On Karma and Rebirth: The Wheels on Life’s Bus, When do They Stop Going Around?

According to Yahoo commenter Richard 046, “Like, oh my God, after he hit my car, another car hit his. It’s just like, proof of karma man.”  

Karma.

It’s now a part of the English language.…and has taken on a life of its own.

It would be easy to cite just one source and give the “real” definition of karma, but any such effort would be misguided. Just as karma has taken on different meanings within contemporary American culture, it has had many meanings throughout its history, in India and in the rest of the world. Likewise, we cannot simply say this is how rebirth works and be done with it. I am not all-knowing in the ways of the cosmos and will not pretend to be. But I can at least share a sampling of the ways these ideas have been understood, both from several key texts and from the teachings of contemporary meditation masters.

Karma in its most basic sense, simply means “action.” Yup … action. For all its mystery, suspense, and magical sense, the word is simply a translation of “action.” But, over a few thousand years of countless sacred texts and commentaries, karma has taken on many special, deeper and sacred meanings.

The first text to consider would be the Bhagavad Gita, a text that we consider one of the seminal texts of the Yoga tradition. It is an ancient story about duty and divine obligations. Ghandi considered it his “spiritual dictionary” and it has been one of India’s most influential sacred texts. How any text is understood is very different depending on the tradition and time. But it is helpful to look at the concepts as described in this and other texts.

Sri Krishna tells Arjuna  of the body as he prepares for battle that, “He is not born nor does he ever die; after having been, He again ceases not to be. Unborn, eternal, changeless and ancient, He is not killed when the body is killed”(Gita 2:22). Krishna goes on to compare bodily lives to a person changing clothes. We attain new bodies, but it is the same eternal Self which continues, on and on. The true Self cannot be harmed by fire, age, or weapons. And so, the text claims, we should not worry so much about pleasure or pain, because our Self remains no matter what. The Self is constant and eternal, unmanifested, and unchangeable (Gita 2:22-25). The Gita emphasizes karma as social duty and fulfilling that duty leads one to live the fulfilled life. Karma, thus, means action, but a particular type of action we are “meant to accomplish.” The text emphasizes karma as yoga. Yoga, of course, is not simply the physical practice, but divine unification. Karma Yoga in the Gita is accomplished through an evenness of mind—by simply doing what one is meant to do, without giving thought to the results of those actions. We act for the sake of acting itself (line 49). This is the key. Although the Gita talks about constantly being reborn, we can end that process and just be pure Atman (Self) if we can let go of the attachment to results, thus ridding the need of any new body. The sage, in karma yoga, attains peace when abandoning all anger, all desires, letting go, and living in calm, steady, pure evenness of heart and mind.

The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, essentially the guide to yoga, compiled by Patanjali to include the traditions which had been handed down orally,  indicate a more direct internal meaning of karma, linking it to underlying desires. These desires are the seeds of karma which direct actions (Sutras 4:8). Like the Gita, they mention a true Self which is permanent and unchanging within this karmic sea. Although there are some indications of rebirth and the idea that liberation provides its end, the Sutras are not very clear on this subject, leaving room for individual interpretation.

The Pāli Canon, a vast collection of sutras in the Theravadan Buddhist tradition, gives a fairly consistent view of karma and rebirth. These sutras speak of karma as intention. Although intention and physical action are of course deeply related, the Buddha here is very clear in specifying that the intention matters more than the results, and that the quality of that intention is what purifies or taints the heart in determining rebirth. The texts are quite direct and consistent in relating rebirth to one’s karma, though that karma comes in two basic categories: past karma and present karma. This karma may come to fruition at any time so that we constantly have a mix of our present intentions with those from minutes, years, or even many lifetimes ago, depending on the trigger (1). What leads to liberation in this view is skillful action—using intention with a greater awareness that leads to less suffering, and eventually to the end of all unsatisfactory experience, freeing one from the rounds of rebirth.

Mahayana Buddhism, however, puts another twist on this by, at least explicitly, stating a different goal: rather than liberating oneself, the goal is to liberate all beings from suffering. For example, the Ksitigarbha Sutra describes how Ksitigarbha vowed not to attain his own liberation so that he could continue helping all beings, particularly those in the hell realms who suffer the most. Mahayana sutras identify beings who vow to wait for their own liberation until they save all other sentient beings as “bodhisattvas.”

Although we can find a variety of textual representations of karma and how it interacts with rebirth, even these are understood differently by different practitioners—and come with a variety of different implications for actual practice itself.

For example, some people interpret reincarnation with regards to the moment-by-moment rebirths of all sentient beings. Every single being is reborn with every single moment of thought. Does this mean that all discussion of rebirth is a symbol of such moment-to-moment destructions and reconstructions of reality? What about the experience of Self that seems to continue in this body and even when this body dies?

Many still believe some form of consciousness continues on. In the Buddhist perspective, this is complicated by the idea of non-self, the idea that there is no Atman which is permanent. If everything is impermanent, how can you explain something continuing to be reborn? Some Buddhists say that all consciousness will eventually reach nirvana, thus rebirth is not inconsistent with impermanence.

However, still others bring up a different view of rebirth. Some Tibetans describe death almost like a starburst of consciousness. So, when we die, there are aspects of consciousness that continue on, but they will be a part of many different lives. Some Chinese separate this view in the hun and po souls, or aspects of self. These aspects are still connected in some way, but the po soul remains earth-bound while the hun soul ascends into the heavenly realms.

One of my teachers describes rebirth like water changing states. A puddle might disappear, but it becomes part of the air, then part of a cloud, and then eventually rain and water again. Water is an interesting analogy since we can visually see how drops of water connect to each other when close enough, becoming like one body. It creates an interesting reflection for the meaning and reality of consciousness as well. How unified is our own consciousness? Is it more unified at some times than at others? Compare your own consciousness in a deep state of meditation to a period when you are busy running around with many things to do and even more on your mind.

In a practical sense, when we are mindful of our state of consciousness, we can almost feel the karma. When we carry resentments, hatred, or even restlessness there is an almost heavy feeling. When acting with kindness and love, laughing and sharing joy with those around us, there is a lightness to our hearts. The deeper our state of concentration, the more and more subtle things we can notice. When concentration is good enough to feel the various energy patters around us associated with different thoughts and memories, we can feel the different subtle energetic knots that arise. To deal with old karma, it is good to test ourselves in such a state, for it is in those states that we can look at our past with greater clarity and equanimity, and it is in such states of consciousness that we can find subtler and subtler forms of such energetic knots, working through them and evening them out.

While I do not want to tell anyone what to believe about karma and rebirth, I do want to share that the views on these subjects are not simply based on philosophical thought or culturally constructed beliefs. Many of these views are formed through deep practices and years of intensive meditation. I am not here to try to prove what these experiences mean to any existential reality, and the vast majority of us will not be remembering the details of hundreds of thousands of past lives any time soon. But what is important is to at least see the effects of karma in everyday life, to be aware of these effects on our minds and hearts from moment to moment. The more we can increase our awareness of this, the better we can adjust our patterns for the well-being of both ourselves and those around us. And then to strive towards this liberation that each tradition speaks of—although the definition of that liberation may change—the directions to walk are ultimately not that different and the effort in walking the path is what is truly important.

Footnote:

  1. For more on Pali Canon notions of karma, you can find Thanissaro Bhikkkhu’s The Wings to Awakening free online at dhammatalks.org, under the “treatises” heading of the “texts” page. He provides a wonderful, albeit fairly dense, summary of Buddhist thought on karma on pages 45-54 along with relevant Pali canon quotes listed on the pages thereafter.
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