From Ken Wilber’s Blog
According to the doctrine of karma, in this life you are reading a book that you wrote in a previous life. Many people draw the erroneous conclusion that because, e.g., they used to yell at their spouses, they now have throat cancer-but that’s just not the way it works. As a matter of fact, from at least one angle, the “bad things” that are happening to you now actually indicate a good fruition-it means your system is finally strong enough to digest the past karmic causes that led to your present rebirth. So if you were reborn-that is, if you are alive in a body right now-then you have already horrifically sinned, and unless you work it off in this lifetime, guess what? You’re coming back. Illness itself does not cause more karma; your attitude towards illness, however, does. Therefore, if you are undergoing some extremely difficult circumstances right now, and you can meet those difficulties with equanimity, wisdom, and virtue, then you are doubly lucky-the causes that led to your being reborn now are starting to surface and burn off, and you’re not generating any new karma while you burn them (as long as you meet them with equanimity and awareness).
Meeting difficulties with equanimity, wisdom, virtue and a sense of humor is a reward in itself, without using the doctrines of karma. I mean, I will help the proverbial blind person cross the street because I want to, because it is nice to help another person, and not because it helps put a little bit of good karma on the plus-side of the big scales…
Really, shit happens and complex systems eventually develop faults, naturally. Cars break down, people get sick, computers malfunction etc… but, our brain likes to discover – or create – connections. That’s what brain does. So, naturally brain wants to discover/create connections between any given event and its own view. Why did I see a crow right before I witnessed the car accident? Why did my uncle get sick on my birthday?
Complex systems break down, naturally. A healthy complex system is one that can come back from catastrophic failure. I am very glad that the complex system that is Ken’s body fought back from such a failure, but I personally ascribe the failure as well as the recovery to this lifetime and the karma accumulated in this lifetime… no need for me to bring previous lifetimes or reincarnation into this.
In my own view, the concept of Reincarnation is akin to the concept of Heaven and Hell – it takes us out of this right here and right now. It also provides our ego with a false faith of extending itself beyond this lifetime. One could say Reincarnation and Heaven and Hell encourage people to do the right thing, but they used to say that Kings and Queens were selected by God himself and therefore one should not doubt their words. And the Emperor of China was the Son of Heaven and was the only one who would know what time it was. This, by the way, is the reason China did not develop watches: only the Emperor could know and announce the time and season.
PS: Really, it does not matter whether there is reincarnation or not. Reincarnation simply has no bearing on why I act the way I do. Discussing it feels like discussing whether the Earth is round or flat, before Galileo, or whether Gravity exists… in other words we will find the answer in due time. Until then both positions are just that – positions, possibilities, assumptions, opinions.
PPS: A friend commented:
I see Buddha as having addressed the question of the ego–the inherent human tendency to believe that we are a permanent self–but to have failed to address another equally strong inherent human tendency–to believe that there is justice over time for all actions done or not done. Christians and Jews and Moslems rely on heaven and hell, as did the Egyptians and others–good deeds not rewarded in this life, and bad deeds that go unpunished, will be dealt with by a divine judge in the afterlife. India developed the doctrine of karma–no need for the divine judge, the universe just keeps you being born again and again to equalize it all out. Buddha modified the doctrine from its form at the time of his life by saying that it was not the act that created the karma–the moral effect that manifested in the next life–but only the intention. (This is separate from the colloquial view of “karma” as the law of cause and effect–that, in fact, is a misuse of the term “karma.”)
So, a thorough job of addressing inherent human views that are anthropologically based, and not provably reality based, would do away with not only the permanent self, but also the idea of karma operating through rebirth.
Now, nothing I have said addresses whether or not there might be some form of “rebirth”, or a continuation of the energy that is me into another form after my death. Buddha was pretty vague on that point, as I understand it, saying only that there was some rebirth, yet denying that the “I” continued since it was insubatantial to start with.
Stephen Batchelor writes
A key source for Bennett’s and Costa’s view of the agnostic nature of Buddhism would doubtless have been this famous passage from the Culamalunkya Sutta in the Majjhima Nikaya:
Suppose, Malunkyaputta, a man were wounded by an arrow thickly smeared with poison, and his friends and companions brought a surgeon to treat him. The man would say: ‘I will not let the surgeon pull out the arrow until I know the name and clan of the man who wounded me; whether the bow that wounded me was a long bow or a crossbow; whether the arrow that wounded me was hoof-tipped or curved or barbed.’
All this would still not be known to that man and meanwhile he would die. So too, Malunkyaputta, if anyone should say: ‘I will not lead the noble life under the Buddha until the Buddha declares to me whether the world is eternal or not eternal, finite or infinite; whether the soul is the same as or different from the body; whether or not an awakened one continues or ceases to exist after death,’ that would still remain undeclared by the Buddha and meanwhile that person would die.
And here is another quote:
So what would be the features of an ‘agnostic Buddhist?’ Such a person would not regard the Dharma as a source of ‘answers’ to questions of where we came from, where we are going, what happens after death. He or she would seek such knowledge in the appropriate domains: astrophysics, evolutionary biology, neuro-science etc. An agnostic Buddhist would therefore not be a ‘believer’ with claims to revealed information about supernatural or paranormal phenomena, and in this sense would not be ‘religious.’ An agnostic Buddhist would look to the Dharma for metaphors of existential confrontation rather than metaphors of existential consolation. He or she would start by facing up to the primacy of anguish and uncertainty (dukkha), then proceed to apply a set of practices to understand the human dilemma and work towards a resolution. An agnostic Buddhist would eschew atheism as much as theism, and would be as reluctant to regard the universe as devoid of meaning as endowed with meaning. (For to deny either God or meaning is surely just the antithesis of affirming them.) Yet such an agnostic stance would not be based on disinterest. It would be founded on a passionate recognition that I do not know. It would confront the enormity of having been born instead of reaching for the consolation of a belief.
It’s easy to subscribe to an answer – every religion has lots of those. I think it is far harder to hold the mystery in our minds. Like becoming comfortable with discomfort. Like becoming used to being out-of-balance. Or something like that.
Completed on the last day of his life, Uchiyama Kosho’s final poem:
Putting my right and left hands together as one, I just bow.
Just bow to become one with Buddha and God.
Just bow to become one with everything I encounter.
Just bow to become one with all the myriad things.
Just bow as life becomes life.
Thank you Y.