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The Idea Of Karma And Reincarnation Philosophy Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Philosophy
Wordcount: 3318 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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In this paper, I would like to discuss the idea of karma and reincarnation. The idea that actions have repercussions in life is known as karma.  Karma is defined by the American Heritage Dictionary as, “the total effect of a person’s actions and conduct during the successive phases of the person’s existence, regarded as determining the person’s destiny.”  Karma is called las rgyu-bras in Tibetan, where las can be translated to “work” or “actions” and rgyu-bras translates to “fruits.”  Combined, las rgyu-bras can be translated as the fruits of one’s actions (Keyes 232).  If a person performs a good action in life, Buddhists believe that good things will occur later on in life as a result, and they expect the reverse for bad actions.  By understanding this concept and trying to live a life governed by the rules of Karma, one can hope to live a life filled with happiness. Karma extends beyond correct behavior towards others and extends into the relationship between a person’s soul and the world around him.  

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            In Buddhism, Karma has two forms; mental karma and deed karma (Encyclopedia of Religion 266).  The two forms both abide by the belief that good or bad actions yield good or bad results.  Mental karma is governed by what a person thinks.  If a person thinks impure or malicious thoughts, they will build up bad karma during his life, and for pure thoughts, good karma is built up.  Deed karma refers to the actions performed physically by a person.  As with mental karma, deed karma is the culmination of good karma and bad karma resulting from one’s actions.  

            In considering karma, there are three main elements; cetana, samudacara, and vasana and samskara.  The first element, cetana, refers to the state of mind a person is in when he begins to perform an act.  Did he or she have good or bad intentions?  This will determine the repercussions that come for that person’s thoughts.  The second element, samudacara, refers to the actual action itself, whether it caused happiness to all or caused suffering to some other than the individual performing the action.  The final element, composed of vasana and samskara, refers to the lasting effects a person’s action and deeds have.  Vasana means impression or residual effect and samskara means habit (Encyclopedia of Religion 266).  From vasana and samskara, it can be inferred that a person’s actions have lasting effects; where the effects of karma, which is determined by a person’s actions, is what shapes an individuals personality.  It is through experiences in life that an individual personality is determined, whether through good experiences or bad experiences.  If a person performs a certain action and the repercussions are positive, then it will be considered a good thing in that person’s mind.  If the repercussions for an action are good or not clear, then that action will be considered a good thing and that it is alright to behave in that way over and over.  Early Buddhist teachings considered that samskara and vasana “shapes ones character, constitution, and general personality” (Encyclopedia of Religion 266). 

           Buddhists believe that the type of accumulated karma is what effects later experiences in a person’s life.  “According to early Buddhist thinkers, the more good karma a person accumulates, the happier he or she will become and the better recompense he will receive” (Encyclopedia of Religion 266).  This statement that explains happiness is controlled by karma.  No one wants to be unhappy in life, as shown by the millions of people who seek professional to help deal with issues in life that cause them unhappiness.  Everyone wants to be happy, and karma can be used as a guide to judge what actions will cause happiness.

            In Buddhism, the idea of sin is related to morality, which has a defined set of actions that constitute sin.  As said by His Holiness the Dalai Lama (Tenzin Gyatso), “the basic foundation of the practice of morality is to refrain from the ten unwholesome actions” (p. 18).  These ten basic non-virtues that he is talking about are killing, stealing, adultery, lying, divisiveness, harsh speech, senseless speech, covetousness, harmful intent, and wrong view.  The first three elements of morality are related to physical actions; taking another life, taking what belongs to others, and engaging in sexual relations outside of marriage. 

            The next four elements refer to speech; lying, divisiveness, harsh speech, and senseless speech.  Lying causes people to think incorrect thoughts which are harmful when the truth is revealed. As a result, they become upset at the person who lied to them, as well as the reason for the lie.  Divisiveness refers to actions that cause others to disagree or disagree more than they already do.  Harsh speech is verbal abuse, cursing and slandering of others.  Finally, senseless speech, as defined by Tenzin Gyatso, is “talk of foolish things motivated by desire and so forth” (p. 18).  By abstaining from these four speech oriented non-virtues, people would be civil towards each other, as they would never say anything bad about or lie to one another. 

            The final three elements of the ten non-virtues are acts controlled by the mind.  Covetousness, desiring what another person possesses, causes jealousy, which eventually can cause a person to be unhappy, if he doesn’t get what he wants.  Harmful intent, desiring to harm others, is caused by anger, which causes unhappiness.  Lastly, wrong view, which is defined by the Dalai Lama as not believing in rebirth, the law of cause and effect, and the three jewels, which “are the Buddha jewel, the enlightened teacher, or one’s own future state of enlightenment; the Dharma jewel, the teachings and realizations that lead to happiness, liberation and enlightenment; and the Sangha jewel, the spiritual community of those well established on the Buddhist path” (p. 158).  These final three elements all lead to an ignorant mind that will guide one to a life of unhappiness.  Thus, by abstaining from them, a life of happiness can be found.  



          There are different levels of sins, and thus there are different levels of bad karma.  A sin that is committed intentionally or with pleasure has the worst karmic effect.  In the reverse, a sin that is committed unintentionally has the least negative karmic effect.  All these good and bad karmic effects are accumulated over life, and it is believed by “Buddhist philosophers, for the most part, that a person’s present circumstances in life are determined by one’s past actions, the fruits of which are inevitably experienced until that person “uses up” all of his acquired karman (karma) and the law of causation has run its course” (Encyclopedia of Religion 267). 

            It is believed that certain virtues can erase the bad karma that has built up.  Some of these virtues are putting up prayer flags, reciting mantras, avoiding sinful actions, receiving blessings from a lama, counting beads, and being charitable towards those that are less fortunate.  It is believed “in Tibet (that) the recitation of certain mantras could wipe out the karma of a hundred years” (Murray 45).  Such a belief shows the strong belief in the importance of daily rituals performed by devout Tibetan Buddhists.  This is similar to the Catholic belief that one can repent for sins through confessions, saying the rosary, and repetitive prayer.

            In Buddhism, there are three ways to alleviate bad karma caused by any kind of sin. One way is to repent personally for past sins committed.  The second way, in addition to a person’s own virtuous action, is to have a relative, monk or nun recite mantras or hold a religious ceremony for the sake of relieving that person’s bad karma.  The third way is similar to the second, but is done post mortem, with the hope that it will lessen the bad karma brought into the next life. 

            Another major question about karma is how to explain why a person, who leads a good life, with minimal sin, can suddenly have his life take a turn for the worse?  This is a result of what is known as rkyen, or cooperating causes (Keyes 238).  Rkyen is an aspect of karma, but it is karma that is delayed.  It is dependent upon a strong belief in reincarnation, which is hard to grasp.  The idea is that when a sin is committed, the effects of that sin do not have to occur in the near future, or in a person’s lifetime, but could affect one of the person’s later reincarnations. 

            Karmic effects can be delayed by rlung-rta, which “is the state of a person’s worldly luck” (Keyes 240).  Rlung-rta is a measure of a persons short term good deeds, while karma is a measure of good deeds over eternity.  If, in a short period of time, a person does many good acts, they will have high rlung-rta, which can delay the bad effects of bad actions.  Rlung-rta can vary from year to year, where one year it could be high and the next drop down.  By having constantly high rlung-rta, a person can delay the bad effects of karma for an entire lifetime, leaving it to take effect on one of their later lives, when rlung-rta is low and cannot delay bad karma anymore.  In this way, it can be understood how rkyen works. The bad events on rkyen are the results of actions committed long ago, whether in this life or even a past life.  While these aspects of karma have specific names that differentiate them, they are all still all ruled by the law of cause and effect. 

            Rkyen cannot be fully comprehended without a belief in reincarnation.  If a person does not believe in reincarnation, then it is not comprehendible that the strong “bad luck” associated with rkyen is caused by a bad action in a past life.  At the same time, for a full comprehension of the Buddhist idea of reincarnation, one needs to understand how karma works.  So the two ideas of karma and reincarnation are both dependant upon one another. 

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            In Tibetan Buddhism, reincarnation is understood as the endless cycle of continuous consciousness.  The idea of consciousness is a difficult one to grasp, because there is no scientific explanation as to how it works.  How the human body evolved, how living cells work, and how interactions between molecules work can all be explained, but not how it is that we are conscious and able to think.  In some religions, such as Judaism and Christianity, this is all explained through the idea of a creator, a supreme being, who through his or her immense power created everything that we know to exist, the planet we live on, the sun which warms the earth, the stars, the lakes, rivers, valleys, mountains and plains, right down to every living creature.  Judeo-Christian tradition assumes from such stories of creation, that consciousness is never questioned, it was just created.  As time has passed and science has discovered how much of the earth and life evolved to what it is today, much of the creation myth has been explained and disproved.  But even science and religion does not explain consciousness and how it starts.  For Tibetan Buddhists, consciousness is continuous and is passed from one life to the next.  As stated by the Dalai Lama, “any instance of consciousness requires a substantial cause in the form of another preceding moment of consciousness.  Because of this, we maintain that consciousness is infinite and beginningless” (p. 49)

            If consciousness were not continuous, then where does it come from?  Each person is born has his or her own conscious mind.  However, where the world’s population used to number in millions, there are now over four billion people on the earth.  The explanation of how so many people can have their own conscious mind lies in the belief that reincarnation does not extend only to humans.  It is believed that people can be reincarnated into animals, humans, and as an enlightened being in heaven.  So, each new person that is born is not necessarily the reincarnation of another human, but could be an animal reincarnated as a human.  Each insect is also a reincarnation, so a few billion humans in comparison with the number of living beings on the earth is a miniscule amount.  To Tibetan Buddhists killing animals and insects is looked down upon because the animal could be a reincarnation of a past relative or friend.  


            What kind of reincarnation a person is reborn as is determined in the intermediary world, or hell?  To westerners, the vision of hell is a place of endless torture and pain, where evil people spend eternity being punished for their wrongdoings in life.  For Tibetan Buddhist, this is not the case.  Hell is simply looked upon as a middle world, where people are sent between lives to be judged upon their merit.  It is in this middle world that karma matters in reincarnation, by determining a person’s reincarnation form.  In Karma, hell is described as like a court.  It can be imagined as any court, with a judge, prosecutor, and defense attorney.  The ultimate judge is Dharmaraja, the lord of the dead, who weighs a person’s good deeds and bad deeds with a black stone for bad deeds, and a white stone from good deeds.  The prosecutor is a demon that sits on the person’s left shoulder, who recalls his bad deeds, putting in a black stone for each.  The defense attorney is a god sitting on the person’s left shoulder, who, likewise, recalls his good deeds and throws in a white stone for each.  If the good deeds outweigh the bad deeds, a person is given a good reincarnation, or could even be given enlightenment if enough merit has been earned.  On the reverse, if the bad deeds out weigh the good deeds, a bad reincarnation is granted. 

            Of all possible reincarnations, human existence is viewed as the highest pleasure.  Human existence is better than animal existence, because it is believed that “animals are miserable, mainly because of their dumbness,” an idea which “is based on the idea that dumb creatures have no choice about what they do” (Keyes 229-230).  To some this idea could be shocking.  How could they make a decision like that without studying animals?  To Tibetans, animals lead a meager life filled with sins, such as killing other animals for food.  While it could be argued that this is the way of survival for animals, to Tibetans, animals commit these sins without chance of repentance, a task which seems only available to humans.  Domestic animals are ordered around their whole lives with no chance to make their own decisions.  They live their lives with the intention of eventually being slaughtered for food.  It could be argued that humans are the same in their level of sin by killing animals, but humans repent and say prayers for their sins.  Animals are not given room for self-improvement in their lives, and for that reason are lesser reincarnations. 

            Human existence is also considered by some to be better than reincarnation into heaven as a god.  While gods have attained the level of enlightenment, and have every need at their disposal, they do not have to work to gain anything in life.  By not having to do any work, they don’t have to make any decisions, decisions which in life gain karma.  In the end, gods end up falling from their high stature, just as bad karma only lasts until you have been duly punished for bad actions, “having exhausted the store of merit which earned them heaven in the first place, the see their auras grow dim, they smell their own sweat, and the experience the horrid anticipation of their own imminent fall” (Keyes 230).  For this reason, while the life of a god is easy and peaceful, it is not ideal in the mind of most Tibetans. 

            Human existence is deemed the highest pleasure because as a human, life can be controlled.  People have interactions with one another, a pleasure that is shown in how friendship is valued so greatly.  A person with bad karma can do deeds that raise his karma, showing room for improvement.  As Keyes observed, “Tibetans seem to concern themselves with avoiding present suffering, hell, and rebirth as an animal rather than with attaining heaven” (p. 228).  While this statement suggests that Tibetans may be overly fearful of bad karma, they are also not so concerned with reaching the next level.  They are distracted by finding human existence to be a pleasure.  Even in suffering, they find that suffering, as a human is better than suffering as an animal. 

            At death, the type of reincarnation assigned is dependent upon the individual’s karma.  Animal life is assigned to people with generally bad karma, although not invariably all the time.  If a person has generally bad karma, he could be granted a human existence with a lifetime of suffering, which is better than being reincarnated as an animal, and leaves room for improvement, so that life could be made better in the next reincarnation.  Human existence, if not designated as a lifetime of suffering, is granted to the fortunate few who have generally good karma, as decided by the scales of Dharmaraja, the lord of the dead.  If the scales are predominantly tipping toward good deeds, a person can be granted enlightenment.  Thus, a central concern of Buddhism, as told by a Tibetan layman, is “to accumulate merit, a potential to facilitate the process of gaining liberation” (Neufeldt 180).  The next question is what happens when liberated?

            There are two beliefs on the issue of reincarnation after liberation, or enlightenment.  When a person reaches enlightenment, some believe that the soul stops reincarnating and reaches the level of a god.  This prospect, in which the gods live a life of luxury, is not the most appealing to everyone.  The other belief is that enlightened ones can control their reincarnation and come back as humans.  In this way, enlightened ones come back to guide others on the path to enlightenment, so they are not just enlightened themselves, but become patrons of charity by showing others the way.  As Murray explained, “the Tibetan’s believe that some human beings, the highest lamas, are always immediately reborn as humans,” those lamas being the ones who have attained enlightenment, such as the Dalai Lama and the Panchen Lama.  

            Through the ideas of karma and reincarnation, Buddhists have been able to explain how life is controlled, not by others, but by one’s own actions, and that those actions not only effect a person during their lifetime, but also into the next.  People are endlessly looking for a way to live happier lives, which can be discovered through studying Buddhist ideas on karma and reincarnation.  While a person does not have to become a Buddhist, accepting the idea of karma and reincarnation can help explain much of life and give guidance on how to live a happier life.  By considering how an action affects not only the individual, but others, a person can save himself from unhappiness by seeing that while an action may bring temporary happiness, it may not bring happiness to all.  The idea of reincarnation helps explain not just bad times in life, but also brings reassurance that through the cycle of life, that life is endless.  


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