Karma, Meet Egolessness

Any Buddhists out there? I have a question. Or not so much a question as something I don’t get. (I know of at least one Buddhist out there. Maybe I’ll email her, or maybe she’ll say something here before I get around to it.) This morning I was reading a book about feminism and world religions – called Feminism and World Religions – and in the essay on Buddhism Rita Gross tells us that many Buddhists explain male dominance as a result of karma: everyone’s ‘current position’ is a result of karma from the past, so women’s inferiority results from ‘negative karma’ so they have to bear it gracefully, which will probably lead to the good karma of rebirth as a man. (She then says what’s wrong with that view – you don’t get to say ‘it’s your karma to be oppressed by me’ because that’s bad or ‘negative’ karma for you.) But on the next page she talks about egolessness and the non-existence of the ego, the self, the identity. That’s fine, I have no problem with that, it just sounds like dear Hume to me; but what I don’t get is how those two things can possibly make sense in combination. If the self doesn’t exist in this life, what sense can it possibly make to say that what we did in a past life belongs to us in this one? Accepting the (absurd, but never mind) idea of rebirth just for the moment for the sake of argument – what is it that is reborn if there is no self? I want to know. What is it that is reborn, and what is its relationship to its ‘karma’? It’s presumably not anything material; it’s not meant to be the same atoms or anything; but it’s also not the same person, because personhood is an illusion. So what is it?

This is a blindingly obvious problem, so surely it must have been discussed to within an inch of its life, but I seem to have slept through that class. Answers on a postcard please.

22 Responses to “Karma, Meet Egolessness”