Burkhard Scherer from Ýstanbul Ýlim & Kültür Vakfi on Vimeo.
Karma and Justice:
Buddhist Perspectives on Said Nursi’s Views on ‛adl and qisṭ
Prof. Dr. Burkhard Scherer, Senior Lecturer in Religious Studies, Canterbury Christ Church University, UK
This paper aims to contribute to the phenomenological and comparative analysis of the problem of injustice as addressed by the World's religions and in particular by the Qur‛ānic concepts of ‛adl and qist and their evaluation by Said Nursi.
The concept of Causality (karma) can be interpreted as the closest Buddhist equivalent to the Abrahamic theologies of divine and human justice, as expressed by ‛adl and qist. Throughout the history of Buddhist thought, this concept was subjected to manifold transformations - from 'intention-led action' to the tantric de- and reconstruction of reality; moreover, from the 19th century onwards, we find a fruitful critique of karma theories in the work of Buddhist thinker, culminating into the re-evaluation of this core Buddhist tenet in the social movement of 'Engaged Buddhism'.
This paper will explore the question, to what extent our understanding of the concept of and the discourse about causality in Buddhist philosophy can add comparative and additional value to the Islamic theological discourse on ‛adl and qist, including Said Nursi's views on the issue.
The comparative investigation can raise interesting questions about the extent to which religions such as Buddhism and Islam have interacted and are still interacting with modernity without loosing their identities.
1. Justice in Buddhism and Islam – paradigmatic differences
Before we can meaningfully compare Buddhist and Islamic views on justice and especially before we can critically honour Said Nursi’s contribution to Islamic understandings of ‘adl and qisṭ, we have to acknowledge paradigmatic phenomenological differences between the religions Buddhism and Islam. The most fundamental divide between the two religions can be described along the lines of ‘prophetic’ vs, ‘mystical’ (Max Weber) or ‘religions of faith’ vs. ‘religions of experience’ (Scherer 2006). This entails a fundamentally different approach towards spirituality along the lines of doctrine and revelation vs. experience, creation vs. uncreated openness inseparable with dependent arising of phenomena and beings, prayer vs. meditation and in the attitude towards the world such as election and exclusive truths vs. inclusive truths or proselytising, centripetal activity vs. inner transformation and centripetal activity (Scherer 2006, 96).
From this paradigmatic distinction follows naturally that the questions of social ethics and especially social justice play a more distinctive role in Islamic thought than in Buddhism. Or in other words, talking about social ethics in Islam refers naturally to core Islamic tenets whereas social justice in Buddhism can be seen as relating to derivative or secondary philosophical discussions within Buddhism. The emergence of Engaged Buddhism (cp. Queen & King 1996) can thus be seen as a struggle to rectify a situation in Buddhist societies where centripetal, inner activity led to social indifference. At the other hand, in Islam the exact meaning and expression of the interplay between divine and social justice in Islam is one subject of the continuing struggle of Islamic thought to define the place of Islam in the modern world.
2. ‘adl and qisṭ in Qur‘ānic thought and in the Risale-i Nur
It falls neither in the scope nor space of this investigation to discuss here comprehensively the concepts of ‘adl (ءدل ) and qisṭ ( قسط ) in Qur‘ānic thought and in the Risale-i Nur. Other learned presenters have and will elaborate on that in more detail. I will content myself here with giving some summative impressions on aspects of justice in the Qur‘ān and in the Risale-i Nur.
As commonly known, the Arabic Qur‘ānic term ‘adl denotes the universal ideal of justice or order; theologically it entails Islamic monotheism as opposed to evil al-faḥshā’ (evil deeds incl. idolatry/polytheism), cp. 16:90; someone who ‘commands justice’ is defined as Muslim as opposed to the infidel, cp. 16:76. It is quite relevant that in Islam ‘adl also figures under the 99 names of God, linked with al-Ḥakam, the judge/arbitrator. In the Qur‘ān, God as the Light (an-Nūr) is justice (cf. 24:35 - 40 and 2:256 –257). Injustice is accordingly denoted as darkness (ṭhulumāt) and deluge (tughiyān). In comparison, another relevant Qur‘ānic term, qisṭ, denotes primarily a practical aspect of justice: ‘balance’ i.e. the preservation of the Law and the avoidance of its violation. Both terms emphasise justice in the sense of balanced relations. Cognate Qur‘ānic terms include al-mīzān (balance) keeping the golden middle (al-wasat), cp. 55:7-9; mīzān and the revelation, the Qur‘ān itself are set up to guarantee the qisṭ (57:25).
In one of the few instances in the Qur‘ān where ‘adl and qisṭ are joined (49:9) the context refers to the case of disharmony within the faith communities. It is important to not that both justice and balance are seen as purely inner-Islamic categories, leaving the kuffar (Pl. of kāfir, infidel) and zalimūn (polytheists etc.) etc in ethical suspense.
It is clear that Said Nursi linked justice intrinsically with Islam and the Qur‘ān; e.g., he states in his Damascus sermon, first addendum, second part, p. 67: As for justice, it can be achieved only through direct application of the way shown by the Qur’an.
Justice is addressed as the cosmic order, when Nursi speaks of … the imperious beauty of a justice which holds the whole universe and all its beings in equilibrium (2nd Ray, Third station, 2nd Proof, Fourth Point). Nursi utilises the Islamic theological concept of relative (=worldly) justice and pure (=divine) justice in order to justify the common Islamic ethical suspense towards heretics or non-Muslims (cp. His 15th letter, second station). Political justice is for him an expression of true Islam; though not opposed to punishing the Unjust (non-Muslims), he still he strongly advocates the deference of ultimate justice to the “Supreme Tribunal”, meaning God’s judgement (The Words, 10th word, p. 61, Flashes, 10th flash etc.). There is a very interesting angle in Nursi’s 13th Flah, 3rd point, in which he subscribes to the mechanism of the Supreme Tribunal regarding the Infidel:
When Almighty God weighs up deeds with absolute justice on the supreme scales at the Last Judgement, He will judge in accordance with the predominance of good deeds over evils and vice versa. And since the causes of evil deeds are numerous and their existence is easy, sometimes He veils many bad deeds with a single good deed.
This point is quite important and can be used as a starting point for bringing in and comparing Buddhist perspectives on justice.
3. karma and social justice in Buddhism
When viewing the Islamic concepts of divine and social justice from a Buddhist perspective, the first striking observation to be made is that there is no close equivalent to the concepts of ‘adl and qisṭ in Buddhist thought. In Buddhism, questions of justice derive secondarily from the central concept of Causality (karma). Hence, cause and effect as empirical natural law and mechanism of conditioned reality can be interpreted as the closest Buddhist equivalent to the Abrahamic theologies of divine and human justice, as expressed by ‛adl and qisṭ.
In Buddhism the concept of causality - or karma - is intrinsically linked with both the fundamental empirical or scientific approach to the human condition taken by the Buddha himself and with the puzzling paradox of rebirth without soul or Self.
So first, I would like to introduce karma to you: How does the Law of cause and effect work? How does it relate to the notion of re-birth, or better birth and 're-becoming'?
In Buddhism, the observation is that everything we think, say, or do has consequences. These consequences can be in the terminology of the 3rd C. CE Buddhist scholar Harivarman agreeable and constructive (kuśala), disagreeable and destructive (akuśala) or indifferent and neutral (avyākr`ta) (Satyasiddhiśāstra 100). Accordingly, future pleasant, unpleasant or neutral conditions are effectuated. This empirical finding is the law of cause and effect: karma (Pāli kamma). ‘Karma’ literally means 'action'; it denotes not only a law of nature as such, but refers also to specific contexts and imprints in the consciousness, which express themselves in past, present and future conditions.
The world exists due to karma; by karma everyone exists. The beings are fettered by karma, just as a chariot wheel is pinned down by a peg (Suttanipāta 654 PTS, 657 BJT).
The effects of our actions do not vanish with our death, but continue in continuous, dependently arising births or rebirth, but without any substantial or ontological identity (soul, Self) being passed on from birth to birth: Continuity without identity. This chain reaction rather likens one Domino stone pushing over the other; its identity-less continuity can be likened to streams of waves in an ocean or a recurring pattern in a rainbow – dependently arising, discernable but insubstantial or lacking of intrinsic existence.
Let's first examine the actions and their effects: How do we accumulate these positive or negative imprints for future conditions? E.g. how grave is it to have harmful thoughts? Well, it depends whether these thoughts are part of our all-day-life delusional Disneyland of disturbing emotions, or if they are combined with conscious intent. In the first case, the imprints are easily counteracted, e.g. by filling the mind with positive imprints, especially the mental generation of universal compassion and loving-kindness. In the second case, the firm intent to do harm leaves a difficult and confusing imprint, which will effectuate unpleasant consequences. However, actually, in order to effect clear-cut negative/difficult conditions, an action needs to fulfil four criteria: There needs to be (1) the complete understanding of the action itself (eg the object of a negative action is clearly understood to be a sentient esp. a Human being), (2) the conscious intent to do harm, (3) the harmful action itself, and finally (4) unremorseful joy about the afflicted harm. Accordingly, antidotes constitute (1) Repent: the realisation of the negative action, (2) intent not to do it [any more], (3) amending the situation as far as possible, and finally (4) the resolution to do the opposite in future.
For our investigation, this first survey of Buddhist karma results into the striking observation that what is called divine justice in Abrahamic theologies is substituted in Buddhist thought by the empirical mechanism of causality. Actions judge themselves, the seeds of unwholesome deeds – when sawn, remain sawn and will bear fruit. Still there is leeway in Buddhist thought regarding the conditions under which the karmic seeds will ripen. But cosmic justice in Buddhism is for the most part purely mechanical and there is in Buddhist thought no need of a personal, divine intervention or for that matter a almighty creator God, a divine guarantor of justice.
The second point to make is that the creation of socially just societies in Buddhism is often seen rather as a naturally occurring result of cumulative positive karma than as the result of individual pro-active engagement. In the modern critique of Engaged Buddhism, this reasoning is challenged.
Before we now move to the development of karma-theory in Buddhism, let's quickly contrast this concept of 'what goes around comes around – and bites you in the butt'-causality with western religious or philosophical concepts: sin and fate.
Coming from an Abrahamic background, you could ask "Is 'bad karma' not the same as 'sin'"? The answer is: Absolutely not. In Abrahamic theologies, 'sin' normally denotes an 'offence against the will of God' and the term 'guilt' describes the emotional of sinning men in his asymmetric, deficient relationship with the almighty God. Valued judgements connected with 'sin' and 'guilt' have been abused throughout the entire religious history in order to oppress people. Buddhists, at the other hand, don't believe in an almighty, creator God who will judge them at the end of the days. Instead of morally prescribing any conduct to their fellow human being, Buddhist just understand cause and effect: Being difficult towards others creates difficulties in the future, being kind and loving creates constructive conditions. It boils down to the global variant of the old English saying 'Smile and the world smiles with you; cry, and you cry alone" – only maybe with the last sentence reading "be nasty, and you'll experience nastiness yourself". Intelligent conduct is, hence, no question of morality; rather a question of insight. Forgiving and loving instead of hating is not a question of doing God's will; it's simply a question of wisdom.
The next concept I want to put forward for comparison is 'fate'.
Fate is indeed very different from karma – actually karma basically means that nothing is accidental, everything has its cause. Who we are, which capacities, interests and inclinations we possess, which conditions we encounter, whatever happens to us – all this is based on passed choices. Karma is the contrary to fate: We experience the effects of previous actions. So there is neither a supernatural force to be blamed, nor blind chance, nor society nor our parents. Karma stops or egotistic blame games and self-victimisation: We are ourselves responsible for our lives, every minute and second new. So karma is ultimately real freedom; with no god or other people to blame for our actions, we can act truly free in the knowledge that we and we ourselves have been and are and will be sowing the seeds for future conditions. That's what karma means. And this applies not only to negative actions, but also to positive ones: Understanding karma correctly means, we have a precious opportunity here and now to benefit countless beings. Today, we are sawing the seeds for our future. That's also why Buddhists are not that interested in their previous lives; decisive is, what opportunities we have now. It is not important what was and who we have been; important is the Here and Now shaping the future and bringing us closer to experiencing the true nature of reality, the way things are: enlightenment as timeless, highest bliss.
The Buddha's teaching on causality developed the Upaniṣadic gradual process into full ethicisation of causality (Gombrich 1996); he put forward a re-interpretation of karma as intention-led. Still, by denying the existence of a soul or self (ātman), the Buddha created a paradox which will spawn the different quirks of the Buddhist concepts of karma (cp. McDermott 1980): Causality and re-birth without essence being passed on; human existence and re-becoming can be described as continuity without identity. The philosophical dilemma remains: Without a quasi ontological assumption of mind as mental essence and ultimate reality, intention driven causality seems to provoke more questions then answers; the difficult here lies in the Buddha's unique, non-ontological, non-cosmological speculative approach: An approach which can only be described as scientifically empirical; in lecturers elsewhere, I have called this the "deconstruction of ontology by practise": the Buddha's refusal to develop ontology in favour of teaching an experience-oriented andragogy (cf. SN IV 15).
In Early Buddhism, "the result (phalam) of an action" was seen as "unalterable" (dhruvam). The Māhāyana Śālistamba Sūtra (around 250 CE) clarified the relationship between primary causes (hetu) and circumstantial conditions (pratyāya), allowing more flexibility in the explanation of the ripening of karma (karma-vipāka): The seed of rice (hetu) brings fruit according to its growth conditions (pratyāya). Influencing karmic seeds would hence relate to the conditions, not to the causes itself. And soon, mitigating factors would be identified in the form of transfer of merit and the compassion of the Bodhisattvas.
The agent of this line of thought seems to have been the need to soften the rigorous mechanics of karma. In theistic systems, normally the mercy of a/the God can take away the consequences of negative actions. How to meet this human need in a spiritual method involving no creator god, divine redemption and external salvation? At this point we find the notion of transfer of merit (puṇyadāna), i.e. the idea that own actions can counter or annul the ripening of someone else's actions (karma). However, this paradoxical "softening of karma" in mainstream Mahāyāna thought is clearly relating to the freedom to act beneficially in each and every present moment anew; it's affirmative and intentional focus is the present shaping the future, rather than eradicating the past.
Mahāyāna thought developed further to the effect that far advanced realised beings (Bodhisattvas) sometimes are depicted with the ability take away negative karma of other sentient beings; it is important to note, that the mechanism of these seeming interferences into the course of causality are ultimately strictly concordant with karma if we remember that Buddhist karma is seen as predominantly mental intention with mental and physical results; the development of altruistic motivation such as willing to better the karmic position of a being by transfer of merit and at the other hand the ultimate trust into the methods of the Buddha and the realisation of a Bodhisattva leave strong positive imprints in consciousness countering other/earlier imprint.
As for karma within Mahāyāna philosophy, it is well known, that Mahāyāna refocused from the Ābhidhārmic (scholastical) inventarisations and discussion about the ontological value of basic components of reality (dharmas) on ineffable experience of enlightenment. Finally, Late Indian Tantric Buddhism brought with an unprecedented radical and often seen as transgressive application of Buddhist teaching into transformative practise, practise leading towards enlightenment within a single lifetime. The methods used in Tantric Buddhism (both in their Indian expression and its successive Tibetan assimilation) are seen as bringing karma towards accelerated ripening.
In the modern critique of karma theories expounded by the movement called Engaged Buddhism, the common Buddhist karma theory is generally re-interpreted in order to make space for pro-active social engagement (Pietz 2005, 206-7). Most prominently, Dr Ambedkar’s political utilisation of Buddhism in his fight for Dalit (outcast) –rights in India has earned him the criticism of abandoning karma and enlightenment all together and reducing Buddhism to “a merely social system” (The Maha Bodhi 1959, 352-3 see Queen 1996, 47).
4. Buddhist perspectives on Islamic justice
From our discussion of karma, causality, and its relationship to concepts of justice, it can be seen that in Buddhist view justice, both cosmic and social does not need to be guaranteed by a superhuman or divine institute or personal creator God. Actions bring results through a purely natural mechanics, uncreated and timeless conditioned arising of phenomena and empirical persons. According to Mahāyāna and Tantric philosophy, ultimately everything that happens is the free play of openness (space, emptiness) manifesting itself in the game mind plays with itself. In that sense, everything is already just: perfect and pure. Our perception might be flawed, and here compassion has its place in a twofold way. On the basic level compassion means joyful activity for the happiness of others. On the higher Buddhist level it means providing the methods for permanent happiness. In short: if we are happy, Buddha is happy. There is no need for conversion or one way for all. It’s just about permanent happiness.
Here, Buddhist thought challenges naturally the Islamic notions of justice. The Islamic concept of an almighty creator God is challenging for the establishment of universal and inclusive compassion and justice. God in Islam is absolutely transcendent in the sense that his justice, absolute justice, is not limited to human empirical reasoning and is not fettered by human concepts as Human equal Rights. This notion differs e.g. from the Christian notion, since in Christian theology by the doctrine of incarnation, the almighty creator God has established himself as both transcendent and immanent; hence Christian theology can argue the application of reason in ethical questions rather then being bound to trans-rational, absolute divine Law. Islamic theology makes it perfectly clear that Islamic ethics and justice is dualistic and hierarchical and that anybody outside Islam is not covered by the same ethical code and protection as the faithful. Ultimately, Islamic justice means God’s justice depending whether we accept the Islamic revelation or not. This dualistic approach, which is also found in the work of Said Nursi, is utterly unsatisfactory for Buddhists who have been deemed ‘idolaters’ and hence suffered in the past on multiple occasion from aggression and intolerance in the name of Islam. Justice, if only valid for Muslims, is no justice at all, but tyranny.
From a Buddhist perspective, a real advancement would be the acknowledgment of an universal religious objective to strive for happiness for all sentient beings regardless their religious convictions and to respect Human Rights in word and action whether we share the same faith or not. Religious rhetoric of hell and damnation, of faithful and infidel, of evil and good (rather than confused vs. meaningful) fuels religious violence and intolerance. If this rhetoric is seen to be an intrinsic part of a religious revelation, then it might be time to challenge trans-rational notions of revelation in the light of Humanistic Enlightenment. For example, it would be odd to acknowledge that any incentive to criminal behaviour such as the killing of the Infidel is deemed as unacceptable and legally prosecutable on a secular level, but that it could be justified if part of a religious ideology. From a Buddhist perspective, any revelation which propagates suffering and oppression has to be challenged and invalidated. There simply can not be peace and justice in a world where one group thinks they are better ‘or more just’ than another group and hence beyond the confinements of Humanistic values and Human Rights.
In the Modern World, where the news abound of instances of religiously motivated hatred and violence, all religions need to ask themselves whether they want to serve mankind or whether they expect mankind to serve them. From a Buddhist view, any religion not aiming for happiness for all and expecting mankind to serve it for its own sake would be in contradiction to the enlightened attitude and would pose a threat to Humanity.
Gombrich, Richard F. (1996) How Buddhism Began: The Conditioned Genesis of the Early Teachings (Jordan Lectures in Comparative Religion XVII). London and Atlantic Highlands, N.J.: Athlone.
McDermott, James P. (1980) “Karma and Rebirth in Early Buddhism” in: Doniger O'Flaherty, Wendy, ed. (1980) Karma and Rebirth in Classical Indian Traditions. Berkeley – Los Angeles – London: University of California Press, pp. 165-192.
Nursi, Bediüzzaman Said & Vahide, Þükran, tr., (1996 ). Risale-i Nur (English Translation). CD-ROM 1.0 version. Istanbul: Nesil Basým Yayýn A.Þ.
Pietz, William (2005) “Person” in: Lopez, Donald S., ed., Critical Terms for the Study of Buddhism. Chicago & London: The University of Chicago Press, pp. 188-210.
Queen, Christopher S. (1996) “Dr. Ambedkar and the Hermeneutics of Buddhist Liberation” in: Queen & King (1996), pp. 45-71.
Queen, Christopher S. & King, Sallie B., eds., (1996) Engaged Buddhism: Buddhist Liberation Movements in Asia. Albany: SUNY.
Scherer, Burkhard (2006) “Faith and Experience. Paradigms of spirituality” in: Greenstreet, Wendy, ed. Integrating Spirituality in Health and Social Care. Perspectives and practical approaches. Oxford: Radcliffe, pp. 89-101.