Karma and Rebirth
Buddhism has a strong moral dimension. It advocates acting in ways that are helpful to oneself and others while at the same time advising against actions that lead to one's own suffering or the suffering of others. Underpinning this moral dimension is the concept of karma or kamma.
Kamma literally means 'action' and refers to the process by which our moral actions have consequences for us in the future. Put simply, our good deeds lead to happy states; our bad deeds lead to unhappy ones. The word 'deed' here refers not to just physical actions but words and thoughts too. Indeed, the mind is the source of all our deeds, whether good or evil: 'Mind foreruns conditions, mind is chief, mind-made are they'.
Thus, 'if one speaks or acts with wicked mind, because of that, pain pursues him'
Similarly, 'if one speaks or acts with pure mind, because of that happiness follows him'.
At its core, therefore, Buddhism has a sense of moral justice, though there is no overseeing arbiter or judge, and no judgment day as such. It might be better to see the process of karma as a natural phenomenon. If you look after a fruit tree carefully, pruning it at the right time and feeding it appropriately, good fruit ensues. If you fail to look after it properly then it will not bear fruit or the fruit will be sparse. In short, we reap the rewards of what we do that is wholesome, and suffer for what we do that is unwholesome.
One crucial aspect of the Buddhist teaching on karma is intention. In Buddhism, harming living creatures is seen as morally wrong but this does not mean that if you step on an ant by accident that you are morally culpable. Intention is everything, (though even good intentions have to be handled with intelligence and skillfulness).
To fully appreciate the Buddha's teaching on karma, it has to be linked to the teaching on rebirth. The consequences of our actions can be fairly immediate but often they are not. They can occur in this life or future lives, maturing when the right conditions are in place.
The teaching on karma can influence the moral choices we make in life, knowing that whatever short-term benefits we might gain from doing something morally wrong we will inevitably have to pay the consequences. Like borrowing money from a bank, it has to be paid back at some stage in the future. On the other hand, we know that any good deeds are do will have benefits for us in the future.
It is here, however, that we need to be careful. The most beneficial actions have their source in a selfless heart - if we do good deeds merely because we hope to gain something in the future, the motivation is impure. Linked to good moral action should be a spontaneous desire to help others without any thought of how we, as individuals, might benefit.
The Buddha taught that the world as we experience it is impermanent and unsatisfactory, that there is a reason why we experience the world in this way, that there is a state of utter peace and contentment that can be experienced here and now, and that there is a way that leads to this state - in short, the Four Noble Truths.
Amongst the other key teachings that inform the Buddhist perspective is that of rebirth. The Buddha taught that we are born and reborn many times and that there are six realms of existence into which we can be reborn. These are the hell worlds, the realm of 'hungry ghosts', the animal realm, the human realm, the realm of jealous gods and the heavenly worlds. None of these worlds are satisfactory, though some are worse than others.
The world of hell-beings, hungry ghosts and animals are worlds where suffering and ignorance are the most acute. In the world of the jealous gods there is power but no peace. Even the world of gods - though pleasurable and long-lasting - will bring no ultimate satisfaction.
According to Buddhism, the best rebirth is that of a human being as it offers the best opportunity for gaining enlightenment. In the heavenly world, the gods are too absorbed in pleasure to make the necessary effort for spiritual realization. The other realms offer few opportunities for good actions and spiritual advancement. The human realm, however, has a certain degree of dissatisfaction coupled with opportunities for good action and spiritual practice.
Unlike the perspective of the Indian religious tradition of his time, the Buddha did not espouse reincarnation - the idea that a permanent self or soul transmigrates from birth to birth. The Buddhist perspective is that the self is an insubstantial, impermanent collection of interacting factors rather than something fixed and stable. One analogy that is used is to describe the move from life to life as a flame that is transferred from candle to candle. Though there is continuity from one flame to the next, the flame is constantly changing.
The realm into which we are born depends on our actions. Good actions lead to happy states; bad actions lead to unhappy ones. For example, a generous heart is said to lead to wealth and prosperity and a loving heart is said to result in a beautiful form. A life that is lived well will result in a good human rebirth or a rebirth in one of the heavens. A life of cruelty and/or hatred will result in a rebirth in one of the lower realms.
This 'wandering' from birth to birth within these six realms is known as samsara. The ultimate goal is to escape from this cycle of birth and death to Nibbana or Nirvana, a state of ultimate bliss, rather than a heavenly realm which, as described before, offers no lasting satisfaction.