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Karma and Rebirth

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by Sangharakshita

Lecture 32: Karma and Rebirth

Urgyen Sangharakshita Mr. Chairman and Friends, To primitive man life was a mystery. At first, it was a mystery which he only felt. He couldn*t formulate it very clearly, but he felt it as though in his blood, one may say, that life was strange, that life was incomprehensible, that it was a mystery. And later on, as even during that primitive period he developed, he began not just to feel that life was a mystery, he began quite consciously, quite explicitly, to think that it was a mystery too. He realised that he found himself in the midst - he knew not how it had come about - in the midst of what seemed to be a strange and even a hostile world. He found himself surrounded by all sorts of things which he was unable to understand, and over which he could exercise no control at all. He saw every day the sun rise in the morning, and in the evening he saw it set, but why the sun rose and why it set and what happened to it in between, he just didn*t know. Sometimes there were great storms; the whole of the heavens were darkened, rain fell, thunder crashed and lightning lit up the heavens with a terrible glare, but what caused these things, what the reason for these disturbances was, man simply did not know. Sometimes he found the days long and warm, like those which we are enjoying nowadays, and sometimes again he found the days short and very cold, but again he did not know why this should be so. Sometimes he struck two stones together and a spark was produced, and this spark he learned to call `fire', but what it was he did not know.

Sometimes he felt acutely miserable. His body was racked by terrible pains, he was ill, but he did not know what illness was; and sometimes something even stranger happened, sometimes, people whom he knew, friends, relations, people near and dear, people, maybe strangers, were found lying on the ground, lying quite still. Usually they were old people but sometimes quite young people, even babies.

When you called them they did not answer. You saw that their eyes were fixed and staring but they didn*t recognise you. When you drew near, when you placed your fingers near their nostrils you discovered that they no longer breathed, and when you touched them, you found that their flesh was hard and cold, and if you left them where they were, just as they were, then sooner or later, you noticed, a dreadful smell was perceptible. And this was the greatest mystery of all, this was the mystery of death.

After several hundred thousand years, man passed from the primitive age to the age of agriculture, to the age of the great river valley civilisations, to the age of what I called last autumn divine kingship, and this happened perhaps ten or fifteen thousand years ago, and during this period of transition, a number of mysteries were solved. Man came to understand quite a number of things which he had not been able to understand before, but he was unable to find any solution to that greatest of all mysteries, the mystery of death. In fact, if anything, during this new age, this new period, the mystery of death grew deeper and darker, seemed to weigh upon man more oppressively than before, and there was a reason for this. As I*ve said, changes had taken place, it was a time of transition, people now lived in villages and in towns, even in great cities, they no longer wandered about in roving bands. In fact, civilisation as we know it today had begun, life had become more secure, more comfortable, and we may say that during this period, people even enjoyed life more. Not only did they enjoy life but they wanted to go on enjoying life, which meant that they did not want to die. They did not want to leave their wives and their families, their houses and their neatly cultivated fields, their musical instruments, their singing and their dancing, their games of chance and their colourful religious ceremonies and festivals; but they soon found that they had to leave them, that they had to die, and they knew this.

And some of them found this knowledge, that they had to die, and leave all those things that were so dear to them, some of them found this knowledge extremely depressing and we may say that the thought of death threw, as it were, a shadow over the sunlight of their lives. And not only death itself but human existence seemed to them a mystery. They saw that there were just a few short years of life, a few short years of enjoyment, of youth, of pleasure, of prosperity, and then after that, nothing but death, just a blank, just a void with nothing apparently surviving, perhaps some ghost-like figure, some wraith-like figure, twittering in the darkness, twittering in the void, and that was all, nothing more than that. And what could one do about it? Apparently, one could do nothing at all. So, the majority just tried to forget, they tried, or at least they did their best, to enjoy life as much as possible while it lasted, and their philosophy in well-known words was; `Let us eat, drink, and be merry for tomorrow we die'. The minority - those who were made of sterner stuff - immersed themselves in action, they performed heroic deeds, went about slaying monsters, fighting battles, conquering kingdoms, tried to make a name for themselves, tried to ensure that though they themselves might perish, their name would live on after their death, if possible live on for evermore. But, all of them, in their more reflective moments, sometimes, when they were sitting quietly, in the midst of their Lecture 32: Karma and Rebirth Page 1 pleasures even, in the midst of their battles even, in these quieter, more reflective moments, they all saw that it was quite useless, saw that whether they were immersed in pleasures or whether they were immersed in action, they all had to die, one day. In the well known words of Gray: The boast of heraldry, the pomp of pow'r, And all that Beauty, all that youth e'er gave, Awaits alike th' inevitable hour, The paths of glory lead but to the grave.

And then it seemed that human life was not just a mystery, it was more than a mystery - it was a tragedy, and this mood is reflected in the literature of the epoch or rather in the traditions and the tales belonging to or deriving from this epoch. They were afterwards written down as literature. We find this sort of mood in the `Iliad', we find it in that old Anglo-Saxon epic poem, `Beowulf', we find it even in that ancient Babylonian work, belonging apparently to the period 3000 BCE, the `Epic of Gilgamesh', and in another form, we find it, perhaps even more powerfully, even more bitterly expressed, in the book of Ecclesiastes, the Book of the Preacher, in the Bible.

But, this was not the whole story; this, we may say, was only half the story, it was only the Western half of the story, our side of the story, because further east, certain wise men had started seeing things rather differently, in fact very differently. They*d arrived in their own way at a solution of the mystery of death, which of course also meant a solution of the mystery of life. They saw - how they saw we shall ourselves see a little later on - they saw that death was not the end. Man did not just as it were vanish into the far distance. They saw that man, after an interval, came back. They saw that he came back in a new body. They saw that he came back in accordance with the deeds, in accordance with the nature of the deeds, which he had performed while in his old body, and these ideas, or these insights, these experiences if you like, made their first appearance in India, and thereafter from India spread widely, and they appeared at the beginning of `the axial age', that is to say they appeared about 800 BCE. The first clear reference to these ideas, to these insights, in literature is found in the Brhadaranyaka Upanishad, which is a document of this period. And here, this particular teaching or these ideas, these insights is represented as a highly esoteric teaching - not a matter of common knowledge - something communicated only to the chosen few, and this is of course the teaching of what came to be known later on, in its more organised, its more systematised form, as the teaching of karma and rebirth, and it is this, of course, which is our subject this evening, and we*re dealing with it mainly for three reasons.

First of all, on account of its intrinsic importance. People are still perplexed, people are still puzzled, by the mystery of death. They still look for a solution. People, we may say, are very interested in all that pertains to death. This is something we don*t always appreciate, I think I*ve mentioned it before, but those lectures which we*ve held under the auspices of our organisation, those lectures which were on the subject of death in one form or another have been the best attended lectures. Announce that you*re going to talk about death, whether it*s the Tibetan Book of the Dead or what happens after death or where you go when you die, any such lecture with any such title, will draw record crowds.

So, people are still interested, and they're interested because they*re perplexed, because they*re puzzled and still looking for a solution to this mystery of death. And this teaching of karma and rebirth does help to provide this, a solution for the mystery of death and for the mystery of life. And it*s for this reason, firstly, that we*re considering it this evening.

Secondly, the whole teaching of karma and rebirth in its more systematised form is an integral part of Buddhism as it has traditionally come down to us, and if we want to understand Buddhism completely and fully, in its breadth as well as in its depth, we can hardly do so without a fairly thorough acquaintance with this particular teaching. So if we are interested in Buddhism at all, we have, perforce, to be interested in this ...

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