Effervescent corruption in karma-cola

By METTANANDO BHIKKHU, Bangkok Post, May 25, 2005

Does the Law of Karma help in the fight against corruption? Far from it!

Bangkok, Thailand -- Although Buddhism is a godless religion and the Lord Buddha explicitly explained that his system of teaching is not based on any belief in the Supreme Creator, most Buddhists in Thailand and countries practising Theravada Buddhism believe that the Law of Karma is a universal mechanism that awards those who have done good and punishes those who do evil. It serves like an invisible hand of God that maintains justice in the world.

The Buddhist universe is moralistic, always just and fair to everyone. In Thailand, the teaching of morality in schools and monasteries is grounded in the belief in the Law of Karma. A good Buddhist is always afraid of committing any crime or sin. Trivial mischief like smashing a mosquito, kicking a dog, being cruel to animals, telling white lies, or using harsh language _ these acts are always frowned upon as sinful and unethical in the Buddhist community.

Since the Lord Buddha stressed intention over behaviour, even bad thoughts are seen as sinful which can result in deplorable consequences.

The majority of Buddhists in Thailand and Theravada countries are taught that karma is at the core of the Lord Buddha's teaching. They see the world through the lens of karmic law. What we are now is the result of what we have done from the past, and karma determines what we will be in the future. In modern parlance, the Law of Karma is simply based on the belief that ''what goes around comes around''. Buddhists take it for granted that karma cannot perish, but will remain until a proper fruition of the karma comes into existence.

The logic of karma is also related to the community of monks which serves as the most fertile field of merit-making. The good that is bestowed upon monks will result in plenty for the donor. The Law of Karma is hence popular because it has generated a lot of donations to monks and Buddhist communities in Theravada countries. Apparently, monasteries that highly promote the belief in the Law of Karma are usually large, well decorated and opulent, and monastic members enjoy a high standard of living.

Nevertheless, the Law of Karma also has its flipside when it is used deductively, as it generates a worldview that everything is just and fair. Through the belief in karmic law, Buddhists limit their concern only to themselves. They see no society, as the karmic consequence only works on an individual basis. Therefore, victims of abuse of any kind are not seen as sufferers of bad luck; rather, they are being paid back by karmic retribution from this or their former life.

Conversely, those in power, even though known to be corrupt and evil, must have done great merit in their former lives; their fortune and success are being paid back to them. Therefore, everyone deserves what he or she has. The Law of Karma never tricks anyone. This is the way things are in this universe. The only way one may improve his or her life is through merit-making, which is centred on patronising monastic communities.

The karmic world-view has created an ultra-conservative attitude in Theravada countries where the law of the land is deemed as redundant to the cosmic Law of Karma which is eternally just and fair. Often, the words of monks command more attention that the injunction of the law. The Buddhist majority live in religious complacency, feeling themselves detached from social problems. Prostitutes, HIV/Aids sufferers, abused children, tsunami victims _ all of them were receiving the fruit of their past life's karma.

The belief in karmic law among the Buddhist majority is always on the side of the mighty and powerful in society, since their power and authority derive not merely from their efforts in this life, but from their previous merit.

Everyone who is rich and powerful was always a good person in their past life, so they deserve their position. Status quo is highly secured in Buddhist countries.

Since the amount of merit gained through donation to Buddhist monasteries is always great, corrupt politicians, mafias, criminals and tyrants enjoy big publicity for their merit-making ceremonies for Buddhist monks. It is surely a good way to redeem their sins. Not only does it free them from guilt, but the ceremony also rubber-stamps their status of authority and respect in society.

As a result, corrupt politicians and high-ranking criminals enjoy greater riches and status, as do some monks and monasteries, whereas the public becomes poorer and disregarded.

For a civil society to develop, Buddhists urgently need to renew their interpretation of the Law of Karma, so that individuals are not isolated from one another. The karma that one has always affects others, with or without intention.

All of us in this world are responsible for one another and we are also a part of the cosmic manifestation of karma. Otherwise, the belief in the Law of Karma will remain the biggest hindrance in the development of justice, human rights and civil society.

Mettanando Bhikkhu is a staunch critic of the Ecclesiastical Council. He qualified as doctor of medicine at Chulalongkorn University before obtaining an MA from Oxford University, a ThM from Harvard and a PhD from Hamburg.