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“Lived Karma: Situating Interbeing in Society” Conference Held at Dartmouth College

From 14–16 October, a group of nearly 20 scholars of Buddhism gathered at Dartmouth College for a conference on “Lived Karma: Situating Interbeing in Society.” The conference was organized by assistant professor of religion Sara Swenson, together with Susanne Kerekes, visiting assistant professor at Williams College and Trinity College, and myself.

Participants presented short papers and engaged in group discussions to consider the many ways that karma is invoked in both canonical texts and lived Buddhist environments. The concepts they analyzed included interpersonal karma, universal karma, karmic affinities, and karmic discourses, processes, and imaginaries as a means to form and transform identities, as well as collective karma as a tool of political mobilization. In addition to uncovering overlooked popular understandings of karma, the conference participants also reflected on methodological questions such as the distinction between karmic causes and karmic results, the philosophical foundations for agent- vs. event-causality, and better practices to avoid the secularist bias and to nurture more inter-religious dialogue and cross-disciplinary collaboration.

The conference was sponsored by: Dartmouth College Leslie Center for the Humanities Project Grant, the 2022 American Academy of Religion (AAR) Collaborative Research Grant, Dartmouth College Religion Department, and Dartmouth College Dean of the Faculty for the Arts and Humanities.

Image courtesy of Prof. Reiko Ohnuma, Dartmouth College

The papers given at the conference covered a vast range of disciplines and geographical areas. The first panel in the morning of 15 October focused on modern China. Ying Lei from Amherst College presented on “Huxley’s Karma and Lu Xun’s Ghosts,” which raised the question of how, in the twentieth-century, karma became a global theme entangled with social Darwinism, historical imagination, and national pasts. Ying Lei’s presentation further problematized the secular bias in studies of modern China. Joey Yan from École Pratique des Hautes Études presented on “Retrieving Collective Karma, China 1937–1945,” which offered a new perspective to examine China’s wartime experience. In the ensuing discussion, participants recognized that the theme of appealing to collective karma for political mobilization seemed to have parallels in many Buddhist countries throughout history.

The second panel in the morning consisted of four presentations. In his paper “Karma: Collective, Individual, and Universal,” Gareth Fisher from Syracuse University teased out three distinct themes employed by different groups of contemporary Chinese practitioners, namely, collective, individual, and universal karma. Alec Soucy from Saint Mary’s University, in his presentation “Thich Nhat Hanh’s Karma for East and West,” examined how Thich Nhat Hanh drew from different repertoires of Buddhist language when writing in Vietnamese and in English. Vocabulary related to karma frequently appears in Nhat Hanh’s Vietnamese writing, while similar vocabularies remain largely absent in English. In her presentation “Common Karma and Collective Action in Vietnam,” Sara Swenson from Dartmouth College illustrated how lay people and monastics in Ho Chi Minh City employ karmic imaginaries as a form of affective moral reasoning. Susanne Kerekes from Williams College presented on “Kindred Spirits: Collective Karma in Thailand,” which highlighted the often-overlooked non-human actors such as ancestors, ghosts, and gods in Thai Buddhist daily sociality. During the ensuing discussions, participants considered the possibilities of de-centering text in Buddhist studies and the imperative to understand the diverse ways that ordinary people do philosophy, engage in moral reasoning, and enact different ways of living together.

Image courtesy of Prof. Reiko Ohnuma, Dartmouth College

The two panels in the afternoon turned their focus to lived karma in pre-modern societies. In the first, Greg Seton from Dartmouth College presented on “The Concept of Karmic Debt in Tibetan Buddhism,” which highlighted the intriguing roles of karmic debtors in interpreting interpersonal conflicts and in motivating actions to resolve such conflicts. In her presentation “Lived Karma and Transformative Sociality,” Jingjing Li from Leiden University illustrated how medieval Chinese Yogācāra philosophers employed the concept of other minds as a phenomenal presence of “you-in-me” to forge a path of collective liberation. In the ensuing discussions, conference attendees shared thoughts on the viability of analytic lenses such as karma evoking a society of individuals without self, and karmic imaginaries as ecological theory.

Panelists in the final panel examined various concepts of karma in pre-modern China. In his presentation, Gil Raz from Dartmouth College presented his studies of Daoist Jātakas, in which he argued that authors of the Daoist multi-life stories replaced the Buddhist rationale of karma and rebirth with the indigenous Chinese concept of numinous writ, thereby reinterpreting rebirth and multi-life events as various manifestations of the same pattern (numinous writ). Daniel Burton-Rose from Wake Forest University, in his presentation “Collective Karma and Concealed Virtue,” examined how the Peng family employed a wide variety of interpretative strategies, including reformulating karma as concealed virtue, to justify and strengthen the Peng family’s social standing. Jessica Zu from USC Dornsife presented a preliminary survey of Chinese canonical sources related to karma and highlighted a potential paradigm shift around the 4th to 5th centuries CE (the Gupta period in India): whereas the pre-Gupta debate about karma seems to center on the question of self-made vs. other-made, during the Gupta era—the lifetime of Asanga, Vasubandhu, and Buddhaghosa—the debate about karma shifted to individual karma vs. collective/similar/shared karma.

Image courtesy of Prof. Reiko Ohnuma, Dartmouth College

On the second day of the symposium, in small group and large group discussions, attendees identified shared themes for further research and mapped out a few immediate next steps. Several participants are planning to write short critical notes to submit to the Journal of Global Buddhism. In addition, several attendees of this symposium will also serve as panelists for the round table “Collective Karma in Buddhist Philosophy and Lived Religion” at the 2022 annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion (AAR). These roundtable panelists will submit relevant articles for a special issue on “Buddhist Philosophy and Social Justice” to Journal of Buddhist Philosophy. A more long-term project is a proposal for a five-year seminar to be held during the AAR annual meetings to collaboratively study the history, theory, and practice of karma across regional boundaries and religious traditions. The organizers will soon send out a CFP on H-Net.

The author would like to thank Kelly Burgess, Meredyth Morley, and Mary Fletcher for their help with logistical details.

See more

“Lived Karma,” a conference organized by Assistant Professor of Religion Sara Swenson
Dartmouth College Leslie Center for the Humanities Project Grant
2022 American Academy of Religion (AAR) Collaborative Research Grant
Dartmouth College Religion Department
Dartmouth College Dean of the Faculty for the Arts and Humanities

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