Confusion about Karma and Reincarnation

A discussion on all aspects of Theravāda Buddhism

Confusion about Karma and Reincarnation

Postby rybak303 » Fri Sep 10, 2010 7:59 am

I've read some basic information about Karma and Reincarnation as it is known in Hinduism and Buddhism. Basically that the good or evil actions that we make in this life as well as our past lives determines how we will be reborn in the next life or reach Nirvana. That souls are reborn from lesser forms of life into higher forms of life until they become human beings and have a chance at escaping the cycle of rebirth and reach Nirvana. My question is how can lesser forms of life which are not human make moral decisions and thus be reborn into higher forms of life? How can a cat or a moth be make moral decisions if they do not possess freewill and the knowledge of good and evil? What sins can a cat possibly make that would cause it to be reborn into a lesser life form? Also how can the karma from our past lives shape the character of this life if we have no memory of our past lives? Thank you for you answers :)
rybak303
 
Posts: 10
Joined: Wed Sep 08, 2010 7:23 am

Re: Confusion about Karma and Reincarnation

Postby Reductor » Fri Sep 10, 2010 8:26 am

Firstly, the concept of 'soul' is not present in Buddhism. In Buddhism there is Anatta, or the doctrine of 'not-self'. This doctrine states that upon observation of body and mind, there is no evidence of a permanent eternal self.

This is a difficult topic, esp. for someone just setting out.

As for your question: good and bad are determined by Greed and Aversion. Behavior motivated by greed or aversion yields a birth where pain is more frequent or more intense. The opposite of greed and aversion are generosity and love. Behavior motivated by generosity and love yield birth where pleasure is more frequent and more intense.

Animals and beings that suffer more are also less likely to behave with generosity and love, and subseqently they are less likely to be reborn in better destinations. Because of this fact, they don't tend to be reborn higher up very often (very very infrequently, actually). Those beings higher up are smarter and have a wider choice of actions to choose from. If they act based on greed and aversion, they end up being born lower. Once born low, it is very difficult to go 'up'.

Kamma is not purely deterministic, as there is room for free will. In this manor we occasionally get a chance to be generous or loving, and so we might do so. This is true for animals too (think of a mother cat defending her kittens, or giving up her last food for them, etc). Each small act is accumulative, and eventually there are enough small acts of good for an animal to be born 'up'.

It should be noted that no birth is forever, and no being is forever stuck in a hell or animal realm (nor even a heaven or human realm).

Does this help?
Michael

The thoughts I've expressed in the above post are carefully considered and offered in good faith.

And friendliness towards the world is happiness for him who is forbearing with living beings. -- Ud. 2:1
To his own ruin the fool gains knowledge, for it cleaves his head and destroys his innate goodness. -- Dhp 72

User avatar
Reductor
 
Posts: 1277
Joined: Sat Sep 12, 2009 6:52 am
Location: Alberta, Canada

Re: Confusion about Karma and Reincarnation

Postby Paññāsikhara » Fri Sep 10, 2010 8:56 am

Perhaps "moral decision" is a misnomer, it is whether or not they act with defiled states of mind, ie. craving, aversion or delusion, or not. And yes, 99.99% of living creatures do act with these, and as a result, a basically helplessly trapped in the nasty cycle. They do not even know that their mental states cause such problems, and even if they did, they are so entrenched that there is often little that they can do to stop it. Nobody said getting out was easy. Fortunately for Buddhism, it doesn't have to answer the theodicy question - how can a compassionate god create people who have little or no way of getting out of their suffering? Something tells me that your question kind of has this sort of thinking lying in behind it. (Apologies if I'm wrong.)
My recently moved Blog, containing some of my writings on the Buddha Dhamma, as well as a number of translations from classical Buddhist texts and modern authors, liturgy, etc.: Huifeng's Prajnacara Blog.
Paññāsikhara
 
Posts: 980
Joined: Wed Oct 14, 2009 5:27 am

Re: Confusion about Karma and Reincarnation

Postby rybak303 » Mon Sep 13, 2010 10:14 am

Thank you for your replies. I'm still a little confused on how animals such as a cat can genuinely behave with generosity and love and hence earn good karma if they don't have freewill and are operating only on instinct. thereductor mentioned a mother cat defending her kittens as an example of cats behaving with generosity and love but this seems more like an instinct than an actual choice. For example a mother cat will also instinctively kill one of her kittens if it exhibits signs of weakness or genetic disorder. Human beings seem different in that by an act of freewill we are capable of overriding our natural instincts. Even the most advanced mammals, creatures closet to us in most regards, seem unable to override their natural instincts by an act of freewill in order to observe a moral code.

Paññāsikhara mentioned 99.9% of creatures acting with a defiled state of mind and hence being trapped in an endless cycle of rebirth but what other creature besides man even has the notion of defiled let alone a "defiled state of mind." To me this seems like a very odd phenomena and one unique to mankind.

In further response to Paññāsikhara:

"Fortunately for Buddhism, it doesn't have to answer the theodicy question - how can a compassionate god create people who have little or no way of getting out of their suffering? Something tells me that your question kind of has this sort of thinking lying in behind it. (Apologies if I'm wrong.)”

I am just curious but why doesn't Buddhism have to answer this question? No apologies necessary, your not wrong I do have this sort of thinking in my question, at least to see what the Buddhist response may be.
rybak303
 
Posts: 10
Joined: Wed Sep 08, 2010 7:23 am

Re: Confusion about Karma and Reincarnation

Postby Paññāsikhara » Mon Sep 13, 2010 10:24 am

rybak303 wrote:Thank you for your replies. I'm still a little confused on how animals such as a cat can genuinely behave with generosity and love and hence earn good karma if they don't have freewill and are operating only on instinct. thereductor mentioned a mother cat defending her kittens as an example of cats behaving with generosity and love but this seems more like an instinct than an actual choice. For example a mother cat will also instinctively kill one of her kittens if it exhibits signs of weakness or genetic disorder. Human beings seem different in that by an act of freewill we are capable of overriding our natural instincts. Even the most advanced mammals, creatures closet to us in most regards, seem unable to override their natural instincts by an act of freewill in order to observe a moral code.


The notion of "free will" versus "determinism" is a position found in western thought, one that Buddhism never had to really answer explicitly. Perhaps it could be said that Buddhism doesn't posit either in the strict sense. Nor is there really any such notion of "instinct". So arguing that animal actions are purely instinct, therefore no free will, therefore cannot be / have karma, is applying some lines of division in western thought to a buddhist doctrine. Likewise for the "moral actions" type of thought.

Hence better to ask / say: Can an animal act with craving, aversion or ignorance? Yes.
Can an animal act with love, renuncation or insight? Yes.

This asks and then answers the question in Buddhist terms.

Moreover, the karma which determines the next rebirth is not necessarily a karma that is made in that given lifetime. At death, any one of a number of karmas (rather, tendencies) could arise. These could also come from preceding lives, quite a long way back. eg. dog dies but does so with a tendency towards kindness from a human life 100 lifetimes ago; or, human dies with a tendency towards aggression from a dog life, way back in the early holocene. (Did they have dogs then, I don't know, but you get the point.)

So "moral" is not the best word, nor "moral code". A code implies a social construct, and Buddhism argues that regardless of the social construct of what constitutes "morality", the three poisons lead to painful results, and their opposites, to happiness.

Paññāsikhara mentioned 99.9% of creatures acting with a defiled state of mind and hence being trapped in an endless cycle of rebirth but what other creature besides man even has the notion of defiled let alone a "defiled state of mind." To me this seems like a very odd phenomena and one unique to mankind.


Whether or not beings have the notion of defiled states of mind is irrelevant. Hence, the actual state is what is important, not whether or not it is identified as a moral code, or moral, or whatever.

In further response to Paññāsikhara:

"Fortunately for Buddhism, it doesn't have to answer the theodicy question - how can a compassionate god create people who have little or no way of getting out of their suffering? Something tells me that your question kind of has this sort of thinking lying in behind it. (Apologies if I'm wrong.)”

I am just curious but why doesn't Buddhism have to answer this question? No apologies necessary, your not wrong I do have this sort of thinking in my question, at least to see what the Buddhist response may be.


Because Buddhism doesn't posit a creator God who is all-compassionate. That is why it doesn't have this conundrum.
So, not only does it not have to answer it, to Buddhism, the very position is meaningless.

One can still ask: if the buddha is all-compassionate, why do people still suffer?
But this is easy: buddhism never posits that the buddha is all powerful (ie. a creator).
So, yes, compassionate, but that doesn't mean he can change it all with a wave of his magic wand (or whatever).

It seems to me that a bit more familiarity with the Buddhist system will help with some of your questions. It seems you may be reading certain views into Buddhism (implicitly, and assumed), and then finding problems which aren't really there (because Buddhism doesn't agree with some of your implicit assumptions in the first place).

Hope I'm not too blunt about that. :smile:
My recently moved Blog, containing some of my writings on the Buddha Dhamma, as well as a number of translations from classical Buddhist texts and modern authors, liturgy, etc.: Huifeng's Prajnacara Blog.
Paññāsikhara
 
Posts: 980
Joined: Wed Oct 14, 2009 5:27 am

Re: Confusion about Karma and Reincarnation

Postby Annapurna » Mon Sep 13, 2010 10:41 am

rybak303 wrote:Thank you for your replies. I'm still a little confused on how animals such as a cat can genuinely behave with generosity and love and hence earn good karma if they don't have freewill and are operating only on instinct.


Of course animals have some free will.

My cat can choose to obey me, or choose to be a little devil-. (she understands what I want)

----> she is creating Kamma

Animals also have compassion.

My pets always sensed it when I was sad and ill and came to me to cheer me up, and when this was impossible, simply lay down next to me and kept me company, to support me.

This is interspecies friendship with all it entails: compassion, solidarity, support.

Let's not think too lowly of animals.

Of course now you can say that this is reading too much into animals and that they do it only because they wish to further be fed, -then how come that animals who are provided with food and care refuse to eat when their human friend is not around anymore and show all signs of deep mourning? Until death?
http://www.schmuckzauberei.blogspot.com/
User avatar
Annapurna
 
Posts: 2639
Joined: Mon Jan 05, 2009 8:04 pm
Location: Germany

Re: Confusion about Karma and Reincarnation

Postby Paññāsikhara » Mon Sep 13, 2010 12:51 pm

There is a lot of assumption that goes under the reasoning that humankind is the only species to have "intelligence", whereas other animals are merely operating on instincts. Part of this stems from Judeo-Christian notions about the role of humanity in the scheme of things. Similar branch ideas include a split between "natural" and "human-made". Fortunately, Buddhism tends not to make these assumptions. Though indicating a difference between humans and other life, it is one more of degree, than of qualities in themselves.
My recently moved Blog, containing some of my writings on the Buddha Dhamma, as well as a number of translations from classical Buddhist texts and modern authors, liturgy, etc.: Huifeng's Prajnacara Blog.
Paññāsikhara
 
Posts: 980
Joined: Wed Oct 14, 2009 5:27 am

Re: Confusion about Karma and Reincarnation

Postby lovemygreys » Mon Sep 13, 2010 1:20 pm

Annapurna wrote:
Let's not think too lowly of animals.


I think there is a lot to this. There is a lot about dogs (and cats and other animals) that we don't understand. I believe animals are capable of more emotion and critical thinking that we give them credit for.

I've always been an avid animal watcher...living with 18 dogs gives me plenty of opportunity to observe them. One example comes to mind, every day I take 4-5 dogs to our kennel building and dump out a big pail of raw bones for them to chew on while I work out. Probably 20 different bones of all shapes and sizes. Some dogs choose one and have no problems with other dogs walking near them. Other dogs will choose one but growl at any dog who passes by. Other dogs will collect as many bones as they can (some only choose the "best" bones to collect - the ones with the most meat still on them) and guard all of them. Some will collect bones but willingly allow other dogs to come by and take them...they'll even willingly give up the bone they are working on if another dog is interested (and these are not always the "pushover" or "omega" dogs in the pack...some of them are "pack leaders"). Are some dogs being greedy and others being generous? I'm always hesitant to put human values and emotions onto animals, but there is definitely different motivations and attitudes at work. And dogs definitely make choices in how they interact with people, animals and their environment. Some definitely seem more compassionate than others (from my human perspective).
Heather and the hounds
User avatar
lovemygreys
 
Posts: 20
Joined: Fri Aug 06, 2010 7:49 pm
Location: Upstate of SC

Re: Confusion about Karma and Reincarnation

Postby Spiny Norman » Mon Sep 13, 2010 2:09 pm

Annapurna wrote:
rybak303 wrote:Let's not think too lowly of animals.



Good point. We're animals too, aren't we? :smile:

P
User avatar
Spiny Norman
 
Posts: 2374
Joined: Fri Mar 05, 2010 10:32 am
Location: With the cockney chimney-sweeps in Mary Poppins

Re: Confusion about Karma and Reincarnation

Postby Shonin » Mon Sep 13, 2010 9:24 pm

Given her bad behaviour, I'm concerned now about what will become of our dog Lily.

:jumping:

On the other hand Cesar Milan says there are no bad dogs only bad owners.
Shonin
 
Posts: 583
Joined: Wed Apr 28, 2010 5:11 am

Re: Confusion about Karma and Reincarnation

Postby Sunrise » Tue Sep 14, 2010 5:19 pm

rybak303 wrote:That souls are reborn from lesser forms of life into higher forms of life until they become human beings and have a chance at escaping the cycle of rebirth and reach Nirvana


Not sure what you are talking about. Buddhism is about anatta and the concept of a soul does not fit in there.

IMO it is best to keep notions of rebirth for morality perspectives. For letting go, it is not important. Just focus on the here and now practice and be in merit whether there is rebirth or not. That much we can do, can't we?
Sunrise
 
Posts: 199
Joined: Fri Jul 30, 2010 2:26 pm

Re: Confusion about Karma and Reincarnation

Postby Aloka » Tue Sep 14, 2010 9:18 pm

Sunrise wrote:
rybak303 wrote:That souls are reborn from lesser forms of life into higher forms of life until they become human beings and have a chance at escaping the cycle of rebirth and reach Nirvana



Not sure what you are talking about. Buddhism is about anatta and the concept of a soul does not fit in there.

IMO it is best to keep notions of rebirth for morality perspectives. For letting go, it is not important. Just focus on the here and now practice and be in merit whether there is rebirth or not. That much we can do, can't we?




Well spoken, Sunrise.

_/\_
User avatar
Aloka
 
Posts: 3576
Joined: Wed Jan 21, 2009 2:51 pm

Re: Confusion about Karma and Reincarnation

Postby SamKR » Wed Sep 15, 2010 8:15 am

Hi rybak,

rybak303 wrote:I've read some basic information about Karma and Reincarnation as it is known in Hinduism and Buddhism. Basically that the good or evil actions that we make in this life as well as our past lives determines how we will be reborn in the next life or reach Nirvana. That souls are reborn from lesser forms of life into higher forms of life until they become human beings and have a chance at escaping the cycle of rebirth and reach Nirvana.

That sounds like a Hindu perspective rather than Buddhist. Many Hindus believe this thing: "That souls are reborn from lesser forms of life into higher forms of life until they become human beings and have a chance at escaping the cycle of rebirth and reach Nirvana." Hindus also believe that a soul is permanent (immortal, and not changing) and it passes from one body to another body at death.

However Buddhists understand that there is no permanent soul that can pass from one body to another. Many Buddhists understand that instead of a soul there is a rapidly changing (arising and falling away) "stream" of Consciousness. The consciousness of this moment causes the consciousness of the next moment, and this process continues. At death, the last consciousness of this life causes the first consciousness of the next life. The next life depends upon the type of consciousness (wholesome or unwholesome) at the moment of death. And the type of consciousness at the moment of death depends upon the wholesome or unwholesome Kamma (intentions) accumulated in that or previous lives. The results of Kamma that one is experiencing right now need not be the direct result of Kamma of this life or immediate past life; it can be a result of Kamma done in any of the uncountable previous lives.

My question is how can lesser forms of life which are not human make moral decisions and thus be reborn into higher forms of life? How can a cat or a moth be make moral decisions if they do not possess freewill and the knowledge of good and evil? What sins can a cat possibly make that would cause it to be reborn into a lesser life form? Thank you for you answers :)

Animals are born as animals because in their past lives (as humans, devas, animals) they had accumulated many bad Kamma so that at the moment of death their last consciousness caused their next consciousness to appear in the animal world. Then according to the Kamma they have accumulated (in many lives) they can be reborn in lesser or higher forms of life.

Animals may not make the "moral decisions" upto the same level as we humans do, but their Kamma will bear fruit, and that Kamma which is giving result may have been accumulated in any of the past lives (when the animal was an animal, or human or even a Deva). So even if you believe that animals do not make "moral decisions" the law of Kamma will continue to work. A cat may born into a lesser form of life mainly because of the Kamma accumulated in many past lives (not only because of the Kamma it accumulated in the life as a cat). Kammas will generate and will give results later whether the beings (including animals) have the "knowledge of good and evil" or not.

Also how can the karma from our past lives shape the character of this life if we have no memory of our past lives?

Memory doesn't matter. It's all law of cause and effect. Even in this life we have bear the results of the actions which we do ignorantly, or which we forget after doing them.

Unwholesome intentions -> Unwholesome consciousness --> Bad result.
Wholesome intentions -> Wholesome consciousness --> Good result.
And this result (bad or good) is experienced by the consciousness which appears later (at right moment) as an effect of original Kamma.

I tried to explain in short according to my understanding. I would love to be corrected if there are any mistakes in my post.
:namaste: .
Last edited by SamKR on Wed Sep 15, 2010 6:19 pm, edited 3 times in total.
SamKR
 
Posts: 759
Joined: Sun Jul 19, 2009 4:33 pm
Location: Virginia

Re: Confusion about Karma and Reincarnation

Postby Paññāsikhara » Wed Sep 15, 2010 8:49 am

:offtopic:

To nobody in particular ...

I find it curious, quite interesting really, that although the OP's question is about "moral decisions", quite a few people have taken much more time to expound upon the doctrine of not self, in the light of the OP's opening statements.

hhmmm.... interesting.

:focus:
My recently moved Blog, containing some of my writings on the Buddha Dhamma, as well as a number of translations from classical Buddhist texts and modern authors, liturgy, etc.: Huifeng's Prajnacara Blog.
Paññāsikhara
 
Posts: 980
Joined: Wed Oct 14, 2009 5:27 am

Re: Confusion about Karma and Reincarnation

Postby Lazy_eye » Wed Sep 15, 2010 10:56 am

I was a bit surprised by this too. It seemed to me that we might be needlessly confusing the OP.

After all, Buddhism does teach that beings (or mindstreams or individuated dependent origination processes or whatever term we prefer) re-arise in the various realms. It's true that the OP used "soul", but my understanding is that this word, although better avoided, is not strictly identical to "atman". In any case, this is mostly a question of semantics.

Just thinking back on the stuff that confused me when I first encountered it, perhaps it would be helpful to clarify as follows:

-- Beings re-arise, life after life, among the different planes of existence.
-- Existence is never characterised by a Hindu-style atman. Not in this (present life), and not in future lives. There is no atman in the present moment, and none in any past or future moment either.

It also strikes me as worth explaining that rebirth in samsara is cyclical, not linear. The OP wrote:

...Souls are reborn from lesser forms of life into higher forms of life until they become human beings and have a chance at escaping the cycle of rebirth and reach Nirvana.


But it doesn't work quite that way -- beings can move up and down through the realms in accordance with their kamma (moral decisions). One could attain the heavens, only to fall back into lower realms in a subsequent life after one's celestial kamma is all used up. :cry:
User avatar
Lazy_eye
 
Posts: 811
Joined: Fri Jan 23, 2009 3:23 pm
Location: Laurel, MD

Re: Confusion about Karma and Reincarnation

Postby Sunrise » Wed Sep 15, 2010 5:31 pm

Lazy_eye wrote:After all, Buddhism does teach that beings (or mindstreams or individuated dependent origination processes or whatever term we prefer) re-arise in the various realms.

.....

Just thinking back on the stuff that confused me when I first encountered it, perhaps it would be helpful to clarify as follows:

-- Beings re-arise, life after life, among the different planes of existence.



"individuated dependent origination processes"?? :?:

As far as I know and I can verify, realms are mental states very well experienced in the present life. Explaining realms to a beginner as planes of existence that you are reborn after death is no better than what he is already suggesting IMO. Wouldn't it be more productive to tell them to observe the mental states moment to moment and observe how their minds experience these "realms" moment to moment? I'm just saying you know...

Lazy_eye wrote:
beings can move up and down through the realms in accordance with their kamma (moral decisions). One could attain the heavens, only to fall back into lower realms in a subsequent life after one's celestial kamma is all used up. :cry:


:roll:
Sunrise
 
Posts: 199
Joined: Fri Jul 30, 2010 2:26 pm

Re: Confusion about Karma and Reincarnation

Postby JeffR » Wed Sep 15, 2010 6:16 pm

Sunrise,
I think Lazyeye gave a better description of general cycle of dependent origination.
User avatar
JeffR
 
Posts: 137
Joined: Fri Nov 20, 2009 3:54 am
Location: Minnesota, USA

Re: Confusion about Karma and Reincarnation

Postby Aloka » Wed Sep 15, 2010 8:39 pm

.

As far as I know and I can verify, realms are mental states very well experienced in the present life. Explaining realms to a beginner as planes of existence that you are reborn after death is no better than what he is already suggesting IMO. Wouldn't it be more productive to tell them to observe the mental states moment to moment and observe how their minds experience these "realms" moment to moment? I'm just saying you know...




Sunrise's wise words above make complete sense to me, and in fact are totally in accord with what I understand from Ajahn Sumedho's offline teachings .(Forest Tradition)


.
User avatar
Aloka
 
Posts: 3576
Joined: Wed Jan 21, 2009 2:51 pm

Re: Confusion about Karma and Reincarnation

Postby Lazy_eye » Thu Sep 16, 2010 1:09 pm

The OP was asking specifically about karma and rebirth/reincarnation in the sense of multiple lives. Why, instead of answering his question, are we going into other topics such as moment-to-moment rebirth and anatta?

Speaking as a beginner, what I've found most helpful is when the Buddhist teachings are presented in a straightforward way, as the Buddha taught them. We can then make our own decisions about how to relate to/understand the teachings on rebirth, the cosmology and so on. There's no need to hide away the fact that the Buddha taught a multiple-lives model, as though this information will damage our tender non-souls.

Present life/present moment: anatta, annica, dukkha applies to it.
Infinite lives: anatta, annica, dukkha applies to them.

Therefore anatta has no bearing on the question "should we believe in post-mortem rebirth?"
User avatar
Lazy_eye
 
Posts: 811
Joined: Fri Jan 23, 2009 3:23 pm
Location: Laurel, MD

Re: Confusion about Karma and Reincarnation

Postby Aloka » Thu Sep 16, 2010 3:05 pm

.

Hi Lazy-Eye, the teachings you speak of are clearly for the purpose of morality. However,the Buddha also said :


"This is how he attends inappropriately: 'Was I in the past? Was I not in the past? What was I in the past? How was I in the past? Having been what, what was I in the past? Shall I be in the future? Shall I not be in the future? What shall I be in the future? How shall I be in the future? Having been what, what shall I be in the future?' Or else he is inwardly perplexed about the immediate present: 'Am I? Am I not? What am I? How am I? Where has this being come from? Where is it bound?'

MN2

http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/mn/mn.002.than.html


Last edited by Aloka on Thu Sep 16, 2010 3:10 pm, edited 1 time in total.
User avatar
Aloka
 
Posts: 3576
Joined: Wed Jan 21, 2009 2:51 pm

Next

Return to General Theravāda discussion

Who is online

Users browsing this forum: Exabot [Bot] and 7 guests