Buddhism, Karma and Rebirth: Life-After-Death

Dr Paul Fuller from Bath Spa University in a guest appearance! I ask him tough questions and we discuss rebirth, karma, and change.

Staff from the Religion, Philosophy & Ethics course at University of Gloucestershire talking about Philosophy of Religion..

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7 Comments

  1. Good point to distinguish between popular and scholarly accounts of rebirth, and the problem of continuity. A lot of people fail to make this distinction and do no look very carefully at what Buddhists actually do.

    I find the definition of Buddhism in terms of belief completely unsatisfactory. Partly because it’s based on Abrahamic ideas about religion (credo) and partly because Buddhists believe all kinds of different things, frequently contradictory not to say mutually exclusive. And increasingly, contra what Paul says, a lot of us are questioning traditional narratives of karma and rebirth. I call myself a Buddhist because of what I do and who I do it with, not because of what I believe. In a sense Buddhist doctrine renders belief either irrelevant (before bodhi) and superfluous (after).

    Statements like “The universe is ethical” seem to be inextricably linked to an afterlife belief. In traditional Buddhist narratives of karma this notion relies on rebirth in order to be true – most people’s lives are not commensurate with their morality and we have to invoke post-mortem reward and punishment in order for it to be satisfying. It’s a pretty standard moral trope – that even your private actions are observed by some metaphysical entity who keeps tabs and makes sure you are rewarded or punished, usually in the afterlife. The post Ṛgveda version of this in India is impersonal and abstract, but the social function of metaphysical surveillance is identical. I’ve argued (in JOCBS 3) that this may have been due to influence from Zoroastrianism on standard Indian cyclic eschatology. Hope to publish more on this soon.

    Karma can’t quite be reduced to ‘actions have consequences’. Certainly they do, but the point is that the consequences cannot be avoided even by dying (at first in early Buddhism) or can only be avoided with strenuous religious exercises (by the time of Śāntideva at least). And the main consequence of karma over a lifetime is either sugati or duggati – a good or bad rebirth. Indeed the one to one correspondence between action and consequence is completely downplayed in early Buddhist texts – trying to figure it out will drive you mad! It’s not so much ‘actions have consequences’ as ‘lifestyle determines rebirth’.

    The debate in the Modern West very much is about karma and rebirth, with increasing numbers of us unwilling to accept traditional narratives on face value, especially where they contradict the findings of science, or are shown by scholarship to be self-contradictory. For example the idea of rebirth requires rewriting the laws of physics and the kind of continuity that is specifically denied in many Buddhist texts.

    While I’m hardly a voice of the masses, I do get about 300 readers a day on my blog, and I’m now getting published in academic journals as well. I know many Buddhists from across the spectrum of schools are sympathetic to my ideas. A couple of relevant examples:

    I recently proposed that paṭicca-samuppāda does not really explain karma. http://jayarava.blogspot.co.uk/2013/05/does-karma-break-rules.html

    I’ve also argued that rebirth is neither plausible nor salient. http://jayarava.blogspot.co.uk/2012/01/rebirth-is-neither-plausible-nor.html

    Good to have these kinds of discussions however 🙂

  2. There is much here I agre with, and is clearly true (it is a standard moral trope to delay benefit/disbenefit of acts post-mortem, etc): what interested me was this statement:

    “It’s not so much ‘actions have consequences’ as ‘lifestyle determines rebirth’.”

    I think much early Sutta material (be it little summaries in the Ekamsena Sutta, or whatever) corroborates this claim – and it matches contemporaneous (loosely) developments and statements in Brahmanic traditions. But there are hints of more.. Lonaphala Sutta has a hint where it talks of variable outcomes for different people based on the same acts.. These feed into a broader view – but the rebirth focus does remain dominant in many contexts…

    Anyway – the Acintita Sutta says that pondering the results of Kamma will drive you bonkers –
    “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?” – Working out results of kamma is number 3!

    1. Yes. In order to have moral force in the present karma must be able to ripen in the present – there is even a term for this: diṭṭhadhammavedianīyakamma 🙂

      The Lonaphala Sutta is interesting as it allows for mitigation. But as per Dhp 127, which Buddhaghosa later uses to reinforce this point, you can run from karma, but you can’t hide. By the time of the mature Māhāyāna (as evidenced in Śāntideva’s Śikṣasmuccaya) this is no longer true. Religious exercises could avert karma completely. And in Tantra simply change the Vajrasattva mantra to purify your karma, no problemo. I have an article prepared which looks at this fundamental change in karma (though some clever clogs has written a book covering the more important source texts that I now have to read and incorporate!).

      Agree that karma can make you bonkers.

      I thought these little clips were quite interesting. Look forward to more similar. And btw I’m enjoying your book at the moment. I too have a desire to punch the “not religious but spiritual people” 🙂

      1. Yes – you are, of course, wholly correct about how the Māhāyāna comes to take a very different view of karma! It may br personal preference only, but I think the idea that you can later deal with, or purify, your karma – well – it seems to take away some of the real strength of the idea of karma in the first place – look forward to seeing where this takes you!

        [Glad you’re enjoying the Dispirited book!]

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