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Karma and Rebirth in Buddhism

Karma and Rebirth in Buddhism

The doctrine of karma (kamma) and rebirth is often misunderstood. You sometimes hear people say rather fatalistically “it’s my karma” or with the desire to give meaning to their suffering “it’s probably good for something”.

When talking about karma like this it seems like an inescapable destiny or a greater power at play, a judge who assigns karma to punish or teach.

The essence of rebirth is often buried under the image of reincarnation, the (according to the Buddha wrong) idea that there is a soul that migrates from one life to the next. Sometimes it is even said that a person has an old soul or one soul is older than another.

In addition, it is striking that Western Buddhist writers regularly reject the teachings of karma and rebirth altogether.

They argue that this teaching is not appropriate in the otherwise so logical and experience-based teaching of the Buddha, nor would it be necessary to think about this at all for progress on the path.

In the light of such images and claims, it is very important to reflect on the teachings of karma and rebirth.

The Meaning of the Word ‘Karma’

First, let us consider the meaning of the word karma.

Contrary to how the word karma is often used in the West, it does not mean ‘consequence’. The Buddha said (AN 6:63):

“Intention, I tell you, is kamma. Intending, one makes kamma by way of body, speech and mind.”

So Karma is much more of a driving force.

The Pali word for consequence or reaction is vipāka. Kamma-vipāka therefore means as much as action-reaction, but a nicer translation is ‘intention and its fruit’. Fruit because vipāka also has the meaning of ‘ripening’.

We know the expression “you reap what you sow”, this is a description of kamma-vipāka.

Just as the ripening of what is sown depends on water, sun and nutrients among other things, the ripening of karma also depends on several factors.

The Ripening of Karma

Karma is not always expressed proportionally in a neat one-to-one relationship with the result. There are different degrees, different strengths of karma that each interact with other karma from the near or distant past and it also depends on current effort.

For example, the fruit of karma can sometimes be stronger due to other supporting karma, weakened by opposing karma, or held back by destructive karma.

Furthermore, just as with the ripening of a fruit, which requires not only the growth of the fruit tree through sun, rain and nutrients, but also the right season for bearing the fruit, karma must have the right conditions for it to ripen.

For example, certain karma might not be able to cause results because the right conditions are not in place, so there is more time for other karma to be generated that might oppose it if it is unwholesome or strengthen if it is wholsome.

This is important because it gives just enough space to make spiritual growth possible.

In a strict one-to-one relationship, the inexhaustible karma from the infinite past would bring about infinite results in the future.

Precisely because this is not the case influence can be exerted by directing intention and liberation is possible.

The Ethical Quality of Karma

Karma can be classified into ethical quality, i.e. wholesome karma or unwholesome karma.

Wholesome karma are the intentions that result in the expansion of consciousness, rebirth into higher worlds and ultimately Nibbāna.

Unwholesome karma are the intentions which result in the narrowing of consciousness, rebirth into lower worlds and turning away from Nibbāna.

There is No ‘I’ in Karma

When we speak of rebirth, two points are important. The first is that there is no “I”, no “person” or “soul” that passes from one existence to another.

Rebirth is the result of conditions.

An example that is often given to clarify this is the flame from a candle that is used to light another candle. The flame of the second candle is not the same, but also not completely different from that of the first candle. The flame of the second candle is there because of, depending on, the first candle.

A more modern example is the billiard ball that has its direction and strength as a result of the ball that touches it, which in turn gives strength and direction to the next ball. The balls are not the same, but their movement cannot be seen as separately from each other.

Likewise, rebirth is not a transmigration of the soul but the continuation of mind-moments based on conditions.

Karma is an Indispensable Part of Buddha’s Teaching

The teachings of kamma-vipāka and rebirth are deeply interwoven with paṭiccasamuppāda, dependend origination which we explained in the previous chapter.

When speaking about depend origination the Buddha said that it is equivalent to the Dhamma itself.

Therefore, the choice of some Western writers to completely ignore karma and rebirth appears to be a very selective personal choice that does not correspond to the words of the Buddha.

Of course, it is not necessary to believe blindly in karma and rebirth, but it is advisable to keep an open and inquiring mind.

Do not immediately reject karma but recognize the limitations of your own undeveloped mind and only dare to draw conclusions slowly, after gaining your own insights from the steady training of the mind through morality, concentration and wisdom.

Ahba repeats it over and over again, not only when speaking about things like karma, but also in other situations where something is beyond our Western frame of mind:

“Now your mind isn’t powerful enough, that’s why you don’t see it. If you develop concentration and your mind becomes more powerful, you’ll see it by itself.”


This text was previously published in The Four Noble Truths: Essence of the Dhamma.

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