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Buddha’s Words: Rebirth… Really?

September 17, 2012

“Karma” by Fenanov via Flickr.com

Some of the most difficult Buddhist teachings for a Western convert to grasp and fully “buy into” may be those on rebirth and the making of “merit” or karma.  After all, it doesn’t fit into the “one life” cosmology with which we were raised, a cosmology we accepted long before we were old enough to rationally evaluate it.  The Buddha was raised with a different cosmology, one that posited an almost unlimited cycle of rebirths, world systems, and realms.  We are told not that the Buddha merely accepted this cosmology, but that he confirmed it through the direct experience of his enlightenment.  Therefore, the Buddha’s solution to the problem of suffering is a solution to the endless cycle of rebirths in which beings experience suffering.  It is a solution relevant to its cosmology, like a raft is a relevant solution to crossing a river but not very useful in crossing a desert.

It is tempting to assuage our doubts with some reassurances:

  1. The Buddha was a product of his time, meaning he accepted his cosmology as uncritically as we accepted ours.
  2. The Buddha was teaching to a particular audience, meaning he presented his teachings within their worldview.
  3. Karma (or kamma) still works even if it doesn’t mystically carry over from life to life.
  4. Loving-kindness, mindfulness, and wisdom are helpful now, even if I don’t have another life after this.

I’ve even written a post about how one doesn’t need to buy into reincarnation to reap the benefits of the Buddhist teachings.  However, even if one ultimately believes that, it doesn’t mean we have to deceive ourselves about what those teachings actually are.  Bhikkhu Bodhi, makes this abundantly clear in Chapter 5 of his book, In the Buddha’s Words.

It cannot be emphasized strongly enough that for Early Buddhism an understanding and acceptance of this principle of kamma and its fruit is an essential component of right view.  Right view has two aspects, the world-bound or mundane aspect, which pertains to life within the world, and the supramundane or world-transcending aspect, which pertains to the path of liberation.  The world-transcending right view includes an understanding of the Four Noble Truths, dependent origination, and the three marks of impermanence, suffering, and nonself.  For Early Buddhism this world-transcending right view cannot be taken up in isolation from mundane right view.  Rather it presupposes and depends upon the sound support of  mundane right view, which means a firm conviction in the validity of the law of kamma and its unfolding through the process of rebirths. (p. 147)

So, does that mean it’s an all or nothing deal?  Bhikkhu Bodhi doesn’t say.  He only goes so far as to point at that the law of karma and its related system of rebirths has an internal logical consistency and theological utility – that is, it makes sense and it’s good to know.  I imagine this is a longer debate for a longer book, and not one that could be solved via that medium anyway.  Each person must decide for herself if she “believes” in rebirth or not, based on logic, experience, faith or whatever makes the most sense for her.  Bhikkhu Bodhi is more interested in ensuring the reader understands what the Buddha taught on the subject.

Those teachings are first and foremost moral teachings.  Moral thoughts, words, and deeds lead to good consequences (i.e. a good rebirth full of pleasure and ease) and immoral thoughts, words, and deeds lead to bad consequences (i.e. a bad rebirth full of suffering and difficulty).  Moreover, the Buddha was very clear that morality begins with one’s volition, that is, one’s intention or will.  Actions carried out with goodwill, even if accidentally harmful, lead to better outcomes than actions carried out with ill-will, even if somehow nobody is harmed.  Actions carried out free from attachment to outcomes, on the other hand, do not generate new karma and therefore do not contribute to the round of rebirth.  This is the path to liberation.  So karma and rebirth are part of the same cosmological system.

The teachings on karma also fill a neat theological loophole – they explain the existence of inequality in the world.  That one person is poor while another is rich is a result of each person’s past karma.  That one is healthy while another is sick is a result of each person’s past karma.  The karma of past deeds ripens in future lives until ultimately all karmas are exhausted and liberation obtained.  This is why the path to liberation is one of not generating new karma.  Far from providing a reason to “blame the victim,” this teaching on karma encourages all people to take responsibility for their past actions, to commit no present misdeeds for fear of future outcomes, and to cultivate non-attachment diligently.  While it is acceptable to believe someone got hit by a bus as a result of her past misdeeds, it is never acceptable to use that as an excuse for not helping in the present moment.  That kind of intentional callousness is clearly immoral and will have karmic consequences for us down the line.  This is clearly stated in the Cula-kammavibhanga Sutta, which is translated on pages 161-166 of Bhikkhu Bodhi’s book.  The quotation below is from Thanissaro Bhikkhu’s translation freely available on Access to Insight.  It is merely one of many teachings by the Buddha explaining the nature and working of karma.

[Subha asked] the Blessed One: “Master Gotama, what is the reason, what is the cause, why baseness and excellence are seen among human beings, among the human race? For short-lived and long-lived people are to be seen, sickly and healthy, ugly and beautiful, uninfluential and influential, poor and rich, low-born and high-born, stupid and discerning people are to be seen. So what is the reason, what is the cause, why baseness and excellence are seen among human beings, among the human race?”

“Students, beings are owners of kamma, heir to kamma, born of kamma, related through kamma, and have kamma as their arbitrator. Kamma is what creates distinctions among beings in terms of coarseness & refinement.”

The Blessed One said: “There is the case, student, where a woman or man is a killer of living beings, brutal, bloody-handed, given to killing & slaying, showing no mercy to living beings. Through having adopted and carried out such actions, on the break-up of the body, after death, he/she reappears in the plane of deprivation, the bad destination, the lower realms, hell. If, on the break-up of the body, after death — instead of reappearing in the plane of deprivation, the bad destination, the lower realms, hell — he/she comes to the human state, then he/she is short-lived wherever reborn. This is the way leading to a short life: to be a killer of living beings, brutal, bloody-handed, given to killing & slaying, showing no mercy to living beings.”But then there is the case where a woman or man, having abandoned the killing of living beings, abstains from killing living beings, and dwells with the rod laid down, the knife laid down, scrupulous, merciful, and sympathetic for the welfare of all living beings. Through having adopted and carried out such actions, on the break-up of the body, after death, he/she reappears in a good destination, in the heavenly world. If, on the break-up of the body, after death — instead of reappearing in a good destination, in the heavenly world — he/she comes to the human state, then he/she is long-lived wherever reborn. This is the way leading to a long life: to have abandoned the killing of living beings, to abstain from killing living beings, to dwell with one’s rod laid down, one’s knife laid down, scrupulous, merciful, & sympathetic for the welfare of all living beings.

“…This is the way leading to sickliness: to be one who harms beings with one’s fists, with clods, with sticks, or with knives.

“…This is the way leading to health: not to be one who harms beings with one’s fists, with clods, with sticks, or with knives.

“…This is the way leading to ugliness: to be ill-tempered & easily upset; even when lightly criticized, to grow offended, provoked, malicious, & resentful; to show annoyance, aversion, & bitterness.

“…This is the way leading to beauty: not to be ill-tempered or easily upset; even when heavily criticized, not to be offended, provoked, malicious, or resentful; nor to show annoyance, aversion, & bitterness.

“…This is the way leading to not being influential: to be envious, to envy, begrudge, & brood about others’ gains, honor, respect, reverence, salutations, & veneration.

“…This is the way leading to being influential: not to be envious; not to envy, begrudge, or brood about others’ gains, honor, respect, reverence, salutations, or veneration.

“…This is the way leading to poverty: not to be a giver of food, drink, cloth, sandals, garlands, scents, ointments, beds, dwellings, or lighting to brahmans or contemplatives.

“…This is the way leading to great wealth: to be a giver of food, drink, cloth, sandals, garlands, scents, ointments, beds, dwellings, & lighting to brahmans & contemplatives.

“…This is the way leading to stupidity: when visiting a brahman or contemplative, not to ask: ‘What is skillful?… Or what, having been done by me, will be for my long-term welfare & happiness?'”…This is the way leading to discernment: when visiting a brahman or contemplative, to ask: ‘What is skillful?… Or what, having been done by me, will be for my long-term welfare & happiness?’

“…Beings are owners of kamma, heir to kamma, born of kamma, related through kamma, and have kamma as their arbitrator…”

(MN 135, III, 202-6)

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