How Karma Works

Several days ago, I received a comment on an old post asking about the Buddhist concept of rebirth.  The author of the comment stated that he was confused about the notion of rebirth as it is based on the concept of “no- soul.”  If there is no soul, he asked, then how does our accumulated karma travel into the next life?

This is a frequently asked question, and a great subject of confusion.

First, we have a question of semantics.  What do we mean by when we say “no-soul?”  It refers to Buddhist doctrine that rejects the concept of atman (self, soul, ego) as a metaphysical reality that is eternal and independent.  In the West, we often call it the doctrine of “no-self,” “non-self,” or “no-soul.”  It also corresponds with svabhava, which denies that living things possess an intrinsic essence, nature, or being.

Now this does not deny the reality of the conventional sense of “I.”  You, me – I – does exist but only as a temporary combination of various elements, traits, inclinations, and physical characteristics.  This combination will disintegrate when we die.  Buddhism says we have a problem because we tend to fixate on “I” which leads to delusions, the root of sufferings.

I will point out that when we use terms such as “no-soul” or “no-ego,” we are applying atman to Western concepts that Buddha and the early Buddhist were not aware of, for these ideas did not exist in their world.  They did not have the same sense of self, soul, God, or religion as we have in the modern age.

In Living Buddha, Living Christ, Thich Nhat Hanh describes atman this way,

“Impermanence is the same as non-self. Since phenomena are impermanent, they do not possess a permanent identity.  Non-self is also emptiness.  Emptiness of what?  Empty of a permanent self.  Non-self means also interbeing.  Because everything is made of everything else, nothing can be by itself alone.  Non-self is also interpenetration, because everything contains everything else.  Non-self is also interdependence, because this is made of that.  Each thing depends on all other things to be. that is interdependence.  Nothing can be by itself alone.  It has to inter-be with all other things. That is non-self.”

When the Buddha awakened, he no longer saw reality as a compartmentalized realm where everything is separate.  Instead, he saw impermanence and interdependence.  Because of impermanence, nothing is permanent, eternal.  Because of interdependence, everything (everyone) is inter-connected.

Rebirth is also confusing.  Many people get it mixed up with reincarnation.  But reincarnation is not a Buddhist concept.  Reincarnation is the idea that the same soul or same person is reborn in successive bodies.  With this concept you could possibly remember past lives (but I doubt it).  Again, Buddhist philosophy rejects the notion of a soul or a self that is permanent.  You will never be reborn as the same person ever again.

What Buddhism teaches is rebirth, the cycle of birth and death. You may carry over into your next life some karma, or traces, of your former lives, but you will forever be a new, unique person with no real memory of the past.  If fact, according to Buddhist teachings, it’s very rare to remember a past life.

Zen teacher John Daido Loori says,

“The self is an idea, a mental construct…  That being the case, what is it that dies?  There is no question that when this physical body is no longer capable of functioning, the energies within it, the atoms and molecules it is made up of, don’t die with it.  They take on another form, another shape.  You can call that another life, but as there is no permanent, unchanging substance, nothing passes from one moment to the next.  Quite obviously, nothing permanent or unchanging can pass or transmigrate from one life to the next.  Being born and dying continues unbroken but changes every moment.”

Karma is based on intention.  Good intentions create good karma.  Bad intentions create negative karma.  But instead of focusing on the action aspect of karma, we should view karma as potential.  Karma is like mental seeds planted within the mind that have the potential to ripen and exert some sort of influence at a future time.  Awarness of this potential helps us make wiser choices.

Geshe Tashi Tsering in his book The Buddha’s Medicine for the Mind: Cultivating Wisdom and Compassion, explains further:

“This potential is a karmic seed, a seed planted in our mind by physical, verbal or mental action. The strength or depth of this seed is determined by a number of factors, including how strong our intention is, whether we clearly understand what we are doing, whether we act on our intention and whether the physical and verbal action is completed.”

Seeds will remain in the mind until they ripen or until they are destroyed.  Seeds left by negative mental events and actions are destroyed by applying the four opponent or antidotal powers (support, regret, resolve, and action as antidote).  The power of regret for the negative act, together with a firm resolve not to act that way again in the future, is said to be very effective in the purification of karma.

Accumulated Karma is merely the collection of karmic potential we have gathered up in our journey (or journeys) through life.  The karma seeds are “carried” through the cycle of birth and death via a stream of consciousness, a continuum of consciousness.

I’ll be the first to admit that the explanation is not entirely satisfactory.  It leaves some questions unanswered.  However, I don’t spend a great deal of time about it.  I don’t believe it is absolutely necessary to accept the notions of karma and rebirth in order to be a Buddhist.  But belief in and/or acceptance of karma and rebirth is a matter that goes beyond the scope of this post.  So, for today, it is enough to simply say… don’t worry, be happy.

After thirty years of Buddhist practice and study, I’ve learned that the most important thing is the first thing we’re all taught in the beginning.  The only thing that matters is the present moment, our present life.  We should be concerned with what we do in the present, in the timeless reality of now, and not what may, or may not, happen sometime in the future.

The conventional arises from afflictions and karma;
And karma arises from the mind;
Tendencies are accumulated in the mind;
When free from tendencies it’s happiness.

Nagarjuna, “Commentary on Awakening Mind” (Bodhicittavivarana)


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