While there's much in the realms of religion, spirituality, mysticism, and metaphysics that is out-and-out ridiculous, I've considered the notion of "karma" to be pleasingly quasi-scientific.
Heck, I even wrote a book about karma: Life is Fair. This was back in my true believing days. Now I'm not nearly as confident that much of what I said in the book is true.
However, when karma is viewed as synonymous with "cause and effect," it's reality is evident.
This is how the world works: causes resulting in effects that produce causes resulting in effects ... and so on ... and so on ... and so on ... ad infinitum.
Eastern religions such as Buddhism see karma in an expanded sense, though.
Through reincarnation chains of cause and effect are considered to persevere between lifetimes. Causes in one incarnation can bear fruitful effects in another life.
This leads to some disturbing conclusions, which I used to find acceptable but now turn me off.
Here's an example from "The Monk and the Philosopher," where devoted Buddhist Matthieu Ricard is explaining karma to his rather skeptical father, Jean-Francois Revel.
Such wrongs are due neither to divine will, nor to fixed destiny, nor to chance, but to the long-term consequences of our own actions. They're arrows we've shot ourselves, coming back to us.
I understand that the whole notion of karma can be quite disconcerting. Whatever happens to us, it teaches, is never just by chance. We've created the causes of our present sufferings ourselves.
...From within a different metaphysical framework, of course, it would be difficult to see how our present happiness and suffering could be the result of our distant past. But in the context of a religion like Buddhism that accepts the idea of numerous rebirths, it all makes sense.
Well, not really.
I'll go so far as to accept, for the sake of argument, that reincarnation could be true.
This still leaves the Buddhist conception of karma far out on an unreasonable limb. And Buddhism itself supplies the saw that seemingly dumps karma into a Crap Container.
Which is, the central Buddhist (and believable) idea of emptiness. Ricard says:
But if you look at things from the point of view of absolute logic, the laws of cause and effect couldn't operate with entities that had any permanent and solid existence. So nowhere in the whole phenomenal world is there a single fixed, independent, intrinsicially existing entity.
Such as a person. Who reincarnates. And who supposedly carries along karma from life to life that is an arrow shot from his own hand, returning to him.
That karma-carrying consciousness sure sounds like a fixed, independent, intrinsically existing entity. It sows causal seeds and it reaps a crop of effects, all by itself.
This doesn't make sense in a world of complex interrelating causes and effects.
Ricard's father, Revel, points out that Tibetans couldn't be karmically solely responsible for China's invasion of Tibet because "the hatred comes from the Chinese; the Tibetans didn't have it."
Yet this comment elicits the arrow-returning analogy quoted above. Ricard, the Buddhist, clearly believes that Tibetans brought upon themselves all the suffering wrought by the Chinese takeover of their country.
That's crazy, both metaphysically and logically.
Even if one accepts the reality of reincarnation, how could the Chinese be empty vessels into which the Tibetan karma is poured?
Meaning, karmic law issues an edict: "Tibetans hated in past lives, so now you Chinese must have a similarly hateful urge to invade Tibet and wreak havoc upon the country."
Yet Ricard has said that every person creates his or her own karma, so how could Tibetan karma cause an urge to take over Tibet to pop up in the minds of Chinese? Such is akin to the notion that when I married my wife, it was her karma that made me love her.
Hey! What about my karma? Don't I get to have karma also?
You can see that with a little clear thinking, any sort of reasonable foundation for the Buddhist notion of karma starts to disintegrate.
It's tough to posit an interrelated cosmos with no independently existing entities, as Buddhism does, and also claim that individuals are solely responsible for what happens to them in life.
Cause and effect: yes.
Karma: no, if the word is taken to mean that whatever befalls us is the result of an arrow shot from our own hand.
There's effectual arrows flying all over the place, released from countless causal bows. A lot more like this than the simplistic Buddhist idea.