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Basic Buddhism
A Modern Introduction to the Buddha's Teaching
by Dr Victor A. Gunasekara

The Doctrines of Karma and Rebirth

The Buddhist doctrine of kamma [karma] ("deeds", "actions"), and the closely related doctrine of rebirth, are perhaps the best known, and often the least understood, of Buddhist doctrines. The matter is complicated by the fact that the other Indian religious traditions of Hinduism and Jainism have their own theories of Karma and Reincarnation. It is in fact the Hindu versions that are better known in the West. The Buddhist theory of kamma (to give the Pali word) and rebirth are quite distinct from their other Indian counterparts.

In Buddhism the law of kamma is the moral law of causation - good actions give good results and vice versa. It is the quality of an act which determines its consequences. But what determines the karmic quality of a deed? In Hinduism it is the correct performance of a person's "duty", especially his caste duties that counts. Early Buddhism, which recognised no caste distinctions, evaluates the karmic quality of an act in terms of moral and ethical criteria. In particular it is the mental factors which accompany the commission of deed that determines its consequences or "fruits" (vipāka). All negative kamma (i.e. those leading to bad consequences) arise from the three roots of unwholesomeness. These are greed (lobha), aversion (dosa), and delusion (moha). Accordingly good kammic results follow from deeds that spring from generosity (caga), loving-kindness (mettā) and wisdom (vijjā). The Buddha emphasised that it is the mental factors involved, rather than the deeds themselves, that determine future consequences. Thus the same deed committed with different mental factors will have different consequences. Likewise purely accidental deeds may have neutral consequences; however if the accident occurred because insufficient mindfulness was exercised it could have adverse results for the person responsible for it.

The theory of kamma presupposes that individuals have "free will". Everything that happens to an individual is not the fruit of some past kamma. In fact the experiences that involve an individual may be of three kinds: some are the result of past action, some are deliberately committed free acts; and the remainder could be due to chance factors operating in the environment. The doctrine of kamma is not a theory of predestination of any kind. One common misunderstanding is not to distinguish between the action and its results - between kamma and vipāka. It must also be mentioned that the fruiting of an act may be postponed, and that it is possible to reach enlightenment - the goal of the Buddha's path - before all the previous kammas have yielded their results.

The Buddhist theory of rebirth asserts that the fruits of some kamma may manifest themselves in "future lives". This brings us to the Buddhist theory of rebirth. Similar concepts occur in other religious systems - e.g. the Platonic theory of the "pre-existence of the soul" and the Hindu-Jain theory of re-incarnation. Such reincarnation theory involves the transmigration of a soul. In Buddhism, however, it is the unripened karmic acts outstanding at the death of an individual which conditions a new birth. The last moment of consciousness too is also a conditioning factor, but it is the store of unripened kamma generated by volitional acts (the sankhāras) of previous existences which generates the destiny of the new individual. A newly born individual needs not only the genetic blueprint derived from the genes of the natural parents, but also a kammic blueprint derived from the volitional acts of a deceased person.

The question has been posed whether the new individual is the same as the old individual whose kamma it has inherited. The Buddha's answer to this question was somewhat enigmatic: "It is not the same, yet it is not another" (na ca so, na ca ańńo). To understand the Buddha's reply we have to investigate the criteria which establish personal identity. Is the child the same as the adult it later becomes? In the Buddhist sense we are making two observations at two points of time in a constantly changing psycho-physical entity. For legal and conventional purposes some arbitrary criteria are used, such as physical continuity over time, or the retention of memory. These define only a conventional person. Just as it is a conventional or "fictional" persons who lasts continuously from birth to death, so it is just such a conventional person who persists from one life to another. In the Buddhist view of rebirth the only links between two successive lives is the karmic residue carried over and an element of consciousness, called the re-linking consciousness: (paisandhi vińńāna), which momentarily links the two lives. In Buddhism there is no conception of a transmigrating soul which inhabits successive material bodies until it unites with God.

Buddhism uses the Pali term sasāra to denote the "round of births" in various planes of existence governed by the law of kamma. The acceptance of the validity of the hypothesis of sasāra is very difficult for some people, while for others it is the most natural of hypotheses. Some features of the observable world suggests it. In the Culakammavibhanga Sutta the Buddha is asked: "What is the reason and the cause for the inequality amongst human beings despite their being human?" (the context making it clear that it is inequality at birth that is meant). The Buddha answered: "Beings inherit their kamma, and it is kamma which divides beings in terms of their inequality". The theistic hypothesis cannot give a rational answer, except in terms of an iniquitous and unjust "God".

Some support for the theory of rebirth comes from reports of recollections of past lives, whether spontaneously or under hypnosis, which have been reported from all parts of the world. While many such reports may be mistaken or even fraudulent, some are undoubtedly genuine. According to Buddhism individuals can develop the power of "retrocognition" (i.e. the ability to recall past lives), but the development of such supernormal powers is usually the accompaniment of progress along the spiritual path of enlightenment. IT may be possible that some karmic factors may predispose some individuals towards such experiences. However parapsychological experimentation is still in its early stages, and many people have no personal recollection of their own previous lives. For such individuals the dogmatic acceptance of the doctrines of kamma and rebirth is not expected.

The central tenets of Buddhism relate not to any abstract theories about rebirth or karma but to the interpretation of human experience which is within the capacity of every person to verify. This verification can be undertaken, not in terms of an abstract cycle of lives, but also in terms of the one life we are all familiar with. The Buddhist sasāra is to be seen in every moment of existence, as well as the whole "cycle of births".

One would expect that in the Kālāma Sutta, the discourse in which the Buddha decries the acceptance of theories on the basis of authority (which was quoted earlier), that he would address himself to the question of belief in the doctrine of kamma and rebirth. This he does. Referring to the "four-fold confidences" which the "noble person" (āriya puggala), i.e. the person who follows the path of the Buddha, attains to, the Buddha states:

" `If there is the other world and if there is the fruit and result of good and bad deeds, then there is reason that I shall be reborn into the state of bliss, the celestial world, on the dissolution of the body, after death.' This is the first confidence that he attains.

" `If, however, there is no other world and if there is no fruit and no result of good and bad deeds, then I shall myself lead he a happy life, free from enmity, malice and suffering in this very life'. This is the second confidence that he attains."

Thus even the extreme rationalist who would suspend judgement on the truth of the sasāric hypothesis (i.e. the doctrines of karma and rebirth) would find that the Buddha-Dhamma would not have lost its rationale. He can aspire to the second confidence of the "noble person" and make the one life that he is sure of, a happy one.(26)


Updated: 1-2-2001

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