Buddhist Karma & Rebirth Explained

The law of karma and rebirth is one of the bedrock teachings of the Buddha. It is also one of the most problematic ones.

To some, karmic rebirth seems like outdated superstition. It ruins the image of Buddhism as a rational philosophy of life.

Within the Buddhist tradition too, karma and rebirth raise difficult questions. If the Buddha taught only the no-self doctrine or karma and rebirth, everything would’ve been fine. But he insisted both that all things are without self and that there is karma and rebirth.

Now, if there is no self, what gets reborn? And if there are no selves, how can you or I, or anyone have karma? And how does karma pass over from one life to the next?

And does karma suggest our lives are predetermined – that there is no free will? If so, why does the Buddha teach us to put effort into improving our lives?

As I said, karma and rebirth are problematic.

In fact, the Buddha says:

The [precise working out of the] results of kamma is an unconjecturable that is not to be conjectured about, that would bring madness & vexation to anyone who conjectured about it.’

Acintita Sutta AN 4.77

In the months I spent on this article, I experienced some of that madness and vexation myself. So, consider yourself warned. Life might appear even more mysterious to you after you’re done reading this.

(You can watch the video version of this article here.)

Karma = Intentional Action

Let’s start with the basics.

Karma in Sanskrit (or kamma in Pāli) literally means ‘action’ or ‘doing’. That’s what the Buddha meant by the term too – though he gave it a slight twist. He says:

Intention, I tell you, is kamma.

Nibbedhika Sutta

By karma, the Buddha means intentional action. This detail makes a world of difference.

For example, if a stranger asks you the way to the nearest bank, you may lead him there. This is bright karma. If that stranger goes on to rob the bank, he creates dark karma for himself. Your karma remains bright; your intention was to be helpful and that’s what counts.

Perhaps it then turns out the man robbed a corrupt bank full of criminals’ cash. His karma will remain dark as it was motivated by greed and that’s what counts.

See, the results of our actions have to do with countless factors beyond our control. Our intentions, however, are ours alone and this is what defines our karma.

There is another important point.

Karma by Body, Speech & Mind

The Buddha says:

Intending, one does karma by way of body, speech, & mind.

Nibbedhika Sutta

Karma is not only about what we do, but also about what we say, and what we think too. These are the three channels through which intention manifests into the world.

Our thoughts, words, and actions are like musical notes sounding together as one chord. To bring this chord into the key of enlightenment, we must tune all three together. If any one of them remains out of tune, the harmony is lost.

The work of enlightenment happens either in our whole being or not at all. Outer shows of wisdom and compassion are useless if we’re full of repressed anger and desire. We can fool others, and even fool ourselves…

But we cannot fool the law of karma.

Karma Police?

Speaking of ‘the law’ of karma – who is it that enforces that law?


There is nobody ‘punishing’ dark karma or ‘rewarding’ bright karma.

As the Buddha points out, a stone thrown into a river will sink; oil spilled into a river will float. The stone is not ‘punished’, nor is the oil ‘rewarded’. There are only the laws of nature playing out.

So it is with karma.

The Buddha teaches karma as a fundamental principle of reality – like gravity.

We can study and understand the properties of gravity. We can use them for our benefit, or we can suffer because of them. Our concern is not with why gravity exists as such, but how to deal with it.

The same goes for karma and rebirth.

The Buddha, we are told, observed directly the rebirths of all beings according to karma. This happened at the moment of his awakening.

He saw existence as the procedural generation and regeneration of beings in endless cycles. This cyclical algorithm, he saw, is not random, but works according to causes and conditions. Most importantly, each new generation of a being is determined by the intentional actions of its past generations.

In short, its rebirth is determined by past karma.

This cosmic algorithm the Buddha called saṃsāra – meaning ‘the wandering’.

Rebirth According To Karma

In his vision, the Buddha saw existence stratified in 31 dimensions. The ‘planes of existence’, he called them. Some of these are material, like the planes of humans and animals, while others are immaterial, like the plane of hungry ghosts. Together they make up the ladder of existence, which reaches the hell-realms at one end and beyond the realms of gods at the other.

At death, our accumulated karma forms a new being in one of the many planes of saṃsāra. Bright karma creates a rebirth in a higher plane and dark karma in a lower one. Kind of like how in water a stone sinks and oil floats.

The Buddha did not teach karma and rebirth as mystical or esoteric. Nor did he suggest the various planes of existence are metaphoric or symbolic. He claimed karmic rebirth is an empirical law you can observe for yourself. Of course, to observe it, you must first cultivate your mind to be extraordinarily sensitive. Few have managed to do this, if any.

If you want to have a go yourself, you can learn the Buddha’s guide to enlightenment from our article on the Noble Eightfold Path.

The point is, karmic rebirth is not a conclusion of Buddhism – it is a starting point. The Buddha’s aim was not to convince anyone of karma or rebirth, or the planes of existence. To him that would be a waste of time. Kind of like convincing a man falling off a cliff that gravity is real. Rather, the Buddha’s teaching is a guide on how to deal with what is already a fact.

Existence rolls on in endless cycles – and whether it is painful or blissful depends on your intentional actions.

So, what can you do about this?

First, you must learn what intentional actions are good – and what bad.

Bright vs Dark Karma

There are two rules of thumb for telling apart bright karma and dark karma. The first one the Buddha told his son, Rāhula. He taught Rāhula to scrutinize his every action in the following way:

Is [this action] leading to self-affliction, to the affliction of others, or to both?

Ambalatthika-rahulovada Sutta; MN 61

Creating suffering for yourself and for others weighs equally and both is dark karma. That is because, ultimately, there is no distinction between self and others. Whether poison enters one wave of the sea or another makes little difference. In both cases, the sea gets polluted.

The second rule of thumb is that if an intentional action is rooted in craving, aversion, or ignorance – that’s dark karma.

There’s a more detailed version of this in the form of a list. The list is broken into three sections concerning karma of the body, of the speech, and of the mind respectively.

The body creates dark karma by destroying life, stealing, and sexual misconduct. Speech creates dark karma when it is false, divisive, offensive, or pointless. The mind creates dark karma when it acts with craving, aversion, and ignorance.

These are the 10 categories of dark karma. The list of bright karma is simply the reverse of this.

Now, lists aren’t especially exciting, so let’s unpack the teaching within.

The Roots Of Dark Karma

Karma means ‘intentional action’. As we have seen, action occurs through the mind, speech, and the body.  But intention, the key ingredient of karma, is of the mind. Karma is of the mind.

So, the list of dark karma can be reduced to its three final members. Craving, aversion, and ignorance. Every kind of dark karma can be traced back to these.

‘The three fires’, the Buddhists call them.

But even these three are further reducible.

Craving is ‘I want’ and aversion is ‘I don’t want’. Both are a form of desire. And what is desire? It is the active form of the delusion ‘I’ – the sense of being a separate, limited self. Desire is ignorance of our true nature.

It is this ignorance, manifesting as desire, that keeps us spinning, dazed and confused, in endless cycles of existence.

Okay, now we’ve covered the basics of karma – we know what it is and we know what makes it dark or bright.

It’s time we talk about rebirth.


First off, ‘rebirth’ is a misnomer. The word suggests someone gets born, dies, and is then re-born. In other words, a ‘self’ passes from one life to the next.

The idea of a separate self is, according to the Buddha, our core delusion. We’ve covered this before and you can learn more from our previous articles.

According to the Buddha, no self ever gets reborn. As a matter of fact, no self ever gets born in the first place. Rather, karmic energy propagates through the world and forms in its tracks what we call ‘selves’ or ‘beings’.

It is both tricky and vital to understand this. Let’s explore it with a simile.

Waves Or Energy?

Imagine throwing a stone into a lake. As the stone impacts the water, waves appear. At first glance, it seems these waves are traveling over the water’s surface. But if we look closely, we find that’s not the case.

What appears as waves traveling is really just masses of water rising and falling one after the other in quick succession. From a distance, these patterns of peaks and troughs appear as objects, or ‘waves’ moving. In reality, there is only the transfer of energy exciting the water surface. ‘Wave’ is but a conventional term for a much more complex reality. By ‘wave’, we designate a chain of events, where each event causes the next and is caused by the one before. Our language pictures this causal chain of events as an object. In reality, it is a process.

This might seem as a trivial point, but if we meditate on it, it can transform our whole experience of reality.

The Five Aggregates Of Experience

The Buddha describes the world of experience as a combination of five aggregates. Form, feeling, perception, mental formations, and consciousness. We’ve covered this before.

The five aggregates are like the three colours of a pixel. Red, green, and blue mix together in different proportions to form all the images you see on your screen. In the same way, the five aggregates mix together to form the world of experience. They form, also, what we call our ‘self’.

Now, we’ve seen a ‘wave’ is a conventional label for what are really patterns of excitation of water. This excitation is due to the transfer of energy. I know this has gotten technical but stay with me here. The Buddha says the ‘self’ is a conventional label for what is really, you guessed it, patterns of excitation of the five aggregates. This excitation is due to the transfer of karma.

Karmic energy passes through saṃsāra and creates patterns of the five aggregates. These patterns are what we call animals, demons, gods – and people. All of saṃsāra with all its planes of existence is but the pulsation of karma.

The Buddha says:

Kamma is what creates distinctions among beings…

Cula-Kammavibhanga Sutta, MN 135

In other words, you, I, and Barnie the dog are distinct not because we are different ‘selves’. We are distinct only insofar as we are different patterns of the five aggregates. Patterns animated by karma.

There’s one more important detail here.

Desire – The Force Behind Existence

In our simile, the waves do not appear out of nowhere. They appear as the stone impacts the water and enters its energy into it. In the same way, karma does not come out of nowhere. Our intentional actions are not without cause. The cause of the waves is the stone; the cause of karma is desire.

The delusion ‘I am’, expressed as desire, creates intentional actions. Intentional actions gather bundles of the five aggregates. These bundles of the five aggregates, through the delusion ‘I am’, driven by desire, create intentional actions. These intentional actions gather new bundles of the five aggregates and so on ad infinitum. This closed loop is the prison of saṃsāra, the wandering.

The Buddha says:

From an inconceivable beginning comes the wandering … A beginning point is not discernible, though beings hindered by ignorance and fettered by craving are transmigrating & wandering on.

Gangā Sutta, SN 15:8

Now you can see rebirth is not the transition of any entity from one life to another. What we call a ‘self’ or a ‘being’ is what the transfer of karma looks like.

Karma vs Free Will

The Buddha tells us our mind and sense faculties are literally our past karma:

The eye [ear, nose, tongue, skin, and mind] is to be regarded as old kamma, brought into existence and created by intention…

Kamma Sutta, SN 35.145

However, this does not mean our life is predetermined. The Buddha continues:

The action one performs now by body, speech and mind. This, monks, is called ‘new kamma.’

Kamma Sutta, SN 35.145

In other words, you find yourself in predetermined circumstances, but it is still up to you to choose how to respond to these circumstances.

This raises a difficult question.

If everything in your experience is predetermined by karma… does this mean your karma is also predetermined? Does the law of karma suggest there is no free will?

The Buddha’s answer to this is subtle and profound.

First, he maintains personal effort is indispensable to enlightenment. We must, out of our free will, turn against the grain of saṃsāra to escape it. At the same time, the Buddha tells us there is no person to make an effort in the first place. There can be no will free from causes and conditions.

So, do we have a free will or do we not?!

The Buddha refuses to submit to this dualistic kind of thinking. He sees it as too crude to account for reality.

2 Kinds Of Truth: Conventional & Ultimate

To simplify things, he divides truth in two categories: conventional truth and ultimate truth. We can also call them low-resolution truth and high-resolution truth.

At the conventional or low-resolution level, we are selves that must work out our own enlightenment out of our own free will. On the ultimate or high-resolution level, there is the saṃsāric flow of causal events which, under the right conditions, resolves into nirvāṇa.

Conventionally we are waves, ultimately there is energy transfer.

Now, we shouldn’t be snobbish about our truths. To hold to the ultimate only is to be insincere about the reality of our human, all too human lives. After all, we do experience ourselves as persons with free will. We shouldn’t act as if that’s not true. But to hold only to conventional truth is to be ignorant of the deeper reality beneath everyday experience.

‘Don’t miss the forest for the trees’, the Buddha tells us, ‘but also, don’t miss the trees for the forest.’ Both levels of truth are equally important.

So, do we have a free will or do we not?

Both. And neither. And both both and neither. And neither both nor neither. Just let go of the questions.

Now, let’s summarize what we’ve said about rebirth.

Karma & Rebirth Sumarised

Through the body, speech, and mind, you generate karma. This karma can be bright or dark in various degrees. It accumulates until the body fails and the five aggregates fall apart, or in other words, until you die.

At the moment of death, your accumulated karma issues out like a lightning bolt and strikes saṃsāra at a new place. There, it animates a new bundle of the five aggregates. This bundle is determined by causes and conditions, the main one being the accumulated karma.

Ultimately, there is no rebirth. There is only karma pulsating through saṃsāra, creating patterns like waves on a lake. We are these patterns.

In the Visuddhimagga, we read:

Everywhere, in all the realms of existence, the noble disciple sees only mental and corporeal phenomena kept going through the concatenation of causes and effects.

No producer of … kamma does he see apart from the kamma, no recipient of the kamma-result apart from the result.

Visuddhimagga (Chap. XIX)

I know this is a lot to take in, so I invite you to take a tea break before we move on. Because we are about to go deeper.

The Intricacies Of Karma & Rebirth

We’ve now seen how karma, rebirth and no-self work together. Notice how the apparent contradictions in the Buddha’s teachings reveal, in fact, a deeper consistency than we would imagine.

But more questions remain.

For one, if there is no separate self, how does your karma and, say, Barnie’s karma not get mixed up? Barnie has his past lives and you have your past lives, but how can there be a distinction if it’s all just a flow of energy?

And second, I can barely remember what I had for lunch yesterday. How does the law of karma remember what I did a lifetime ago? Where and how is karma stored?

Let’s tackle the second question first.

The Buddha speaks of three types of karma. There is light karma, whose effects appear in our present life or not at all. There is heavy karma, whose effects appear in our following life. Finally, there is massive karma, whose effects may echo out through a series of lives.

The heaviness of karma depends on the degree of suffering it has added or removed from oneself and others. Also, even light karma becomes heavy if it is habitually repeated over time.

But where is the memory of all this karma stored?

This is a question to which the Buddha did not give a clear answer. So, various schools have offered their interpretations over the centuries. There are two explanations I want to share with you. The first is quite straightforward. The second, for a Jungian like myself, is profoundly exciting.

Karma Stored In The Causal Chain

For the first explanation, let’s return to our example with the stone and the lake.

Once you throw a stone, how does it remember to fall?

And once it hits the water, how do waves remember to appear? After a couple minutes, how do the waves remember to stop appearing?

The answer is obvious.

A stone does not need to remember it has been thrown. It falls simply due to the laws of nature. Waves do not need to remember when to appear and when to disappear. They are simply patterns of energy transfer arising, again, due to the laws of nature.

This is a good way to think about karma too.

Your actions are part of a causal process which leads, sooner or later, to their consequences. If these consequences appear straight away, they are like a wave with a short wavelength. If they appear far in the future, they are like a wave with a long wavelength. The chain of causality can be stretched so far through time that a single human life is not enough to observe it. But the Buddha assures us it’s there.

So, no memory of karma is necessary – nature’s laws do all the work.

This explanation works well and I see no reason to search for a more complicated one.

And yet, there is an alternative theory I just have to share with you. I mean the bhavanga-sota.

Karma Stored In The Unconscious

In Pali, bhavanga-sota means ‘ground of being’ or ‘condition for existence’. Nyanatiloka Mahathera writes:

The term bhavanga-sota, is identical with what the modern psychologists, such as Jung, etc., call the soul, or the unconscious, thereby not meaning, of course, the eternal soul-entity of Christian teaching but an ever-changing subconscious process.

This subconscious life-stream is the necessary condition of all life. In it, all impressions and experiences are stored up, or better said, appear as a multiple process of past images, or memory pictures, which however, as such, are hidden to full consciousness, but which, especially in dreams, cross the threshold of consciousness and make themselves fully conscious.

Nyanatiloka Mahathera, Fundamentals of Buddhism

If you are familiar with Jung’s works, you’ll detect here strong parallels with his idea of the collective unconscious. We’ve compared Jung’s concept of the unconscious with that of Buddhism in a previous article. It’s a fascinating topic, so do to check it out!

The notion of an unconscious level of mind might at first seem like an unnecessary complication of karma theory. But it does help explain some things.

The Early Buddhist Model Of The Unconscious

For one, it is an open question how karmic energy passes from one life onto the next. At death, the five aggregates fall apart – where does the karmic energy go then? What is the medium through which it travels to the next existence? The bhavanga-sota offers just such a medium where karmic potentiality is stored as images (or what Jung would call archetypes). These images then find their way to manifest into saṃsāra.

The bhavanga-sota also suggest an explanation of the many synchronicities (or meaningful coincidences) that occur in life. Bhikkhu Bodhi writes:

Conceivably, at the deepest level all the individual streams of consciousness are integrated into a single all-embracing matrix, so that, beneath the surface of events, the separate kammic accumulations of all living beings crisscross, overlap, and merge.

This hypothesis — though speculative — would help account for the strange coincidences we sometimes meet that prick holes in our assumptions of rational order.

Bhikkhu Bodhi, Does Rebirth Make Sense?

We won’t go further here, as we are entering uncharted territory. Few scholars have explored this. After over 2000 years, Buddhist philosophy still has surprises waiting for us.

Now onto the other question.

Personal Karma Without A Person?

How does karma stay in its lane? If there is no self, but only a causal stream of events – what makes one stream distinct from another? Why do I not inherit your karma? For that matter, why don’t I think your thoughts or feel your feelings? If there is no self, how can we tell different bundles of the five aggregates apart?

As you can imagine, volumes have been written on this. But, unless you are bent on becoming a Buddhist scholar, there is one simple explanation that should suffice.

That is, the bundle of five aggregates you take to be your-‘self’ stick together because of the strong causal relationship between them. This causal relationship is also what keeps certain karma associated a certain bundle of aggregates.

This is simpler than it sounds.

For example, if I throw a stone in lake A, and not in lake B, why do waves appear in lake A and not in lake B? Well, because my throwing the stone is in a stronger causal relationship with lake A than with lake B.

I the same way, your karma largely determines your rebirths and not Barnie’s. Why? Because a stronger causal relationship links your karma with the bundle of aggregates we call ‘you’ than with the bundle of aggregates we call ‘Barnie’.

Does this seem like an awkward explanation? It’s the simplest one I could find.

Escape From Saṃsāra

Before I bore you with the minutiae of karma and rebirth, let’s discuss the really important bit. The bit the Buddha spent most time talking about.

If there really is karma and rebirth – what should we do about it?

The most obvious idea is to create as much bright karma as you can and hope for a good rebirth. Who knows, you might even earn the rank of a deity if you really put your back into it!

But the Buddha says this is a bad deal.

You see, among all planes of existence, the Buddha says human rebirth is the most precious one. In lower planes, suffering, impermanence, and lack of stable identity are so extreme that spiritual practice is impossible. In planes above the human life is, yes, blissful and long-lasting, but… it is too blissful and too long-lasting. One has no need of spiritual practice then – or so one thinks.

In short, human existence is the Middle Way between suffering and bliss, permanence and impermanence, self and no-self. It provides the best conditions for working out one’s own salvation.

The Buddha says:

It’s … a sheer coincidence that one obtains the human state.

It’s likewise a sheer coincidence that a [Buddha], worthy & rightly self-awakened, arises in the world.

It’s likewise a sheer coincidence that a doctrine & discipline expounded by a [Buddha] appears in the world.

Chiggala Sutta; SN 56.48

Karma Is Bondage

In short, we shouldn’t waste the opportunity we are given. To accumulate dark karma is a waste of cosmic magnitude. But to accumulate bright karma, while better, is still a waste in the eyes of the Buddha.

As Bhikkhu Bodhi says:

Our chains are still chains whether they are made of gold or iron.

Bhikkhu Bodhi

Karma, be it bright or dark, chains us to impermanence, dissatisfaction, and emptiness of any real substance. Saṃsāra is a prison. Accumulating bright karma is only good for getting transferred to a more comfortable cell. But no matter how comfortable your cell gets, no matter how long you get to stay there – sooner or later you’re back in the pit.

So, what’s the alternative?

Karma That Leads To The End Of Karma

The alternative is what the Buddha calls karma that leads to the end of karma. He describes it like this:

Right view, right intention, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, right concentration.

This is called kamma that is neither dark nor bright with neither dark nor bright result, leading to the ending of kamma.

Ariyamagga Sutta; AN 4.235

This is the Noble Eightfold Path, the set of practices leading out of saṃsāra. Again, you can read our article on it to learn more.

For a long time, contemplatives in India intuited that action is what chains beings to cycles of rebirth. To escape conditioned existence, many sought ways of eliminating action. This went to such extremes one would even stop eating (as eating too is an action). The belief was that with death, the contemplative will be liberated from saṃsāra.

The Buddha says this is nonsense.

First, he reminds us, it is not action, but intentional action that drives existence. And second, he makes the practical observation that one cannot avoid action. The avoidance of action itself is an action.

It is not in our power not to act, but we can choose how to act.

So, one must limit herself to a set of intentional actions that gradually lead to their own cessation. The Buddha curated this set of intentional actions in the Noble Eightfold Path.

No Bright Karma

Think about it – what is intention, anyway?

Why did you intend to watch this video? Why did I intend to create it? Why are we intent on learning from the Buddha?

Because we want something. Be it entertainment, knowledge, wisdom, or enlightenment – we crave something. Said differently, we are averse to not having that ‘something’.

So, we’re back at craving and aversion, the two sides of the delusion of a separate self. All intention comes from here. So, even the brightest karma springs from craving, aversion, and ignorance.

The great album, Dark Side of The Moon, ends with the words ‘There’s no dark side of the moon really; as a matter of fact, it’s all dark.’

The same is true of karma.

Fight Fire With Fire

That is why the Noble Eightfold Path is not meant to turn you into a good Buddhist with lots of bright karma. It is meant to transform consciousness so that the three fires of craving, aversion, and delusion are blown out. This is called nirvāṇa, literally meaning ‘blown out’.

But to put out the fires, you have to use the fires. There is simply nothing else at your disposal. The Eightfold Path is the practice of craving the right things, being averse to the right things, and being ignorant in the right way. ‘Right’ here means everything that leads to the end of craving, aversion, and ignorance.

So, in the closed loop of saṃsāra, where karma leads to more karma ad nauseam, the Buddha discovered a closed loop that leads to the end of all closed loops. A path leading to the end of all paths, the end of wandering – the end of saṃsāra.

Once the self delusion is extinguished, there can be no more craving, no more aversion – no more intention. Without intention, there can be no more karma.


After reaching this point, what previously was a person, becomes pure enlightened action. The five aggregates remain together, bound by the force of previous karma, but when the body dies, no new birth follows.

What then appears as ‘an enlightened person’ from the outside is really the flow of the Dhamma into saṃsāra. The thoughts, words, and bodily actions of such a one do not come from craving, aversion, or delusion. There is no intention behind them, no distance between self, other, and a world.

Pure action, without an actor.

Deluded minds imagine this as a dissolution of the self, a sort of extinction. They can imagine it as little else, since enlightenment transcends the categories of thinking. But no self ever dissolves. Rather, the delusion of a self dissolves and reveals the unconditioned reality of nirvāṇa, which has always been right here, at the very heart of saṃsāra.

As Francisco Varela writes:

When one is the action, no residue of self-consciousness remains to observe the action externally. When non-dual action is ongoing and well established, it is experienced as grounded in a substrate that is at rest and at peace.

To forget one’s self is to realize one’s emptiness, to realize one’s every characteristic is conditioned and conditional.

Francisco Varela, Ethical Know-How

Or, as we read in the Visuddhimagga:

No doer of the deed is found,

No one who ever reaps their fruits;

Empty phenomena roll on…

Dependent on conditions all.

Visuddhimagga (Chap. XIX)

Enlightenment is when this emptiness is no longer something you read and think about. Enlightenment is when the emptiness wakes up from the dream that is you.

Some Criticism Of Karma & Rebirth

This is a good place to end. You now know the basics of karma and rebirth as originally taught by the Buddha.

But let me keep you for a couple more minutes. I want to share with you a few critical points concerning the doctrines coming from outside the Buddhist tradition. This will give you a broader, deeper, and more balanced understanding of the context around the teachings.

An Unfalsifiable Law

First off, observe how with karma and rebirth the Buddha postulates a law that cannot be falsified.

If some misfortune happens to me, I might think there is no way I could have possibly deserved it. Belief in karma must be wrong! But from the Buddhist point of view, it is only I who can be wrong.

For one, the Buddha says not all experiences are due to karma. Some are due to things like indigestion, seasonal change, or pure coincidence. Karma is the key ingredient in the sea of causes and conditions of saṃsāra. But there are other ingredients too.

The Buddha also calls karma an ‘unconjecturable’. Meaning, no matter how much you contemplate it, your mind can never understand it all the way through.

In short, if you think something contradicts karma, you’ve either failed to account for other factors, or you lack understanding. Only you can be wrong, the law of karma cannot.

Is this a little too convenient?

Perhaps. But, let’s examine our own ‘rational’ thinking first.

Thinking Rests On Faith

Scientists and modern people in general believe every event has a cause. Every phenomenon arises within the laws of nature. If something appears to contradict these laws, we don’t abandon belief in rational causality. We rather assume it is we who are at fault and have failed to grasp some hidden cause. Only we can be wrong, the laws of causality cannot.

You see, Buddhism and modern science alike rests on axioms: unverifiable, unfalsifiable beliefs which hold together the whole structure of thought. No matter how much empiricism, rationality, and logic we heap on top, we mustn’t forget all human thinking is rooted in faith.

Faith in what we consider obvious, yes, but faith nonetheless.

If you ask the average Buddhist why he believes in karma and the average scientist why she believes in causality, they will both give you the same strange look. The look of faith which does not recognize itself.

Let’s move on to another point.

Karmic Rebirth – An Empirical Law?

The Buddha tells us karma and rebirth can be confirmed by direct experience upon enlightenment. This is supposed to make them empirical principles.

But pay attention.

To become enlightened, in the Buddhist sense, one must practice the Buddhist path with complete devotion. But to have this devotion, one must first surrender all doubt in the Buddha. One must have faith. Since enlightenment is so rare, the vast majority of Buddhists remain their whole lives in this perpetual state of faith.

Should one somehow reach nirvāṇa, one will presumably confirm for himself the Buddha’s teachings. But by that point, one’s devotion and practice will have thoroughly reshaped his mind. The Buddhist worldview will be so deeply ingrained that no other way of perceiving the world will be possible. This sounds more like a self-indoctrination than empirical confirmation.

But remember, the Buddha did not teach Buddhism. He taught the way out of saṃsāra. The Noble Eightfold Path leads to the end of all things conditioned, including the end of the Noble Eightfold Path. This principle led to doctrine of holding no views, including Buddhist ones. Even Buddhist views are chains of gold and, amazingly enough, the tradition recognizes that. You can learn more about this in our article on emptiness.

Psychological Benefits Of Faith In Karma & Rebirth

The last point I want to make is that the Buddha did not insist on people believing in karma and rebirth. He did say, however, that to live as if this doctrine is true is better than to live as if it is not.

He knew this teaching makes us more mindful of our behaviour. He knew it drives individuals and communities towards self-examination and moral behaviour. Karma and rebirth also reassure the Buddhist practitioner that their efforts count, even when progress is slow. The doctrine also gives us a sense of justice and meaning in life; it assures us suffering and evil are not random, and the conditions of our existence are not arbitrary.

That is not to say karma and rebirth are ideas meant merely for their psychological effects. The Buddha taught them as basic truths of reality. But we must recognize there is more than one reason why a person or a people would commit to the doctrines.

What You Do, You Become

Okay, I hope I’ve given you a good foundation to understanding karma and rebirth as the Buddha originally taught them. Now it is up to you to decide what to do with this knowledge. If anything, these teachings remind us our every thought, word, and action is an opportunity to change the course of our life – for better or for worse.

The Buddha reminds us that, conventionally speaking, our actions are our only true possession. They are the medium through which we create ourselves and our world. He reminds us to not be idle about what we do, say, and think, because what we do, say, and think is what we are.

Watch the video version of this article.

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