I have to admit that I am not 100% sold on the ideas of karma and rebirth. Some people tend to think of them as a kind of “next-life” balm, and there are times when I tend to agree with that.
But after I think it about it some more, I wonder. How is the notion that you carry around everything from your past, especially all the dumb shit you’ve ever done, around with you through countless lives, endlessly into the future, any kind of balm or reassurance? Karma is like a set of luggage that you tote around everywhere you go. You can leave the bags at the gate, bribe the sky cap to lose them, hope that the airline loses them, or better yet, destroys them, and yet, no matter what you do or where you go, it catches up with you, a huge set of heavy bags to lug around some more. Nothing very soothing or restorative about that. No ambrosia. No nectar or honey-dewed comfort.
Now the flip side is of course that we also carry around good stuff, and for most people the good and the bad should even out, with the former having a bit of an edge. That’s something that is often forgotten about when this subject is discussed.
So while I may harbor doubts about the actual mechanics of this doctrine, I take seriously the point teachings about karma and rebirth are trying to make, which is to take responsibility for your thoughts, words, and actions. You can’t escape from yourself and there is no blaming others for this or that because ultimately you are the one who decides what to think, what to say and what to do.
It is important to remember that karma means “action,” a word that can refer to many things. In an essay entitled “The Buddhist Concept of Karma”, Professor of Indian Philosophy, Hari Shankar Prasad grouped Karma(s) into two categories:
karma-without-agency . . . the dynamic nature of reality . . . This kind of karma is essential and blind, for example, the internal bodily processes, the [burning] of fire, etc. . . . the second, karma-by-human-agency which is the basis of the popular doctrine of karma and its retribution (vipaka). This kind of karma is essentially ethical and causal in nature . . .
Prasad goes on to explain that this second kind of karma, which reflects the ethical aspect, demonstrates that it is not necessary to hypothesize the existence of a Supreme Being, for the Buddhist concept of karma instills moral values on the secular level. Furthermore, the Buddhist karmic doctrine rejects any sense of fate (niyati, vidhi) to which a person can evade responsibility for his or her actions by passing the buck to external determining factors.
Up to this point, I think everyone should be on board, but we come to some forks in the road when the ideas of rebirth and transference of merit (parinamana) are thrown in. On one hand, this should be enough. Taking responsibility for our thoughts, words, and deeds on the deepest level, while at the same time purifying them, is the job of a lifetime. What more can we do other than exercise control over our “volitional capers.” Living an ethical life in this life is the right thing to do regardless of whether or not it increases the possibility of more favorable circumstances in some next life.
We may or may not have had past lives, but we all certainly have a past. That’s why the bags have our names on the tags and no matter how hard we try to lose them, some sky cap will always come up and say, “Here is your luggage . . .” And, what’s more, you have to give a tip.
As I noted this doctrine of karma with its moral aspects is not the exclusive domain of religion, nor should it be the starting point of religion. The Buddhist sense of karma put it all down on the secular level, and as well, on the level of conventional or relative truth. On the ultimate level, it’s a whole other ballgame, as Nagarjuna points out in the Maha-prajnaparamita-sastra:
All deeds are empty, sunya (relative and contingent); and the deeds that are done with this understanding are called the right deeds. The farer on the Mahayana way, the bodhisattva, comprehends the ultimate sameness of all deeds; and he does not take the good deed as meritorious and the evil deed as devoid of merit. For, in the ultimate truth, there are no deeds, good or evil. This is the true wisdom (Prajna). But this is itself also the right deed for it issues in the deed that is done with the right understanding . . . Having achieved the true understanding of deeds, one neither does deeds nor desists from them, for one is devoid of clinging and so one does not consider oneself as the doer of deeds. And such a wise man always does the right deeds and never any wrong ones. This is the right deed of the bodhisattva.
Nagarjuna is not denying deeds literally. Rather he is rejecting clinging in regard to deeds and any sense of passion, pride, or even guilt, associated with doing deeds. It is definitely not an escape clause that one can use to justify any action simply because in the ultimate sense all actions are empty. Nagarjuna is pointing to the state of mind capable of transcending suffering on account of thoughts, words, and deeds. It is also safe to assume that if there is some kind of balm being offered, it too is empty, relative and contingent.