Karma and Rebirth

Two of the central doctrines of Buddhism.

Karma and Rebirth


Life after death has always been the object of search and striving in all religions and their philosophies. Man cannot be content with this short span of life on earth, and he needs a further goal which makes his struggle worthwhile. Thus, a future life is generally accepted. But less acceptable, although equally logical, is a life in the past, from which the present has resulted.

It is this cause and effect, action and reaction, past and its future, which form the subject of this treatise on “Karma and Rebirth”, as seen in the original teachings of the Buddha, in Theravāda Buddhism. Against the background of the Buddha’s essential doctrine of no-soul (anatta), rebirth is not that of an individual, but of his actions. And in this respect, it differs from the Hindu tradition of transmigration.

This belief in transmigration was known already in early Christianity with traces in the Gospel, e.g. in the man who was born blind, and about whom the disciples of Jesus questioned him, whether this was due to his own sins, i.e. before he was born thus. Origen, a Father of the Church, upheld this doctrine of a past life together with its continuance in the future, but his views were not accepted by later Councils. John the Baptist was thought to be a reincarnation of the earlier prophet Eliah.

But in Theravāda Buddhism it is action which produces reaction when conditions are suitable. And that explains incongruities in the present, it avoids laying the blame on a creator in the past, it makes one responsible for one’s actions in the future, even if there is not the same individual to reap an unknown harvest.

It is a doctrine much speculated upon; but it also forms the basis of Buddhist ethics, where a good deed is not rewarded but makes its own good result.

May thus this booklet also produce a wholesome effect in the minds of those open to receive it.

Karma and Rebirth

Apart from the etymological explanation of the word karma meaning action, the most concise definition of the term is given by the Buddha himself: “Volition, o monks, is what I call action” (cetanahaṁ bhikkhave kammaṁ vadāmiA. VI, 63.), for through volition one performs the action, whether by body, speech or mind. Thus, correctly speaking, karma denotes only such action which is performed with will or intention, i.e., purposeful activity. Such action, having a goal in view, contains, therefore, the seed of reaction; for it is the purpose of the reaction that is intended in the action. The intended reaction then gives as it were colour and class to the act. Whether ultimately the desired effect is obtained or not, is immaterial to the nature of the deed. The law of karma is not a law of cause and effect, but of action and reaction. Further, it is not a law in the sense of a decree prescribed by authority, but a principle determining the sequence of events. Thus the teaching of karma is not fatalism, is not absolute causality, and does not require a supreme law-giver. It is a process of action and reaction, in which only the reaction is perceptible to the senses. If one would be interested only in reactions, this teaching would be reduced to the level of materialistic sciences and a mechanical interpretation of world-events. That would suffice to explain the working of the actual world. But there is more: there is the knowledge of all this, consciousness or mental life. This mental life refuses to be included in a mechanical interpretation of strict causality, which is but a passive acceptance of actual forces. Mental life is a search, is a hunger, or as the Buddha calls it, a process of nutrition of will or intention and consciousness (manosañcetanahārā, viññāṇahārāM. I. 261; D. III. 228.), not merely absorption, but actual craving, which presupposes the material nutriment and its contact. And that is the actuality of action, wilful action, with purpose and intention.


In order to understand the nature of karmic action one has first to grasp the full implications of intention. Both the English word intention and the Pāli word cetana convey the idea of the mind bending itself towards the object, a determination to obtain or to achieve. It is, in other words, an extension or a projection from the actual into the ideal. It is immaterial, whether the ideal can be realised or not, for, as an extension of the actual, the main implication is that the actual present is made use of to become an ideal future. Hence the actual present is not seen as a result of past activity, but as a potential source of future acquisition. That means that the present is not seen as a conflict and as a result of past conflict, but as a means to strengthen the “I”-concept, which is the principal factor of the conflict between the impermanence of actuality and the striving for permanence in the delusion of an abiding “self”. This striving for an extension of the actual into an ideal future is thus based on the misconception of an individual entity, substance or soul. All striving of this nature, therefore, is unreal, whether the purpose is good or evil, whether the action is skilful or not, whether the effect is wholesome or not.

Intention, thus, is a kind of mental grasping of an idea which will be always at variance with the actual, for if no difference were visualised there would be no object for striving, The intention, therefore, which is an essential constituent of karmic action, is the germ of conflict (dukkha) leading to a renewal of the problem of existence, the collision between the impermanent actual and the permanent ideal.

If this point is well understood, all further divisions of karma are not very important and certainly not essential. Even a distinction between good and bad karma is not an essential one, but only a difference in degree. “Even good deeds should be eliminated”, said the Buddha, “much more so, evil deeds” (dhamma pi vo pahātabba, pag-eva adhammaAlagaddupama sutta, M. I. 135, Sutta 22.). Karma is likened to a raft (kullapama) which has to be abandoned when the river is crossed. It is useful (kusala) in its proper place, but it may become a burden, a hindrance and a fetter (saṁyojana) if one becomes attached to one’s virtuous actions (sīlabbatupādāna).


As said already, it is the intended reaction that gives colour and class to the act. Karma is, therefore, classified in four groups of four kinds each; but every one of these sixteen types assumes its nature from the effect-to-be, which is psychologically quite correct, as the effect is more important than the cause, the future more significant than the past. Thus we have four classes in which actions are grouped according to their reproductivity, i.e., the objective discharge of their function (kicca), or according to their efficacy, i.e., the subjective intensity of their working (pakadana), or according to the time required for the effect to mature, or finally according to the conditions under which the effects mature.

Then, again from the standpoint of result, actions may be good and evil, dependent on the wholesomeness or otherwise of the effect. It is at this stage that the doctrine of karma approaches religious standards of morality, with the great and essential difference, of course, that theistic and animistic religions assume a supernatural basis, whereas in Buddhism morality is based on the understanding of mutual relationship in a common society and does not involve the acceptance of any belief. Its moral standards, therefore, are those of natural human relationship rather than a supernatural relationship with the divine. Although the term used for the ethical good: kusala, wholesome, skilful, gives an impression of utilitarianism, one cannot quite apply this to the Buddhist view of morality. As the tree is known by its fruits, so action (kamma) is known, distinguished and classified by its results (vipāka). An action is good or bad, if its result is good or bad, i.e., wholesome or unwholesome (kusala-akusala). Thus depending on whether an action produces a wholesome effect or not, such action will be classed as skilful or unskilful. But the effect (vipāka) is not to he looked for apart from the mental action (kamma). In other words, the karmic effect of a murder is not a corpse, but the unwholesome mental state of the murderer which will endeavour to express and expand itself in sub-human conditions of existence. Karma is a productive force which, like any purposeful action, has the intrinsic need of self-expression, self expansion, i.e., of reproduction, which is rebirth. An action is not considered good in proportion to its usefulness, which separates the cause from the effect and which would allow the use of an immoral means, justified by the end. Action and reaction are not separable. The reaction is not the physical effect, but the psychological reaction set up in the mind by the intentional act. Thus the unskilfulness of a murder is not in the effect that a man has lost his life, but in the thoughts of hate set up from the moment the murder was planned. The doctrine of action and reaction (kamma-vipāka) then is not a set of rules to stabilise society, but has in view the individual mind, to regularise it and set it free from all forms of bondage, the attachment to so-called meritorious actions being not the least of them.

Karma and Actuality

That every living being is wholly and entirely the embodiment of his karma is expressed by the Buddha in the word anatta. Man is nothing but karma. Karma is the reproductive force which generated this birth; it is his inheritance as well. It is karma which constitutes his individuality. And as karma is action and reaction, a process of actuality, the individual too is just a process of actuality without abiding entity substance or soul. It is this process of action becoming a reaction, which constitutes the basic idea of the doctrine of rebirth. Karma, then, although originally indicating action, may occasionally refer to the person who committed the deed, as actor and action are not to be differentiated in the doctrine of impersonality (anatta). The doer of the action, as identified therewith, assumes the character of the action and therewith the potentiality of a corresponding effect. Thus karma must be understood as the entire process of conditioned action and reaction, wherewith the doctrine of rebirth is essentially interlinked. The Buddha’s teaching of rebirth breaks away from the common way of thinking of procreation. Even for those who accept a supernatural origin of intellectual life by a direct infusion of a soul by its creator at the moment of the conception of a new life, this supernatural formation is dependent on the physiological success of copulation, which makes divine intervention subordinate to a mere human effort. The Buddha with his rejection of the soul-theory does not for that reason accept the self-sufficiency of the act of parental union either, for it is clear that not every sexual conjunction finds its culmination in the conception of a new life. As it is not sufficient for a sound to strike the ear-drum to constitute hearing – as the physical contact must also be mentally conceived, and this mental conception cannot take, place without proper attunement or attention – so the physiological process of conception is not completed with physical intercourse. In the Maha taṇhā-sankhaya suttaM. I. Sutta 38 p. 266 ff. three factors are clearly distinguished, and all three have to coincide to produce the result of a new life: the coitus of the parents and the mother’s season (utu) are the two factors which may be classed as the raw material contribution. But unless the igniting spark catches the kindling wood and the oxygen of the atmosphere, these materials will never fuse into an individual flame. Similarly the two material factors in procreation will remain for ever raw material, unless an exciting impulse not merely brings them together, but actually fuses them into a living process.

Previous Karma

Now this “exciting impulseThe term is Dr. Paul Dahlke’s.” is nothing but the force of previous karma, seeking suitable conditions for an outlet of its active force. It is the flood-water breaking the dyke at its weakest spot. The vulnerability in a defence line forms a natural attraction for the enemy to attack. Thus intentional or volitional action seeks fulfilment of its purpose by the very nature of its composition. If this composition is predominated by greed (lobha), the fulfilment of its activity will be sought in a correlation of inducement (upanissaya-paccaya) or of association (sampayutta-paccaya). If the predominant factor is one of aversion (dosa), its activity will naturally be restricted to conditions of dissociation (vippayutta paccaya), etc. When the atmosphere is charged as at the time of a thunderstorm, the lightning may be expected to strike at a spot where affinity is at its greatest, either through vicinity or through intensity. Such is the working of karma which is not a force acting by itself, but which requires suitable conditions in which to express its actuality. If such conditions are not available the resultant expression will either be imperfect and incomplete, or the action will die out in default of an opportunity for reaction.

Suitable Conditions

To come to a more detailed classification of karma, we have first the class of actions which are considered from the point of view of operation (kicca). The natural tendency of operation of any action is to produce a reaction, and thus the most apparent type of action will be reproductive: action (janaka kamma) thus called because it provides a resultant continuityPm. 771., which may be either profitable or not. In the chain of dependent origination (paticca samuppada) it provides the link for rebirth in the dying thought. With hardly any external influence or internal resistance, owing to the weakness of senses, such thought will naturally reproduce a thought of the same type. It is thus at this stage that the reproductive force of karma is most pronounced. The last thought-action becomes the parent (janaka-janika) of the newly arising process of existence. The reproductivity of action is also explained as the arising of an opportunity at the moment when an action is complete. In other words, the occurrence of an event depends on the presence of suitable conditions, for even the most fertile seed will not germinate unless the proper heat and moisture are available.

But in the course of activity when all the senses and especially the faculty of the mind with all its likes and dislikes are functioning to full capacity, the influence and resistance due to varying conditions will be experienced all the time, thereby modifying the intensity of the will-to-act. A desire may not be strong enough to produce reaction by itself, but it may consolidate previous intentions and support preceding action. Such supporting karma (upatthambaka kamma) will have as its reaction an intensification of pleasure and pain, or a prolongation thereof. On the other hand, the influence may be a modification to the contrary, and cause a certain amount of obstruction, frustrating to some extent the reaction which could have been anticipated from a previous action. This frustrating karma (upapidika kamma) will make a good effect less good and an evil effect less evil, lessening the intensity and duration of both pleasure and sorrow. Then again, this obstruction can become so complete, that it becomes destructive (upaghataka kamma), cutting off, as it were, a weak reaction, making its own result arise, supplanting the activity of earlier action and usurping the opportunity to express its own reaction. Thus the opportunity created by one action will be appropriated by another. And the effects due from the weaker activity will be deprived of the chance of expressing themselves.

Thus, not only can action change the course of karma, but it can even fully obliterate it. From this it will be evident how far remote the doctrine of karma is from destiny with which it is sometimes superficially confused.

Karma is not Destiny

Another classification of karma is with respect to its efficacy (pakadana), for the inherent strength is different for every action, proportionate to the intensity of its volition. But here the distinction is based not so much on the inherent potency, as on the result to be expected from such wilful action.

There is first of all so-called weighty karma (garuka), the efficacy of which is so powerful, that the consequences cannot be avoided. These may be profitable or unprofitable. Five serious crimes are usually enumerated as being so weighty that no amount of counteraction will be able to annul their effect. The killing of one’s own father, or mother, or an Arahant, the wounding of a Buddha and the breeding of a faction among the members of the order of monks are considered to belong to this type. Sometimes the attachment to heretical views is added to this list of actions which must become effective. It is interesting to note that in Christianity a similar deed, viz., blasphemy against the Holy Ghost is a sin which cannot be forgivenMt. xii, 31.. The essential difference, of course, should also be noted at once, that in Buddhism evil is not a sin, and forgiveness does not apply: “Whatever wrong I have done, I have to suffer”A. V. 301.. The reason for its weightiness, however, is identical: he who remains attached to the wrong view closes his mind, and cannot perceive what is right.

The operativeness of this very effective kind of karma is also to be experienced in a beneficial direction. Thus the fruition of four stages on the path of holiness are also immediately effective (anantariya) as these attainments are not due to discursive thinking but to a flash of insight (vipassanā) which transforms and ennobles one’s nature for ever.

The second type in this class is called habitual action (acinna kamma) which as an individual act would not essentially differ from others. Its main characteristic and thereby its chief strength lie in the repetition of the act for good or for evil. It is the constant reiteration of an act which becomes a regular pattern of behaviour and a habit. Thus this habitual karma is usually the decisive factor in this and any subsequent life. The selfish and callous man is born, it is said, “as the immediate fruit of his evil, in a despised family, stupid and without enquiring tendency, as is the habit of dogs and the like; and such is his companionshipSdhp. 90.”. A habit is determined by association of ideas, and thence characters of the lowest level are actuated in their behaviour by habit and routine. Bad habits should not be sublimated by good habits, for this is no sign of intelligence. Only in understanding the origin of one’s habits through full conscious awareness of the arising and cessation of sensory reaction in body and mind can be achieved full control of action.

A third type of karma, weaker in respect of its efficacy, but very important, is the thought-process at the time of death (maraṇasaññā kamma). This final mental presentation will often be the reflex of some previously performed action, not something which revives the memory thereof (kammamimitta). The memory itself will be either wholesome or unwholesome, depending on the right or wrong of the recorded action of the past. But the importance of this dying thought lies in its very weakness. Without the power of resistance such thought will be accepted as it is presented, and thus form the link to the following thought, the first one in the new life. The basis of the new existence is, therefore, laid on the expiring thought of the previous life which communicates its nature to the future for better or for worse. As a result of this doctrine, it is a custom in Buddhist families to recall to the mind of a dying person some outstanding good deeds performed by him in the course of his life, to arouse happy thoughts to take him across to a happy rebirth. It should not be confused with death-bed repentance.

In the absence of any of these three types of action at the moment before death, it is the stored-up karma (katatta kamma) which will produce rebirth. In commentaries (DhsA. p. 262) it is referred to as a development due to accumulation. It is the thread which links the isolated actions together in the process of becoming and ceasing. But perhaps the simile of a thread is not quite accurate, for each action pours itself out, together with the inheritance of past conditioning, into the origination of the next action, next life, and so on. This accumulative force of individual action places the doctrine of karma outside, the field of fate and predestination. It is one of the most important aspects of Buddhist ethics, for in this doctrine is involved the basis of moral responsibility; it is the building-up force of character, both for good and for evil, which makes the individual master of his future. As it allows thus for the building-up of a reserve fund to be utilised when necessity or opportunity requires, it leaves the door open for a retreat after wrong entry. There is no finality in Buddhist ethics.

Nature of Action

The problem arises: How is it possible to wipe off this accumulation, when every action merely increases the sum-total of merit and demerit? Fortunately, accumulative karma is but one of the sixteen types of volitional activity which keep the wheel of samsara arolling. Thus apart from being accumulative and reproductive, action may be counter-active and destructive; or even it may be deprived of its reproductive force by a mere denial of opportunity.

In respect of the time element, i.e., the interval which may lapse before a reaction sets in, we find once more a fourfold classification. This time-element is not something controlled from outside, but depends on the composition of the different kinds of reproductive actions and on their superior or inferior strength and influence.

There is first of all volitional activity, the result of which is to be experienced in the same life-span (dittha-dhamma vedaniyaVism. XIX, 14, p. 601.). This, of course, shows the great efficacy of such karma which cannot be prevented by opposition, but which obtains the opportunity of expression by sheer force of action and will. Such immediate reactions, however, can seldom be indicated as individual events, as they more often make their presence felt in a change of character, a propensity. “That for which one has a bias, by that one is characterised, by that one gets a name” (S.111, p. 34). Thus “If one cleave to the body, he is known as a materialist; if one cleave to feelings, he is known as a sensualist; if one cleave to perceptions, he is known as an extrovert; if one cleave to concepts, he is known as an idealist; if one cleave to consciousness, he is known as an introvert. He who does not cleave, has no name; and he is free”. As one thinks, so one becomes.

Thus cruelty leads to sickness, stinginess to poverty, callousness to low birth; but kind feelings give a lovely complexion, etc. (so says the Commentator).

But even so, it is not altogether uncommon in this world to meet an individual who is generally known to be given over to evil actions with covetousness in his senses, malevolence in his heart and evil in his outlook (abhijjaluṁ vyapaññācittaṁ, micchadiṭṭhiṁM. III, 210, sutta 136.) who might not stop even at murder and theft. And yet his evil actions do not appear to ripen. On the other hand one meets with virtue and charity, which have brought to the upright man nothing but misfortune and affliction. A conclusion therefrom to the inefficacy of all action, however, would not be justified, not even on the illogical grounds of an induction, Even in purely physical and chemical experiments a certain accumulation of energy is required before a reaction sets in. This delayed action has not only been measured, but can even be controlled.

Such a delayed reaction in the field of karma is either experienced on being reborn (upapajja vedaniya), i.e., in the course of the very next existence, or may become an experience in some subsequent existence (aparapariya vedaniya). The thought action which arises at the moment of expiry, and which is therefore called the death-proximate volition (maraṇasaññā kamma) produces its immediate reaction as the first thought in the new existence and belongs, therefore, to the first kind of karma experienced on rebirth.

But there seems to be no hard and fast rule as to the delay of most activity. The reason, of course, is that action is not the cause or creator of a reaction. A reaction requires, apart from its native source, the necessary conditions and environment to run its reactionary course. The arising of conditions is a separate process, which is not usually influenced by the necessity of volitional action wishing to express itself. Thus we read in the Culla-kamma-vibhaṅga suttaM. III, p. 203. that even killing with deliberate intention does not necessarily lead to misery, woe or hell after death; one may even escape all that and be reborn in a human life, although that will be short, whatever his station in that life would be.

In fact, the possibility is envisaged when no opportunity or suitable condition is available at any stage, in which case karmic action will become imperative and ineffective; it is karma that was (ahasi kamma), that is “lapsed karma of which must be said: there has been karma, but there has not been, is not, and will not be, any karma-resultVism. XIX, 14, p. 601.”.

The Buddha himself sums up these various possibilities of delayed reaction and inoperative action in the conclusion of the Mahā-kamma-vibhaṅga suttaM. III, p. 215, sutta 136.: “And so, Ānanda, there is karma which is impotent (abhabba) and appears to be so; there is karma which is actually inoperative, although it appears to be effective; then there is karma which is able (bhabba) and also capable in appearance; while finally there is karma which is procreative, although it does not appear so”.

Spheres of Rebirth

The four kinds of karma, grouped together in respect of the place for working but its effects, naturally correspond to the four planes of existence (bhūmi) or spheres of rebirth, for existence is a coming-to-be resulting from procreation and volitional action.

There is unskilful action (akusala kamma) performed by means of the physical body, such as killing, stealing and unchastity; or by means of vocal expression, such as lying, slander, abusive language and idle talk; or in the mind with or without expression, such as covetousness, ill-will and clinging to wrong views. As such actions are not worthy of the lofty attainments of the human intellect and understanding of mutual duties of human relationship, it is but natural that such inhuman actions will seek expression on a sub-human level, when the advantages of a human existence are lost. “If a tree bends and slopes towards the east or any other direction, it will fall that way when it is cut downS. V. 371.”. These spheres of loss (apāya) have been graphically described according to the views on life prevailing at the time, the loss of the human touch, proportionately lessening with the intensity of inhumane activity.

There are first those who are called Asuras whose main characteristic seems to be the spirit of altercation. Those rowdies who delight in conflict, will take a long time to solve their problems. Lower down on the scale of culture are those who have departed (peta), not so much from physical existence but from the human level, who through their avarice do not bring joy into the lives of others and cannot themselves enjoy their own possessions; it is the misery of the miser. When all human sense is lost and the passions of the beast within are allowed free reign, one is said to have entered the womb of the animal kingdom (tiracchāna yoni). And beyond that there is only the plain hell (niraya) of living death, of frustrated ideals, of utter antagonism and misunderstanding, of consumption through the fires of lust and hate. Who has not met such evil ones in human form?

The skilful action (kusala kamma) which works out its effect in fortunate sense-experience (kāma loka) comprises apart from the realm of human beings (manussa loka), i.e., those truly human with compassion and understanding, also the superhuman spheres of authority (catummaha rājika), of selective virtue (tavatiṁsa), of self-restraint (yam), of contentment (tusita), of creativeness (nimmana rati) and of appreciation (paranimmita vasavatti). The heavens are so full of humanity at its best. Or is it not rather that we would have a heaven on earth, if we, terrestrials, were only more human?

Beyond these worlds of sense (kāma loka) are the mental spheres of those who lead a life of holiness (brahmacari), where the bodily senses will not seek further satisfaction, but all striving is for the attainment of truth. These spheres of holiness (brahmaloka) are the effects of mental action only, i.e., karma of thought, and correspond to the spheres of mental concentration and absorption (jhāna), which can be experienced here on earth, states of mental absorption induced by material form (rūpajhāna) in different degrees of mental application (vitakka-vicāra) of delightful interest (pīti), of mental well-being (sukha) and full concentration or one-pointedness of mind (ekaggatā). If even form is transcended, mental life will be purer still (arūpabrahma-loka) in states of formless concentration and absorption (arūpajhāna), whom once more the spheres of rebirth correspond to the mental attainments here on earth: the spheres of infinite space (akāsānañca-), infinite consciousness (viññāṇanañca-) nothingness (akiñcanna-) and imperceptible perception (n’eva saññā-nasaññayatana).

“And so our deeds
Are all like seeds,
And bring forth fruit in kindJ. II, No. 222, p. 202.”.

Rebirth is Action

As regard these spheres of rebirth it must never be forgotten that it is not the manifestation of a result which is the effect of earlier activity. The manifestation is merely the seizure of an opportunity offering itself under various conditions. That a falling stone comes to rest is not the effect of gravitation or whatever other force made the stone fall. The coming to rest is an interruption of the process effected by other conditions. Similarly the sphere of rebirth, the locality, the womb, merely provide the opportunity for action to come to rest or to roost. But the actual effect, or reaction of action, is the mental disposition, prompted by one or more of six radical conditions: greed, hate, ignorance, and their three opposites. These are the motives (hetu) or impelling conditions, which like a, meteor might move on and on towards disintegration in the infinity of space, unless the chance impact of resistance provides the opportunity of manifesting its reactionary force.

The doctrine of rebirth in Buddhism is then vastly different from the doctrine of transmigration, as understood in Vedanta and the various schools of Hinduism. Transmigration presupposes an entity to migrate from one existence to another “as the caterpillar moves from leaf to leaf”. Buddhism with its doctrine of no-soul (anatta) does not speak of transmigration, but of rebirth which would be understood so much better if it would be thought of, not as the change at the end of a life-span, but as the reaction set up by a volitional activity. This present endeavour to convey an idea is bound to have some sort of repercussion, either approval or disapproval, acceptance, rejection, doubt, not understanding, endeavour to understand, misunderstanding, etc., etc. Thus action is reborn as reaction, without a medium, without an entity passing over, without an individual dying here to be born elsewhere. Thus is the birth of an action, and its rebirth as a reaction.

The Psychology of Rebirth

All religions believe in rebirth, Buddhism and Hinduism explicitly, Christianity and Islam implicitly. Without the idea of rebirth, i.e., of a life after death, all religious striving, moral restraint, mental purification, etc., would be meaningless. This life is considered by all as a preparation for a future life – as a school of learning in which to qualify for perfect understanding and Celestial bliss. However varied the many concepts of rebirth may be, it can basically be thought of only in terms of continuity. Some believe in the continuity of an individual soul with personal immortality, others believe in the continuity of action, which (as in the case of causality) does not require a permanent entity to pass from state to state. This causality again may be thought of as a strict law of destiny in which self-surrender and fatalism can hardly be distinguished, or it may be viewed as mere conditionality, according to which a cause does not necessarily produce a definite effect, as there are so many other factors which by their influence tend to alter, strengthen, weaken or even destroy the expected result.

But whatever the shade of opinion in this regard may be, it contains essentially a preoccupation with death as a portal to a new life. While still living in the present, the mind is thus preoccupied with a life yet to come. And this life is considered not of another – except perhaps by a logical extension for the sake of argument – but it is one’s own life with which one is personally concerned when thinking of the future.

We see then, that at the bottom of the problem lies the illusion of separation of self and others. It is this consciousness of individuality as a separate entity which is the cause of all our social struggle in this life, as well as of all our religious struggle to obtain a better future life. All questions about what will happen after death, which necessarily entail questions about what did happen before birth – e.g., why was I born, and how will I survive, how can I make myself better conditions of living in a next life, how can I secure now that future bliss? All these questions are ultimately rooted in the one single problem: how can I continue improved? And this problem, therefore, is the door, which will open to all other compartments which form a part of the extremely complicated structure, which is our present life with its social conventions, religious traditions, economic restrictions, national limitations, racial prejudices, philosophical assertions and theological dogmatism – and all the rest which follows in their wake.

Though we all believe in a life after death, in one form or another, yet this belief has made no difference whatsoever to our present life. Some believe in the existence of a hell, but that does not prevent them from committing those very actions the penalty for which is ever-lasting hell-fire, according to their own doctrine and belief. Rebirth has not affected our life at all. And that shows that it is not really a conviction, but simply an escape for the mind, so as not to face the actual problem of discontinuance. We do not believe in rebirth (our actions show that), but we want rebirth, because we want to continue.

This apparently vast question about rebirth, then, is actually a very limited one, based on a desire for personal continuance. Now, this desire, like any other desire, could not arise if there were fulfilment; for, desire is a symptom of a deficiency, a need, a want. And so, this desire for continuation is an admission of the fact of discontinuity which I do not like. I do not like discontinuity, for there would be no “I”. Thus, the “I”-idea contains the seed of all problems which are born from the fear of that “I”, that it may not continue. It is this fear which prevents us from looking directly at the problem of rebirth, for in this state of fear in the mind there can be no understanding. Thought is influenced by outside motives which colour all relationship with the tinge of selfish emotion and isolation, which is separation. A narrow personal thought cannot but create further limitations, which are ignorance and misunderstanding of the whole process. For an understanding of the totality to be complete, thought must be integral. And the integrity of a thought requires first of all the knowledge of its own cause, its process and its conditioning. As long as this is not fully understood and realised, the thought is not free and will therefore express itself in an action which leads to further bondage. Thus intentional thought produces purposeful action, which will again produce a corresponding result.

That is rebirth. The intention of a thought and the purpose of an action are the expressions of a desire to continue. They are the projections of the “ego”, which is thus reborn in the effect thereof.

The manifold projections of the “ego” are naturally according to one’s characteristic inclinations. And thus they constitute at the same time the different spheres in which these self-projections are expressed, or to put it in the language of the ignorant, they form the heavens and hells in which different individuals are reborn.

It is the self-consciousness, (trying to continue under improved conditions), which has thereby created the distinction and the opposition of good and evil, other names for the pleasurable and the not pleasurable. In moral code language these are called virtue and sin. Virtue is that which gives strength (virtus) to the self, and sin is its opposite. Hence, virtue will give the desired continuance under improved conditions, and that is called heaven, while sin produces the opposite effect, which is called hell. It is typical of the deep roots of this desire for continuance, that the opposite of continued life in heaven is not the punishment of annihilation, but continuance under unfavourable conditions. The “ego” wants to continue anyhow. And so we all believe in rebirth in different spheres.

If we now try to look at the problem of rebirth with a detached view, we see first of all that – though all religious practices are meant to secure a happy rebirth – it is not rebirth at all that is wanted, but continuation of the “I”. There can be rebirth only if there is death; and the “I” does not want to die. Hence it does not want to be reborn, but only to continue. That is the reason why people have standards of morality, systems of character-forming, methods of mind-control, organisations of spirituality – all of which will mould the mind and give it a definite shape according to a fixed pattern, so that it can continue securely, thereby preventing it to be made truly anew, to be reborn in the real sense.

Why do we not want to be reborn? And why is it necessary to be reborn? We do not want to be reborn, for that would mean death to all that constitutes the “I”, just as the seed must die to itself completely in order to be reborn as a plant. All the experiences of the past have been carefully stored up by the “I”-consciousness as memory, for each one of them contained something of the self. It is their accumulation which constitutes the “I”. Without the past, i.e., without memory of previous experiences, the “I” concept cannot arise. Thus, the “I” is not of the present, but of the past; the “I” is a dead ghost. And yet, we cling to that mere apparition, because we are afraid of the present without a name, without a label, without a history, without experience, without security, without foundation, without a past, without continuance, without a future; for if there is no past, there cannot be a future either. In brief, in the present the “I” is not, and thus the dead past is made to continue to serve also in the future. Hence the shadow of the past, though really dead, is kept alive. And as long as that does not cease, the imagination of a deluded mind has something to feed upon, whereby it can continue from life to life. But that is not to be born again and anew!

When people are afraid to lose their life – and that is at the bottom of their desire for continuance – it signifies, that they have identified themselves with the body. For, if well understood, it is not life that they can love; there is not one life which possesses another life, and hence can lose it. Man has no life, but he is alive. Either life is lost and all is ended, or life cannot be lost. Fear of death, therefore, arises from attachment to and identification with the body and its sensate values.

Rebirth in the true sense, which can and should take place at every moment, is the only way to be really alive at every moment. Every moment should be the end and the beginning of all our undertakings and hence of life itself. That might not make for a coherent life; but, let consistency take care of itself; it is stagnancy, a sign of senility and death.

When we face a challenge in life and meet it with the memory of past experiences, there can be no real meeting, for life and death have nothing in common. A new problem cannot be solved by an old solution; but every fresh problem must be met afresh in full understanding. As long as the mind is filled with the accumulations of past memories and experiences, there cannot be fresh and full understanding of any new experience. For, then, what is new will be merely translated in terms of the old, at most an adaptation of a western classic in an oriental setting. It will be classified and judged according to the old system, but not understood in the present, not lived with, and loved.

Thus, in order to live fully and truly, constant rebirth is necessary, a constant letting go of the old, so that (in the words of Rabindranath Tagore) “the dust of dead words cannot cling to thee”.

Life is the unknown, and that cannot be understood in terms of the known. The ever-new present, the unknown, can only be understood if we allow it to speak for itself. But if we keep giving all sorts of explanations and definitions, we shall never understand what the present has in store for us. In mental silence, passive alertness and watchfulness alone can comprehension arise. In the cessation of all intellectual safeguards true understanding can come about. In death alone can there be rebirth. And the more one dies in life, the greater is the good that naturally and spontaneously comes out of such a man for the benefit of others, i.e., for the whole. If a man employs his consciousness to cooperate with the law of evolution, then in his non-resistance to the process of change he survives. And not only does he survive, but he has secured freedom from struggle for life, as his conscious but effortless and selfless awareness has done spontaneously the work of natural selection.

But the kind of rebirth with which most people and all religions are concerned is a kind of transmigration in which the individual will have become greater, purer, more enlightened, not to speak of the carnal gratifications offered in some heavenly abodes, which are an insult to the human mind. It is expected that during many incarnations the individual will gather experience and thus slowly grow to truth. But truth is not something which can be developed: it cannot progress, and we cannot progress towards it either. In its completeness and fullness it exists in everything, and thus accumulation of experience in different lives cannot bring the truth any nearer. Truth is not in the future, but here in the present. Accumulation of experience then merely strengthens the memory on which the “I” feeds. While desire for rebirth in its best form seeks for the realisation of truth elsewhere, the truth which is the living reality upholding everything as well as ourselves is ignored and overlooked where it is nearest at hand.

In ignorance we do not understand what it is in us that is immortal; and so, some attribute immortality to the body, to the senses, to the mind, to an individual ego, soul or spirit. Yet, in all these there is nothing of a static, permanent nature. But, just as in a river the waves and eddies pass away, and yet the river flows on for ever, so the process of life is everlasting, not as a static entity, but as a dynamic force manifesting itself ever anew in psychophysical combinations. Its very renewal from moment to moment constitutes its immortality. And thus, though the “ego” may die and individual life may cease, yet life is immortal and the isolated aspects thereof are but the delusion of the misconception of self (sakkāya diṭṭhi). It is that truth, partly forgotten and partly misunderstood, which causes in people this practical non-belief in death. But if they want to stand still, stop at one place and refuse to be constantly reborn, then of course, everything becomes confused and produces disharmony and conflict.

Now as regards the idea that rebirth is the opportunity for the continuance of the “I”, though it is altogether mistaken to think of the I-process as some entity which can continue, yet there is some truth in the fact that the self is being reborn. For, every action which is a self-projection, i.e., an action performed with purpose and craving, every such action re-creates the self. The “I”, the “self”, does not exist by itself as an entity; it is but a bundle of sensations, perceptions, differentiations and ideations (vedanā, saññā, saṅkhāra, viññāṇa). It is identification with sensations, preserved in memory, with constitutes the “I”, identification with the process of thinking in its different forms.

The mind is all the time occupied with the “I”-idea. Every experience is at once related to that concept, to find tout whether it will strengthen the “I” (and then it is accepted as good), or weaken it (and then it is condemned as evil). This self-consciousness depends on sensations; the mind is filled with craving for sensate values, trying to continue therein, grasping to grow, acquiring in order to establish security. Our whole life with all its economic, political and religious institutions with their tariff barriers, national frontiers, racial walls and ideological curtains, is thus based on this desire for continuance. And thus those actions create the “I”, or rather give rebirth to the “I”, for the church, the party, the country, the race are but extensions of the “I” which continuance is so much desired. Yet, this “I” is certainly a delusion, for no permanent entity can he dependent in its arising on impermanent phenomena. Yet, for all that the rebirth of a self is a delusion, it does continue as a process just as a hallucination may continue notwithstanding its unreality. The idea of continuity in rebirth as an entity is then caused by a mistaken identification (sakkdyadiṭṭhi).

To understand rebirth in all its psychological implications all this should be thoroughly understood and realised. For then we shall also comprehend at once the significance of the different spheres of rebirth. Before consciousness loses completely its sense of isolation and separateness, i.e., before the cessation of the delusion of self consciousness as an individual entity, there are different stages to which people have given different names. As long as the mind is engrossed in sensate values, it remains the slave of the body, all the time concentrating on possessions, comfort, power, and imagining that happiness can be found in these sensations. In these spheres of sense (kāmaloka) there are again many different layers according to frustration to be suffered or ambition satisfied. Living for sense-satisfaction becomes more and more entangled in various activities procuring that satisfaction, frequently with the unavoidable consequences of disappointment. In creating contacts for further expansion of satisfaction and ambition, there is also the burden of increasing liabilities and responsibilities. Once controlled by the senses, there is no time or liking for reflective thinking.

But, when satisfaction and disappointment are placed by the mind side by side, a more detached view of both can be obtained, when at least awareness of the impermanence and ultimate unreality of sense-pleasure may arise, when failings and disappointments do not only appear as mere consequences of success and expectation, but rather as the unavoidable goal of all striving for happiness.

Then one might begin to seek elsewhere the possibility of a more stable happiness; and from the worldly joys one will turn to spiritual joy, from emotional satisfaction to intellectual gratification, from a selfish search for the pleasures of the senses in sensual appetite to the more refined pleasures of knowledge in art and science. Thus, from a slave to the body one becomes a slave of the mind. Then the need of control and discipline will be felt, and man turns religious and moral. Such a life will henceforth be led in the spheres of form (rūpaloka) where character will be moulded according to examples given for imitation.

To the extent of the mind knowing the higher, it has ceased to care for the lower. And thus the mind will become absorbed in mental states of spiritual ecstasy of intense, sacred joy (pīti) or the bliss of well-being (sukha), or beyond it all in the rest of perfect equilibrium (ekagatta). Those are the states of purity and holiness (brahmaloka), where desires for sense-pleasures cannot intrude, though even here is not yet found that perfect comprehension of ultimate deliverance.

Thoughts may rise higher still in further simplification of the process, when life begins to be natural, harmonious and free from form, free from entanglements which are due to striving, craving and clinging. In utter nakedness of mind and heart it is possible to reach those spheres where space does not restrict, where consciousness has no bounds, where unreality becomes fact and the very perception thereof becomes imperceptible. Such are the formless spheres (arūpaloka) where time and space and individuality have no more meaning, where escapes are seen as self-deception, where conflicts vanish as delusion, where problems are understood as baseless, where effort, ceases as goalless, till the sudden dawn of realisation that rebirth is no more.

About the Author

Henri van Zeyst was born in Utrecht, the Netherlands, in 1905. Educated throughout in Catholic schools and colleges, he spent his final years of studies in philosophy and theology and the first year of his priestly ordination in an Italian monastery near Florence. At the age of 31 he was sent to London to be in charge of a new foundation of his Order, where he was also teaching Dogmatic Theology to the scholastics of Christus Rex Priory in North London. An intensive course of comparative religion brought him in contact with Buddhism. Within a year of his coming to Sri Lanka he was ordained a Buddhist monk there in 1938 under the name of Bhikkhu Dhammapāla. From 1956 to 1968 he worked at the Encyclopaedia of Buddhism at the University of Ceylon in Peradeniya of which he was in the final years of that period the Senior Assistant Editor and Administrative Officer. During the last stages of his life he was residing in a meditation centre at Nilambe, Kandy, giving instructions to those who came to him for guidance on meditation.

He died on September 15th in 1988.

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