Thread: Karma and Rebirth Defined

  1. #1

    Karma and Rebirth Defined

    This is an excerpt from the second section of a longer essay "Karma and Rebirth -The Basics" on the website 'Jayarava's Raves':


    Karma and Rebirth Defined


    My attempt at a non-controversial definition of Buddhist karma and rebirth is as follows: Karma is the Anglicised word for the process that links consequences (phala, vipāka) to actions (karman), as well as the actions themselves. Because karma does not immediately manifest as consequences, it accumulates over time. The main consequence of karma is rebirth (punarbhava), but karma may also manifest as sensation (vedanā). Rebirth is governed by a theory of how experiences arise, i.e. by dependent arising (pratītya-samutpāda). Enlightened people don't make new karma. When enlightened people die they are not reborn.

    The doctrine of karma is the Buddhist version of the just-world myth and like other versions is tied to an afterlife in which the injustice of this life is balanced out. This myth produces a cognitive bias, in the Wikipedia definition:

    "The just-world hypothesis or just-world fallacy is the cognitive bias (or assumption) that a person's actions are inherently inclined to bring morally fair and fitting consequences to that person, to the end of all noble actions being eventually rewarded and all evil actions eventually punished. In other words, the just-world hypothesis is the tendency to attribute consequences toor expect consequences as the result ofa universal force that restores moral balance."

    If we replaced "just-world hypothesis" with "Buddhist karma" in this statement, we would have a serviceable definition of karma. All the major religions have a version of this myth. And yet the world clearly is not fair or just. Evil actions go unpunished and good actions go unrewarded. The idea that actions always have timely and appropriate consequences is debunked by lived experience. And this inevitably leads religions to link the myth of the just-world with the myth of the afterlife. Judgement and reward in the afterlife is how religions rationalise an unjust world.

    The doctrine of rebirth is the Buddhist version of the Myth of the Afterlife. This myth is correlated with the cognitive dissonance associated with the knowledge of our own inevitable death. Life "wants" to go on, self-conscious beings consciously want to live forever but come to understand that they die. In the tension of the irresistible force (life) meeting the immovable object (death), the afterlife is born and thrives.

    A seldom noticed feature of the Buddhism version of the afterlife is the bifurcation into a metaphysical narrative and a moral one. Buddhist metaphysicians have always stressed that the relation between us and our rebirths is governed by dependent arising (pratītyasamutpāda). This is first and foremost a description of how mental states arise, but is applied in all sort of other ways. Thus the one who acts is neither identical with or totally different from the one who experiences the consequences. The latter arises in dependence on the former. Buddhist moralists (often the same people in a different didactic mode) emphasise that actions have consequences for us. Many suttas and all jātakas explicitly relate how actions rebound on us in subsequent lives, or that what we now experience is the result of our actions in a past life.

    I conjecture that this moral version of the Buddhist afterlife is necessary because without a strong connection between action and consequence for the agent, morality is not possible. That this contradicts Buddhist metaphysics is not problematised in Buddhism teaching, it is simply that in switching from one mode to the other, Buddhists simply ignore the contradiction. I don't see this as a disputed teaching, since the ability to segue back and forth between metaphysical and moral discourses with respect to the afterlife seems to be universal.

    Pure Land Buddhism completely circumvented karma by introducing the concept of a living Buddha from another universe responding to our cries for help. Now karma doesn't matter because it can all be over-ridden by Amitābha who, simply because we call his name, ensures a good rebirth and subsequent liberation. The magic of the name is so powerful that it can overcome aeons of bad karma.

    Everything else about karma and rebirth seems to be complex and disputed. There are a number of main areas of contention related to karma and rebirth. The next section of this essay will set out these areas.


    Continues at the link:

    http://jayarava.blogspot.co.uk/search/label/Rebirth

    Any thoughts?

  2. #2
    Moderator lisehull's Avatar
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    A bit over my head, I must admit! I don't, however, think the basic explanation of karma is that complex. There is an action, and it has consequences. I don't know that I believe the rebirth aspect of it, though. To me, it doesn't really matter in the whole scheme of things.

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