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Rebirth and Karma


I really enjoy your e-mails and have a question. I accept the idea of no self and it makes sense to me. I believe like the Hindus that I am an expression of the ONE, but before I was born why do I have no recollection of this? It seems that my awareness only began at the moment of entering this physical life. Please help.


This is really the heart of the argument for or against reincarnation or rebirth. If we have been alive before, why can’t we remember it? What about the people who do claim to remember it? If we can’t remember our previous lives, does it really matter? What is the point of endless rebirths if you cannot remember it?

arctic-ocean-ripples-691944-gaFirst, Buddhism would reject those people who claim to remember their previous lives. It just doesn’t work that way in Buddhism. At best, we might have some kind of affinity or imprints that make something seem familiar to us (like the Dalai Lama, who could pick out a few objects he knew in his previous incarnation). We do not generally remember details of our personal lives.

As you mentioned in your question, Buddhists believe there is no-self anyway. If we do not have a self in the first place, and we do not carry our memories with us, then what exactly is transferred? I will give a couple of often-used analogies first:

1. A flame on a candle, used to light a second candle. The flame has transferred, is it the same flame? Yes and no.

2. All you are is a complex set of causes and effects that carry over between what we see as “lives.” Karma would be one of these causes.

The first one is a great little meditation koan, but is a fairly simplistic answer. The second is a philosophical can of worms that requires that you decide what the “self” or “no-self” is as well as what kinds of causes and effects there are. There has been a great deal written on this, and it’s pretty complicated to explain, so I’m only going to give one analogy. Maybe someone out there knows a better way to explain it, in which case watch the comment section of this post.

Here’s my best explanation of the cause and effect aspects of rebirth: Deep down we are all one, there is no real “self.” Picture an ocean, that would be all of humanity. Each little wave is a human life; none are really individuals, they are all a part of the whole. One rises up due to the effects of deep currents and tides (karmic causes). Then they sink back into the ocean. Some of those deep currents and waves create new waves, and it’s all the same water, so there are connections, but the waves are not the same. The idea of individuality and continuity are illusions.


12 comments to Rebirth and Karma

  • Timothy Hilgenberg

    I like the ocean analogy – it is a lovely metaphor and it fits with my (limited) understanding.

  • Alan

    It seems fair to say that the function of human-being memory resides in the brain, which is part of the body. Since there is no part of the body that is brought forward from lifetime to lifetime, it makes sense that memory of a life would end whan that body dies. Why would it be important to remember past lives? If we trust our karma, then knowing the details seems unimportant.

  • “It seems that my awareness only began at the moment of entering this physical life.” Just for grins, follow this chain of thought further. It seems “your” awareness only began at the moment of entering this (“your”) physical life. It makes sense! “You” did not exist until the physical life of “you” began. Therefore, “you” could not have any memories because there was no “you” to claim things as “yours.” ๐Ÿ™‚ But are you sure that “you” is really what you are? “You” is a notion of self, and if one’s true essence is no-self, then how could a no-self have memories which by their very definition must belong to and be from the perspective of a self?

    Maybe that’s an even better question: can no-self have memories? Or can memories only belong to a self, some momentary wave that has conceptualized itself into a little imaginary box that’s separate from the ocean it belongs to? If the ocean is all — if it is oneness, if it is the all-encompassing no-self — then what would there be to have memories of? Nothing is separate from it, so what would there be to remember? The ocean having memories may be akin to a tooth trying to bite itself — a ludicrous and meaningless thought.

    Just my 2 cents, not sure if it makes any sense to anybody but me. ๐Ÿ™‚ It may not even make sense to me, five minutes after I post this!

  • Oh also, a food-for-thought quote. I wish I could find where I read this quote, and find who said it… But I have to rush off to work soon! Anyway, here goes:

    “If you want to know what your past lives were, just look at your life now.”

    Karma means this moment is shaped by all the moments that went before it. Who needs detailed memories? You can see the results of your past lives in the here and now. That should be enough.

  • hindu/yogic/advaita pov … the causal body is what transmigrates, nothing else, no aspect of what we think of as us … and this, only as long as identification with/as a body/mind was happening at time of death … but, you know, i don’t give a fig ๐Ÿ™‚

  • I have a very different (and perhaps) non-Buddhist approach to reincarnation. The body dies. It nourishes the flowers, producing positive karma. The karmic consciousness is very much like the rain spreading its dark and light sprinkles or downpours across the waves. Therefore, we, the little ripple in the ocean, are ultimately affected and responsible for all karma existing in the universe.

    If this is the case, then as good as I am in this life, I reduce the negative karma in the next one, even though I may be getting wet from somebody else’s negative karma from their bad life. Therefore, there truly is no permanent soul to attach greatness to in the next life or the next life. This idea places us all on the same levels, and there is no use for the hierarchy of the caste system, which the Buddha attempted to reduce in his system.

    Of course, I could be completely wrong here, too.


  • G

    Here is the way I think about it as a scientist: there are two people. One lived a very decadent life, was a shameless consumer, died, was embalmed, and buried in a cemetery in a black walnut coffin. This person was not mindful and did not seek to ease suffering throughout their life. They probably had a lot of bad karma. Their corpse is full of poison, literally, and as it breaks down the molecules aren’t going to contribute to new life in as many positive ways as a person who lived differently. This person’s molecules are now maybe some mold, “grave wax”, and perhaps a puddle of toxic things both from their fat decomposing and the embalming fluid.
    The second person was mindful, although not perfect, took responsibility for their actions, and tried to tread lightly on the earth. When they died they opted for a green burial under a cherry tree. As the second person decomposes their molecules go to feed important soil microbes, worms, and the tree. The tree grows fruit that feeds birds and other animals. In turn these birds and animals may bring something positive, that eases suffering, to the lives of many others. The positive “good karma” cycle is continued. This person probably left less pollution behind than the first, which in turn eases the suffering of those still living. The second person may have also been mindful about the suffering caused by the products they used, how they voted, where they lived etc. These choices would also effect the suffering of those still living after person #2 died and was “reborn” as nice rich soil, important nitrogen-fixing soil microbes, cherry tree leaves, and a bird.
    These two people are kind of on the extreme ends of the spectrum but I see there being lots of choices to make in your life to be mindful and keep a balance.

  • Abe Simpson

    In the span of 7 years, every cell in your body has replaced itself. So you are not even the same person you were seven years ago. Their is constant change within this life and the next.

    When we cling to the perception that this body is mine we cause attachement, we cause confusion and we cause suffering. I am reminded of the quote from the Matrix; “Do not try and bend the spoon. That’s impossible. Instead… only try to realize the truth. There is no spoon.”

    So if there is no self, there can be no awareness. Only the perception of awareness from a mind conditioned to believe it exists.

    My two copper pieces. Try reading up on Skandha.

  • Jason

    The Zen Buddhist Order of Hsu Yun (Chan/Zen) offers a unique perspective on rebirth I’ve never enecountered elsewhere. I personally tend to agree with the principle.

    An excerpt:

    “I’m giving you the Zen approach to the subject. Remember, it’s not part of our doctrine. We have taken another road. So when we’re asked why reincarnation isn’t part of our belief system, we have to account for its absence. We can’t just say, ‘Well, believe in it if you want to and also believe in our Zen way, too.’ We can’t straddle both paths. So we decide and in that decision process we have to determine just why we don’t incorporate reincarnation into our system.'” I laughed and realized I would need to go a little deeper. “Through willfull imagination some people might have created the desired events which then, instead of becoming the memory of an imagination, becomes the memory of the imagined event. Lawyers are well acquainted with this phenomenon of implanted memory in which a witness has been manipulated, through a variety of means, into believing that certain events actually occurred. Given the right circumstances, we can “remember” or we can “forget” almost anything.

  • Jason

    Given that I don’t believe in the concept of the soul, the only past lives I have ever had (who is “I”?) would be the unbroken line of genetic and karmic material passed to me through my ancestors. In a scientific way, I share past lives with all my forebears going back to the first multi-celled organisms to which I am related. As a Caucasian Irish-German-English/Native-American man living in 2009, I am the result of the karma inherent within my culture and historical past both of my family and my various tribes โ€šร„รฎ both positive and negative.

    Agreement with the person who lauded the ocean analogy. That’s probably the best word-picture I’ve ever read to explain rebirth (Buddhists don’t technically believe in reincarnation only rebirth โ€šร„รฎ no transmigration of souls since there are no souls to go anywhere).

  • noland

    Listening to a talk by a teacher (another podcast) i heard him quote another monk (Dogen ?). When asked the question “what is karma” he simply replied “visable and invisable”, I think that it is very important to note that he did not say “it is” visable and invisable
    As I sat with this for a very long time thoughts ocured to me (following his definition) that “I” am simply the residue of karma. To achive not-self is to unhook myself from karma.

  • noland

    How you do one thing is how you do all things.