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Karma and Rebirth

On the email list sponsored by the Unitarian Universalist Buddhist Fellowship, a member asked how others deal with these subjects. Here's my answer:

Rational and intuitive minds are co-arising

First of all, I need to say that my rational mind and my intuitive mind are equally important to me. I need to find a way they can both dance together in balance, even if sometimes that dance is one of disagreement. When I was younger I tried very hard to understand everything; now I have fewer expectations that the mind can adequately grasp reality and more respect for paradox.

Agnostic about rebirth

It's easy to tell you my attitude toward rebirth: I'm a sort of agnostic on the subject; I don't have an opinion. It certainly seems an idea perfectly suited to projection and wishful thinking; on the other hand supposedly there are some reliable reports of phenomena highly suggestive of reincarnation --or rebirth, whatever. I haven't bothered to go look up those reports because living in the best way I can, in this life, is enough for me to deal with.

Karma without rebirth

Karma, on the other hand, makes sense to me even without r/r. "As ye sow, so shall ye reap" is pretty basic. As I understand Buddha's definition of karma, it hinges on the intention of an action. Our intentions create our character. For example recently on TheravadaNet, Ann Barker talked about detaching from negative feelings. If you can just watch them AND feel them without identifying them or acting on them, then they will not create any karma, she said.

Yes! went my heart; I have experienced that. That's how mindfulness has revolutionized my life. It's not easy to do, it's painful. But it's freeing.

How can you be reborn if there's no "you"?

Joanna Macy, in World as Lover, World as Self, has a chapter on "Karma: the Co-Arising of Doer and Deed" that I find interesting. She specifically addresses the question, How did Buddha reconcile the ideas of karma and anatta? (Anatta is "the essential unreality of "self"; so the question is how can you be reborn if there's no "you"?)

As I read it, the answer is: he regarded even the question as a construct of the mind's attachment to the idea of self, and warned against getting caught up in it — saying, in effect, that understanding of dependent co-arising will free you from this misguided speculation.

No enduring self, even in this lifetime

Macy ends the chapter by talking about "the self we tend to posit and on whose behalf we generally act," and goes on to say "Because it is altered by each act, wise or foolish, fearful or brave, the self, even as decisionmaker, is doomed as an enduring entity, ever dying and passing away." (p. 94.)

In other words, we are a process of continuous co-arising, both in this life and beyond it. The "self" has no abiding existence, even in this lifetime. But actions create the world, and "selves" co-arise with those actions.

For a more complete discussion, do read Macy. I find her thinking thorough, insightful, and clear.

© Copyright Catherine Holmes Clark 1998. Last updated 8 December, 1998