Reincarnation and karma
In the previous article we spoke of karma. Now we examine karma linking from life to the next reincarnation. Most people have an intuitive sense of karma as cause and effect. However the full implications of karma cannot be seen outside of reincarnation. Here we can discover what sort of karma brought about our present life. Also where the karma of this life will take us in future.
But how do we establish the existence of past and future lives. What makes us think that death is not just like turning off the TV. Couldn’t death just be the big ‘unplug’ in the sky. To understand this we need to examine what it is to be alive.
To be alive we must be conscious. We must have consciousness, an ability to know, whether by way of our senses or various mental abilities. But how does consciousness actually know.
The continuity of consciousness
Consciousness can only function if it continues. For this reason consciousness, or mind, is often referred to as the mental continuum. This need for continuity can be established by observation.
To become consciously aware of something it must be noticed and noticing takes time. For example, in subliminal advertising a message is flashed on the screen for just a split second of time. The duration is so short that it is not consciously noticed. For the mind to assimilate a message, the message needs to appear before it for a length of time. We can reduce a minute’s consciousness into its seconds of consciousness. Those seconds can be divided into instants of consciousness. Full awareness does not occur in an instant, it takes a continuum of instants.
The mental continuum, then, is comprised of moments of awareness. At any time the present moment of awareness depends for its existence on a previous moment of awareness in the same continuum. It also depends on its (potential) future moment. The present moment of awareness always needs the ceasing of the immediate past moment and the non-arisal of its immediate future moment.
Thus the mental continuum is a constant ceasing and arising of moments of awarenes through time. To be aware now, you must have had a moment of awareness prior to now. To have been aware then there must have been a previous moment of awareness. That moment must have its previous moment and so it goes.
The mental continuum can only exist now if there has been an infinite regress of awareness into the infinite past. Thus the mere fact of knowing anything at all necessitates an infinite, or beginningless, stream of consciousness. With every stream of consciousness there is a common thread of identity as well as a life energy (or subtle form). Thus being (self or identity) and energy (form) are also beginningless.
The same applies in the other direction, so they are also endless. We therefore have infinite life and it is that which works its way through reincarnation.
We can all trace our current state of being and our current state of mind backwards in time. We would see that the way we are this year depends on the way we were last year. That depends on the way we were the year before and it goes back through the way we were earlier this life. The person we are at work depends on how we were and what we studied at university, at secondary school, back through primary school to pre-school. How we were as a baby depends on how we were in the crib and then how we were in the womb.
We must have been conscious in the womb to have been conscious after birth. Our state of mind in the womb depends on the moment of awareness at conception. For there to have been a moment of awareness at the precise moment of conception, there must have been a previous moment.
Reincarnating into this life
The immediate cause of the consciousness at conception, was the last moment of awareness of the bardo being. The bardo being is a spirit like being which moves between material deaths and births. It is the spririt which leaves the body at death and enters the womb at the point of conception. The bardo being enters the conjoined sperm and ovum that was the basis of this life’s body. That bardo being was also dependent on the death of its previous incarnation.
The bardo being’s consciousness depends on the last moment of consciousness of the previous lifetime being, its moment of death. That previous life being, your previous incarnation, had its continuum into its bardo, past life and so on beginninglessly.
You have therefore had limitless past reincarnations in limitless different situations and circumstances. Thus you will have experienced everything that you think you might like to experience in the future.
You have been a queen or king many times before, you have been a beggar many times as well. Warrior, wench, white knight, wascal, woderick, knave or saviour, you can fairly say, ‘Been there, done that!’ We have all had limitless ups and downs leading to the most fortunate of circumstances that we are in now. Now we are able to practise Dharma and achieve Enlightenment. This is the one thing that you most definitely have not yet done. (Unless you are already enlightened and just pretending to suffer!)
It is the karma, or the actions, of those previous lifetimes which determine the shape of this life. People debate how much of your personality is by way of nature (genetics) or nurture (upbringing). They leave out the factor of karma. In fact, it is your karma which determines which family you will be born into. Thus karma determines which set of genetics you will inherit and what sort of upbringing you will have. (You may find this article interesting on how karma shapes you.)
The critical factor then, is your own actions from a previous life. We can see this by the often stark differences among siblings and between parents and child. Although sharing the same genetic heritage and similar upbringing, two childrens’ personalities can often be radically different. Talentless parents can give birth to a musical or sporting prodigy. This anomaly can readily be explained by the ‘prodigy’s’ many previous lifetimes of musical or physical practice and achievement. It is the actions (karma) of a previous life which shape this life and likewise the actions of this life which shape future lives.
The real source of life’s problems
Lets look back to the teachings on good and bad karma. We can see then that the unexplained bad of this life comes from previous lives’ negative karma. It is not our parents or upbringing which is to blame rather the negativity of our past lives. Those negative actions have left their imprint on our mental continuum and these are carried from life to life.
This is actually supremely good news because now we know the real source of problems. The problem is always our own negative karma. So eradicating or substantially changing the makeup of those karmic imprints allows one to overcome the problem. We do not need to rely on anyone else. We just do the inner work necessary to change our karma. Your future is in your own hands, not in the hands of either nature or nurture.
Creating your future reincarnation
The process of change is begun by simply increasing the strength and relative weight of positive karma. We do this by cultivating virtuous states of mind – more love, compassion, ethics, patience and wisdom. This positive karma will bring the good results of joy, equanimity, calmness, satisfaction and inner strength. It will reduce the power of negative karmic imprints, or habits.
The development of positive karma and the reduction of negative karma is given a massive boost by engaging in regular meditation practice. In particular increasing the wisdoms of listening, thinking and meditation. The clearer we are that actions born out of our anger, attachment, irritation, selfishness, jealousy, arrogance and so forth are the source of all suffering for oneself and others, the more we weaken the strength of negative karma.
By weakening negative karma we lessen the length and extent of our suffering. The greater our knowledgle of Dharma the greater our capacity to transform our karma. By knowing our mind and how to work with our mind we can bring lasting benefit to ourselves and others.
The bottom line is that karma and reincarnation simply tell us that now is the outcome of all that has passed. It tells us that what we do now creates our future. We can make the future whatever we want.