I like to think of myself as a rational person. I don’t hold with superstitions or superstitious behavior—I don’t believe in fairies or gods, and I think that supplicational prayer is foolish. I believe that the methods of science have evolved into admirably rigorous tools for extending, clarifying, detailing our understanding of the universe we inhabit and our own material beings, and I am persuaded and amazed by the picture of the material world that modern science has composed. I have faith in science.
I also have faith in my own ignorance. I’ve studied widely and diligently—science, and literature, and some history, and the foundational literature of many of the world’s spiritual traditions; I know a lot, about a lot. And I have absolute faith that what I don’t know dwarfs what I know. I am profoundly ignorant.
And I have faith in the Buddha and his Dhamma (Sanskrit: dharma). That last faith has become more and more important to me over the past several years. It owes, in part, to the fact that the Buddhadhamma acknowledges my ignorance. It shows me how my ignorance is the foundation for all of the dissatisfaction that characterizes this worldly existence; it also describes a clear and persuasively logical path that may lead to an end to ignorance and suffering. Several times in my life, I have taken the first faltering steps onto that path, and I have been almost immediately confronted by something that tested my faith. That is the doctrine of kamma (Sanskrit: karma) and rebirth, and it induces doubt because it seems to conflict with that other faith—the faith in science and in the infinite nature of our ignorance.
I don’t think that I’m alone in my confusion. I think that a lot of people, attracted to Buddhism by its rational nature, by the clarity of the Blessed One’s teachings, and by the tradition’s rejection of superstition, are confused by the nature of kamma and put off by the notion of rebirth.
Part of the reason, I think, is that the idea of rebirth is mixed up in our culture with a naive concept of transmigration of souls, and that is associated with suspect sources—Madame Blavatsky and her theosophical flim-flammery, Shirley MacLaine, the psychic Jane Roberts channelling “Seth”, and others. It’s that kind of tender-minded gullibility that’s parodied in Don Marquis’ wonderful stories of Archy and Mehitabel. These are the very first words that archy, the determined cockroach, typed on Marquis’ office typewriter:
expression is the need of my soul
i was once a vers libre bard
but i died and my soul went into the body of a cockroach
it has given me a new outlook upon life
i see things from the under side now
And Marquis left his readers in little doubt that there was some kammic influence at work in determining archy’s destiny; committing the sin of writing vers libre was more than enough to condemn a soul to existence as a cockroach.
In the Canki Sutta, the Buddha advised the young brahmin student Kapadika on how to discover truth. The process involves, first, finding a teacher who seems, after close observation and careful listening, to be free from greed, anger, or delusion—qualities that might lead the teacher to claim that he knows what he does not actually know or that he’s seen what he has actually not seen, or to teach a dhamma that would lead to his student’s harm in the long run. Then the student must go to the teacher, accord him respect, listen to the teachings and hear what is taught; then he must remember what he’s heard, ponder it carefully, subject it to rigorous analysis, and, when he is convinced of its worth, apply his will to the diligent practice that will make the dhamma part of his life. I’m in the middle stages of that process with regard to the Buddha’s teachings regarding self, kamma and rebirth—the stage of pondering and trying to understand. What follows, then, is an interim report.
I’m going to be talking about three things, not necessarily in strict order. First, we need to be clear about what we are talking about when we talk about kamma. Second, if we are going to be looking at the notion of rebirth, we need to be clear about what it is that is reborn, which involves an examination of the Buddhist notion of “self”. Finally, we need to re-evaluate the apparent disconnect between the scientific world view and the Buddhist notion of kamma and rebirth, to see if such a disconnect actually exists and whether there is a method of resolving it.
The popular understanding of kamma is something akin to “fate” or “destiny”. Kamma is reified, as if it were something in its own right, and we speak of someone’s kamma as if the kamma were separate from the person—something that the person, in some way, owned. It was archy’s kamma that caused his rebirth as a cockroach. That’s very different from how the Buddha used the term.
In Buddhism, kamma is a technical term. It comes from the Sanskrit root kr, implying action, and the term kamma generally does mean action. But not every action is kamma. In the Nibbedhika Sutta, from the Anguttara Nikaya, the Buddha is teaching the bhikkhus about those things that should be known if one is to know the Dhamma; “Kamma,” he tells them, “should be known. The cause by which kamma comes into play should be known. The diversity in kamma should be known. The result of kamma should be known. The cessation of kamma should be known. The path of practice for the cessation of kamma should be known.” And this is how he begins his explanation of kamma: “Intention, I tell you, is kamma. Intending, one does kamma by way of body, speech, & intellect.”
So kamma is intentional action. And it may be physical action, or speech, or just conceiving the thought to act: kammic action doesn’t have to be overt to produce results. And it’s the results of kamma that we are interested in examining, because the kind of actions that are kamma generate results that influence, not only the course of events in the world—all action does that—but the course of life itself: whether or not the person who acts intentially will live happily, and what kind of rebirth that person will find with the decomposition of the body after death.
And now we’re zeroing in on the core of the problem. I can understand how the choices one makes and how one follows through on those choices influence one’s life and well-being. In all my experience, those people who act in cruel or hateful or deceitful or stupid ways are generally people who experience the vicissitudes of their lives most painfully and reach the end of those lives full of bitterness and despair. Contrariwise, those who are able to maintain an attitude of loving kindness, who behave generously and compassionately, who are honest and faithful to their vows, are those with the most friends, the fewest regrets, the greatest capacity for joy; and they are the ones who face the inevitable end with grace and equanimity.
But rebirth? How does that work, exactly? And just what is it that is reborn? I’m going to deal with the second question first, and I’m going to approach it in an oblique way.
The desktop picture on my PowerBook is a high-definition photo of Messier Object 101, a giant galaxy in the region of the Big Dipper, about 25 million light years away, containing trillions of stars. Visible in the picture, through the sparse sections of space between Object 101′s spiral arms, are dozens, probably hundreds of other galaxies, each containing billions or trillions of stars. All told, the picture on my desktop was made by the light of perhaps a million billion stars. At a conservative estimate, that picture contains more than one hundred stars for every man, woman and child who has ever lived on earth, since our species first evolved. Many or most of those stars have planets revolving around them. On many of those, probably, life has emerged. On some of the planets on which life has emerged, that life has likely evolved intelligent species.
I am not in that picture.
But when I look at my image in a mirror, I see an individual who is, almost certainly, unique in the universe (which comprises considerably more space than the small sector imaged on my laptop screen, all of that space scattered through with stars).
When a certain monk asked the Buddha how many eons had passed to bring us to the present moment, the Buddha declined to answer. The number, he said, is so large that it’s impossible to imagine it. “Then can you give me a simile?” the monk asked, and the Buddha responded with a memorable one. “Imagine a mountain,” he told the monk, “seven miles broad at the base, seven miles long, and seven miles high, made of the hardest granite. Every 100 years a man visits that mountain and gives it a single caress with a kerchief of the finest silk from Benares.”
“Now, monk, the time it would take to wear that mountain away completely is less than one complete eon.”
To which, presumably, that certain monk (who is not otherwise identified) thought “wow!” or whatever the equivalent was in the Malaghan dialect of northern India in about 500BCE.
The point is not, I think, that it’s been a really, really long time that this universe has been around, filled as it is with creation and destruction, with arising and ceasing. The point is that in all that time, among those trillions of stars, there’s been only that one certain monk. As there is, now, only this one certain person, looking at his laptop screen and thinking “wow!”
Now, that realization can be a realization of my insignificance. Of course. The universe will continue with me or without me. And of the unknowable number of sentient beings in that universe, only a very small subset knows of me. Relative to the universe and endless time, I am insignificant.
But in that “wow” experience, I also recognize my absolute significance, which is a product of my uniqueness. This little being, on this little planet, in this little corner of the big wide universe, at this momentary end point of those unimaginable eons, signifies Richard Blumberg, the only one who’s ever been or will be. I am the sole inheritor of the bundle of gifts which became mine at birth—a particular genetic endowment, a family imbued with particular values and with sufficient wealth to nourish me physically and intellectually, a society that protected my liberty, a time in the history of the world which saw the publication of the first good translations of the Buddha’s teachings into the only language I know. And with that bundle of gifts came a particular responsibility, from which neither my insignificance in the universal scheme of things, nor my uniqueness as the star player in the drama of Richard Blumberg can free me.
That responsibility is to pass on to whoever or whatever inherits the fruits of what I’ve made of my life and my opportunities at least as good a bundle of stuff as I got from those who were here before me. I don’t know who or what those entities might be, although it’s clear that they include my children, my friends, my community and the various collectives in which I’ve held membership. As for what’s passed on to whom, I can imagine some of it: my contribution to my children’s genetic endowment, their nurturance, their wealth; the memories my friends, family, and business colleagues keep of me, along with any small effect those memories might have on the beliefs and behavior of those who keep them; the jokes I’ve told and the lessons I’ve been able to teach regarding what I’ve learned, and especially what little I’ve come to understand of the Buddha’s Dharma; and thousands of small things—taxes I’ve paid, votes I’ve cast, payments I’ve made for things I’ve bought, gifts I’ve given, poems and essays and emails and letters and web pages I’ve written, businesses I’ve founded, tasks I’ve completed (or failed to complete) for those or for other businesses I’ve worked for. All those activities have generated ripples or helped shape the turbulence in whatever waters they were tossed into. All that is part of what I, Richard Blumberg, bequeath to my times and to my myriad heirs.
All that, of course—genes and jokes, taxes paid and tasks completed—will disappear in time, as all will that appears in time, as will Richard Blumberg. I will be no more, not in any form. And that may be all there is to it. In fact, that’s likely. And it’s certainly enough—enough responsibility to encourage a person to behave well and leave as much good behind as it’s possible to count.
But when we’ve counted what can be counted, and estimated what we can’t count because it is too small, too distant, too far gone, too indistinct, then we are still left with a residue that is, somehow, fundamental. Something that can’t be spread around, analyzed and distributed, but must be held together if it is to be at all.
The fundamental residue that continues to exist when all that can be destroyed, lost, diminished to nothing, has been: that, I think, has to do with the complex of concepts that surround the essential notion of kamma—
- kamma itself, of course: the set of intentional actions that a conscious being performs in the course of life;
- kamma-vipaka: the results of that kamma, both upon the particular conscious being that performed the kamma, and upon the being that inherits that kamma when the body of the kammic actor has died and disintegrated:
- kamma-vega: Nyanatiloka Mahathera translates this as “kammic energy”; Bhikkhu Bodhi refers to kammic influence. I prefer the term “influence”, because it seems to me to be more appropriate to what is, in the end, a subtle process, indistinct and difficult to analyze with the tools and techniques of thinking that we have developed in our day-to-day dealings with the material world.
Here’s how I understand it. When I was conceived, as a being with a good genetic endowment, destined to grow and acquire consciousness in a family that loved me and had the means to provide for my welfare, my moral training, and my liberal education, my nascent being became linked with a particular bundle of kammic influence that resonated in some powerful way with the being that I was and was to become. I don’t know whose kamma I inherited; I have to believe that they were a line of people who were were working deliberately to find a way to be good and to live a good life. Their kamma took birth as Richard Blumberg. And if that much is so, then it is possibly so as well that it will continue after my death, that another being will have that kamma as its inheritance, that the kamma will take birth as that being. Being is what holds kamma together. Kamma is what gives being its foundation. And each conscious being, through the span of its existence, has an effect, through the moral choices it makes and the actions it takes on the basis of those choices, on the kamma that it inherits. The being shapes the kamma.
With regard to Self, the Buddha tells us that the things that we normally identify as our “Selves” are in fact transitory: our bodies; our “mental formations” (which I take to mean the discriminations we make—between I and Thou, between this and that, between the hard one and the soft one, between big and little, etc.); our perceptions, including the flow of thoughts that eddies through our minds when those are not centered (which is most of the time); our feelings and emotions; and our consciousness, including the elaborate intellectual models we make and the patterns we train ourselves to perceive in the world around us. Those five factors—form, perception, feeling, mental formations, and consciousness—are the “aggregates” that, at any given moment, constitute one’s being. But each of those is fleeting: even my body is not the same as the body I had when I began this sentence; the molecules flowing through my bloodstream have been renewed several times; my posture is different; the position of my muscles, the state of the synapses within my nervous system, the levels of various hormones circulating, the amount of my last meal that’s been transmuted into shit and piss—all that has undergone innumerable changes of state in the few moments that have passed.
In light of that undeniable impermanence, the concept of a permanent Self, an “I” that somehow exists unchanged at least from birth to death, seems suspect.
On a larger scale, too, the idea of a permanent Self seems absurd. This planet Earth, this star Sol, this Milky Way galaxy, all had a birth, and all will come to nothing in time, will be no longer distinguishable as planet, star, galaxy. Even our universe, in the most recent reanalysis of the numbers, seems to be just a moment in an ongoing flux of universes exploding into being and then collapsing into nothingness again. And where in all that can any Self find permanence?
Still, now, here, I know who is typing these words. And I’m pretty sure that I’m the only one who’s ever been or will be, across all imaginable universes.
The concept of kamma does two things to help my understanding with regard to the dilemma of self. First, if kamma is foundational to my existence, and if I inherited my foundational kamma from a line of beings that went before me, and if the fruits of my kamma in this life—the moral choices I make and the intentional actions I perform—go on after the dissolution of this body to inform the life of another conscious being, then that continuity explains the strong feeling I have that I exist and have a unique identity, despite my clear recognition, on analysis of the case, that there is nothing physically to ground that identity on.
Second, and vastly more significantly, it explains why I was born who I am, with the good fortune I’ve had, and was not born to an aids-infected mother in the slums of Rio. The concept of kamma—the dynamics of kamma, kamma-vipaka, and kamma-vega, define the moral dynamics of the universe in a way that material science cannot and does not try to do. Kamma explains what science will never explain—the luck of the draw. In the material world, as it’s understood by science, you draw your hand, and you can play it well and win, or play it poorly and lose, or you can pass; however you play it, it has no bearing on the next hand you’re dealt. In a universe understood through a kammic perspective, if the hand you’re dealt is your life as a conscious being, it does matter how you play it. If you play it well—make skillful moral choices, behave in wholesome ways, pursue enlightenment, then the next round of play will deal you a better hand.
The Buddha is quite clear that kammic causality operates just as implacably as physical causality. In the Paccha-bhumika Sutta, he asks his Brahmin questioner to imagine a physical situation:
“Suppose a man were to throw a large boulder into a deep lake of water, and a great crowd of people, gathering & congregating, would pray, praise, & circumambulate with their hands palm-to-palm over the heart [saying,] ‘Rise up, O boulder! Come floating up, O boulder! Come float to the shore, O boulder!’ What do you think: would that boulder â€” because of the prayers, praise, & circumambulation of that great crowd of people â€” rise up, come floating up, or come float to the shore?”
“No, Lord,” answered the Brahmin.
Just so, the Buddha then explained, is the situation with regard to kamma. Someone who lives badly, acts cruelly, takes what’s not given, fools around sexually, is deceitful and spiteful, gets drunk, and doesn’t see anything wrong with all that: such a person, on the breakup of his body after death, is destined for a unfortunate rebirth, no matter what anyone might wish or how sincerely they might pray that it turn out otherwise.
The way I’ve finally come to understand it is that the laws that govern actions in the material world and that underlie our understanding of that world are operative in the continuum of space and time in which the material world has its existence. That world is real, and the laws that operate within it are not to be influenced by wishes or prayers. Our belief that the material world is the only world that exists, however, is a delusion.
Just as real as the material world is the world of moral behavior, and the concept of kamma defines the laws that govern the dynamics of that world and help us to understand it. The universe explained by kammic lawfulness operates in a continuum of moral choices. Just as the continuum of space and time is defined in terms of such concepts as then and now, here and there, heavy and light, bright and dark, so the continuum of moral choice is defined in terms of similar pairs of concepts: good and evil, skillful and unskillful, wholesome and unwholesome.
That notion—that there are two separate continua, one of space/time, informed and shaped by the transfer of energy, and another of morality, informed and shaped by the tranfer of kammic influence—makes it possible for me to reconcile my faith in science with my faith in the Buddhadhamma. As a conscious being, I exist in both continua; in the first, my existence is transitory and unique; in the second, my existence extends backwards as far as I can imagine, and forward until my kammic influence has developed enough to bring an end to my ignorance and to my long wandering through samsara.
I’d like to close with a quotation from the Acintita Sutta in the Anguttara Nikaya, the chapter on the fours:
“There are these four unconjecturables that are not to be conjectured about, that would bring madness & vexation to anyone who conjectured about them. Which four?
“The Buddha-range of the Buddhas…
“The jhana-range of a person in jhana…
“The [precise working out of the] results of kamma…
“Conjecture about [the origin, etc., of] the world…
“These are the four unconjecturables that are not to be conjectured about, that would bring madness & vexation to anyone who conjectured about them.”"