Karma and Rebirth

This January series will be a systematic study on Karma and Rebirth. We will consider the topic from many different perspectives, essentially broken down in the following schemata:

Vedic Origins
Early Buddhist
Unborn Bhagavad Gita
The Yogasūtras of Patañjali
Mahayana and Yogacara
Dependent Origination and the Tibetan View

While the definition of Karma will be a comprehensive one, it is best at this junction to construct a working delineation:

A volitional action (ontologically an act [karman]), word, or deed stimulated by the spiritual principle of [active] cause and effect wherein [intention] plays a dominant role. Hence primary Karma is direct-intention driven, whereas secondary Karma implies that no directly intended catalyst was present but rather sporadic actions due to the kleshas being instigators of priming karmafication.

The Cycle of Rebirth is primed by karmic-action. Rebirth and the consequent life-structure may appear in different realms or forms depending on the nature of its former karmic actions. Most of the Eastern-bent philosophies indicate that a being’s soul (life-force essence) transmigrates soon after death bearing the karmic-seeds from the life just concluded. This rabid cycle of samsara will continue indefinitely lest one “consciously” breaks the cycle via some form of moksa (liberation).

During the period between death and the next birth, a being is said to exist as a spirit composed of subtle types of the five skandhas (aggregates). It is called a *gandharva and must wander and search for the place of its next birth.

[Hirakawa Akira, A History of Indian Buddhism From Shakyamuni to Early Mahayana, pg. 175]

*gandharva: A term for the non-material form a being is believed to take after death, according to some schools of Buddhism. In this ethereal form the spirit of the deceased person passes through the intermediate state or bar-do prior to a new birth, entering the mother’s body at the moment of conception.

(Keown, Damien. A Dictionary of Buddhism, pg.99, Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition.)

Other schools of Buddhism consider that some subtle consciousness continues after life signs have subsided. In Tibetan Buddhism, the progression of this subtle consciousness through the time between birth and death is referred to as the bardo, described in detail in the Bardo Thodol, popularly known as the Tibetan Book of the Dead.

The same can be said of our series, the Lankavatarian Book of the Dead, wherein this subtle consciousness is designated as the awareness principle.

We will be utilizing the works of various scholars throughout this series. At this junction we will be considering Bruce R. Reichenbach’s article entitled, The law of karma and the principle of causation. He provides here a wide-overview of the subject, especially concerning two vital principles that carry-over into many diverse standpoints on the study: Phalas and samskāras.

Firstly, he reiterates the significance of karma as intended-act:

According to the law of karma, then, whether or not our actions have consequences of a karmic sort is not simply a product of the action itself but of [our attitude]. If we have certain passions or desires for the object or the fruit of the action, the action has karmic consequences; failure to have desires for the fruits obstructs the formation of karmic consequences. This means that the law of karma differs from the causal account of human action, according to which an action has consequences simply because some action has been performed, irrespective of the particular attitude of the doer.

Reichenbach next orchestrates the difference between definitive and intentional karmic affect vs. causal affectivity. The pointer is those aforementioned two principles:

One possibility is to make a distinction between two kinds of effects, which we might term phalas and samskāras. Phalas include all the immediate effects, visible and invisible, which actions produce or bring about. They are often referred to as the fruits or results of an action. Samskāras are the invisible dispositions or tendencies to act, think, experience, or interpret experiences in ways which are conducive to one’s happiness or unhappiness, produced in the agent as a result of the action. They constitute, in effect, special modifications of the agent.

Reichenbach posits that one has to do with “universal” causation where the other concerns the law of karma:

Using this distinction, one can argue that the laws are consistent. The law of universal causation speaks to the production of phalas: every act produces phalas (results) in the world. The law of karma, on the other hand, speaks to the production of samskāras: every karmic act produces samskāras in the agent. The two laws are related in that the law of karma is the application of the law of universal causation, which deals in general with the relation between the act and its effects, to a specific aspect of certain kinds of actions. It concerns the disposition-or samskāra-producing aspect of disposition producing actions. The law of karma, then, is the more limited law.

This distinction between phalas and samskāras holds promise for resolving the differences between the laws just noted. First, it accounts for the specificity, found in the law of karma, of who is affected by the results. Since the law of karma focuses on the formation of samskāras ,its concern is with the agent’s samskāras and not consequences in general.

A wider definition of the two terms is in order for our Buddhaic-import:

Phalas: In Sanskrit and Pāli, lit. “fruition,” and thus “effect” or “result”; the term has three principal denotations. First, in discussions of causation, phala refers to the physical or mental “effect” produced by a cause (HETU), such as a sprout produced from a seed, or a moment of sensory consciousness (VIJÑĀNA) produced through the contact (SPARŚA) between a sense base (INDRIYA) and a sense object (ĀYATANA; ĀLAMBANA). Second, in discussions of the path (MĀRGA), phala refers to the fruition of the four supramundane paths (ĀRYAMĀRGA), i.e., stream-enterer (SROTAĀPANNA), once-returner (SAKṚDĀGĀMIN), non-returner (ANĀGĀMIN), and worthy one (ARHAT). Third, in discussions of the process of moral causality, the specific type of fruition called the VIPĀKAPHALA (retributive fruition) refers to the maturation of a deed (KARMAN).

[Buswell  Jr., Robert E.; Donald S., Jr. Lopez. The Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism Princeton University Press. Kindle Edition.]

Samskāra: Skt, formation; Pāli, sankhāra. The constructing activities that form, shape or condition the moral and spiritual development of the individual. The samskāra-skandha is the fourth of the five aggregates (skandha) that constitute the human person, and also the second link (nidāna) in the twelvefold scheme of Dependent Origination (pratītya-samutpāda). The term refers in particular to volitions and intentions (which may be morally good, bad, or neutral) and the way that these contribute to the formation of individual patterns of behavior or traits of character. Repetition imprints a particular samskāra on the psyche and the imprint is carried over into the next life. The aim of Buddhist practice is to replace negative imprints with positive ones.

[Keown, Damien. A Dictionary of Buddhism (p. 248). Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition.]

Reichenbach continues:

On the one hand, the distinction between phalas and samskāras and the resultant restriction of karmic considerations to matters of samskāras suggest not. In this interpretation, what is important in karmic considerations is what forms dispositions. Dispositions or tendencies arise not from the results of the act, but from the dispositions or intentions out of which we acted. If so, what matter are the attitudes, desires, passions, dispositions, and general character with which we perform the action and not the actions per se and their general results. That is, the karma of an action is determined largely by the intentions, dispositions, desires, character, and moral virtue of the agent…

This emphasis on formative dispositions, desires, and intentions accords well with the Buddhist emphasis on will or intentional impulse (cetanā). In early Buddhism “kamma” is virtually defined as cetanā: ‘I say, monks, that cetanā is kamma; having intended, one does a deed by body, word, or thought.’ Actions performed without intention produce no karma, whereas intention alone is capable of producing it. That is, intention is not only a necessary condition for considering an act to be moral or immoral, it is sometimes held to be sufficient…

[*cetanā (Skt.; Pāli). Term denoting the conative psychological functions of intention, volition or motivation. It is one of the five ever-present mental functions (caitta), and is particularly associated with the generation of karma.

[Keown, Damien. A Dictionary of Buddhism (p. 51). Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition.]

Thus says Reichenbach, “If the intention is not implemented sufficiently, this will affect the intentions of the agent, for he will begin to question whether he should bother to form the intentions since he regularly fails to act on it.” In summation he states:

This view is consistent with the Buddhist emphasis upon adopting the proper inner attitude and spirit and with certain important Buddhist teachings, including the doctrine of Dependent Origination. According to this, we have contact with the environment, and this causes us to crave or desire things, which in turn causes grasping or clinging to things, which finally brings rebirth, misery, and sorrow. If we can eliminate the cravings, we can eliminate both the search for satisfaction and the frustrations of dissatisfaction, and this in turn will mean the elimination of pain and misery. And cravings are eliminated through terminating the samskādras-the drives, impulses, and dispositions karmically produced in us-and this through overcoming ignorance about our true nature and condition and following the Eightfold Path.

In conclusion of this opening blog of the series, in light of the above the following from the series, Unborn Light Reiki, strongly suggests that the main karmic trigger is “grasping”:

Question: Along the lines of grasp and grasping…I see that you mention them in Shoden Session # 7, Sugata Ho. Why are they problematic?

Vajragoni: They are problematic in the sense of what we’ve been discussing…the very act of “grasping” is activated through cognitive dissonance which in turn sets into motion the perpetual wheel of pain known as dependent origination.

Question: The wheel of pain?

Vajragoni: In other words, perpetual regenesis.

Question: I see…and the act of grasping activates perpetual regenesis?

Vajragoni: It’s one part in a whole sequence of habitual cognitive dysfunctions of a Mind that dreams ITself into pluralized stenosis. The sequence is as follows:

1. Out of avidya (ignorance) arises the composed, sankhara, which is the origin of
perception within the maternal womb.
2. In dependence upon the composed arises consciousness (vijnana).
3. In dependence on consciousness arises the corporal form (nama rupa).
4. In dependence on the corporal form arise the sense organs.
5. In dependence on the sense organs arises contact (phassa).
6. In dependence on contact arises sensation (vedana).
7. In dependence on sensation arises thirst or desire (tanha).
8. In dependence on desire arises grasping (upadana).
9. In dependence on grasping arises Becoming (bhava).
10. In dependence on Becoming arises birth (jati).
11. In dependence on birth arises old age and death, sorrow, pain, grief,
joy…hence samsara.
12. Then this cycle of perpetual regenesis repeats itself.

Question: I’d like to back track for a moment if I may…you mention that the act of grasping is the most critical component in the web of perpetual regenesis…yet, I would have thought that “desire” itself is the main culprit in this wily drama called dukkha.

Vajragoni: Not quite…you must understand that one cannot prevent desires from spinning their wily threads…they simply and spontaneously just pop into the head and no amount of rigid self-mortification can forestall their attack; rather, it is only when one ACTS on them that they kick into motion unwholesome Becoming…and “grasping” is the component that produces the action.

The act of grasping is critical in all this since it is the cognitive mechanism that leads to the act of Becoming which sparks the germ or seed within the Alayavijnana that leads to corporal confinement within the realm of samsara; hence one needs to negate the act of grasping and instead, “turn-about” and rest secure and content in the Middle Way.

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