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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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.

Continue reading “Karma”

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Rebirth vs. Reincarnation

Reincarnation is not a Buddhist concept.

Reincarnation is the idea that the same soul or same person is reborn in successive bodies. Buddhism 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 karma, or traces, of your former lives, but  you will be a new, unique person with no real memory of the past. According to Buddha-dharma, it’s very rare to remember a past life.

The concept of reincarnation found its way into Buddhism through the assimilation of folklore and native beliefs; strictly speaking, it is not part of the Dharma or teachings.

Ultimately, it doesn’t matter. Whatever happens when we die is going to happen regardless of what we believe. Buddhism does not stand on assertions about what comes after physical death. Buddhism is about the experience of life, here and now.

The great Zen master Dogen once said, “This present birth and death itself is the life of the Buddha. If you attempt to reject it with distaste, you are losing thereby the life of the Buddha.”

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