I’ve been wondering about the traditional doctrine of karma and rebirth, and what place it now has. Both Paganism and the New Age inherit a nineteenth century Theosophical version of this doctrine, positing a personal soul journey, a movement through time in successive incarnations, depending on track record and learning needs. It is somewhat different from the Buddhist view (and also the one attributed by classical writers to the ancient Druids) but my sense is that it still has considerable authority. It was treated as a given by my mentors at the London Centre of Transpersonal Psychology, when I studied with them in the late 80s and early 90s.
But it’s never been universal and as part of my own inquiry I present two other perspectives from within the Asian traditions themselves. One is from the late Tantric Master Osho and the other from the Buddhist scholar Stephen Batchelor. I particularly like Steven Batchelor’s statement that “shifting concern away from a future life and back to the present … demands an ethics of empathy rather than a metaphysics of fear and hope.” This to him is more important than the truth or otherwise of the doctrine itself. However I start with Osho, in an iconoclastic mood.
“You live encapsulated inside your buffers, philosophies, consolations. Life ends one day – you can console yourself. … You can start believing in the theory of reincarnation: that you will be reborn and the soul is eternal … Or you can think that it is only the body that dies. And what is a body? Nothing but bones, marrow, flesh, blood; it is nothing of worth, it is useless, a dirty bag – so let it die. But your pure soul is going to be forever and ever – a buffer is created. These buffers don’t allow you to see what reality is; they are the way to console yourself.
“Yes. There is misery, but one can protect oneself from misery by creating conceptions, rationalizations. … For example in the East … they say … if you are miserable, you must have done something wrong in the previous life. Something has gone wrong in your past, you have done some wrong karma; hence you are miserable. Now things are explained, so no one has to suffer. … The whole philosophy of karma is that you have sown already, now you are reaping; you have done, so it is a natural consequence. It consoles you. So nobody is doing anything unjust to you. God is not unjust, fate is not unjust, the world is not unjust, the society is not unjust, it is your own karma.
So what to do? One has to pass through it, and one has to keep one’s equanimity, one’s equilibrium. And don’t do such a thing again, otherwise in the next life you will suffer again. So that is the only thing that can be done: you cannot change the past, but you can still manage the future … a beautiful consolation”.
Osho (1990) Tao: the pathless path New York: St. Martin’s Griffin
“It is often claimed that you cannot be a Buddhist if you do not accept the doctrine of rebirth. From a traditional point of view, it is indeed problematic to suspend belief in the idea of rebirth, since many basic notions then have to be rethought. But if we follow the Buddha’s injunction not to accept things blindly, then orthodoxy should not stand in the way of forming an understanding.
“A difficulty that has beset Buddhism from the beginning is the question of what it is to be reborn. Religions that posit an eternal self distinct from the body-mind complex escape this dilemma – the body and mind may die but the self continues. A central Buddhist idea, however, is that no such intrinsic self can be found through analysis or realized in meditation. Such a deep-seated sense of personal identity is a fiction, a tragic habit that lies at the root of craving and anguish. How do we square this with rebirth, which necessarily entails the existence of something that not only survives the death of the body and brain but somehow traverses the space between a corpse and a fertilized ovum?
“Different Buddhist schools have come up with different answers to this question, which in itself suggests their views are based on speculation. Some claim that the force of habit-driven craving immediately reappears in another form of life; others posit various kinds of non-physically based mental consciousness that may spend several weeks before locating a suitable womb.
“The idea of rebirth is meaningful in religious Buddhism only insofar as it provides a vehicle for the key Indian metaphysical doctrine of actions and their results known as ‘karma’. While the Buddha accepted the idea of karma as he accepted the idea of rebirth, when questioned on the issue he tended to emphasize its psychological rather than its cosmological implications. “Karma”, he often said, “is intention” i.e. a movement of the mind that occurs each time we think, speak or act. By being mindful of the process, we come to understand how intentions lead to habitual patterns of behaviour, which in turn affects the quality of our experience. In contrast to the view often taught by religious Buddhists, he denied that karma alone was sufficient to explain the origin of individual experience.
“Where does this leave us? It may seem that there are two options: either to believe in rebirth or not. But there is a third alternative: to acknowledge in all honesty that I do not know. … Regardless of what we believe, our actions will reverberate beyond our deaths. Irrespective of our personal survival, the legacy of our thoughts, words and deeds will continue through the impressions we leave behind in the lives of those we have influenced or touched in any way.
“If our actions in the world are to stem from what is central in life, they must be unclouded by either dogma or prevarication. Agnosticism is no excuse for indecision. If anything, it is a catalyst for action; for in shifting concern away from a future life and back to the present, it demands an ethics of empathy rather than a metaphysics of fear and hope.”
Stephen Batchelor (1997) Buddhism without beliefs: a contemporary guide to awakening London: Bloomsbury