Karma and Rebirth

What's the Connection?

Buddha Statue With Flowers
© Denice Tyler / EyeEm / Getty Images

Although most westerners have heard of karma, there's still a lot of confusion about what it means. For example, many seem to think that karma is only about being rewarded or punished in a next life. And it may be understood that way in other Asian spiritual traditions, but that's not exactly how it is understood in Buddhism. 

To be sure, you can find Buddhist teachers who will tell you that karma (or kamma in Pali) is all about good or bad rebirth.

But if you dig deeper, a different picture emerges.

What Is Karma?

The Sanskrit word karma means "volitional act" or "deed." The law of karma is a law of cause and effect or an understanding that every deed produces fruit.

In Buddhism, karma is not a cosmic criminal justice system. There is no intelligence behind it that is rewarding or punishing. It's more like a natural law. 

Karma is created by the intentional acts of body, speech, and mind. Only acts pure of greed, hate and delusion do not produce karmic effects. Note that intention may be subconscious.

In most schools of Buddhism, it's understood that the effects of karma begin at once; cause and effect are one. It's also the case that once set in motion, karma tends to continue in many directions, like ripples on a pond. So, whether you believe in rebirth or not, karma is still important. What you do right now impacts the life you are living right now.

 

Karma is not mysterious or hidden. Once you understand what it is, you can observe it all around you. For example, let's say a man gets into an argument at work. He drives home in an angry mood, cutting off someone at an intersection. The driver cut off is now angry, and when she gets home she yells at her daughter.

This is karma in action - one angry act has touched off many more.

However, if the man who argued had the mental discipline to let go of his anger, the karma would have stopped with him.

What Is Rebirth?

Very basically, when the effects of karma continue across lifetimes it causes rebirth. But in light of the doctrine of no-self, who exactly is reborn?

The classical Hindu understanding of reincarnation is that a soul, or atman, is reborn many times. But the Buddha taught the doctrine of anatman -- no soul, or no-self. This means there is no permanent essence of individual "self" that inhabits a body, and this is something the historical Buddha explained many times.

So, again, if there is rebirth, who is it that is reborn? The various schools of Buddhism approach this question in somewhat different ways, but fully realizing the meaning of rebirth is close to enlightenment itself. 

Karma and Rebirth

Given the definitions above, what do karma and rebirth have to do with each other?

We have said that no soul or subtle essence of individual self transmigrates from one body to another to live another life. However, the Buddha taught that there is a causal connection between one life and another.

This causal connection is karma, which conditions a new birth. The newly born person is neither the same person nor a different person from one who died.

In Theravada Buddhism, it is taught that three factors are necessary for rebirth: the mother's egg, the father's sperm, and the energy of karma (kamma-vega in Pali). In other words, the energy of the karma we create survives us and causes rebirth. This process has been equated with the way a vibration, when it reaches the ear, is experienced as sound. 

In some schools of Mahayana Buddhism, it is thought some subtle consciousness continues after life signs are gone. In Tibetan Buddhism, the progression of this subtle consciousness through the time between birth and death -- the bardo -- is described in detail in the Bardo Thodol, known as the Tibetan Book of the Dead.