The answer to this question is yes and no. Yes, karma is real and an observable phenomenon. And no, rebirth isn’t real, and even if it is, you are not involved, so it may as well be not real. Heaven. Nirvana. The Pure Land.
That doesn’t mean that one or another or even all those life-after-death scenarios aren’t real. The point I am making is that you shouldn’t care whether any of it is real or not. Like everybody else on earth, you’ll have to settle for whatever the end of your life dishes out.
What a crushing thing to contemplate! From the Buddhist perspective, whether you believe in rebirth or not, you end when your life ends.
People cannot imagine that the world can go on without them. But it will. I only argue the point because some Buddhists put a lot of stock in rebirth, whom I believe are deluded into thinking that chanting for a positive rebirth is more important than doing good works in the community, or being friendly, for that matter. That’s religious Buddhism. Other Buddhists, like myself, don’t see Buddhism as a religion at all, but rather as a moral philosophy and guide to living. Certainly this branch of Buddhism also contains references in its ancient texts to rebirth, and karma as a cosmic force. They believe that Buddha was only a man. And that magic isn’t real.
The more cosmic the message, the less trustworthy it is. Ancient Hindu belief is a stain on Buddhism. The Buddha’s wisdom is a revolt against Hinduism. He condemned the caste system, and (though reluctantly at first) he accorded women to be just as spiritually capable as men are. In contrast, in ancient Hinduism, when a husband died it was expected that his widow throw herself on her husband’s funeral pyre and burn to death.
I’ve been meditating for 42 years, and it is through meditation that a person can actually start creeping up on the ultimate truth, referred to as “Emptiness” or “the Void.” It can’t be described in words. I analogized it once as climbing a tall mountain in the fog, and once you’ve got the nerve to peek over the cliff at the top of the mountain, all you can see is clouds, and all you can hear is the wind.
So the sooner you get over the magic offered you by religion, including religious Buddhism, the freer you can live your life. What happens is astonishing. The Americans I know who follow the Way of the Elders are get-down-get-dirty humanitarians. The classic example is Tyler Lewke in Chicago. After Hurricane Harvey he mobilized hundreds of suit-and-tie real estate professions, and they hit Houston almost immediately after the disaster. He and his people mucked sewage out of people’s homes and held the hands of stunned people who’d lost everything they had. He brought truckloads of food and clothing. In some of the clothes, Tyler randomly stuck $100 bills in the pockets. Oh, and he raised $20,000,000.
I’ve had lots of people tell me that I can’t be a Buddhist unless I believe in rebirth. I tell them they can’t become enlightened as long as they harbor metaphysical beliefs, especially life after death. If you really want Buddhism in your life you have to forget about yourself in order to help others.
Another one I hear is “What’s the point of life if there is no afterlife? What’s the point accumulating merit if it doesn’t count for anything? Why don’t I just make a career out of murder and rape?”
Well, for one thing there are laws against that sort of thing. Happiness, real happiness, comes from one source: compassion. And especially compassionate activity. Tyler Lewke is possibly the happiest man I know right now. There is a direct correlation there, so if you’re wasting time on religious matters, your capacity for helping others is diminished.
Karma, of course, is real. Its an observable phenomenon. If you sneak up on your wife when she’s at the sink and kiss her on the back of the neck, you get a purr and a twerk. Or a slap in the face, if she’s still mad at you. Karma!
Karma is enormously complicated (or it could be as simple as throwing something at your damn cat when she pushes a vase off the bookshelf). Everything is caused by something else, or a number of factors that combine to produce an outcome. That’s karma. What leads to this or that, and what happens as a consequence? That is karma. Cause and effect.
The problem with the notion of karma is the natural, if erroneous, idea that somehow the universe is keeping score on the good and the bad things you’ve done. That’s magical thinking. The universe doesn’t give a crap. Good things happen to bad people, and bad things happen to good people. All the time. If you’re a librarian you are more likely to live a long life than a murdering thieving thug. But nothing says that you won’t be killed by a murdering thieving thug as you walk home from your retirement party.
So yes, karma, which translates as “action” in Sanskrit (Pali kamma), does connect our pasts to our futures. Stay in school, do the right things and you’ll get a good job. Say the wrong thing, and the Marine whose girlfriend you just insulted might knock your dick in the dirt. That’s karma. None of it is magic.
And yet people persist, hoping against hope that the magic is real, yearning engendered from their fears of death, that there is a heaven, and we will live for eternity.
Think about it. Do you really want to be reborn into another life of suffering and misery? Do you see an advantage to being reborn into a world coping with the needs of 20 billion people? The idea of heaven horrifies me. Will I live eternally as the decrepit old man I man I am now who can’t take three steps without wincing, or can I come back as the 19 year old Marine I once was, who could run a mini-marathon under 50 pounds of battle gear? Do I get to choose?
If I get to choose, I want to be reborn as a Canadian figure skater.