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A Few Thoughts About Karma and Reincarnation

by Bob Siegel

The Buddhist law of karma emphasizes cause and effect. Our actions have consequences and these consequences in turn affect who we are. This does not negate free will. We can change those consequences by changing our behavior and thereby change our being. I can see how this has played out in my own life. For better or for worse seems too simplistic. Unexpected is definitely part of the mix and reflecting on the unintended has given me a richer view of my life. For example, I married late, in my early forties and had a child when I was close to fifty. My wife is fifteen years younger than me. At first, I was captivated by her youth and beauty. I never foresaw myself becoming a parent and when my wife wanted a child, I was dragged kicking and screaming into fatherhood.  Today, with a twenty-two year old daughter who I find amazing (I’ll skip the details of parental bragging), being a parent turned out to be one of the most valuable experiences of my life. One maxim parents can agree on is that having a child is a constant reminder that other people have needs.

On a societal level, our current pandemic crisis can be traced to our indiscriminate encroachment into other animals’ territory, to  concealment of the problem by an authoritarian government that came to power over half a century ago, and the intent of that regime can be traced further back to western nations exploiting that country. Here at home, the mismanagement of the crisis is in large part a result of incompetence and a fragile ego by our president. His coming to power can be traced in part to anger in the working class over losing good paying jobs that were outsourced to cheap labor overseas. That outsourcing was the result of executives in companies becoming shortsighted and caring only about quarterly returns and ignoring their communities. Economists and political scientists could fill in these broad strokes with finer and finer lines, no doubt contesting my analysis for lack of subtlety and each others’ assessments with differing values. However, cause and effect will always be in the forefront of their views. Karma is also key to other views outside of Buddhism. Christianity tells us that we will reap what we sow. Psychologist Eric Fromm puts it this way: we are what we do. Sartre is unequivocal:  Not that man is simply what he conceives himself to be, but he is what he wills, and as he conceives himself after already existing – as he wills to be after that leap towards existence. Man is nothing else but that which he makes of himself… every man in possession of himself as he is, and places the entire responsibility for his existence squarely upon his own shoulders. And, when we say that man is responsible for himself, we do not mean that he is responsible only for his own individuality, but that he is responsible for all men

Where I have a problem with karma is when the Buddhist view moves cause and effect from one life to another life through the Buddhist law of reincarnation. When I look at the extent of poverty in the United States and the dangerous living conditions outside of more economically advanced countries, I have to ask, did more people in the world do something terribly wrong in a previous life than the more privileged minority living today?  The math just doesn’t add up. If we factor in race, then this karmic law becomes even more questionable, an apology for white supremacy.

Reincarnation is the medium for the message. A good life lived now will mean a fortunate birth later.  We should accrue merit. The equation seems at odds with the Mahayana path, skillful service to others while liberating ourselves from self destructive clinging to a past and future. Being awake in the present is the essence of the path. But doesn’t the promise of a fortunate birth turn the path into theism, a duality, clinging to a reward?

Death has never been a comforting reality for me and I suspect for many others as well. My recent reconnection with Shambhala came after a serious illness that could have been cancer but turned out to be less threatening. I realized I was not prepared to face dying although there were a few moments when a stillness, a clarity, pushed aside all of my anxiety.  One way that Buddhism prepares us for dying is by offering a way out of the cycle of birth and death and birth and death: the possibility of escape in the Bardos.  Buddhist teachers offer detailed accounts of the Bardos, the transition from dying to being born again. This passage is portrayed as tumultuous but ripe with the possibility to become enlightened, thereby foregoing all the suffering of living again. Strategies are offered to navigate the Bardos. Andrew Holecek offers extensive practical advice even counseling us to watch horror movies now so we won’t be shocked by our own horrific projections during this passage. I am certain that I will meet an eight foot cockroach because although I’ve become kinder to taking insects in my house back outside, this bonhomie immediately vanishes when my wife spots a roach and screams, kill it, kill it. I never relish the killing. In fact, it’s always a bit traumatic. Once, after chasing after a roach, it stopped in the tangled mess of computer wires beneath my desk. It seemed to rest there as if it knew it was hiding. For an odd, intense moment, I identified completely, I became the roach.. but I still killed it. Yes, there will be a reckoning in the Bardos. The incident probably sounds silly, even absurd, but I wonder how many Buddhists have their own version, haunted by some outsized psychic intruder.  I wonder if Buddhism isn’t creating its own version of purgatory.

When my daughter was entering high school having weathered the malice of middle school, she came up with an interesting definition of God. She told me that the God we would meet depended on what ticked us off most in this life. If one was homophobic, God would turn out to be gay. So I asked her, who I would meet.  Without hesitation, she said gently and with a smile: tech support and customer service, dad. I winced inside knowing that she had heard me barking over the phone and this little nugget made me much more patient in talking to non-English speakers trying to help me. Yet even in her guileless irony, there was still the notion of reckoning.

I wonder if Buddhism should stop talking about reincarnation. If we missed the examined life, if we missed the chance to have compassion towards ourselves and others, then we missed our lives. Holding out a chance to erase that life in a Bardo strikes me as dodging the responsibility of being free. A reckoning after we die says that we live on. Is that clinging? What if there is nothing else? What if death is a jet plane to oblivion? Wouldn’t the Mahayana path be its own reward, its own reckoning? A good death would be the tender-hearted warrior, hopefully not in much pain, hopefully not alone, facing the complete unknown. I’m reminded of Leonard Cohen greeting his guests with cheerful hospitality in his last few weeks alive, offering lunch, sending out for deli if they were hungry. Maybe a good death will be enjoying the company of others and still being aware of their needs, something as simple as a fresh bagel.

Bob Siegel has been interested in Buddhism for many years. He is a member of the Shambhala Sangha in Durham NC. He is a playwright, bobsiegelplays.net, who sometimes writes in other mediums.

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3 responses to “ A Few Thoughts About Karma and Reincarnation ”
  1. Chris Randol
    Sep 1, 2020

    Thanks for sharing your well-constructed thoughts, Bob. You helped me think about choices I’m making. I suppose that’s what good playwrights do.

  2. Linda Willow
    Aug 28, 2020

    Thank you Bob, for beautiful reflections that so echoed my own feelings on these topics, that words are not needed. Also to Susan for your similar reflection. I’ve always felt that heaven or reincarnation are “bonus” or extra realities that I may enjoy/suffer, but that the best tactic is to treat this life as though it is the only one: that karma and reincarnation happen here and now, and that the best reasons for doing the right thing are right next to me or on the TV news if I can just open my eyes. I was a vegetarian, then lapsed, and am on a journey to find my way back because, boy-oh-boy, if this was the chicken/cow’s only life….well, that is much sharper a prod to do right by them than heaven or thinking they may reincarnate to eat me next lifetime. What if this was all THEY get?

  3. I agree completely. I always felt that reincarnation was merely a shifting of responsibility for actions to a future self while absolving yourself of any responsibility for any actions that cause/continue suffering in this life. For example, eating meat causes climate change to be worse (fact not opinion). This has the direct consequence for 2 beings, yourself and the being you are eating. It also has an indirect consequence for the workers that process your meat (packing plants, factory farms), the transportation of your meat (carbon in air from trucks), and the climate change that this engenders, see sea level rise, poor countries facing greater consequences, massive hurricanes (laura) and all the suffering that goes with that. Meanwhile, you tell yourself that the beggar in Bangladesh deserves the misery he is engulfed in because he (in a past life) did something to deserve that. What if he didn’t? What if it doesn’t work that way? What if we are just random reassignments? Or, what if we just need to learn a lesson in each life and the circumstances of the life we are given are to teach us that? So, my life has been one move after another with a lifetime of just enough money so I don’t starve or become homeless. I feel that the lesson for this life is impermanence (48 moves) and attachment (see 48 moves) to objects and places. Some of the moves have been exciting, some traumatic, some rushed. The easiest and best moves were those where I had few possessions and could move in a single afternoon. The most traumatic have been when I was channeling a hoarder and had to make thousands of decisions of weather to keep or pitch something. It took me a really long time to catch on to the repeating theme of my life that attachment causes suffering. As I write this, I have just moved and this one was an emergency move due to a plumbing catastrophe dumping sludge into my kitchen. One of the more traumatic moves because I was in my old apartment for almost 5 years. So, 5 years of little plastic scoops, bag-ties, thrift store finds, glass jars cleaned out, exotic spices, hot/cold cups, gifts from co-workers that I shoved in the back of a closet, and books-lots of books and magazines. It fell into the middle of the traumatic moves group. I am currently unpacking and making those decisions on the other side of the move by moving everything and sorting as I unpack. If I had made the decision to lighten load at the time of getting the item, I would have had an easy move. You see where I am going with this. If I just paid attention to the lessons of Zen (of which I strive), I would be far better off, have less personal suffering and alleviate the suffering of others. I am constantly trying to shift the blame for my life to where it belongs, with myself. I don’t look at the suffering as a product of a past life, but, as the theme for the lessons I should be learning in this one. Everything in my life has had a purpose to teach me something, only when I resist this teaching do I suffer. When I flow around the problem like a stream around a rock, do I have insight and enlightenment.
    As always, yours in the Dharma- SB

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