Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Fate & Karma

Having been a person of small responsibilities and even lesser achievements, and not particularly pleased with how things have turned out this time around, I am really curious as to what comes next. Being a Buddhist of some 20 years' standing, I am now faced with a conumdrum. I believe in some form of reincarnation. Buddhism does not.

Reincarnation is held to be the transmigration of a soul to another body after death. There is no such teaching in Buddhism. One of the most fundamental doctrines of Buddhism is anatta, or anatman-- no soul or no self. There is no permanent essence of an individual self that survives death. And yet the faith often refers to rebirth.

The Buddha taught that our bodies, physical and emotional sensations, conceptualizations, ideas and beliefs, and consciousness work together to create the illusion of a permanent, distinctive "me." Every moment, the illusion of "me" renews itself. Not only is nothing carried over from one life to the next; nothing is carried over from one moment to the next. This can get confusing.

In his book What the Buddha Taught (1959), scholar Walpola Rahula states, "If we can understand that in this life we can continue without a permanent, unchanging substance like Self or Soul, why can't we understand that those forces themselves can continue without a Self or Soul behind them after the non-functioning of the body? When this physical body is no more capable of functioning, energies do not die with it, but continue to take some other shape or form, which we call another life. ... Physical and mental energies which constitute the so-called being have within themselves the power to take a new form, and grow gradually and gather force to the full."

What is it, then, that dies? I believe that when this physical body is no longer capable of functioning, the energies within it, the atoms and molecules it is made up of, don’t die with it. They do indeed take on another form, another shape. Is this another life? Probably not, since according to the most basic Buddhist thoughts, there is no permanent, unchanging substance and nothing passes from one moment to the next. If that's the case, nothing permanent or unchanging can transmigrate from one life to the next. Being born and dying continues unbroken but changes every moment. The force that propels this continuity is karma, another Asian concept often misunderstood. Karma is closer to a simple action of cause and effect than it is to the Western idea of fate, the notion that man's life is preplanned for him by some external power, and he has no control over his destiny. Karma, however, can be changed. Because man is a conscious being he can be aware of his karma and thus strive to change the course of events.

Up to this point, I can lay a modest claim to understanding. After this, it gets too complicated. Luckily, Buddha reportedly left 84,000 teachings so as to reach the mental and spiritual capacity of each individual, from the smartest to the most humble. Being somewhere in between, I can still hope that something happens in the next world. Life is a struggle, and it really would be a great waste of effort if nothing was to remain from it.

OK, so I've had a bad day, which always leads me to musings about better days elsewhere. Hip hip for Buddhism...

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