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Karma and Rebirth

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by Sangharakshita

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... teaching, in this doctrine or tradition of karma and rebirth.

Thirdly, we*re dealing, or rather I*m dealing, with this question this evening because there have been a number of requests that I should speak about it. It*s quite a long time since I*ve given a complete lecture on this subject of karma and rebirth and I know that a number of our Friends have in fact never heard me deal with this particular subject at all. The last time I dealt with it was at Yale but I don*t think anybody present here heard that lecture. So this evening, this deficiency is being remedied.

Now, the lecture will fall into three main parts. In the first we*re going to summarise the general Buddhist teaching on the subject of karma and rebirth; in the second we*re going to briefly consider evidence for karma and rebirth; and in the third we*re going to consider just a few misunderstandings and difficulties. But before we do that, I want to point out a difference, a difference between the Lecture 32: Karma and Rebirth Page 2 eastern and western approaches. In the West, we*re very conscious of the shortness of life, we*re very conscious of the inevitability of death, and here, therefore, the problem is `does man survive death?' This is what people really want to know. When they go flocking along to the lectures on karma and rebirth or death or the Tibetan Book of the Dead, what is it that they really want to know? What they really want to know is `Is death the end? When I die, do I really die?' Or `Does something go on, do I survive death?', or `Is death really the end, the absolute full stop?' This is what they really want to know, at least in the West. So this is the problem here, death itself is the problem, and if a man could be assured that death was not the end, here in the West there would be no problem at all. I think if people knew irrefutably, with absolute certainty, that death was not the end, they wouldn*t bother to come along and hear a lecture on karma and rebirth, Tibetan Book of the Dead and so on. So this is a real problem for them, whether they survive death, death is the problem. But, in the East, especially the Hindu and Buddhist East, it*s rather different. There, people don*t bother about death, and I*ve lived in India for twenty years and I*ve seen this - they don*t bother about death. They accept death, death is natural, death is inevitable. And so is rebirth, they accept that too. You die and you are reborn, sure, no one doubts it, everyone accepts it - you die and you are reborn, you die again and you're reborn again, you die again and you're reborn again. Everybody accepts that. There*s no problem about what happens after death. They know that, or they think that they know that; you are reborn, of course, everybody knows that. Everybody knows you die and you*re reborn, you live and you die, you live and you die, and that this process goes on and on and on and on. This is what they accept. So, in the East, the question is, the problem is, how can man escape from this process? How can he reach a state beyond birth and death, a state where he will no longer be subject to birth and subject to death? They*re not bothered about the problem of death. For them the problem is the problem of birth and death, repeated being born and repeated dying, time and time again, through unending ages. In other words, the East carries the whole question a stage further than the West.

What for the West is a solution of the problem, is for the East, itself a problem, requiring a further solution. So there*s a rather different approach, but we*re not going into that any more this evening, we have to get on with our subject.

So, first of all, the general Buddhist teaching on karma and rebirth. Here, there are two things to consider; karma in general and karma in particular, or the general nature of karma as a law or principle and the specific workings of karma, the specific workings of that law or principle, and the latter, the specific workings, traditionally comprises a classification of karma from different points of view. Now, in the most general terms, karma is simply a form of the universal principle of conditionality, that is to say, it is the law of conditionality itself at work on a certain level, a certain plane of existence. From a point of view which we can loosely describe as philosophical, the law of conditionality is the fundamental principle of Buddhism. The law of conditionality, profound and important as it is, is stated very simply, almost bleakly: it simply says that whatever comes into existence, on whatsoever level, does so in dependence on conditions, and in the absence of those conditions, ceases to exist. This is all, really, that the principle of conditionality says, all that it lays down, but it constitutes the very basis, the very foundation, of Buddhism, and this particular principle so formulated, so stated, is known technically as the principle or the teaching, the doctrine, of Paticca Samutpada. This is variously translated. It used to be rendered `Dependent Origination', Dr. Conze renders it `Conditioned Co-production', and Dr. Beni Madhab Barua renders it `Causal Genesis'. But different as they are, they all do justice to one or other aspect of the total meaning of this term, and it signifies, as I*ve said, simply, arising of things in dependence on conditions and non-arising when those conditions are absent, and simple as it is, I repeat that this constitutes the very foundation, if you like, the essence of Buddhism from a point of view loosely described as philosophical. And this principle, this doctrine of conditionality, Paticca Samutpada, made its appearance, its explicit appearance, quite early in the history of Buddhism. We know that Buddhism begins with the Buddha, we know that it begins with the Buddha*s experience of Enlightenment, which traditionally took place under what came to be known as the Bodhi Tree at Bodhgaya about 500 BCE, and we know, or at least we gather from the scriptures, the records, the traditions, we know that that state of Enlightenment which the Buddha attained, by virtue of which attainment he is known as the Buddha, the Enlightened One, was, is, a state, in the first place, of absolute freedom from all mental conditionings; a state of ineffable peace and tranquillity and bliss, and above all, a state of Transcendental Insight into the true nature of existence. So that existence itself, Reality itself, was revealed to the Buddha, made known to the Buddha - if you like assimilated by the Buddha - in that experience of Enlightenment or `sambodhi'.

This was a tremendous thing, this was a tremendous achievement, a tremendous discovery, this achievement of Enlightenment, this discovery of Truth, of Reality, not just intellectually but by way of direct vision, direct perception, direct experience, so that the Buddha became totally transformed.

From an ordinary man, an unenlightened man, he became an extraordinary man, an Enlightened man, Lecture 32: Karma and Rebirth Page 3 a new species of being, one who was at one with the Truth, who had comprehended Reality in all its heights and in all its depths. And the Buddha himself, in a way, himself, at first, was staggered by the incommensurability of his own experience, his own achievement. It seemed so tremendous, so overwhelming, that at first he pondered very deeply, he was doubtful whether he should make it known to the rest of humanity, make it known to anybody. He realised it was something quite extraordinary, quite out of the ordinary, something unprecedented, something unfathomable, something which people would not be able to appreciate. But even if he started talking about it, talking about his discovery, talking about the Truth, talking about Reality, even if he was able to convey something, to communicate something, even if he was able to come down to those lower levels on which ordinary men stood, and talk to them about what he had experienced, what he had achieved, it would be very difficult for them to understand. They wouldn*t be able to comprehend.

There would be nothing in their experience even remotely analogous to what he had experienced.

So at first, we are told, the Buddha was inclined to remain silent and to enjoy the experience himself, and not make any attempt to communicate the Truth that he'd discovered to other living beings. But then, we are told, then the legend proceeds, Brahmasahampati appeared. Brahmasahampati was a sort of deity, the ruler over many thousands of worlds, a sort of cosmic figure, if you like, far inferior to the Buddha, but nevertheless occupying quite a high place in the scheme of evolution, in the cosmos, according to ancient Indian traditions. He appeared in front of the Buddha, we are told, and pleaded with the Buddha, entreated the Buddha to make known the truth that he had discovered, saying that there were a few at least whose eyes were only a little covered with dust, and for their sake, for their benefit at least, the Buddha should make known the Truth that he had discovered.

Now, we can take this story, we can take this incident, literally, or we can take it symbolically. It may be that the figure of Brahmasahampati, the voice of Brahmasahampati rising within the depths of the Buddha*s consciousness, represented something working, something functioning, within the enlightened mind itself, represented, as it were, of the voice of compassion, the Buddha*s own compassion, awaking for the first time after his experience, his great experience of Enlightenment.

But be that as it may, whether it was an external cosmic figure, Brahmasahampati, appearing in front of the newly Enlightened Buddha or whether it was, in fact, the voice of compassion sounding within the depths of his own heart, the Buddha, we are told, ...

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