The law of karma and reincarnation are often the first things that many people think of in connection with Buddhism. Unfortunately, misunderstandings are common. Even among those who consider themselves Buddhists, differences of opinion and superficial teachings all too often obscure what the Buddha actually taught in his discourses. Some Buddhists insist that Buddhism makes no sense if one does not believe in a literal view of reincarnation and karma as an explanation for life's suffering and seeming injustice. If karma and reincarnation are not literally true then they see no point in even taking up Buddhism in the first place. Other Buddhists view reincarnation and karma as metaphorical or as nothing more than a skillful mode of teaching that the Buddha used as a concession to those who did not understand his deeper teachings. In this article I hope to clear up some of the misunderstandings by citing the Buddha's teachings as recorded in the Pali Canon.
Before going any further, however, it is best to clarify the terms. The term "reincarnation" is one that most English speaking Buddhists tend to steer clear of, preferring the term "rebirth" instead. Damien Keown explains why in his definition of the term reincarnation:
This brings us to the term "karma" which too many people confuse with "fate" or "destiny." "Karma" actually means "action." The Buddha defined karma as the intentional or volitional actions of sentient beings. It is volition that I call karma; for having willed, one acts by body, speech, and mind. (AN 3:415, see In the Buddha's Words, p. 146) These intentional acts can be discerned as wholesome or unwholesome. The unwholesome are those actions driven by greed or blinded by hatred, and misled by delusion. Wholesome actions are those that are generous and compassionate and guided by wisdom. Karma refers to the causes that we make whose consequences will someday have an effect on our lives when they come to fruition. The Sanskrit terms for the "effect" or "fruit " of karma are vipaka and phala respectively. Therefore, when we reap the effects of our own previous causes, it is more technically accurate to call those effects our vipaka or phala. Though it is karma in the sense that it is the ripening of past karma. Karma, however, is not the only factor that contributes to the quality of our lives in each given moment. It does not determine everything and does not rob anyone of free will. Most importantly, karma is something we ourselves produce and are responsible for. It is not a mysterious force, fate, or destiny coming from outside of ourselves. Karma is something we ourselves set into motion in every moment of our lives.
The Three Types of True Knowledge
Far from being a mere concession to the ignorant or a minor note in his teachings, karma and rebirth were integral elements of the Buddha's enlightenment. According to the Buddha, after he sat beneath the Bodhi Tree and attained a calm and concentrated state of mind his contemplations proceeded as follows:
This was the first true knowledge attained by me in the first watch of the night. Ignorance was banished and true knowledge arose, darkness was banished and light arose, as happens in one who dwells diligent, ardent, and resolute. But such pleasant feeling that arose in me did not invade my mind and remain.
When my mind was thus concentrated, purified, bright, unblemished, rid of imperfection, malleable, wieldy, steady, and attained to imperturbability, I directed it to knowledge of the passing away and rebirth of beings. With the divine eye, which is purified and surpasses the human, I saw beings passing away and being reborn, inferior and superior, beautiful and ugly, fortunate and unfortunate, and I understood how beings fare on according to their actions thus: These beings who behaved wrongly by body, speech, and mind, who reviled the noble ones, held wrong view, and undertook actions based on wrong view, with the breakup of the body, after death, have been reborn in a state of misery, in a bad destination, in the lower world, in hell; but these beings who have behaved well by body, speech, and mind, who did not revile the noble ones, who held right view, and undertook action based on right view, with the breakup of the body, after death, have been reborn in a good destination, in a heavenly world. Thus with the divine eye, which is purified and surpasses the human, I saw beings passing away and being reborn, inferior and superior, beautiful and ugly, fortunate and unfortunate, and I understood how beings fare on according to their actions.
This was the second true knowledge attained by me in the middle watch of the night. Ignorance was banished and true knowledge arose, darkness was banished and light arose, as happens in one who dwells diligent, ardent, and resolute. But such pleasant feeling that arose in me did not invade my mind and remain.
When my mind was thus concentrated, purified, bright, unblemished, rid of imperfection, malleable, wieldy, steady, and attained to imperturbability, I directed it to knowledge of the destruction of the taints. I directly knew as it actually is: This is suffering. This is the origin of suffering. This is cessation of suffering. This is the way leading to the cessation of suffering. I directly knew as it actually is: "These are the taints. This is the origin of the taints. This is the cessation of the taints. This is the way leading to the cessation of the taints."
When I knew and saw thus, my mind was liberated from the taint of sensual desire, from the taint of existence, and from the taint of ignorance. When it was liberated, there came the knowledge: It is liberated. I directly knew: "Birth is destroyed, the spiritual life has been lived, what had to be done has been done, there is no more coming back to any state of being."
This was the third true knowledge attained by me in the last watch of the night. Ignorance was banished and true knowledge arose, darkness was banished and light arose, as happens in one who dwells diligent, ardent, and resolute. But such pleasant feeling that arose in me did not invade my mind and remain. (from MN 36: 38-44, see Ibid, pp. 65-67)
These three types of true knowledge are the Buddhist counterparts to the brahmin's knowledge of the three collections of hymns (Rig Veda, Sama Veda, and Yajur Veda) that constitute the core of the Vedic revelation. The Buddha rejected belief in revealed scriptures such as the Vedas as a reliable source of knowledge and replaced such belief with the direct perception of reality. Through meditation, one could recollect one's own past lives; attain the divine eye to clairvoyantly perceive the passing away and rebirth of other beings; and most importantly realize the destruction of the taints consisting of craving for sensual satisfaction, craving for continued existence, and clinging to wrong views. Even those who had not attained Buddhist insight or broken through the taints could realize the first two. Only a fully enlightened arhat or buddha could realize the last, the destruction of the taints, as the last one is synonymous with enlightenment. In fact, an arhat does not necessarily have the ability to recollect his or her past lives or have the divine eye that reveals the past lives and rebirths of other beings, but they will at least have rid themselves of ignorance and attachment by deeply contemplating the four noble truths of suffering, its origin, its cessation, and the path to its cessation. The arhat, therefore, will have necessarily attained the third type of true knowledge, even if not the first and second. In the Buddha's case, he claims to have realized all three. In fact, it would even seem as though his ability to contemplate the causes and conditions of his own life and the lives of others through eons of rebirths was the basis for his deep understanding of the four noble truths. The Buddha was able to extrapolate the principles of the four noble truths and the conditioned nature of all things because he was able to recall and survey the course of his many lifetimes and the lives and rebirths of countless sentient beings stretching into the remote past. For the Buddha, the four noble truths was not the product of abstract reasoning, but of direct observation of the workings of karma and rebirth.