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Karma and Rebirth
This Dhamma article is an excerpt from my book Becoming Buddha. A preview of this book is available here: Becoming Buddha Preview
Karma and Rebirth
- Karma is continuity of Dukkha within impermanence.
- Karma is the present unfolding of past intentional acts moderated by present mindfulness.
- Karma is the personal experience of Three Marks of Existence
“I am the owner of my actions, heir to my actions. I am born of my actions and related through my actions. My actions will determine the fortune or misfortune in my life.” (Anguttara Nikaya 10.176)
Karma and Rebirth are closely linked concepts of the Buddha’s teachings. Many modern schools claim the Buddha taught karma and rebirth only to relate to the prevalent beliefs of his time. They hope to show that Karma and Rebirth are not useful or relevant teachings. Understanding karma and rebirth is essential to Becoming Buddha.
The Buddha’s teachings on karma and rebirth refuted many of the common beliefs of his time. Understanding Karma and Rebirth help clarify the purpose and experience of awakening.
Understanding Karma and Rebirth as they were originally presented and in the context of The Four Noble Truths brings insight and clarity to the Eightfold Path.
Understanding Karma and Rebirth and can help one recognize contradictory and confusing “Buddhist” teachings that are later-developed adaptations and accommodations to the original teachings.
Karma and Rebirth are conditions arising from ignorance. Karma means action. Karma is in no way punishment as a result of arbitrary judgments from a supreme being. Karma is not the consequences from a vague inter-dependent moral-ethical-spiritual system.
Karma is not a condition imposed on you. You alone are the cause of your karma and you alone are the cause of rebirth.
Karma should not be viewed simply as what is unfolding in your life. Karma is the present unfolding of past intentional actions moderated by your present state of understanding and quality of mindfulness.
As your present state of mindfulness and understanding animate your current thoughts, words, and deeds, your current actions are moderating the effects of past thoughts, words, and deeds.
What this means is the key to developing the Dhamma.
Through mindfulness informed by wisdom and motivated by Right Intention, the unfolding of karma can be inclined towards release and awakening.
Developing understanding of the process of originating in ignorance resulting in confusion and suffering brings the ability to end ignorance through developing wisdom. By understanding the causes and conditions of suffering you can reverse the process.
Karma does not pre-determine life. Mindful and well-concentrated intention within the framework of the Eightfold Path develops release from craving and clinging and cessation of suffering.
“Whatever one continues to pursue with their thinking becomes the inclination of their awareness. Being mindful of Right Intention and abandoning thinking imbued with craving, clinging, and sensuality inclines the mind towards release.” (Samyutta Nikaya 22.102)
All the events of life are not the result of individual karma. Most of what occurs in one’s life is simply worldly conditions and described in the First Noble Truth and summarized as “There is stress.” Reaction to impersonal events will create additional karma and further conditions conditioned mind.
Reaction arises from wrong views of self. It is wrong views that initiate and proliferate karma. Once all wrong views of self are abandoned, the establishment of further karma ends.
As with all the Buddha’s original teachings, karma is taught in the context of The Four Noble Truths with the goal of the cessation of suffering.
In this context, karma describes the ongoing suffering rooted in ignorance and reinforced by wrong views and wrong intention.
“Karma should be understood (correctly). The cause of karma should be understood. The diversity (of the results) of karma should be understood. Cessation of karma should be understood. The path developing the cessation of karma should be understood.” (Samyutta Nikaya 22.102)
Notice that these are the same words the Buddha uses to describe the truth of suffering. Karma unfolding, whether experienced as pleasure or pain, is an aspect of dukkha and originates in craving and clinging. This relates directly to Dependent Origination (ignorance resulting in suffering) and Right Intention.
The Buddha continues: “Intention is karma. With intention, one does karma through thought, word, and deed. And what is the cause that initiates karma? Contact.”
This again relates to Dependent Origination and the importance of unraveling the links of Dependent Origination. The ongoing process of ignorance resulting in confusion and suffering can be brought to an end through wisdom and ensuing right actions framed by the Eightfold Path (again, karma means action).
The Buddha continues: “And what is the cessation of karma? From the cessation of contact comes the cessation of karma. And how does one experience the cessation of contact? Through the Noble Eightfold Path.”
This shows that the driving force to continue confusion and suffering is described by the Buddha as karma. This is to point out the importance of being mindful of all thoughts, words, and deeds.
This is the purpose of mindfulness in the context of The Four Noble Truths.
It is your actions that will determine your awakening or continued confusion and suffering. The framework for recognizing, understanding, and refining your actions is the Eightfold Path.
Through whole-hearted engagement with the Eightfold Path, you are taking actions that directly influence the unfolding of your karma and incline your karma towards developing a life of lasting peace and happiness.
- Karma is your ego-personality’s experience of craving and clinging within anicca.
- Karma is the direct experience of the results of ignorance. Understanding karma is understanding dukkha.
- Understanding dukkha inclines your mind towards abandoning craving and clinging and begins to unravel the links of Dependent Origination.
With awakened Right View no attachment to the ego-personality is present and any experience is simply an experience in the world that is dispassionately observed with mindful presence.
Any event that occurs in the phenomenal world is an opportunity to remain dispassionately present with a mind settled in equanimity.
- Once a reaction to an event has occurred, further karma is established.
- A mind settled in equanimity will cease creating additional karma.
“A fool and a wise person are both characterized by their actions. It is through the actions of one’s life that reveals the fool or the sage. The fool engages in three things: bodily misconduct, verbal misconduct, and mental misconduct. The sage engages in three things: good bodily conduct, good verbal conduct, and good mental conduct.
“Thus friends, train yourselves as a sage in thought, word, and deed.” (Anguttara Nikaya 6.46)
Your experience of the unfolding of your karma is not predetermined. The state or quality of your mind in each moment determines your experience of karma unfolding. A reactive mind will further karma. A mind of equanimity will bring a peaceful experience of karma unfolding and avoid additional karma.
While it is more desirable to experience the effects of karma pleasurably, to have “good karma,” all karma contributes to dukkha and rebirth. All karma is to be extinguished.
Holding the conscious intention to act in a certain manner to develop favorable karma will accomplish just that: develop additional karma. The result will be to forever perpetuate dukkha. This is why it is crucial to be mindful of Right View and the strong resolve, the Right Intention, to abandon all craving and clinging, and awaken.
Dukkha describes the underlying unsatisfactory experience of life in the phenomenal world. Karma describes your contribution to your experience of the underlying unsatisfactory experience. Your karma is your dukkha.
Intentional actions will determine the continuation or cessation of confusion and stress.
Altruistic or compassionate actions taken without wisdom can often generate further karmic entanglements. This can be very subtle and difficult to recognize. For example, if an underlying motivation and intention for compassionate action is to fulfill a view of what it means to be a “good” person, even a “good Buddhist,” the resulting karma will reinforce an ego-personality.
Altruistic and compassionate actions that are an expression of an awakened mind will always benefit all with no karmic entanglements or consequences.
This is not to say that one should not act with compassion and in accordance with the framework of the Eightfold Path. The Eightfold Path provides guidance against continued self-identification and continued “I-making.”
Holding the intention to establish and defend an ego-self leads to action and reaction that inevitably creates additional karma.
Acting with the (wrong) intention to establish a view of what a “Buddhist” should be or a “Buddhist practice” should be is a subtle but prevalent form of “I-making” that further establishes karma.
Holding in mind the intention to recognize and abandon craving and clinging will incline karma towards release. The life experience will naturally be more peaceful and meaningful.
Karma is the experience of self in this present moment. Who you see yourself to be is the result of karma or past actions unfolding in the present state of your mindfulness.
Karma is who you are in this moment in the phenomenal world. The more skillful your actions in the present, the more liberating will be your karma as life unfolds. Mindfulness of the Eightfold Path inclines you to Right Action.
By being mindful of the Dhamma and living with the integrity that arises from following The Eightfold Path, you directly impact karma in the present moment. You will change the direction of your life by changing your intentional actions and reactions.
The Eightfold Path is the framework for clearly seeing your actions, reactions, and unfolding karma. Your actions and reactions change as your thoughts become virtuous, your mind becomes less distracted, and wisdom deepens.
Holding the intention to abandon all clinging, craving, desire and aversion diminishes the distraction of dukkha. Abandoning clinging interrupts the ongoing establishment and defense of your ego-self.
- Unskillful intentions and resulting actions will create additional karma.
- Right Intention will lead to cessation of unskillful actions and bringing an end to karma.
- Right Intention is holding the strong resolve to put aside all clinging, craving, desire and aversion.
- Right Intention arising from Right View generates the moral and ethical actions of Right Speech, Action and Livelihood.
- Right Intention arising from Right View informs a practice developing Right Effort, Right Mindfulness, and Right Meditation.
- The virtuous aspects of The Eightfold Path lead to the abandonment of desire.
At Savatthi, the Buddha said: “Monks, what a person wills, what they plan, what they dwell on forms the basis for the continuation of consciousness. This basis being present, consciousness has a lodgment. Consciousness being lodged there and growing, rebirth of renewed existence takes place in the future, and from this renewed existence arise birth, decay-and-death, grief, lamentation, suffering, sorrow and despair. Such is the uprising of this entire mass of suffering.
“Even if a person does not will and plan, yet if they dwell on something this forms a basis for the continuation of consciousness:… rebirth… takes place…
“But if a person neither wills nor plans nor dwells on anything, no basis is formed for the continuation of consciousness. This basis being absent, consciousness has no lodgment. Consciousness not being lodged there and not growing, no rebirth of renewed existence takes place in the future, and so birth, decay-and-death, grief, lamentation, suffering, sorrow, and despair are destroyed. Such is the cessation of this entire mass of suffering.” (Samyutta Nikaya 12.38)
Notice how this last passage relates to Dependent Origination. Remember that all of these teachings are to develop understanding of confusion and suffering and the cessation of future confusion and suffering.
- By gaining wisdom one no longer acts from ignorance.
- With no ignorance, there is no basis for the establishment of mental fabrications or discriminating and discursive consciousness.
- With no consciousness established in ignorance, there is nothing to sustain the Five Clinging-Aggregates.
- With no sustenance, the 12 Links of Dependent Origination unbind.
- With no sustenance, a moment free of delusion, confusion, and unsatisfactoriness, a moment free of dukkha is born.
- There will be no more births rooted in ignorance and subject to endless confusion and suffering.
- Lasting peace and happiness has been established through the Eightfold Path.
Unlike most religions, including many modern “Buddhist” religions, acting to gain favorable future experiences post physical death is contrary to the Dhamma. As has been seen, birth is the beginning of the experience of the “whole mass of suffering.” As confusion and unsatisfactoriness is the underlying pervasive experience of life in the phenomenal world, the ending of karma and the cessation of future births is the purpose of the Dhamma.
An awakened mind settled in equanimity will produce no additional karma. As no additional karma is created, residual karma will simply ripen and fall away until complete liberation and freedom is realized.
The three defining characteristics of the phenomenal world are Anicca, Dukkha, and Anatta. Within the environment of impermanence, Dukkha arises. Dukkha arises due to clinging, craving and aversion. Clinging arises from a misunderstanding of the nature of self.
What arises as “self” (shown to be anatta, not a self) is an impermanent combination of factors known as “The Five Clinging-Aggregates. These aggregates are described as clinging due to the nature of “self” to cling to thoughts, views, ideas, and objects that further define and describe self. It is craving and clinging rooted in ignorance that establishes a self and creates karma and the cycles of birth.
Anatta or “not-self” refers to the impermanent nature of the formation of a self that is subject to stress, disappointment, and confusion.
The Buddha never taught that there is a self or that there is not a self. He avoided the issue as a focus on metaphysical questions would be a distraction from his stated purpose to bring “an understanding of dukkha and a cessation of dukkha. Nothing more.”
He taught that what is commonly believed to be a self is not founded in Right View. It is a view of self conditioned by ignorance that is to be abandoned if confusion and suffering is to end.
As the distraction of dukkha is always present to a deluded mind, then an awakened mind is a mind free of karma and free of the karmic manifestation of rebirth.
Once karma ceases there will be no more births. Without karma to create the unfolding need for continued existence, rebirth ends.
The Buddha’s understanding and teaching on rebirth differ greatly from the Brahmanism of the Buddha’s time and differs greatly with many of the mystical Buddhist religions. The Dhamma also differs greatly from the Hindu and Hindu-influenced beliefs that would arise well after the Buddha’s passing.
Many religions, including some Buddhist religions, teach morals and ethics as a way of hopefully having ever more pleasurable future lives, but never abandoning conditioned thinking and continued I-making. This is continued clinging to an idea of an ego-self and is specifically what the Buddha was referring to when he said:
“This was the third knowledge I attained in the third watch of the night. Ignorance was destroyed; knowledge arose; darkness was destroyed; light arose — as happens in one who is heedful, ardent, & resolute. Birth is ended, the integrated life fulfilled, the task done. There is nothing further for this world.” (Majjhima Nikaya 19)
Reincarnation is the belief that an individual and permanent soul travels throughout time as the same spiritual entity appearing in a different physical body, life after life.
This cannot be reconciled with the teachings of not-self, emptiness, Dependent Origination, Five Clinging-Aggregates, and Karma.
The self that would reincarnate has been shown to be an impermanent aggregate of physical and mental factors sustained only in the present instant by craving and clinging.
Insisting on reincarnating this same entity is insisting on the continuation of karma.
The Buddha in describing Dukkha or suffering teaches: “Birth is suffering, sickness is suffering, old age is suffering.” The Four Noble Truths directly teach the cessation of suffering and the cessation of birth, death, and rebirth.
The Buddha did not teach a way of manipulating a more pleasurable future birth, he taught a way of leaving the recurring cycle of dukkha behind.
This brings up the notion of annihilation. Annihilation is an extreme view rooted in the ignorance of anatta. It is an ego-personality’s fear of annihilation that creates this doubt and reaction as the ego-personality is always vigilant about continuation. This creates a need of establishing the ego-self in the future.
The most skillful way of considering karma and rebirth is to view karma driving the birth of this present moment.
- Karma is the present unfolding of past intentional acts moderated by present mindfulness.
- In order to complete the path, to end craving and clinging and to bring Dukkha to cessation, giving birth to another moment of clinging to objects, views, and ideas is unskillful.
What is most skillful is to recognize the causes of continued confusion and suffering and to abandon those causes.
- The next moment holds the potential to be free of confusion and suffering.
- The next moment holds the potential for freedom from continued rebirth of anatta.
When you abandon craving and clinging your immediate future is free of confusion and suffering. The distracting questions rooted in ignorant views no longer arise. You are no longer experiencing the results of past karma and there is no longer any ongoing “birth” of confusion and suffering.
This is the most skillful way to consider birth, death, and rebirth. This moment holds the potential for the next moment’ experience. Ignorance will bring more confusion and unsatisfactoriness.
Refined mindfulness and deep concentration, developed within the framework of the Eightfold Path, brings profound wisdom and understanding of The Four Noble Truths.
Wisdom in this moment brings a life free of ignorance, confusion, and stress.
It is a common reaction from an ego-personality insisting on continued establishment of “self” to continue to cling to form and resist or ignore the truth of ending rebirth.
- Anatta must establish itself in every object, event, view, or idea.
- The ego-self cannot accept any future thought or idea that does not include itself.
An awakened mind, free of craving and clinging, peacefully experiences life as life occurs with no limiting and stress-inducing self-referential thoughts or actions.
As stated, the Five Clinging-Aggregates are the vehicle for the “self” that experiences dukkha. This ego-self, or conditioned mind, is impermanent, or “empty” of any permanent and individually originated constituents.
There is no “self” and no karma other than a conditioned mind manifested due to specific causes and conditions arising in the phenomenal world.
The Buddha never taught emptiness as a mystical realm that somehow is both empty but includes the phenomenal world. As with all the Dhamma, emptiness is taught in relation to suffering and The Four Noble Truths. The Buddha taught that one should “empty oneself of clinging.” He taught that The Five Clinging-Aggregates are “empty” of any permanence or substance. He taught that one should “empty” the world of self, to cease “I-making.”
“Karma should be known. The cause by which karma comes into play should be known. The diversity in karma should be known. The result of karma should be known. The cessation of karma should be known. The path of practice leading to the cessation of karma should be known.’ Thus it has been said. Why was it said?
“Intention, I tell you, is karma. Intending, one does karma by way of body, speech, & intellect.
“And what is the result of karma? The result of karma is of three sorts, I tell you: that which arises right here & now, that which arises later [in this lifetime], and that which arises following that.
“And what is the cessation of karma? From the cessation of contact is the cessation of karma; and just this Noble Eightfold Path – right view, right resolve, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, right concentration – is the path of practice leading to the cessation of karma.
“Now when a noble disciple discerns karma in this way, the cause by which karma comes into play in this way, the diversity of karma in this way, the result of karma in this way, the cessation of karma in this way, & the path of practice leading to the cessation of karma in this way, then he discerns this penetrative integrated life as the cessation of karma. With the cessation of karma comes the cessation of rebirth of The Five Clinging-Aggregates.” (Anguttara Nikaya 6.63
Karma is the suffering of continually giving birth to another moment rooted in ignorance. Rooted in ignorance one can only become further ignorant.
The Eightfold Path provides the framework and guidance to be mindful of karma and to cease giving birth to another moment rooted in ignorance.
The Eightfold Path provides the framework and guidance to Become Buddha.
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My Dhamma articles and talks are based on the Buddha's teachings (suttas) as preserved in the Sutta Pitaka, the second book of the Pali Canon. I have relied primarily on Thanissaro Bhikkhu’s excellent and insightful translation of the Pali generously made freely available at his website Dhammatalks.org, as well as the works of Nyanaponika Thera, John Ireland, Maurice Walsh, Hellmuth Hecker, and Sister Khema, among others, as preserved at Access To Insight.
Also, I have found Bhikkhu Bodhi's translations from Wisdom Publications Pali Canon Anthologies to be most informative and an excellent resource.
I have made contextual edits to the suttas from these sources for further clarity, to modernize language, to minimize repetition, and maintain relevance to Dependent Origination and Four Noble Truths.
Becoming-Buddha.com and Dhamma articles and recordings by John Haspel are licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.