kinds of karmic effects are likely.

I have written this up in more detail in More Earthquake Follies

Comments welcome.

# · dakinijones

In light of comments about the Jews having collective karma, I think it’s important to bear in mind that Tibetan lamas have also stated that Tibetans have collective karma that led to the Chinese invasion of the mid-20th century and subsequent persecution of many Tibetans. If you don’t believe in re-incarnation then such statements about karma from previous lives can easily seem harsh. However, to someone like myself who does it seems no harsher than any other kind of “cause and effect” statement. However, as commented above, predicting the functioning of karma is like predicting a complex system such as the weather… almost impossible for most of us to do with any accuracy.

# · Will

Thanks – as ever – for all the posts and comments, and thanks Chris for the link to your blog post. I’m still disturbed by both Sharon Stone’s comments and those of Lati Rinpoche, and not yet at all convinced that the latter manage to escape the problems of the former. I still cannot see that – leaving on one side (if it is legitimate to do so) their statuses as actress and lama respectively – their positions differ hugely, at least not on the evidence presented.

To be sure, Lati Rinpoche does not talk about retribution, but then nor does Sharon Stone. This formulation I used there may be a little inappropriate; but this on one side, what I deeply, deeply doubt is the idea that somehow moral causality is metaphysically inscribed in the fabric of the universe. This is not to say, however, that there is no need for some idea of moral consequence. But I would go for a more naturalistic understanding.

Anyway, it looks as if we are going to (at least for the time being) continue to be mutually disturbed by each the other’s argument. Let us hope that this disturbance is productive!

With my best wishes,


# · Peter

Being an early reader of Alan Watts, I was influenced by his firm conviction that reincarnation and it associated karmic influences were just fantastic incongruities on an otherwise rational and sensible religion. I like to think that the Buddha took on board these beliefs to assuage the mentality of his time but was largely indifferent to them. His core teachings, i.e., the dharma, remain sound, coherent and efficacious without these superstitious elements. If I am ever reborn as a bug I might think otherwise.

# · Dave

Actually Sharon Stone was quite correct about the earthquake being caused by China’s bad karma as a nation. Burma also has plenty has plenty of bad karma.

See more info on group karma at www.sentforlife.com/…

# · Bonnie Graham

I’ve been thinking carefully about Sharon Stons’s comments about a nation and its people receiving retribution for evil acts they have committed in the past. While in this particular instance I cannot say with certainty yet that the Chinese government’s treatment of Tibetans was the direct cause of the earthquake, I do believe Sharon Stone is on the right track in a general sense. I have been practicing Nichiren Dsishonin’s Buddhism with the organization www.sgi-usa.org for 24 years and I know people’s incorrect beliefs (religious and otherwise) can bring destruction on their land *environment” and to their lives. Case in point, I’ve been pondering the true cause of the September 11 tragedy. I believe it is quite possible that it is was retribution for the American armed forces in WWII dropping atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The fact that it was actually perpetrated by people in the Middle East masks this truth from most of the world. I suggest Sharon Stone and others visit www.sgi-usa.org and purchase a book called “The Writings of Nichiren Daishonin”, a book of letters written to his disciples in 13th Century Japan by a man named Nichiren with profound understanding of how the world actually works at the SGI=USA bookstore. It is most easily obtained at the www.sgi-usa.org website at this time and costs about $25.00. A writing of great interest on this exact subject is “on Establishing the Correct Teaching for the Peace of the Land” found on page 6 in that volume Also you should attend a discussion meeting (info also available on website) and discuss with the SGI-USA members this and other questions you may have about life in general and solutions to your personal problems. I promise you this really works. As far as Sharon Stone peraonally, she should speak with Tina Turner or Herbie Hancock who both understand and practice this Buddhism deeply and correctly. Thank you for listening.

# · Sandals

Dunno if anybody is still paying attention to this particular thread, but if so: I’m really interested in ken’s question about the sources of karma. Put another way: does karma in Buddhism allow for accidents, e.g. natural disasters?

I haven’t done much reading in Buddhism, but my idea of karma has always been based on the principle that karma can only influence people. For example, karma would play a role in what kind of family and society you’re born into — e.g. being born to a wealthy family vs. a poor family, an Amish community vs. Haight-Ashbury, etc. Likewise, karma might influence the kind of people who affect you throughout your life: friends, enemies, lovers, strangers, so on. Karma would not, however, play any role in whether or not you fall off your bike and sprain an ankle. I would completely disregard the idea that a natural disaster like an earthquake was brought down on a group of people, or even a single person, as the result of bad karma (although that does leave the question of atrocities like the Holocaust.) It’s never been useful for me to think of people “deserving” the results of bad karma. Am I way off-base here?

# · Bill

I wrote about this at the link below. While I don’t claim to be any expert, I definitely find that Jack Kornfeld’s explanation, “Karma means you don’t get away with nothin’” fits my understanding pretty well. I don’t like to pimp my writing on other people’s blogs, especially of writers as able and eminent as Will, but it’s obviously an essay and I’m too lazy to change it into a comment.

# · Jayarava

Hi Will,

My response to this is two-fold. Firstly I have personally heard a Western Tibetan Lama (Ven. Robina Courtin – FPMT) explain the horrors of both the Jewish and the Tibetan peoples as being connected to their (collective) karma”. So I don’t think that Stone was misrepresenting Tibetan Buddhism on this point.

However secondly Tibetan Buddhism does appear to have a different view from the Pāli texts on the issue of Karma. It would be tedious to spell it all out here and people can make their own checks but the Pāli version of Karma: a. does not allow as I understand it for either collective karma – karma is personal; or b. specifically says that not everything that happens is a result of karma.

What the media often fails to grasp is that Buddhism is not monolithic – there may well be other views on karma held by Buddhists. There is no one Buddhist view on any particular subject, and many of the various views may be mutually contradictory.

I suspect they picked up on these comments because they were guaranteed to get a rise out a good proportion of the population: Buddhists, Chinese, Liberals, etc were all going to be upset by Stone’s words and so it was ideal “news”.

According to the Pāli Buddha actors go to hell ;-)

# · Gary

My thoughts on Karma & the Holocaust

As Buddhists we believe in a strict law of cause and effect. Because we frequently observe a delay between the making of a cause and its effect we introduce the concept of karma. Ultimately no effect (including the holocaust) occurs without a cause, but as Buddhists we seek to change the karma that produces such awful effects. We don’t condone the holocaust as something that just had to happen, we strongly believe that such things don’t have to happen. But in order for such things not to happen we have to change the karma that causes them.

We are all members of the human race; as such our karma is largely shared. We share the karma that caused the Jewish people to suffer the holocaust; we share the karma that caused the German people to perpetrate it. But we are not helpless, through Buddhist practice we can change such karma.

Terrible as the holocaust was it’s important to keep in mind that it was not unprecedented. Such terrible things have occurred throughout human history. They are occurring even today. Buddhism offers us the opportunity to change this.

Buddhism postulates life as being eternal. Buddhism postulates a beginningless past. Recorded human history stretches back 5,000 years or so. But in terms of eternity even a million years is just an instant. Therefore to look for the causes of the holocaust in the known historical past is to use a very simplistic approach.

# · Sai Grafio

Whereas Christians, Muslims and Jews war, Buddhist actually believe it is wrong to kill and do not wage war. That all religions espouse peace and right actions, Buddhist are the most aware of karma retribution.

# · Curt

Is that really true? From where commeth Kung Fu?

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