by Wayne Ren-Cheng
Ask ten random people what they know about Buddhism and nine of them are likely to respond with the words karma and rebirth. Question them further and five of them will speak of good and bad karma affecting how someone is reborn in a next life. More good karma in this life will lead to a better life next time; more bad karma and you could come back as a worm or a politician.
Ask ten random Buddhist monastics and scholars how the concepts of karma and rebirth arose in early Buddhist philosophy and there is likely to be a 5/5 split. Half will offer that karma and rebirth in Buddhism came from the commonly accepted Hindu beliefs of Siddhartha’s time and culture. The others recognize that the karmic ideal in Buddhist philosophy is fundamentally different due to its renunciation of the idea of a permanent self. In the Buddha’s own time his disciples, all whose cultural influence was primarily Hindu, wondered how karma and rebirth could be explained without the concept of an immutable, unchanging self. They asked, “Since body, feelings, perceptions, dispositions, and consciousness are without self, what self can deeds done by the self, affect?” Without a “self” then how can karma be explained? A “self” is thought to be needed so that the good or bad merit has something to affect and to attach to. The ideal of a not-self allows karma to encompass all phenomena as both cause and effect beyond the individual and into a universal activity.
The Buddhist ideal of karma is believed to have initially risen from three pre-Buddhist philosophies. The Upanisadic theory of karma (moral/ethical responsibility) holds that the ‘self’ is the doer of action and the receiver of its consequences. In this ideal karma is the actions and experiences of an eternal self. With this emphasis on self-causation and self-results any outside causal factors are ignored. Materialist philosophy denied an eternal ‘self’, rejecting karma entirely. They offered that “natural law” drives suffering and happiness leaving man without any moral responsibility because all consequences are beyond their control. The Jainas viewed karma as an individual responsibility. Karma was actions performed that once done became an external force with its own unalterable consequences. The Buddha found each of these philosophies unsatisfactory. Though, a close look at the core concept of karma in Buddhism has elements of each of the pre-Buddhist philosophies.
Traditionally it is said that the Buddha personally verified the “truth” of karma and rebirth through extrasensory perceptions. Using the extrasensory powers of psychokinesis (the power of will), telepathy (ability to comprehend HOW a phenomena is and the thoughts of another mind), clairaudience (hearing beyond the range of normal perception that gives the ability to directly experience hidden phenomena), clairvoyance (knowledge of the life and death of beings as it is affected by their behavior, when combined with retrocognition one verifies the “truth” of rebirth), retrocognition (ability to perceive your own past lives through meditative concentration and focus), and knowledge of the falling away of suffering that leads to acceptance of the Four Ennobling Truths. These extrasensory perceptions, along with increasing awareness were thought to give insight into phenomena not able to be perceived through the normal sense faculties. It was through direct perception, both sensory and extrasensory that Siddhartha realized the universality of causality, impermanence, suffering and not-self. In this traditional view Siddhartha’s awakening was the result of verifiable experiences and of metaphysical abilities.
Redescribing the traditional view of extrasensory perceptions one can connect karma with being ‘reborn’ during the journey from birth to death. Extrasensory perceptions can be viewed as the mindfulness/awareness that develops through a mature Buddhist practice. The power of will (psychokinesis) is the effort one puts into being mindful in each moment. It isn’t reading anothers mind (clairaudience) or seeing how a persons behavior affects them (clairvoyance); it is the deep listening skill and the application of appropriate view that arises from a developed practice. It isn’t being able to ascertain ‘past lives’ where one was a different person or even species; it is being aware through a meditative practice of the different ‘lives’ led between birth and death. Accepting the reality of the Four Ennobling Truths does not require an supra-normal ability; it takes an ability that anyone can cultivate, mindfulness/awareness of how the world is.
Karma and rebirth are inexorably linked concepts in many Buddhist traditions. Good and bad experiences are viewed as the result of activities in a previous lifetime; results that are individually caused and affect the individual. What if the concept of rebirth is re-described and that of karma is retained? Begin with discarding the metaphysical concept of rebirth that has a permanent essence of each person inhabiting different bodies, different species in an endless cycle of suffering while striving for liberation. Then consider karma as universal human physics in action from birth to death.
Strangely enough the Christian concept of rebirth has more value in a contemporary understanding and application of karma than the Buddhist one. When someone accepts Christ as their savior they exalt, “I have been reborn in Christ.” They don’t become a foetus again and start a whole new life from scratch. They experience that moment as the beginning a new direction in their life. In Buddhist philosophy each moment is unique and the not-self is always changing so each moment opens the possibility of change, an opportunity to begin a “new life”, a rebirth.
Whether we accept karma as the deciding factor in who or what we are in a ‘next life’, or karma as just human physics in action, it still has value in a contemporary Buddhist practice. Going with the ideal that we are ‘reborn’ with each experience, and we are on a path of promoting happiness, health and harmony for all beings, then we would logically strive to do good (positive karma). We strive to think and act in positive ways so that we engender positive consequences (positive karma). When we mess up occasionally . . . and we will . . . it will engender negative consequences (bad karma). In the traditional view karma would stop right there; the good and bad karma sticking to us like glue. In a view without the classic notion of rebirth the arising of karmic actions have consequences, good or bad they enact changes in whomever is involved and then they fall away.
Setting aside the idea that there is a Karmic Bank account where all good and bad deeds get put into a vault and are withdrawn when death occurs doesn’t promote positive social engagement for any other reason than a selfish craving to avoid negative consequences. Negative consequences aren’t to be avoided, instead negative consequences must be lessons that guide one to positive actions. Karma seen as the results of our actions right here, in this life has greater value in a contemporary engaged Buddhist practice, and still maintains the traditional value of guiding us to appropriate ways of thinking and acting.
Karma is human physics in action. We don’t perform positive, life-affirming acts for any other reason than it is the appropriate thing to do considering the Noble Path we’ve chosen. We know from our own experience and the experiences of others that positive intent and positive action leads usually to positive results and more positive experiences. Those times when negative things arise due to our intent and action, positive or not, we don’t just accept it in a Karmic Bank Account; we withdraw that negative and do what we can to alleviate whatever suffering may have been caused to self or others.