Karma and rebirth


~ by Winton Higgins • wintonhiggins.org


A while back I read and reviewed an excellent book, Nagapriya’s Karma and rebirth, which confirmed a number of what I thought were somewhat unorthodox hunches of my own. What I say tonight is to some extent a response to this book.

In the book, Nagapriya rightly poses the wider questions: where do the few metaphysical premises in the Buddhadharma come from; where should we get our own beliefs from, what does it matter what we believe? Let’s look a little obliquely at the second two questions before tackling the first of them, together with the vexed problem of rebirth.


The relationship between views and practice

In the Kalama sutta the Buddha provides us with two tests for any teaching:

  1. in our own experience, does it lead to the right result in our practice – ie, when we apply it, does it lead to less suffering, less conflict and less bondage; and
  2. does our own experience match up with the sense of things we get from those whose judgement we trust?

The second question is a fail-safe: in our spiritual underdevelopment, we could misinterpret – or delude ourselves about – our own experience, so on important matters it’s good to check with our trusted spiritual friends. Practising in a sangha and in a wider tradition allows us to do this.

More famously, of course, in this sutta the Buddha gives us a list of invalid reasons for believing a teaching, including claims for it that it comes from the scriptures, represents religious authority, and so on. The thrust of the sutta – and of the Buddha’s whole sceptical approach more generally – is that we should hold only such views (and even then very lightly) that focus and inspire effective spiritual practice, and abandon the rest. This is what the first step in the noble eightfold path – sound view – means. By implication, views that cannot be practised, or that mislead and obstruct practice, are wrong views (micchaditthi).


Karma and rebirth before the Buddha

From the beginning, the doctrine of rebirth, which sounds so very Buddhist, was linked to the law of karma. This linking long preceded the Buddha. Nonetheless, in the earliest sacred texts of the Brahmans, the Vedas, a continuation of life after physical death was only vaguely gestured at.

Then came another set of Brahmanic texts, the Brahmanas, that fleshed out a clearer story. In the Brahmanical scheme of things, the continuation of time itself (and thus of the whole firmament) wasn’t guaranteed, and could only be achieved by making sacrifices to the gods in exact rituals to persuade them to keep the universe going. If someone performed exactly the right sacrifices and exactly the right rituals, and performed her/his caste duty, then s/he acquired good karma, the sole function of which was to guarantee a propitious reincarnation, including in a higher caste.

Note that, in this version, karma has no ethical content, and it bears fruit in the next life only, not in this one. The whole doctrine had a socially conservative function, to entrench compliance with the caste system, which was (and in Hinduism still is) seen as part of the cosmic order.


How the Buddha recast the story

This was the structure of belief the Buddha himself and all his followers grew up with. As we know, he revolutionised these concepts, but didn’t scrap them, apart from refusing to comply with the caste system. First, he made karma into an ethical concept – karma arose according to the ethical quality of the intention behind each volitional action, speech-act and thought. Second, in his central idea of anatta – not-self – lay an outright denial of reincarnation (which presupposed an atman, or soul or continuing entity).

Yet strangely, he retained an acceptance of some sort of rebirth, perhaps as an unexamined assumption prevalent in the ambient culture of his time, and it remains part of ancestral Buddhism. What can rebirth possibly mean? Logically it can’t mean the rebirth of an enduring self (though in popular Buddhism that is precisely what it means!), because the doctrine of anatta rules that out completely. So we get the paradox: we are all reborn, supposedly, but there is no-one to be reborn. I’m sure we all love koans and other brain-teasers, but this one smacks too much of good old-fashioned confusion!

One place where rebirth comes up a lot is in the expounding of the standard list of the nidanas or causal links, from ignorance to old-age-and-death, especially conventional explanations of the wheel of becoming (aka ’the wheel of life’ in Tibetan Buddhism). The conventional teaching has it that what is reborn is our ignorance and mental (or volitional or karmic) formations – our sankharas. This is a very thin idea of rebirth that falls well short of the popular idea of the rebirt of a fully-fledge self . Ignorance is a universal condition, there’s nothing individualised about that. And sankharas in this context are simply ownerless inclinations which somehow manage to take root in some newly conceived foetus. How could that possibly happen? And does it matter whether it happens or not?

The principle of karma as expounded by the Buddha and his living tradition suffers from none of these awkwardnesses. It emphasises choice, and so ethics, and how transformative (or reinforcing) the cumulative effects of our choices are. What the principle of karma says to us is this:

  1. through our intentional conduct we mould and transform ourselves, who we are and how we are in the world;
  2. this conduct influences (but doesn’t determine) how others think and act in relationship to us;
  3. the combination of our intentional conduct and the feedback loops it sets up ‘creates’ our experienced world – ie, whether we experience it as scary, hostile, friendly, supportive etc.

For instance, say we practise energetically, including really working on our practice of generosity. Over time we actually become much more generous, it becomes one of our sankharas, an aspect of personality – or as the Greeks and other older cultures might more usefully have said, it becomes an element of our character.

And birds of a feather fly together: we attract generous friends, and our old miserly, fair-weather friends might not like the change and drift away from us. The new set of friends are sensitive to our needs and free-handed with their resources – when we need them they are there for us, bringing whatever resources are necessary. The world isn’t such a bad place any more. We never face adversity alone. That’s karma, baby!


Popular Buddhism and the return of the pre-Buddhist take

Popular Buddhism often tells a very different story about karma and rebirth, namely, that everything that happens to us is because of our karma, that karma contributes to a merit system which functions rather like the banking system, that a large stock of merit leads to our being reborn in fortunate circumstances, and that the merit gained by giving to temples and virtuous monastics (ie, sticklers for the vinaya, the monastic rule) will definitely see us right in the next life.

Note four points about this view:

  1. The principle of karma has somehow become co-terminous with the whole doctrine of dependent arising, and so gives it a meaning somewhat like fate. In this way it denies the other layers of causation that the Buddha expounded – the natural laws of physics and chemistry; biological laws; non-volitional mental factors (psychological processes such as shock and post-traumatic stress disorder); and spiritual factors, like being the ‘undeserving’ beneficiary of someone else’s advanced spiritual practice (or the undeserving victim of others’ unskilful actions);
  2. Privileging donations to monasteries and monastics contains more than an echo of the pre-Buddhist idea of sacrifice, and of course entrenches monasticism in the social system;
  3. It returns to the idea of someone being reborn or reincarnated, which also harks back to the pre-Buddhist account of karma and rebirth; and
  4. In all these ways, it weakens the ethical aspect of the Buddha’s concept of karma, which points to the ethical dimension of dharma practice and how powerfully transforming it is in this life.


Karma OK, but rebirth?

In contrast to this popular-Buddhist view of karma, the Buddha’s principle of karma shows how moral agency is constituted and expressed in each situation, in the pattern of our choices, and how centrally important it is to how we manifest in and experience the world.

Karma is not an all-encompassing causative principle. The fact is, we do not always get what we deserve, far from it. We do not live in a just universe; to believe that we do would require you to believe in a rational omnipotent god (or a rational and consistent assembly of gods in the Brahmanic take on these matters), or an impersonal, omniscient and omnipotent mechanism governing the cosmos. Karma does introduce an element of justice into the causal mix, but it can just as easily be cancelled out by all the other levels of causation.

The Buddha’s concept of karma is supremely important to our spiritual practice. The dharma reminds us of this over and over again, for instance, in the usual boiling down of the noble eightfold path into the three great trainings – ethics, meditation and wisdom. Here, we see how ethics (as reinforced by the principle of karma) is the necessary foundation of our practice as a whole.

In this context, let us remind ourselves that morality is not a rule book but a set of fundamental orienting principles around what has ultimate value for the person in question and the consequences for ourselves and others that our choices imply. Look at the structure of the central Buddhist rite, taking of the refuges and precepts. The Buddha, dharma and sangha are the ultimate orienting values, and the five precepts – themselves principles and not rules – simply flow from a commitment to the path of practice encapsulated in the refuges.

If anything can and must be practised, then, it’s the principle of karma. But can the same be said for the idea of rebirth? Can we sensibly practise rebirth? Does it pass muster according to the criteria the Buddha himself suggested in the Kalama sutta?

We will all have to make up our own minds about that. Hopefully we will each do that on the basis of what makes sense to us – what accords with our own experience and commonsense. We need to factor in here our cultural experience. We westerners hardly grew up in a culture in which karma and rebirth are as self-evident as the law of gravity, the roundness of the earth, and evolution.

We might also factor in the thought that the principle of karma works just as well – if not better and more coherently – if it is severed from belief in rebirth. I have certainly found it more fruitful to teach the wheel of becoming if I dispense with the traditional three-lifetimes schema and teach it as something to be experienced in this life, and even in each moment of clear awareness.

The Buddha gives a strong hint that rebirth is dispensable at the end of the Kalama sutta – the bit after the point when most people seem to stop reading! Here, the Buddha explicitly deals with the issue of life after this one, and refers to differing then current views about whether there is such a thing as a life after this one or not. He basically says we can put two bob each way on that question. If we live ethically and practise well, we will cover all bases. We will certainly live better in this life. And if we find ourselves reborn in fortunate circumstances according to our karmic deserts, well, that’ll be a nice bonus.


• This talk was given to Name Sangha in month year. Winton Higgins has been a Buddhist practitioner since 1987 and a teacher of insight meditation since 1995. He has contributed to the development of a secular Buddhism internationally, and is a senior teacher for Sydney Insight Meditators and Secular Buddhism in Aotearoa New Zealand.


One Comment

  1. Peter Goble
    Posted October 28, 2012 at 8:30 am | Permalink

    I don’t see that these explanations do anything to dispel the fog of doctrinal confusion that surrounds karma and rebirth, and I’m not convinced that “if we live ethically and pracise well” we will certainly live better in this life. That seems to me to be a pollyannish wish, or at best an aspiration; and one that rests on the definitions of “live better” and “cover all bases”, both of which strike me as jargon.

    I find it much easier and closer to the grain of my experience to abandon abstruse foreign words and concepts like karma, which only seem to have currency in simplistic and populist interpretations of dogma, and little relevance to daily life.

    I thought secular Buddhism eschewed dogma, but I fear it is hopelessly wedded to it, and still wants to sermonise and preach at us, whilst pretending not to.

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