Assignment: Society Critical Commentary

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Synchronizing Karma: The Internalization

and Externalization of a Shared,

Personal Belief

Steven G. Carlisle

Abstract When people internalize cultural materials, they do not absorb them as passive recipients

but, rather, adapt and apply them in ways that satisfy personal needs while also expressing them in

ways acceptable to the community. It is not just a process of moving things into the individual but one of

synchronizing imaginings of experience. For Bangkok’s Buddhists, karma is a concept that is both cul-

turally shared and, often, deeply personal. Karmic experiences are understood individually and shared

through personal karmic narratives. A set of shared standards determines which stories can be accept-

ed as describing karmic experiences while also serving to shape the individual’s interpretations of those

experiences. Although social monitoring of interpretations of individual experiences makes belief in

karma acceptable, the intersection of abstract doctrine with personal interpretations gives the doctrine a

nearly undeniable veracity. Therefore, synchronized karmic beliefs thrive, despite Bangkok’s rapid de-

velopment and cultural change. Addressing dynamics of synchronization moves psychological

anthropology beyond frameworks of acquisition and internalization to considerations of negotiating

agency in the reproduction of culture. [Buddhism, internalization, karma, imagination, narrative]

Because people have different experiences, how is it that they can come to have beliefs that

are shared across the demographic spectrum of a society while also being deeply integrated

into their understandings of the workings of the worldFthoroughly believed to the point

that they can affect many of a person’s habits? That is, how are shared religious beliefs in-

ternalized? Although it may appear counterintuitive, for beliefs like karma, internalization

comes through processes relating to the formation of projective systems. The idea here is

not that people project thoughts and feelings out and that other people take them inFit is

that the rules that govern the projective system are negotiated publicly, and allow people

to synchronize their interpretations of personal experiences, creating the sense of a shared

experiential reality. Public karmic narratives sit at the nexus of abstract religious doctrines

that describe the nature of reality, personal experience, and the social sanctioning of inter-

pretations of those experiences. Social monitoring of karma narratives keeps karmic

interpretations of personal experience broadly acceptable and consistent while these per-

sonal experiences of karma give the doctrine a compelling veracity. At times, therefore, the

karmic order is accepted not because it satisfies people’s desires but because it appears ab-

solutely true. If deeply held beliefs grow out of shared negotiations, then perhaps we should

look at processes of synchronization, rather than internalization.


ETHOS, Vol. 36, Issue 2, pp. 194–219, ISSN 0091-2131 online ISSN 1548-1352. & 2008 by the American Anthropological Association. All rights reserved. DOI: 10.1111/j.1548-1352.2008.00011.x.

The ethnographic material here is drawn from participant-observation of and interviews

with middle-class Thai Buddhists, all of whom also expressed a belief in karma. Research for

this article took place over 30 months between 1999 and 2001. Subjects were ethnic Thai

Buddhists in their twenties, thirties, and early forties at the time; all were residents of

Bangkok; and all were members of the middle classes.1 The informant base includes, for

example, teachers, small merchants, and low- and mid-level executives. This work involved

more than two years of participant-observation, and extended ethnographic interviews with

approximately 20 subjects. Data include karma stories told by several dozen individuals, as

well as stories available in Thai public media since 1999. Interviews, conducted primarily in

Thai, were open-ended, but generally focused on questions concerning family life, morality,

love, and Buddhism. Although stories often arose during the natural course of discussions, a

few were solicited, after a subject had made it clear that he or she believed in karma. The

stories selected for this article were typical of the larger pool: especially among the young,

anecdotes that involved cruelty to animals were common, as were stories about repayment

for the sacrifices of elders.

Personal narratives are more than reports about reality. They embody theories about con-

nections between events (Bruner 1987; Capps and Ochs 1995). They do not just describe

things as they are, but participate in the production and affirmation of visions of reality.

Synchronized belief in karma is carried through narratives that follow negotiated guidelines.

What sorts of negotiations give rise to shared yet personal systems like karma? Some broad

restrictions on stories must apply if a projective system is to be able to allow information to

work along the two axes, the social–personal and the doctrinal–experiential. First, however,

it is necessary to sort out the type of karmic narrative that is relevant here. In addition to

occasional discussions of Buddhist doctrine, the subject of karma appears in conversation

in a number of different forms. Most commonly, people discuss their own experiences,

descriptions that often take a form like this: ‘‘I went to the temple and made an offering to a

monk [which is a source of good karma], and I felt good about it.’’ They occasionally make

vague references to one another’s karma, as when one struggling merchant announced that

another merchant, who had done well during the economic crisis of the late 1990s, had

succeeded because of his karma. What contributed to his good karma, however, and how,

exactly, it contributed to his success in business, remain unknown to the speaker. A third sort

of conversation about karma also takes place: one in which specific moral actions and karmic

responses are connected and described, often in great detail. This article will focus on this

sort of narrative, in which projections are clearly defined.

Such narratives constitute approximately half of the stories I gathered during the research,

and nearly all of the best-elaborated narratives.

The Bangkok-Thai Buddhist doctrine of karma is straightforward: good acts are always re-

warded, bad acts always punished, in proportion and in kind. Because of personal interest

and attention to cultural norms, many residents of Bangkok develop individual relationships


with their karma, through a process of reification of projected information. The idea that

the universe at large is ordered is academic to them; what is of interest is not the universe’s

relationship to karma but their own. Because of individuals’ ability to project ideas onto the

universe, they perceive karma as more than a force of nature. Just as Weber’s Calvinists’

concerns led those subjects to think about the double-predestining God as personally sig-

nificant, thoughts about karmic retribution and reward lead many Thai Buddhists to think

about karma as an active presence in their own lives. This ranges from a mild but persistent

preoccupation, described by one person as a feeling of being unclean, to a life-shaping ob-

session. Chatri, in his early thirties, has shaped much of his life around his belief.2 He claims

that his planFwell underwayFis to commit his life to giving of himself, and to die without

accepting more than the minimum of gifts and kindnesses, so that in future incarnations he

will thrive. For many urban, middle-class Thai Buddhists, karma is not simply an ordering

principle; it is a force with which they interact, and with which they have personal relation-

ships. Karma helps order the universeFbut what matters in these cases is the fact that it

orders their lives in it.

Analysis of karma stories can go beyond general statements about a desire for order. In

this article, I examine personal anecdotes about karma in an effort to understand specific,

widely shared guidelines that shape that order, and the particular forms of engagement that

make karma both universal and personal, connecting Thai Buddhists not just to the uni-

verse, but, through socially shared experiences, to a view of the world that they share with

one another.

Context: Anthropological Literature and Theory

Many scholars have approached the topic of karma, but for the most part, they have not

explainedFand rarely examinedFkarma’s ability to take on deep personal significance.

Since Rhys Davids (1896) began to publish his work on Buddhism around the turn of the last

century, a variety of approaches have been taken in analyzing this phenomenon. The works

of K. N. Sharma (1997) and Gombrich (1996) take broadly historical and theological van-

tage points, whereas the contributions of others (E. Daniel 1983; S. Daniel 1983) rely on

contemporary source material for symbolic analyses and treatments of contemporary social

significance. Others (such as Lau 2001) take a psychological approach, looking at karma as a

response to needs and desires. About one thing, however, all analysts agree: karma works as a

bridging concept, one that spans the gap between the mundane and easily considered reali-

ties of daily life, and the great, abstract order of the universe. It is on this level, what Hiebert

calls the ‘‘transempirical’’ (1983:121) while also this-worldly, that explanations for karma

can be sought: it is seen both as experiential and as universal.

Karma poses a problem on the practical level. Although the idea that every moral action is

eventually met with an appropriate responseFa sort of ethical first law of thermodynamicsF

there is no way of knowing exactly what that response will be, or when it will come. Because


of the existential firewall that exists between incarnations, allowing karma to carry over from

one lifetime to the next while blocking out memories of the past, there is no way of har-

nessing knowledge about an individual’s karma for practical effect. No one can say with any

certainty what will happen, and, except in cases where one’s karma returns during the same

lifetime, why something will happen.

This may be why many of the anthropologists who have looked at karma report that it is

often an explanation of last resort. People generally rely on more clearly defined explana-

tions before falling back on karma (Babb 1983; Beck 1983). Hiebert (1983:120) reports that

his informants frequently attribute events to physics, fate, astrology, spirits, and the gods as

well as karma. Why, then, maintain the karmic tradition at all? Why is it that karma plays a

central role in ancient Vedic texts as well as contemporary television dramas?

Gombrich (1975:219) argues that karma’s golden-rule implications make it socially useful.

Keyes asserts that, although making merit results in good feelings, ‘‘it is not the state of

mind that is significant . . . but the social recognition of being a person of virtue’’ (1983:268).

He uses this conception to explain one of the central problems faced by anthropologists of

Buddhism: how to explain karma’s persistence among worldly populations. Karma can be

used as a basis for an ethical system among worldly Buddhists because of the ability to

transfer merit from one person to another (Keyes 1983:270)

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