One particularly pernicious and frankly evil view/misconception of Kamma in Buddhism is this idea of “group kamma”. That you are responsible for the actions of others in the past.

I cannot speak to the other traditions, but when you read the Early Buddhist Texts(Nikayas in Pali, Agamas in Sanskrit) as far as I can tell I’ve yet to ever see one place where the Buddha speaks about anything close to group kamma.

On the contrary, the Buddha tells us quite often :
“This noble disciple reflects thus: ‘I am not the only one who is the owner of one’s kamma, the heir of one’s kamma; who has kamma as one’s origin, kamma as one’s relative, kamma as one’s resort; who will be the heir of whatever kamma, good or bad, that one does. All beings that come and go, that pass away and undergo rebirth, are owners of their kamma, heirs of their kamma; all have kamma as their origin, kamma as their relative, kamma as their resort; all will be heirs of whatever kamma, good or bad, that they do.’

we are the owners of our Kamma, we are not responsible for the actions of others, they are the owners of their own kamma.

Nor, frankly, can we blame others for our own actions , “but but everyone was doing it!” does not work with Kamma, your actions are your actions.

This false idea that a group of people, of the same country, heredity, geography, etc, all share some sort of collective Kamma has been used to great harm in the past, othering whole groups of people considered to be irredeemable simply for the crime of being born into a specific place and time.

You see this in the early texts actually, with the idea of the outcast caste, that “well, you were born an outcast, sucks to be you, grovel in the dirt”. The Buddha flips it around and tells us the real outcast is one who does bad actions, not by their birth.

It also makes no sense, since each life you are a different being, a different form of existence, there really is no carrying forward these characteristics, they won’t be of much use in your next life when your a turtle, a deva, or an alien on the other side of the universe.

This is antithetical to the Buddha’s teachings in the early texts, and is misguided. This falls along the same concept of people born with various handicaps being treated as bad people because of the bad Kamma that lead to their birth in such a condition. While this may actually be true, what the people who act in such ways fail to rememberer is this:

Every single being in their long wandering in the samsaric state has done many many good deeds, but has also done the most utterly horrible things, enough for many lifetimes in all kinds of hells. There is no one exempt there, this is why whenever you start to look down upon someone or think highly of yourself, you remember you too have done such actions, and you too have been in such a place.

Likewise there is not a country or group of people existing in the planet that hasn’t done some really bad stuff. To use a modern example, is it really ethical for a country like germany to demean and force their children of today to carry guilt for something their great great grandparents did in ww2 80 years ago?

I’m not talking about knowing your history and learning from it, I’m talking about forcing people today to feel guilt and apologize and have an impact on their sense of self worth for something people in their country or group did long ago.

I would say no, that it is quite evil, harmful, and again, antithetical to Buddha’s teachings. Of course this is nothing new, people have done this to each other for as long as people have been around, but as we are trying to progress as a species, it behooves us to not group and other people, and if we must judge, then do to so on the merits of that individuals actions, not the actions of the group they happen to have been born into.

2 Comments on “The Pernicious Folly of Group Kamma

  1. Thank you for this Bhante. Wise words and something I have been thinking a lot about. It’s great to read it in a Buddhist context.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: