The Relationship of the Karmic to the Nirvanic in Theravāda Buddhism

Journal of Religious Ethics 7 (1):28 - 36 (1979)

In their popular works on Theravāda, Winston King and Melford Spiro assert that this type of Buddhism is actually two distinct religions--(1) the "kammatic" which leads to better rebirth, and (2) the "nibbanic" leading to escape from rebirth. The techniques and lifestyles associated with these two are seen as polar opposites with householders being associated with the former and monks, the latter. If, however, as a case in point we look at the relationship between the karmic meditations on love, compassion, sympathetic joy, or equanimity and the realization of nirvana, we do not find the suggested polarization. Rather, it is clear that the karmic meditations offer theoretical and psychological parallels to the realization of nirvana. Moreover, in the Theravāda scriptures, proper karmic activity is indicated as the stepping stone to nirvanic realization. The karmic supports the nirvanic, it does not oppose it. Furthermore, to limit the laypersons to karmic activity and to ignore the ethical or karmic concerns of the clergy is an oversimplification. A richer view of Theravāda is obtained if we observe that it offers a variety of lifestyles, from householder to monk, that in any of these mundane (karmic) religious practices are to be undertaken, and in dependence on them supramundane realization is attainable.
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