Chapter III.
Karma and Rebirth


Perhaps one of the hardest of the Buddhist doctrines is that of Karma. It is a doctrine, not only hard in itself, but it seems to contradict their other tenets. The Buddhists, as we have seen, resolve the human being into a number of elements called dhammas which possess no permanent existence, and they say that on account of this transitoriness no one of these can be considered as the individual, the Ego, the "self." There is therefore here nothing to be reborn -- nothing to transmigrate. How then is it, that when he has thus denied all substantive existence to everything which to the Occidental thinker appears to possess the greatest reality, the Oriental should attribute to karma this faculty of being reborn indefinitely?

The word karma means 'deeds,' or, as it is often used in the singular, it might perhaps be translated by 'performance' or 'action.' How can substantive reality be attributed to a mere conception of the mind like that of deed or performance, when it is denied of all those components of the human being of which we are cognizant by means of our senses and our self-consciousness? How can any deed be said to be immortal, except in a purely figurative sense, meaning that the memory or else the objective effect of it persists? Now if we look at this doctrine of Karma a little more closely, we may see that it is not so very unlike Christian ideas. If we were to translate [210] the word karma somewhat freely, we might call it 'character.' And what, indeed, do we ordinarily mean when we speak of personal immortality, unless it be that the characters of our friends are reborn in heaven? It is evidently not the body that is reborn, for that is left behind with us. And what do we know of the spirit except simply its manifestations, and what we may argue from our own self-consciousness? Our knowledge of our friend is composed of what our senses tell us of his body and what we observe of his deeds. It is his character, his particular set of deeds, or karma, that we think of as surviving death; and this is exactly what the Buddhists do, -- the only difference being that we claim the existence of an Ego. This we claim to know by self-inspection; and therefore, when we speak metaphysically, we say that it is our friend's Ego, or soul, that is reborn, and that our friend's character, which is really all we directly know of our friend, is simply the manifestation of that Ego. But as the Buddhists deny the existence of any soul, it is only observed character, or karma, that is left to be reborn. The reader will see, I think, that the two doctrines are really very similar, if we but leave the postulation of an Ego out of the question.

But the question still remains: How can character that is no entity in itself be reborn? Now here it is to be noted that the word 'karma' covers two distinct ideas; namely, the deed itself, and the effects of that deed in modifying the subsequent character and fortunes of the doer. The Buddhists say that this subjective effect continues after death into the next life. The following illustration may tend to make the general idea of the perpetuation of character without identity of substance seem more reasonable. Why cannot a swallow's egg hatch out a lark? or a lark's a swallow? Is there any difference perceptible between the two eggs in respect of composition or structure, adequate to account for the difference in the [211] result? If not, how is it that the egg of the lark will never hatch out into any other kind of a bird than a lark, and that a swallow's egg must always yield a swallow? Now although it is true that if we take the eggs before the first sign of an embryo has appeared we may not be able to detect any physical or chemical difference that would seem to account for the difference in the result, yet we know the why and wherefore of that difference. A swallow's egg cannot hatch out a lark because of the difference in heredity. The countless influences that affected the ancestors of that egg, and the numberless actions performed under those influences are in some mysterious way stored up in that egg, and must bear their own fruit and none other. Therefore a swallow's egg cannot hatch out a lark, because a lark is the result of an entirely different set of conditions; as we might say, its karma is different. But of course the Buddhists do not mean heredity when they use the word karma. 'Karma' expresses, not that which a man inherits from his ancestors, but that which he inherits from himself in some previous state of existence. But with this difference the Buddhist doctrine and the scientific doctrine of heredity seem very similar.

Not all deeds, however, are fruitful and perpetuate existence. Karma is like heredity in that it is an informing principle which must have an embodiment. Just as the informing principle of an egg would never find expression without the accompaniment of yolk, albumen, and other material constituents, so karma embeds itself in objects of desire in order to form that factitious entity which goes by the name of man. If karma be performed in a state of pure passionlessness, that is, without attachment to anything, then it is barren. The fruitful karma will be quickly undermined and not suffered to bear the full fruit it otherwise would have done. Like a tree whose nourishment has been poisoned, the being who [212] performs such karma will cease to be. See § 40, § 76 in Chapter IV, and § 41, which last is given by way of illustration of § 40 b. Thus a being without karma is as arbitrary a conception as a chicken without heredity, that is, one formed by creative fiat independent of antecedent conditions.

In illustration of the doctrine of repeated existence I give at the end of this chapter a number of "Birth-Stories," as they are called; namely, stories concerning the anterior "births" or existences of The Buddha. There is a separate work in the Buddhist Scriptures called the "Jātaka," or "Book of Birth-Stories," containing several hundred such tales. They form a mine of folk-lore, and, though credited to The Buddha, can hardly have been original with him. The ancient Buddhists, like other Orientals, appear to have been fond of gathering together in little companies and listening while some one of their number related a tale or fable; and ancient Buddhist sculptures have come down to the present day representing scenes taken out of these same stories that fill the Jātaka. Some of these tales are much traveled ones, and are to be found in Æsop's Fables, and in La Fontaine, and other European works. As a sample I give "The Ass in the Lion's Skin." Another instance of folk-lore common to both the Orient and the Occident, but not given as a Birth-Story, occurs in this chapter. The Pāli version is entitled "Death's Messengers," while "The Three Warnings" gives the same general idea in English dress. There are other English versions extant, and German, French, and Latin ones, so that this is an interesting instance of how a fable will travel about from country to country and from clime to clime, varying in dress to suit the habits, customs, and ways of thinking of the different peoples who adopt it into their literatures and then often forget its alien origin.


[ Contents ]
[ Back ]
[ Next: Be a Friend to Yourself ]