Buddhist Doctrine Of Karma
The Buddhist doctrine of karma (“deeds”, “actions”), and the closely related doctrine of rebirth, are perhaps the best known, and often the least understood, of Buddhist doctrines. The matter is complicated by the fact that the other Indian religious traditions of Hinduism and Jainism have their own theories of Karma and Reincarnation. It is in fact the Hindu versions that are better known in the West. The Buddhist theory of karma and rebirth are quite distinct from their other Indian counterparts.
In Buddhism the law of karma is the moral law of causation – good actions give good results and vice versa. It is the quality of an act, which determines its consequences. But what determines the karmic quality of a deed? In Hinduism it is the correct performance of a person’s “duty”, especially his caste duties that counts. Early Buddhism, which recognized no caste distinctions, evaluates the karmic quality of an act in terms of moral and ethical criteria. In particular it is the mental factors, which accompany the commission of deed that determines its consequences or “fruits” (vipka). All negative karma (i.e. those leading to bad consequences) arise from the three roots of unwholesomeness. These are greed (lobha), aversion (dosa), and delusion (moha). Accordingly good karmic results follow from deeds that spring from generosity (caga), loving-kindness (mett) and wisdom (vijj). The Buddha emphasized that it is the mental factors involved rather than the deeds themselves that determine future consequences. Thus the same deed committed with different mental factors will have different consequences. Likewise purely accidental deeds may have neutral consequences, however if the accident occurred because insufficient mindfulness was exercised it could have adverse results for the person responsible for it.
The theory of karma presupposes that individuals have “free will”. Everything that happens to an individual is not the fruit of some past karma. In fact the experiences that involve an individual may be of three kinds: some are the result of past action, some are deliberately committed free acts; and the remainder could be due to chance factors operating in the environment. The doctrine of karma is not a theory of predestination of any kind. One common misunderstanding is not to distinguish between the action and its results – between karma and vipka. It must also be mentioned that the fruiting of an act may be postponed, and that it is possible to reach enlightenment – the goal of the Buddha’s path – before all the previous karmas have yielded their results.
The Buddhist theory of rebirth asserts that the fruits of some karma may manifest themselves in “future lives”. This brings us to the Buddhist theory of rebirth. Similar concepts occur in other religious systems – e.g. the Platonic theory of the “pre-existence of the soul” and the Hindu-Jain theory of re-incarnation. Such reincarnation theory involves the transmigration of a soul. In Buddhism, however, it is the unripened karmic acts outstanding at the death of an individual, which conditions a new birth. The last moment of consciousness too is also a conditioning factor, but it is the store of unripened karma generated by volitional acts (the sankhras) of previous existences which generates the destiny of the new individual. A newly born individual needs not only the genetic blueprint derived from the genes of the natural parents, but also a karmic blueprint derived from the volitional acts of a deceased person.
The question has been posed whether the new individual is the same as the old individual whose karma it has inherited. The Buddha’s answer to this question was somewhat enigmatic: “It is not the same, yet it is not another” (na ca so, na ca ao). To understand the Buddha’s reply we have to investigate the criteria, which establish personal identity. Is the child the same as the adult it later becomes? In the Buddhist sense we are making two observations at two points of time in a constantly changing psychophysical entity. For legal and conventional purposes some arbitrary criteria are used, such as physical continuity over time, or the retention of memory. These define only a conventional person. Just as it is a conventional or “fictional” person who lasts continuously from birth to death, so it is just such a conventional person who persists from one life to another. In the Buddhist view of rebirth the only links between two successive lives is the karmic residue carried over and an element of consciousness, called the re-linking consciousness: (paisandhi vina), which momentarily links the two lives. In Buddhism there is no conception of a transmigrating soul which inhabits successive material bodies until it unites with God.
Buddhism uses the Pali term sasra to denote the “round of births” in various planes of existence governed by the law of karma. The acceptance of the validity of the hypothesis of sasra is very difficult for some people, while for others it is the most natural of hypotheses. Some features of the observable world suggest it. In the Culakammavibhanga Sutta the Buddha is asked: “What is the reason and the cause for the inequality amongst human beings despite their being human?” (The contexts making it clear that it is inequality at birth that is meant). The Buddha answered “Beings inherit their karma, and it is karma which divides beings in terms of their inequality”. The theistic hypothesis cannot give a rational answer, except in terms of an iniquitous and unjust “God”.
Some support for the theory of rebirth comes from reports of recollections of past lives, whether spontaneously or under hypnosis, which have been reported from all parts of the world. While many such reports may be mistaken or even fraudulent, some are undoubtedly genuine. According to Buddhism individuals can develop the power of “retrocognition” (i.e. the ability to recall past lives), but the development of such supernormal powers is usually the accompaniment of progress along the spiritual path of enlightenment. IT may be possible that some karmic factors may predispose some individuals towards such experiences. However parapsychological experimentation is still in its early stages, and many people have no personal recollection of their own previous lives. For such individuals the dogmatic acceptance of the doctrines of karma and rebirth is not expected. (Berchol, 303)
The central tenets of Buddhism relate not to any abstract theories about rebirth or karma but to the interpretation of human experience, which is within the capacity of every person to verify. This verification can be undertaken, not in terms of an abstract cycle of lives, but also in terms of the one life we are all familiar with. The Buddhist sasra is to be seen in every moment of existence, as well as the whole “cycle of births”. (Berchol, 172)
One would expect that in the Klma Sutta, the discourse in which the Buddha decries the acceptance of theories on the basis of authority (which was quoted earlier), that he would address himself to the question of belief in the doctrine of karma and rebirth. This he does. Referring to the “four-fold confidences” which the “noble person” (riya puggala), i.e. the person who follows the path of the Buddha, attains to, the Buddha states:
” ‘If there is the other world and if there is the fruit and result of good and bad deeds, then there is reason that I shall be reborn into the state of bliss, the celestial world, on the dissolution of the body, after death.’ This is the first confidence that he attains.
” ‘If, however, there is no other world and if there is no fruit and no result of good and bad deeds, then I shall myself lead he a happy life, free from enmity, malice and suffering in this very life’. This is the second confidence that he attains.”(Kaufman, 404)
Therefore even the extreme rationalist who would suspend judgement on the truth of the sasric hypothesis (i.e. the doctrines of karma and rebirth) would find that the Buddha-Dharma would not have lost its rationale. He can aspire to the second confidence of the “noble person” and make the one life that he is sure of, a happy one.
Many of the Buddhist basic teachings on karma can be compared though those of the Roman Catholic Church. The Church believes that good deeds are rewarded and are very closely tied to life and afterlife. However, the Buddhist teaching is that a person has more than one chance at this life, this does not concur with Catholic teachings. The quality, meaning, and purity of the actions will lead someone to the path of enlightenment, wherein lies nirvana. Nirvana can be compared to the Christian belief in heaven, though nirvana is a representation of someone becoming enlightened in this life. It seems as though Christians tend to emphasize too greatly the importance of acceptance into the Kingdom of Heaven. Buddhists believe it is not the deeds themselves, but the mental factors involved in making those decisions that determine later consequences. We, as Catholics, should at least try to follow that example. Because it seems that all too often Christians over look the fact that they should not overlook the fact that they only have a certain amount of time to do things right in this lifetime, because heaven is never ending.
In order to live better lives; Christians should learn as much as possible about religions that are alien to them. They should adopt ideals that make sense to them in their daily lives. And finally, they should be proud that they share similar ideals as many of the worlds other great religions.
Berchol, Samuel The Buddha and his Teachings. New York: Barnes and Noble books, 1997
Gurasekara, Victor A. Basic Buddhism. London: Buddhist Monk Press, 1997
Kaufman, Walter Religions, in Four Dimensions .New York: Thomas Y. Crowell Co., 1976
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