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Taking a Point of View on a Debatable Question Concerning Karma and Rebirth

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My thesis is that there is a way to mediate between two competing views about karma and rebirth by arguing for a third position. The first, or traditionalist view, is that supernatural agencies are required in the Buddhist system of concepts and that secularism and naturalized karma view will not supply concepts necessary for traditional Buddhism. The second, or modernist view, holds the opposite view. Supernatural agencies are not required in the Buddhist system of concepts, and even without traditional concepts of karma, rebirth, and enlightenment after death, there is still a coherent karma and rebirth theory as applied to experience in this very lifetime. A third position, or mediating view of coexistence, advocates a doctrinal interpretation of Buddhist teachings, a socially engaged practice inspired by mettā, and the theory and practice of satipaṭṭhāna (mindfulness of breathing). I will inquire into each of the above views on karma and rebirth by asking: what it means (the linguistic concern), how does one know (the epistemological concern), and how does it work (the pragmatic concern)? These are three fundamental philosophical questions for meaning, knowledge, and application. Although I will exemplify aspects of each position concerning some Buddhist philosophers, I am mainly interested in the three kinds of positions and the benefits of each one. So, I am not interested in identifying the Buddhist scholar with what many call “the best view” or “the most popular view.” I am interested in identifying the position most likely to bring unity to humankind and benefit the global ecosystem of animals, earth, and people going forward. In sum, to raise the linguistic, epistemological, and pragmatic concerns about the interpretation of karma and rebirth is to raise some of the most significant and consequential questions we can ask about Buddhism in modernity.

A Substantially Different Version of This First Part Was Read at the Association for Core Texts and Courses, Special Meeting, Irvine, California As “Which Asian Texts Should American College Students Read?” at Concordia University and the Atrium Hotel, July 13–15, 2018. An Updated Version Was Previously Written for Publication in the Journal of Philosophy and Religion of Thailand, Vol. 16, No. 1 (2564), Feb. 15, 2022. This Version Is Substantially the Same As That in the Journal Article, and It Was Presented As a Lecture for the Second Time at a Hybrid Conference on 24 March 2023 in the College of Religious Studies, Mahidol University.

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  1. 1.

    An overview comment about Professor Richard Gombrich’s interview with the Secular Buddhism organization, relates the idea of Buddhism in the modern world thusly:

    The term living tradition may seem as much an oxymoron as, well, Secular Buddhism. And yet this organic vitality is a hallmark of Buddhism, even and perhaps especially today. There have been growing pains as Buddhism rubs up against, and eventually becomes part of each different cultural context it encountered, but eventually Buddhism settled in. It’s been an evolutionary tale, as new forms arise from the selective pressures of the environment, while older varieties may still flourish… or at least soldier on. Today is perhaps the greatest assault, as new ideas and cultures are pushing and pulling the tradition with unprecedented rapidity and variety. (Messner, 2017)

  2. 2.

    The Appendix of this paper provides detailed text data for a well-rounded understanding of karma and rebirth. It uses a recent publication from Mahachulalongkornrajavidyalaya Press, Common Buddhist Text: Guidance and Insight from the Buddha, which includes Theravada, Mahayana, and Vajrayana texts and is now available free online. CBT, for short, is a singular development in the study of religion in Thailand today. It is a volume compiled by a team of Buddhist Studies text specialists that authoritatively presents Theravada, Mahayana, and Vajrayana translations of Buddhist texts. The CBT in the Appendix of this paper shows in practice how topics in Buddhism may be presented well in only one volume of a little more than 400 pages.

  3. 3.

    Socially Engaged Buddhism refers to a process of applying meditation practice and dhamma teachings to situations of social, political, environmental, and economic suffering and injustice. It was mentioned by Walpola Rahaula in 1946 in connection with Buddha’s instruction to monks to travel and spread the teachings widely, and that Buddha’s teachings included social and economic matters. In the 1950s, Ven. Thich Nhat Hanh and Plum Village made the idea influential through his collection of articles, “A Fresh Look at Buddhism”, and in his response to war by community service in 1963 in Vietnam. The humanistic Buddhism movement in China of Taixu and Yinshun was an inspiration (and later Cheng Yen and Hsing Yun in Taiwan). In 1998, the Dalai Lama emphasized on a retreat in Bodh Gaya that, in contrast to Christians, Buddhists have not acted vigorously to address social and political issues. Roshi Pat Enkyo O’Hara has continued the Engaged Buddhist movement for Village Zendo in New York.

  4. 4.

    Divisions between monastics and laity are perpetuated by traditional beliefs that only ordained persons can attain enlightenment, but Buddhadasa has challenged this way of thinking. For example, Peter Jackson (1988, p. 319) observes that “many monks follow a kammatic form of Buddhism rather than a nibbanic rather than a kammatic form of Buddhism and some lay people follow the nibbanic form of the religion.”

  5. 5.

    “Beyond” here refers to the emergence of a united Sangha consisting of male and female monastics and laity united on the basis of equality as human beings. These sons and daughters of the Buddha may work together toward common goals of bhavana or body-mind cultivation, facilitating human flourishing on the psychological and artistic levels, world peace, ecological harmony, and mitigating dukkha or suffering of all beings who can feel pain.

  6. 6.

    The traditionalist and modernist debate started with the exchange between Stephen Batchelor (1997) and Bhikkhu Bodhi (1998).

  7. 7.

    Compare this schema with Batchelor (1997) and Bodhi (1998, pp. 14–21).

  8. 8.

    Compare with Batchelor (1997). See also Batchelor’s interview at Barre Center for Buddhist Studies on his recent book, After Buddhism, which is available at (accessed October 24, 2021), and Divan Thomas Jones’s review of Batchelor’s books, After Buddhism and Secular Buddhism for the Western Buddhist Review, which is available at (accessed October 24, 2021).

  9. 9.

    My expression of this premise owes much to the ideas of Richard Braithwaite (1955/1970) and Ludwig Wittgenstein (1972), especially the latter’s idea of “regulative beliefs.”

  10. 10.

    I owe this point to Bhikkhu Buddhadasa, but the phraseology is mine, so I cannot attribute it exactly to him. Compare this point with some process philosophers.

  11. 11.

    For related developments in other religions, see inter alia John B. Cobb and David Griffin (1976), C. Robert Mesle (2008), and David Ray Griffin (2020).

  12. 12.

    A contemporary example is the monastery and eco-village of Ven. Prof. Dr. Hansa Dhammahaso at Sisaket. The eco-village is described in Kanchana Horsaengchai’s dissertation in progress at IBSC MCU.

  13. 13.

    Most Venerable Phra Brahmapundit, Common Buddhist Text, p. 258.

  14. 14.

    The four consolations of the Kessamutt Sutta (Kālāma Sutta) are: if there is a heaven and I’m free from enmity and ill will, I will experience it; if there is not a heavenly realm, I will still have been free from enmity and ill will; if bad things happen to people who do bad things since I have no bad intentions then I will be unharmed; if bad things don’t happen to people who do bad things, I will be pure anyway (Bhikkhu Sujato, Kesamuttisutta, p. 65). The text is available at the Kālāmas of Kesamutta


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Let us see what the MCU expert translation team of international scholars says about karma and rebirth. Using the recently published Common Buddhist Text: Guidance and Insight from the Buddha (Ayutthaya: Mahaculalongkornrajavidyalaya University Press, 2017 and 2018), it is easily possible to choose a topic, for example, karma and rebirth, and sketch the outlines of the Buddha’s with exact textual references from the Pali, and I now summarize.Footnote 13

In Theravada Buddhism, there is samsara, a cycle of rebirths, but it is without a known beginning. It follows that there is, on this view, no evidence of a first beginning initiated by a monotheistic substance called “God” (Tinakattha Sutta of Samyutta Nikaya II.178). The reality of rebirth and karma is understood in Theravada Buddhism as independent of sacrifices and gifts, unlike in ancient Hindu rituals. It is an error to deny a future life, how one is reborn depends on one’s conduct, and awakened ones directly know and see this (Apannaka Sutta of Majjhima Nikaya I.402).

Buddhists think that believing in rebirth and karma is a safe bet, as stated in the third part of the Kālāma Sutta. This last one is a very important and well-known sutta, but it is not one that people typically study deeply and completely: part one is about being self-reliant, part two is about paying attention to the words of the wise ones, viz., the intellectuals (viññū), and the third part is the probabilistic argument to the effect that believing in rebirth and karma is a safe bet (Kesaputta or Kālāma Sutta of Anguttara Nikaya I.192).Footnote 14 Another sutta says that there are five main rebirth realms: purgatory, animal, hungry ghosts, human, or the gods or devas (Nibbedhika Sutta of Anguttara Nikaya III.415). As Buddhism developed, there came to be a sixth realm, the Titans.

Perhaps the devas are of two types, one benevolent and shining, and another wrathful type who is malevolent and likes to fight. The titans or asuras were divided over time from the benevolent deities to be an independent realm making a sixth rebirth realm. Anyway, rebirth as a human is a precious and rare opportunity, as Nakhasika Sutta explains. If one is fortunate enough to have a human rebirth, then it is prudent to use the opportunity to attain enlightenment (Nakhasika Sutta of Samyutta Nikaya II.263.). Being born a human who can hear the dhamma is rare (Dhammapada 182). So, since life is short, it is good to practice while you can (Dhammapada 47). Our world in the context of the universe is among clusters of worlds throughout the universe (Abhibhu Sutta of the Anguttara Nikaya I.227–228). Buddha’s view has cycles of cosmic eons (Pabbata Sutta of the Samyutta Nikaya II.181–182).

Next, to consider karma, karma (Pali: kamma) is volition (Nibbedhika Sutta of Anguttara Nikaya III.415), and one’s unskillful actions have a karmic impact sooner or later (Dhammapada 69–71). One’s actions and thoughts condition one’s rebirth, not the rituals of others (Asibandhakaputta Sutta of the Samyutta Nikaya IV.312–314). Karma shows how past actions lead to differences among people (Culakammavibhanga Sutta of the Majjhima Nikaya III.203–206).

However, experiences, and skillful and unskillful actions, cannot all be blamed on past karma or a God, but neither are they causeless (Titthayayatana Sutta of the Anguttara Nikaya I.173–176). Feelings and illnesses are not all due to past karma (Sivaka Sutta of the Samyutta Nikaya IV.230–231). A good character can dilute the karmic results of a bad action (Lonakapallaka Sutta of the Anguttara Nikaya, I. 242–250). Self-determination of one’s rebirth occurs through virtue, wisdom, and resolve (Sankharuppati Sutta of the Majjhima Nikaya III.99–104). Karma can mature slowly, and one’s view and attitude at the end of one’s life are important (Mahakammavibhanga Sutta of the Majjhima Nikaya III.214–215).

There are implications of karma and rebirth for attitudes to others. For example, we have experienced in the past both the good times and bad times of others, so sympathy for others and non-attachment to good experiences are wise (Duggatam and Sukhitam Suttas of the Samyutta Nikaya II.186–187). This life and all rebirths result in aging, sickness, and death; nothing that is conditioned is permanent (Mahaparinibbana Sutta of the Digha Nikaya II.157; Alagaddupamasutta of the Majjhima Nikaya II.157). There are frailties of human life (Ratthapala Sutta of the Majjhima Nikaya II.70–73), and one must accept the inevitability of death (Salla Sutta of the Sutta Nipata 574–573). The search for sensual pleasures leads to suffering (Culadukkhakkhandha Sutta of the Majjhima Nikaya I.91–92).

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Hoffman, F.J. (2023). Taking a Point of View on a Debatable Question Concerning Karma and Rebirth. In: Hongladarom, S., Joaquin, J.J., Hoffman, F.J. (eds) Philosophies of Appropriated Religions. Springer, Singapore.

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