Karma & Reincarnation



Karma, means ‘action or deed’ and, also, refers to the principle of cause and effect that underpins the universe – a universe made up of ever-changing, interdependent, processes.  The process of cause and effect (karma) is central to the Buddha’s teaching about the way things are in the world. Whatever we think, feel or do has an effect – rippling out in all directions – interpenetrating with all the other streams of cause and effect that constitute the universe. Karma is not synonymous with ‘fate’. Fate implies some kind of predetermination or predestination – a sequence of events over which we have no control and for which we are, presumably, not responsible. Karma suggests that all actions have consequences, including what we do now. In this way, we have the ability to change a sequence of actions or events – we are authors of our own lives, within a context of interflowing causal networks.

In the Buddha’s time (and since then) the traditional Indian view has been that the essence of a being, or atman, is reborn many times (a relatively straightforward belief in reincarnation). But the Buddha taught the doctrine of anatman – a view that there is no fixed essence or independent self. Within Buddhism, ‘self’ is a term that denotes a process not an object. The self is a fluid entity made up of currents of causality known as the skandhas. On the face of it this could be interpreted as evidence that reincarnation is incompatible with Buddhism.

Certainly whether reincarnation happens, and what it is, are controversial issues in Buddhism. Does the term refer to states of mind in this life, or progression from one life to another? There are advocates for both arguments. Most adherents to the Tibetan traditions seem to firmly believe that reincarnation is a fact and some schools base the choice of religious leaders on a process of ascertaining whether a young person is an emanation of a deceased teacher. All tulkus (spiritual and social guides or teachers) are recognised in this way – including the Dalai Lama, who points out that “there are people who can remember their immediate past life or even many past lives, as well as being able to recognise places and relatives from those lives… The Tibetan system of recognising reincarnations is an authentic mode of investigation based on people’s recollection of their past lives.”

At the other end of the spectrum most Zen Buddhists agree that causality is a primary feature of reality, but they interpret reincarnation as referring to a process of ‘rebirth’ that happens from moment-to-moment – the arising of phenomena within the river of consciousness and the remaking of the self as we take each breath.

In a Tricycle discussion about reincarnation, Stephen Batchelor mentions the 8th Century Indian scholar, Shantideva, who says that the person who dies, and the person who is reborn, are not the same. “There is no ‘you’ who continues into a future life. ‘You’ finish at death, and something else, another being is then born, like a parent giving birth to a child. That position takes the subject—me, the ego—out of the equation.”

Thich Nhat Hanh writes: “Not only is our body impermanent, but our so-called soul is also impermanent. It, too, is comprised only of elements like feelings, perceptions, mental states, and consciousness…. [on the other hand] if we observe the things around us, we find that nothing comes from nothing.” A flower grows when the causal conditions are sufficient for it to manifest itself. When the causal conditions change, as they always do, the flower decays, continues as leafmould and soil from which, in time and given sufficient conditions, another plant, microbe or organism might manifest itself.

For what it is worth, my own view is that there is no definitive ‘proof’ or ‘disproof’ of the reincarnation of individuals – we don’t know either way, so I suspend judgment. On the other hand, a belief in the reincarnation of an individual self or person seems very difficult to reconcile with at least two of the Buddha’s ‘marks of existence’: impermanence (anicca); and absence of an independent self (anatta) – this may be why many so-called ‘arguments’ in favour of personal reincarnation aren’t very persuasive, struggling, as they do, with contradictions and dependence upon un-provable beliefs.

Within the human realm, our reactions, intentions and impulses are often unconsidered and habitual – we respond to something in a particular way because we have previously responded in that way. These habits of reactive cause and effect are reinforced each time they occur and they can dominate and determine so much of our thought and behaviour. We can become trapped in these mindless habits. In mindful meditation we practice a kind of non-reactive awareness – attending to our experience without clinging, commentary or judgment – and in this way we can free ourselves from these constricting habits! As Jon Kabat-Zinn argues, when you sit in mindfulness your impulses aren’t translated into action: “looking at them, you quickly see that all impulses in the mind arise and pass away, that they … are not you but just thinking, and that you do not have to be ruled by them. By not feeding or reacting to impulses, you come to understand their nature as thoughts.” In other words, instead of practicing ‘discriminating awareness’ (vijñāna), fuelled by attachment and reaction, we use our ‘Buddha mind’ to practice ‘non-discriminating awareness’ (prajñā).