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Home > Approaching Buddhism > Introduction to Buddhism > Basic Questions on Karma and Rebirth

Basic Questions on Karma and Rebirth

Singapore, August 10, 1988

Revised excerpt from
Berzin, Alexander and Chodron, Thubten.
Glimpse of Reality.
Singapore: Amitabha Buddhist Centre, 1999.

Question: Is the theory of karma empirical and scientific, or is it accepted on faith?

Answer: The idea of karma makes sense in many ways, but there is some misunderstanding about what karma is. Some people think that karma means fate or predestination. If somebody is hit by a car or loses a lot of money in business, they say, "Well, tough luck, that is their karma." That is not the Buddhist idea of karma. In fact, that is more the idea of God's will – something that we do not understand or have any control over.

In Buddhism, karma refers to impulses. Based on previous actions we have done, impulses arise in us to act in certain ways now. Karma refers to the impulse that comes into someone's mind to invest in a stock the day before it crashes or before it rises in value. Or, someone may have the impulse to cross the street at just the moment when he or she will be hit by a car, not five minutes earlier or five minutes later. The arising of the impulse at just that moment is the result of some previous action or actions the person did. In a previous life, for example, the person might have tortured or killed someone. Such destructive behavior results in the perpetrator experiencing a shortened lifespan as well, usually in another lifetime. Thus, the impulse to cross the street arose at just the moment to be hit by a car.

A person may have the impulse to shout at or hurt someone else. The impulse comes from habits built up by previous similar behavior. Yelling or hurting others builds up a potential, tendency and habit for this type of behavior, so that in the future, we easily do it again. Shouting with anger builds up even more of a potential, tendency and habit to make an angry scene again.

Smoking a cigarette is another example. Smoking one cigarette acts as a potential for smoking another. It also builds up a tendency and habit to smoke. Consequently, when the circumstances are right – either in this life when someone offers us a cigarette or in a future lifetime when, as a child, we see people smoking – the impulse comes to our minds to smoke and we do it. Karma explains where that impulse to smoke comes from. Smoking creates not only the mental impulse to repeat the action, but also influences the physical impulses within the body, for example, to get cancer from smoking. The idea of karma makes a lot of sense, for it explains where our impulses come from.

Question: Can someone's receptivity and understanding of Buddhism be predetermined by karma?

Answer: There is a great difference between something being predetermined and something being explainable. Our receptivity and understanding of Buddhism can be explained by karma. That is, as a result of our study and practice in previous lives, we are more receptive to the teachings now. If we had a good understanding of the teachings in the past then, instinctively, we will have a good understanding again in this lifetime. Or, if we had much confusion in previous lives, that confusion would carry over to this life.

However, according to Buddhism, things are not predetermined. There is no fate or destiny. When karma is explained as impulses, it implies that impulses are things that we can choose to act on or not. Based on actions we have done in this and previous lives, we can explain or predict what might occur in the future. We know that constructive actions bring happy results and destructive ones bring undesired consequences. Still, how a specific karmic action ripens will depend on many factors, and thus, many things can influence it. An analogy would be: if we throw a ball up in the air, we can predict that it will come down. Similarly, based on previous actions, we can predict what will happen in the future. If, however, we catch the ball, it will not come down. Likewise, while we can predict from previous actions what will come in the future, it is not absolute, fated, and carved in stone that only that outcome will happen. Other tendencies, actions, circumstances and so on can influence the ripening of karma.

When an impulse comes in our minds to do an action, we have a choice. We are not like little children who act out whatever impulses come to their heads. After all, we did learn to be toilet trained; we do not immediately act out whatever impulses arise. The same is true for the impulse to say something that would hurt someone, or to do something cruel. When such an impulse comes in our minds, we can choose, "Shall I act it out or refrain from acting upon it?" This ability to reflect and discriminate between constructive and destructive actions is what distinguishes human beings from animals. This is the great advantage of being a human being.

Thus, we can choose what we are going to do based on having enough space in our minds to be mindful that impulses are arising. A lot of Buddhist training is involved with developing mindfulness. As we slow down, we become more aware of what we are thinking and what we are about to say or do. Meditation on the breath, in which we observe the in and out-breaths, gives us the space to be able to notice impulses when they arise. We begin to observe, "I have this impulse to say something that will hurt someone. If I say it, it will cause difficulties. So, I will not say it." We can choose. If we are not mindful, we have such a rush of thoughts and impulses that we do not take the opportunity to choose wisely. We just act out the impulses and this often brings troubles to our lives.

Thus, we cannot say that everything – like our understanding or receptivity to the Dharma – is predetermined. We can predict it, but we also have the open space to be able to change.

Question: Do people of other religious beliefs also experience karma?

Answer: Yes. Someone does not have to believe in karma in order to experience it. If we bang our foot, we do not have to believe in cause and effect to experience the pain. Even if we think that poison is a delicious beverage, when we drink it, we get sick. Likewise, if we act in a certain way, the result of that action will come, whether or not we believe in cause and effect.

Question: Am I the continuation of someone else who lived before? Is the Buddhist theory of rebirth a metaphysical one or a scientific one? You said that Buddhism is rational and scientific. Does this apply to rebirth as well?

Answer: There are several points here. One is: how do we prove something scientifically? This brings up the subject: how do we validly know things? According to the Buddhist teachings, things can validly be known in two ways: by straightforward perception, and by inference. By doing an experiment in a laboratory, we can validate the existence of something through straightforward perception; we know it simply through our senses. Some things, however, cannot be known by us now through straightforward perception. We must rely on logic, reason and inference. Rebirth is very hard to prove by means of straightforward sense perception, although there is a story about one Buddhist teacher long ago in India who died, was reborn and then said, "Here I am again," in order to demonstrate to the king that rebirth exists. There are many examples of people who remember their past lives and who can identify either their personal belongings or people they knew before.

Leaving aside those stories, there is also the sheer logic of rebirth. His Holiness the Dalai Lama has said that if certain points do not correspond to reality, he is willing for them to be eliminated from Buddhism. This applies to rebirth as well. In fact, he made this statement originally in that context. If scientists can prove that rebirth does not exist, then we must give up believing it to be true. However, if scientists cannot prove it false, then because they follow logic and the scientific method, which is open to understanding new things, they must investigate whether it does exist. To prove that rebirth does not exist, they would have to find its nonexistence. Just saying, "Rebirth does not exist because I do not see it with my eyes" is not finding the nonexistence of rebirth. Many things exist that we cannot see with our eyes.

If the scientists cannot prove the nonexistence of rebirth, it then behooves them to investigate if rebirth does in fact exist. The scientific method is to postulate a theory based on certain data and then check if it can be validated. Therefore, we look at the data. For example, we notice that infants are not born like blank cassettes. They have certain habits and personality characteristics observable even when they are very young. Where do these come from?

It makes no sense to say that they come from just the previous continuities of the physical substances of the parents, from the sperm and egg. Not every sperm and egg that come together implant in the womb to grow into a fetus. What makes the difference between when they do become a baby and when they do not? What is actually causing the various habits and instincts in the child? We can say it is the DNA and the genes. This is the physical side. Nobody is denying that this is the physical aspect of how a baby comes into being. Nevertheless, what about the experiential side? How do we account for mind?

The English word mind does not have the same meaning as do the Sanskrit and Tibetan terms that it is supposed to translate. In the original languages, "mind" refers to mental activity or mental events, rather than to something that is doing that activity. The activity or event is the cognitive arising of certain things – thoughts, sights, sounds, emotions, feelings and so on – and a cognitive involvement with them – seeing them, hearing them, understanding them, and even not understanding them. These two characteristic features of mind are usually translated as "clarity" and "awareness," but those English words are also misleading.

Where does this mental activity of the arising and involvement with cognitive objects in an individual being come from? Here, we are not talking about where the body comes from, for that is obviously from the parents. We are not talking about intelligence and so on, because we can also give the argument that there is a genetic base for that. However, to say that someone's preference for chocolate ice cream comes from the person's genes is stretching it too far.

We can say that some of our interests may be influenced by our families or by the economic or social situations we are in. These factors definitely have an influence, but it is difficult to explain absolutely everything we do in that way. For example, why did I become interested in yoga as a child? Nobody in my family or in the society around me was. There were some books available in the area that I lived in, so you could say there was some influence from the society, but why was I interested in that specific book on hatha yoga? Why did I pick it up? That is another question.

Putting all these things aside, let us return to the major question: where does the activity of the arising of cognitive objects and a cognitive involvement in them come from? Where does this ability to perceive come from? Where does the spark of life come from? What makes this combination of a sperm and an egg actually have life? What makes it become a human being? What is it that allows the arising of things like thoughts and sights and what causes cognitive involvement with them, which is the experiential side of the chemical and electrical activity of the brain?

It is difficult to say that the mental activity of an infant comes from the parents because if it did, how does it come from the parents? There has to be some mechanism involved. Does that spark of life – characterized by awareness of things – come from the parents in the same way a sperm and egg do? Does it come with orgasm? With ovulation? Is it the sperm? The egg? If we cannot come up with a logical, scientific indication of when it comes from the parents, then we have to seek another solution.

Looking with sheer logic, we see that functional phenomena all come from their own continuities, from previous moments of something in the same category of phenomenon. For example, a physical phenomenon, be it matter or energy, comes from the previous moment of that matter or energy. It is a continuum.

Take anger as an example. We can talk of the physical energy we feel when we are angry, that is one thing. However, consider the mental activity of experiencing anger – experiencing the arising of the emotion and the conscious or unconscious awareness of it. An individual's experiencing of anger has its own prior moments of continuity within this lifetime, but where did it come from before that? Either it has to come from the parents, and there seems to be no mechanism to describe how that happens, or it has to come from a creator God. For some people, however, the logical inconsistencies in the explanation of how an omnipotent being creates present a problem. To avoid these problems, the alternative is that the first moment of anger in anyone's life comes from its own prior moment of continuity. The theory of rebirth explains just this.

We may try to understand rebirth with the analogy of a movie. Just as a movie is a continuity of the frames of film, our mental continuums or mind-streams are continuities of everchanging moments of awareness of phenomena within a lifetime and from one life to the next. There is not a solid, findable, entity, such as "me" or "my mind," that gets reborn. Rebirth is not like the analogy of a little statue sitting on a conveyor belt, going from one life to the next. Rather, it is like a movie, something that is constantly changing. Each frame is different but there is continuity in it. One frame is related to the next. Similarly, there is a constantly changing continuity of moments of awareness of phenomena, even if some of those moments are unconscious. Further, just as all movies are not the same movie, although they are all movies, likewise all mental continuums or "minds" are not one mind. There are a countless number of individual streams of continuity of awareness of phenomena.

These are the arguments that we start to investigate from a scientific and rational point of view. If a theory makes sense logically, then we can look more seriously at the fact that there are people who remember their previous lives. In this way, we examine the existence of rebirth from a scientific approach.

Question: Buddhism says that there is no soul or self. What then takes rebirth?

Answer: Again, the analogy of rebirth is not that of some soul, like a concrete little statue or person, traveling on a conveyor belt from one lifetime to another. The conveyor belt represents time and the image it implies is of some solid thing, a fixed personality or soul called "me" passing through time: "Now I am young, now I am old; now I am in this life, now I am in that life." This is not the Buddhist concept of rebirth. Rather, the analogy is like that of a movie. There is a continuity with a movie; the frames form a continuity.

Neither does Buddhism say that I become you, or that we are all one. If we were all one, and I am you, then if we are both hungry, you can wait in the car while I go to eat. It is not like that. We each have our own individual streams of continuity. The sequence in my movie is not going to turn into your movie, but our lives proceed like movies in the sense that they are not concrete and fixed. Life goes on from one frame to another. It follows a sequence, according to karma, and thus forms a continuity.

Question: How are the various impulses stored in the mind and how do they arise?

Answer: It is a bit complex. We act in a certain way, for example, we smoke a cigarette. Because there is some energy involved in smoking a cigarette, that action acts as a potential or force to smoke another one. There is a gross energy, which ends when an action ends, but there is also a subtle energy, which is the potential energy to repeat the action. That subtle energy of the potential to smoke is carried along with the very subtlest energy that accompanies the very subtlest mind that goes from life to life. In the simplest terms, the subtlest mind refers to the subtlest level of the activity of clarity and awareness, while the subtlest energy refers to the very subtle life-supporting energy that supports this activity. Together, they constitute what we may call "the spark of life." They are what go from one lifetime to the next. Karmic potentials are carried together with the spark of life.

Tendencies and habits are carried along also, but they are not physical. What is a habit? For example, we have the habit of drinking tea. We drank tea this morning and yesterday morning and the days before that. The habit is not a physical cup of tea; it is not our minds saying, "Drink tea." It is merely a sequence of similar events – drinking tea many times. Based on that sequence, as a manner of speaking, we say or "impute" that there is a habit of drinking tea. We label the sequence "the habit of drinking tea." A habit is not something physical, but rather an abstraction constructed from a manner of speaking about a sequence of similar events. Based on that, we can predict that something similar will happen in the future.

It is similar when we speak of habits, instincts or tendencies being carried on to the future. Nothing physical is being carried on. However, on the basis of moments of a mental continuum, we can say there are similar instances at this time and that time, and therefore there will be similar instances in the future.

Question: If life involves the transference of consciousness, is there any beginning?

Answer: Buddhism teaches that there is no beginning. A beginning is illogical. The continuity of matter, energy, and individual minds are beginningless. If they had a beginning, where did this beginning come from? What was before the beginning?

Some people say, "We need a beginning. Therefore, God created everything." They assert a creator God, who is given various names in different religions. The question that a Buddhist would ask is, "Where does God come from? Does God have a beginning?" Either they would have to answer that God is beginningless, at which point the Buddhist debater would say, "Ah ha, there is beginninglessness," or they would have to point to something or someone that created God, which contradicts their own philosophy.

An atheist says. "There is no God. Everything came from nothing. The universe evolved out of nothing. Our mental continuums came from nothing." Then, we ask, "Where does that nothing come from?" They say, "That nothing is always around. There was always nothing. This nothing had no beginning." So again, we come back to beginninglessness. Regardless of what answer is given we come back to beginninglessness.

If beginninglessness is the only logical conclusion we can come to, then we examine: "Is it possible for something that functions to come from nothing? How can nothing produce something?" That does not make any sense; things need to have causes. Does the other explanation, that of there being a creator, make sense? We would need to examine that assertion more closely. For example, if an omnipotent being or even if a purely physical Big Bang created everything, then did creation happen at a certain point because of the influence of a motivation, aim, or circumstance? If it did, then what influenced the creation of everything existed before the creation of everything, and that makes no sense. If a creator is both compassionate and beginningless, how could that creator have created compassion? Compassion already existed.

The third alternative to consider is do things continue with no beginning? This is a more scientific approach that accords with the idea that matter is neither created nor destroyed, only transformed. It is the same with individual mental continuums. There is no beginning, and everything transforms dependently, because of causes and circumstances.

Question: Buddha told his followers that he is not God. If that is the case, then what is the role of prayer in Buddhism?

Answer: The main issue concerning prayer is the question, 'Is it possible for someone else to eliminate our sufferings and problems?' Buddha said that nobody can eliminate all of our problems in the same way that one can take a rabbit by the ears and pull it out of a difficult situation. That is impossible. We have to take responsibility ourselves for what happens to us. Therefore, if we wish to create the causes for happiness and to avoid the causes for problems, we need to follow pure morality and ethics. If we want our lives to improve, it is up to us to change our behavior and attitudes in order to affect what will occur in the future.

When we pray in Buddhism, we do not request: "Buddha, please may I have a Mercedes!" No one in the sky can grant it to us. Rather, by praying, we are setting up a strong wish for something to happen. Our attitudes and actions make it happen; but, nevertheless, Buddhas and bodhisattvas can inspire us.

Sometimes, the term for "inspire" is translated as "bless," but this is a very poor translation. Buddhas and bodhisattvas can inspire us by their examples. They can teach or show us the way, but we have to do it ourselves. As the saying goes, "You can lead a horse to water but you cannot drink for the horse." The horse has to drink by itself. Likewise, we need to follow the path ourselves and gain the realizations ourselves that stop our problems. We cannot pass that responsibility onto an external omnipotent being, thinking, "You are all-powerful, you do it for me. I surrender myself into your hands." Rather, in Buddhism, we look to Buddhas for inspiration to uplift us by their examples. Through their inspiration and their teachings, they help us and guide us. However, we need to develop the potential from our sides to receive their inspiration. The basic work we have to do ourselves.

Much of the misunderstanding about Buddhism arises because of poor translation of Buddhist terms and concepts into English and other foreign languages. For example, many of the translation terms used to translate Buddhism into English were coined by the compilers of the Buddhist dictionaries in the last century, or even earlier. These early scholars often came from missionary or Victorian backgrounds and they chose vocabulary terms that came from their own upbringings. Many of the words they selected, however, do not accurately convey the meanings intended in Buddhism. When we read these words, we think they mean the same as they do in a Christian or Victorian setting when, in fact, they do not.

Examples are the words bless, sin, virtuous, nonvirtuous, confession, and so on. In Christianity, they have the implication of some sort of moral judgment, reward and punishment. However, the Buddhist concept is not this at all. It is similar with the word "blessing." These words come from a different cultural background. Therefore, in the study of Buddhism, it is very important to clear away as much as possible the cultural overlay from the words that the earlier translators used. They were the great pioneers of Buddhist Studies and we need to be grateful for their tremendous efforts. Now, however, we need to return once more to the original languages of the texts and understand the Buddhist concepts by their definitions in those languages and put them into English words or phrases that correspond to the meanings.

Question: What does Buddhism say about Darwin's theory of evolution?

Answer: Darwin's theory addresses the evolution of possible bodies into which mental continuums can take rebirth over several periods in the history of the earth. It does not describe the evolution of bodies that an individual mental continuum will take in subsequent lives. There is a great difference between the actual physical life forms on this planet and the continuity of the mind-streams that are reborn in them.

Some explanations about evolution in the Buddhist texts may seem a bit strange to us. They speak about beings that were in a better situation than us in the past and then deteriorated. Whether or not this is true needs investigation. Not everything Buddha and his followers taught can be corroborated by science, and those that cannot, His Holiness the Dalai Lama is willing to leave aside. The masters may have given seemingly odd explanations for specific reasons and did not intend for them to be taken literally. They may indicate various social or psychological truths.

Nevertheless, within the context of evolution itself, there once were dinosaurs and now they are extinct. There is no more karma or impulses left for beings to be reborn as dinosaurs on this planet now. There are different physical bases that are available for mind-streams to take as a body now. It is not contradictory with Buddhist explanations for the physical bases available for rebirth to change over time.

During a discussion that His Holiness Dalai Lama had with scientists, he was asked whether computers could become sentient beings: Could computers one day have minds? He answered in an interesting way, saying that if a computer or a robot reaches the point at which it was sophisticated enough to serve as the basis for a mental continuum, there is no reason why a mind-stream could not connect with a purely inorganic machine as the physical basis for one of its lives. This is even more far-out than Darwin!

This is not saying that a computer is a mind. It is not saying that we can create a mind artificially in a computer. However, if a computer is sophisticated enough, a mind-stream could connect with it and take it as its physical basis.

Such far-reaching thought makes modern-age people excited and interested in Buddhism. Buddhists are brave and willing to enter into these discussions with scientists and to face the various popular issues in the modern world. Buddhism is alive and vibrant in this way. Not only does Buddhism have the ancient wisdom from unbroken lineages going back to Buddha, but also it is alive and deals with issues of the present and future.

Question: What happens to the mind-stream when a person becomes a Buddha?

Answer: Before answering this question, I must explain that Buddha taught many people. Not everyone is the same. We have different dispositions and capacities. Buddha was extremely skillful and gave a variety of teachings so that each person would find an approach suitable to his or her character and disposition. Thus, the major traditions of the Buddhist teachings are Hinayana for modest- minded practitioners and Mahayana for vast- minded practitioners. Of the eighteen Hinayana schools that existed in ancient times, Theravada is the only one left in existence now.

If Buddha were to say to somebody who is modest in his or her aspiration and goal that everyone's mind-stream lasts forever, the person might become discouraged. Some people are overwhelmed with their own problems and therefore, to them, Buddha said, "You can get out of your problems, become a liberated being – an arhat – and achieve nirvana. When you die, you attain parinirvana. At that time, your mind-stream ends, just as a candle goes out when the wax is exhausted." For that person, such an explanation will be very encouraging, for he or she wishes to escape from the cycle of constantly recurring problems and rebirth, and not have to bother anymore. Thus, it is effective for that type of person. Please note, however, that Buddha did not teach that in the end, all mind-streams become one like streams of water merging in the ocean. That is the explanation of Hinduism.

To a more vast- minded person, Buddha would say, "I gave the previous explanation to benefit those who are modest. However, I did not mean what I explained literally because, in fact, the mind-stream goes on forever. After you have eliminated your problems and attained nirvana, the quality of your mind changes. Your mind does not continue in the same troubling manner as it did before." Thus, to people who have a vast-minded aim to attain enlightenment, Buddha explained that in fact the mind-stream lasts forever – no beginning, no end. When enlightened beings leave their present bodies, their mind-streams still go on.

There is a difference between arhats, liberated beings who have achieved nirvana, and Buddhas, who are fully enlightened. While arhats are free from their problems, suffering and its causes, Buddhas have overcome all their limitations and realized all their potentials in order to benefit everyone in the most effective ways.

Question: Is the state of nirvana permanent? When we achieve enlightenment, we attain a state of equanimity, which is neither happy nor sad. Isn't that rather dull?

Answer: We need to be careful about how we use the word permanent. Sometimes it has the meaning of being static and never changing. The other meaning of "permanent" is lasting forever. When we achieve nirvana, we have rid ourselves of all of our problems. That state lasts forever – once the problems are gone, they are gone and do not return. The situation in which all limitations are gone also does not change; it will always be the case. However, we must not get the idea that because nirvana is permanent, it is therefore solid and concrete and we do not do anything in it. That is not so. When we have attained nirvana, we can continue to help others and to do things. Nirvana is not permanent in the sense of all activity stopping and nothing happening. We have to be a bit more precise about the use of the word permanent and be aware of its connotations. The state of nirvana itself does not change; the accomplishment of having removed our limitations does not change; it lasts forever. The person who achieves such a state, however, continues to act.

"Equanimity" also has several connotations. It can mean a neutral feeling of being neither happy nor unhappy, but that is not what Buddhas experience. Some of the higher gods absorb themselves in deep meditative trances that are beyond the feelings of happiness and sadness; they experience a totally neutral feeling in these trances. Buddhas rid themselves of such neutral feelings as well, since they are associated with confusion. When we rid ourselves of all problems and limitations, we release a tremendous amount of energy that was previously tied up with neuroses, anxiety and worries. We experience the release of all that energy unassociated with any confusion as extremely blissful. This is completely different from ordinary happiness associated with confusion, and it is not at all neutral or dull.

Another usage of the word equanimity refers to Buddhas having equanimity toward everyone. Here "equanimity" does not mean indifference, but having an equal attitude of care and concern for all. Buddhas do not favor some and ignore or dislike others.