Karma and Rebirth

Today a passage from the Pitrputrasamagama, found in Shantidava’s Siksasamuccaya or Manual of Wisdom. The chief speaker in the following dialogue is said to be the Buddha:

The senses are like illusions, material objects are like dreams. Take for example; a man asleep might dream that he has made love to a beautiful country girl. Awakened from sleep he might remember her. What do you think; does that beautiful girl in the dream exist? “

“ No, Blessed One.”

“Would that man be wise to remember the girl in his dream, or to believe that he had actually made love to her? “

“No, Blessed One. Because the girl does not exist at all, so how could he have made love to her, except perhaps on account of weakness or fatigue, he might think so.”

“In this same way,  a foolish and ignorant man of the world, when he sees agreeable forms and believes in their existence, is pleased, and being pleased feels passion, and feeling passion acts accordingly, develops the action that springs from passion, creates karma, threefold by body, fourfold by voice, threefold by mind; and that action, developed, from the very beginning is injured, hindered, distracted, changed, not going towards the east, not south nor west nor north, not up nor down, nor to the intermediate points, not here nor across, nor between both.

But at life’s end, when the time of death comes, when the vitality is checked by the exhaustion of one’s allotted span of years, the karma that fell to him dwindles, and his previous actions become the object of the mind, the last thought in his mind as it disappears.  Then, just as the man on first waking from sleep thinks of the country girl about whom he dreamed, the first thought upon rebirth arises from two causes:  the last thought of his previous life as its governing principle, and the actions of the previous life as its basis.

Thus, a man is reborn in states of hell, or in bestial states, or in spiritual ones, demonic ones, or human or celestial states. And from this first thought belonging to rebirth, a new series of thoughts arise, and the experience of the ripening of karma is to be felt. The stopping of the last thought is known as death, the appearance of the first thought is known as rebirth, and the manifesting of the first thought is known as arising. Nothing passes from life to life, but death and rebirth take place nonetheless.

The last thought when it arises does not come from anywhere, and when it ceases it does not go anywhere; action arising does not come from anywhere, ceasing it does not go anywhere. First thought too arising does not come from anywhere, ceasing does not go anywhere. All are essentially empty. The last thought is empty, karma is empty, the first thought is empty, rebirth is empty, and arising is empty. In the whole process no one acts or creates karma, and no one experiences the effects of karma, except by verbal convention.”

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Do The Right Thing

A verse of the Dhammapada reads:

To avoid evil actions, to do actions that are good
and to purify the mind is the essence of Buddha’s teachings.

One of the primary concerns of religion and philosophy is the issue of morality, of defining what is good and what is evil. Some say that it is a divine force that determines the nature of good and evil. Others feel that morality is something created by human beings and is relative to time and place.

Those who hold to an absolute measure of morality have often tried to establish a moral code or set of commandments upon which all human conduct is to be adjudicated. In the world of law, this may be necessary. But the world of morality is not black and white. The biggest problem with this approach is how to motivate people to follow the commandments. The usual solution has been to proffer a fear of consequence such as the “wrath of god,” eternal damnation.

Buddhism is called the philosophy of the Middle Way because its concepts often fall in-between these and other extremes. While Buddhism neither confirms nor denies the existence of a supreme being, it is rather pessimistic about the idea, so we tend to view morality as a human concern, with more than two shades of color.

In Buddhist philosophy there is a theory of consequence called karma. This doctrine was probably not taught by the Buddha himself, rather it was a Brahman idea likely layered on sometime after the Buddha. Nonetheless, it has become an integral part of the dharma.

The idea of karma is that one’s actions produce effects, either good or bad depending upon the nature of the action undertaken. That, by the way, is the little loophole. Conceivably one can perform some action that is technically ‘bad’, but if the motivation is right-minded then it’s ‘good.’

In any event, effects from past actions are said to come back in time to affect the individual. With this scenario, there is a tendency to lock in on the idea of ‘bad karma’ and speculate on what was done to deserve it. Frankly, all speculation of this sort is rather foolish. As I mentioned in a recent post, the T’ien-t’ai teacher Chih-i, as well as many other teachers past and present, have taught that none of us can know the true nature of our karma from the past.

Another flawed way of thinking is to believe that we should engage in positive actions in order to avoid negative karma. All this does is replace the supreme being who judges our behavior with ‘mystic karma,’ a divine force that can somehow perceive the difference between good and evil. For me, using this doctrine as a  carrot stick doesn’t work too well.

Some question the very idea of karma, after all, there is no real empirical evidence to support it. However, it doesn’t really matter whether you accept karma or not. At least in regards to morality, for as far as good and evil is concerned, both arise from our own mind. The Buddha taught that if one purifies the mind and trains it toward goodness, then wisdom will arise. It’s a kind of simple and intuitive wisdom, where one naturally understands the virtue of positive, wholesome actions. In other words, we learn to practice goodness because it is the right way to live.

In fact, it is the only way to live.

Mookie: C’mon, what. What?
Da Mayor: Always do the right thing.
Mookie: That’s it?
Da Mayor: That’s it.
Mookie: I got it, I’m gone.

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Karma

Buddhists talk a lot about karma, and yet I wonder how many really understand it. There is a growing trend among Western Buddhists to reject notions about karma and rebirth, or to be agnostic about their feasibility. I maintain that Buddhism works without these concepts, however, it doesn’t work quite as well.

Stephen Batchelor, a contemporary Buddhist teacher and writer, is one of the leading figures of this trend. He is quite right when he says that notions such as karma and rebirth are teachings Buddhism inherited from traditional Indian philosophy, but to dismiss these fundamental concepts on the argument that the Buddha taught them only because they were culturally prevalent at the time, is mistaken. I share Batchelor’s desire to rid Buddhism of “magical thinking”, but I am not too sure that karma and rebirth fit into that category.

As I mentioned in my post of April 22, reincarnation is not a Buddhist concept. I have a great affinity for and admiration of the Dalai Lama and Tibetan Buddhism, but on this subject they are confused. I don’t care how many claim to be tulkus, there is no reincarnation.

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