On Karma and Rebirth

I promised a post on my thoughts on Karma and Rebirth. Here you go:

Yup. There are some ideas that aren’t reconciling with each other in my head. Karma and Rebirth are clashing, and I can’t seem to wrap my head around them. But maybe it doesn’t matter much. Maybe it isn’t something I need to spend much time worrying about. Although they are central concepts to Buddhism, trying to figure them out fully isn’t going to help me right here, right now. It’s just going to make my mind look like this Jackson Pollock painting.

After the next couple of books that I read (review copies that I’ve received), I’ll be diving into The Wings to Awakening, so maybe that will help shed some light. And if not, maybe it will just take some time. If anyone out there has some recommended reading, it would be much appreciated. Also, feel free to leave your thoughts regarding karma and rebirth in the comments section here.

Cheers.

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15 Comments

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15 responses to “On Karma and Rebirth

  1. Hi Adam,

    Perhaps you would be interested in a blog I wrote back in September on this very topic: Mechanics of Kamma and Rebirth

    Be happy, healthy and free from dukkha!

  2. buddhasbrewing

    Rebirth just happens no need to understand it. Our Dharma teacher just explained it as one moment your’e an adult and the next you’re a fetus again. There is no awareness between. Not all Buddhists believe that. Ive heard some mentions of a “Buddhist purgatory.” I tend to believe the first. Of course if your karma was really good maybe you’ll get to be a celestial being for a turn or if it was really bad you might end up a hungry ghost or in one of the hell realms.

    Karma is the law, man. If there is a engine that makes the cycle of Samsara go, its karma.

    • karma as cause and effect I get. it’s when it plays a part in rebirth that stumps me. I also don’t understand what it is that is reborn. You say “one moment your’e an adult and the next you’re a fetus”, but what is “you”? What gets reborn?

      • buddhasbrewing

        What passes on? The same thing that composes self. Craving attachement the ball of tangled attachemnts known as the five aggregates. The slef is nothing more than a bunch of ingrained bad habits. Once we she dthese we escape the cycel of Rebirth, Samsara, and acheive Nirvana. True peace.

      • So what is it that experiences true peace?

      • And I thought the self was NOT the five aggregates. Oh boy. More study I suppose.

  3. Hi Adam,

    Forgive the long comment, but this is a complicated concept that requires much wording to explain!

    There is no “you” that is reborn from lifetime to lifetime, or even moment to moment. “You, Adam as adult”, are clearly not the same as “you, Adam as child”, and indeed, the “you” that is reading this word is not the same as the “you” that read “Hi Adam” at the beginning of this comment. “You”, or any pronoun or noun for that matter, is a conventional way to describe a complex process of arising and passing away of mind and matter based on causes and conditions. There is no single entity that spans two moments of time, no matter what that measurement of time is. There is arising, there is passing away, at a mind bogglingly fast rate.

    Kamma is intentional action, be it bodily, verbal or mental (yes, we create kamma with our thoughts which in turn produces results, and is why the Buddha put so much emphasis on purification of the mind). The result of kamma is called vipāka (fruition, fruit). But what is between the action and the fruit? It’s, for lack of a better term, a kind of “energy” called kammasatti. This “energy” is what carries from past to present and propels into the future those previous actions we have performed. As a very simplistic illustration, let’s say you push a boulder at the top of a hill. The pushing would be the kamma (intentional action), the rolling of the boulder could be the kammasatti, or kammic energy, and the boulder crashing into a tree at the bottom of the hill could be the result (kammavipāka). So the active force tying action to result, that in-between period, is the kammic energy.

    Now, the Buddha taught that mind depends on matter and matter depends on mind. Neither can exist without the other. Mind itself is composed of an endless series of arising and passing away of consciousnesses (eye, ear, nose, tongue, body and mind). So, while the results of kamma that give rise to the body of this lifetime exhausts itself and this body dies, the kammic energy from consciousness continues. In order to do so, and in accordance to the first statement of this paragraph, new matter must arise, or what we call rebirth. According to the Theravāda tradition, there is no gap between the moment of death and rebirth, indeed, there is an arising and passing away of a “death consciousness (dc)” and in the next moment the arising and passing away of a “rebirth consciousness (rc)”. For graphical purposes, it would look something like this: eye* consciousness (ec) => ec => ec => dc => rc => ec => ec => ec, and so on. The first underlined series is one physical lifetime and the second is the next. In other traditions, there is a period of time between physical death of one lifetime and rebirth in another. I don’t know enough to comment on other traditions, so perhaps someone else can jump in to explain this in-between period. As a final note, it seems many people often assume that “we” will be reborn as a human or animal, but as mentioned by buddhasbrewing above, there is indeed the possibility of being reborn in one of the four other realms as well. Human rebirth is extremely rare.

    So, this goes to the heart of the Buddha’s teaching on anatta (not/non-self). There is no single entity that exists from the past to the present and into the future, but a series of arisings and passing aways that are collectively called “I”, “you”, “s/he”.

    Does this help?

    * or substitute ear, nose, tongue, body, mind

  4. Oops, I cannot go back an edit the comment, and clearly I used the wrong html code for underlining, so will illustrate again:
    one lifetime: eye consciousness => ec => ec => dc =>
    next lifetime: rc => ec => ec => ec => and so on.

    There is no gap between dc and rc.

  5. I suppose what is still troubling me is that there isn’t anything that is “re”born, there is just death and birth, right? And I understand that “me” is just a convienent way to contextualize, so how do I receive kamma that I apparently sent into action before this life cycle?

    I hear people say that you might be born into a good or bad circumstance in life based on your previous karma, but how is that when there is no “me” beingf reborn? How can there be anything for karma to attach itself to?

    The only way I can wrap my head around it is if karma is all that is “reborn”, and whatever I set into motion reverberates throught the universe, even after death. But of course we are all so intimately connected that it really reverberates through me as well, but after death I won’t experience conciousness personally, as adam ever again. But if that is what happens, then what’s the point of nibbana? I think I have too many questions maybe. Thanks for replying here Ashin, it has helped. Though I need to think about these things more. I understand the principles of karma and rebirth separately, but for some reason I can’t seem to mesh the two together in my mind, unless either karma is reduced to simple cause and effect, which then leads to the question of so what?, or that there is no such thing as personal karma. Maybe I’m thinking too hard about these things.

  6. My god that was incoherant!

  7. Au contraire! You were quite coherent! I think your inquiries are going in the right direction and that through additional study, contemplation and meditation, you will find these answers.

    The important lesson about kamma is that we understand that there are repercussions to our actions. More specifically, our unwholesome kamma at some point will bear unwholesome fruit and our wholesome kamma will bear wholesome fruit. This is the mundane understanding in Right View, the first step of the Noble Eightfold Path.

    We cannot change what we have done, so no sense crying over spilt milk. We can, however, influence how things will be, to a large extent, through our current actions and in creating the favourable conditions that allow for the ripening of wholesome kamma and not allowing for the fruition of unwholesome kamma. This is something that can be done in the here and now. To be sure, unwholesome kamma can and will arise, even for an awakened being like the Buddha, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be vigilant in the restraint from adding to the unwholesome basket.

    If you’ve not done it already, you might want to take a look at Dependent Origination/Arising. Scroll down to Paticca-samuppada for sutta references and some excellent, easy to read commentary here

  8. I like to turn to science when thinking and trying to explain Buddhist concepts. In science energy and matter is never destroyed but simply changes form. So, in one form we are reborn as plants after decomposing. However, in a more metaphysical form I liken karma to those lottery balls that bounce around in the hopper before selecting them to form a winning number.

    Each karma seed is like one of those balls. It is my belief that the mind’s energy and motivations, which lead to action is our karma constantly manifesting itself before falling back into the hopper that is our brain).

    In addition, we know that everything that exists is connected because of electromagnetism. And since our brains have electric impulses it makes sense to me that our dying energy/karma would release itself along these universal “telephone wires.” In our lottery example the telephone line is the tube by, which the balls exit the hopper. Once they (karma) arrive at the next location (new form of being) they represent a number or sequence that will be different than the next selection of numbers.

    I also suspect given the electrochemical emissions in our brains that electromagnetism plays a role in rebirth. Here’s an interesting article on it:

    Electromagnetism and energy fields.

    We don’t see electromagnetism occurring like we don’t see the full process of karma affecting rebirth. However, we see its results and thus accept electromagnetism as truth.

  9. buddhasbrewing

    Damn. Should have scrolled down before I posted my reply. Yeah dependant origination/arisng or what Ashin said. This thus that or some such.

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