Karma, Rebirth, and the Middle Path of Buddhism

Karma is not a bank account. Karma is a way to live with right actions. That’s what the word means, in fact, simply ‘actions.’ But somewhere along the way the word got mixed up in the fashions of the day, in 6th to 8th century India, Before the Common Era, and the materialistic demands of the Carvakas in contrast to the predeterminism of Gosala, tutor to both the Buddha and Mahavira, 23rd Tirthankara of the Jains. They were of the extreme ascetic bent, of course, in which Emptiness literally means empty bellies, by willful design, to the point of inanition and even death, for lack of other inspiration.

Tirthankara means something like ‘ford-maker,’ in fact, referring to that stream we must cross to get to the other side, the same stream which in Buddhism asks you to leave your raft behind, since you don’t really need it anymore, but which in Jainism may mean that you have found a passage through the endless rebirths which constitute your seasons in Samsara. At least that’s what the narratives now say, though I suspect that the original meanings were similar, if not exactly the same, simply because the words are the same.

But you can’t discount the possibility that ‘re-birthers’ have retrofitted the narrative to fit the needs of predeterminism, which is what Gosala always wanted in the first place. And in practical terms this means past lives, future lives, and a generation-jumping karma of retribution, not unlike a wrathful God who just might strike you down at any given moment if you should happen to do something evil in his eyes. Regardless of the details it’s obvious that Buddhism and Jainism and Vedic Brahmanism were in close contact in the early days, such that I think you can see their postures as a dialog, if not dialectic.

This is why I say that Buddhism is the Middle Path between Jainism and Vedism, rather than the usual path between luxury and lack, but which is essentially the same thing if we view Hinduism as excess and Jainism as suicide, or at least heading in that direction. Thus Buddhism can not only be seen as a synthesis of the two extremes, but also as an ongoing process, which I think that it arguably is, and likely by design, as the Buddha was a very practical man, and the height of wisdom is knowing how much you’ll never really know, so best to keep options open.

With regard to rebirth Buddha seems at one point to have said something like, “Meh. Who knows? Let’s wait and see. But maybe we should accept rebirth, for now, just in case it’s true, to have all bases covered. If it’s not true, then we can always change the doctrine later.” Yeah, right. Try to change the doctrine of any religion and you’ve got your work cut out for you. It’s better just to branch off and start over from scratch. And Buddhism has done that many times, though none of the new sects has specifically rejected rebirth, and so it lingers there, like the elephant in the room, and with stomach growling.

So the ‘re-birthers’ go about retro-fitting Buddhism, so that every ‘birth’ becomes ‘rebirth’, as in reincarnation, and Samsara, which once simply meant ‘the world’, as it does in modern Nepali, now means something like ‘cycle of rebirths,’ which was likely never originally intended, as witnessed by the modern Nepali language, and the fact that modern Hindi uses the Arab word ‘dunia,’ so as to avoid confusion, I imagine. Meanwhile we modern latter-day Buddhists look for inspiration in Secular Buddhism, while still others look for it in ayahuasca, and other shortcuts to salvation.

I imagine that the Buddha would now call Rebirth his ‘greatest blunder,’ like Einstein and his Cosmological Constant, when faced with an expanding Universe which made no sense, but which may just turn out to be right, when all is said and done. And so may Rebirth one day be proven, beyond all the ‘multiple feedback loops’ of karma, and beyond all the predeterminism which serves as the litmus test for religion, for so many who want simple answers to complex questions, when sometimes the best answer is to simply stop asking so many questions.