Our eternal query, “What happens to me after I die?” has but three possible answers:
1. When your body dies, your soul lives on.
2. When your body dies, there is nothing more.
3. When your body dies, you are reborn.
Numbers 1 and 2 are the answers offered by eternalists and materialists respectively. According to eternalists, including Western theistic religions such as Judaism, Christianity and Islam, when you die, your soul goes to heaven––or somewhere else, and lives on forever. According to materialists, including nihilists and annihilationists, there is nothing beyond this corporal existence. When the body dies, that’s it.
These two ideas, eternal life versus nothingness, were discussed and debated in the time of the Buddha 2500 years ago, just as they are today. Both are ideas that the Buddha categorically rejected.
Eternalism is refuted by our own experience of reality. When, by practicing meditation, our minds are calm and clear we observe conditions accurately, we see that everything is permanent. Since nothing is permanent, there can be no such thing as an eternal soul, or any other eternal entity; there can be no eternal place, such as heaven, and no eternal God, either.
Materialism is also refuted by our experience of reality. Materialism says we are physical entities only. But, when we practice meditation, we notice that we have a consciousness as well as a body, even if it is sometimes hard to differentiate the two. Our own experience tells us that we are not just a body.
Furthermore, Buddha observed the result of these views in the lives of the human beings who held them. He saw that eternalism led to mental laxity, and that materialism led to chaos and anarchy. Both of these isms, he said, are wrong views, for the reasons just sited. And both were wrong views because they were speculative views, and speculative views only serve to increase, rather than reduce, our suffering.
The Buddha’s answer to the question of what happens to us when we die is rebirth, answer number 3. Rebirth means that our present life is but a link in a chain of lives extending infinitely back in time and infinitely forward into the future––“from beginningless time to endless time,” as we say.
Without rebirth, there is no moral imperative to our actions, and autonomy and self-interest override any sense of ethics. After all, without rebirth, without consequences, why bother with anything other than autonomy and self-interest? The recent banking crisis perfectly illustrates how autonomy and self-interest trump ethical and moral values in a world without the consequences of rebirth.
It is rebirth that gives us consequences. Rebirth strongly suggests to us that we avoid evil and do good for the sake of our own well being. With rebirth, morally good deeds bring agreeable results, and bad deeds bring disagreeable results, for the effects of our actions correspond to the moral quality of those deeds. Therefore, when we behave immorally, amorally, or unethically we harm ourselves. We simply need to act in ways that lead to peace and happiness if we want to be peaceful and happy.
However, we clearly cannot find this kind of moral equilibrium within the limits of a single life. On the contrary, there are countless examples of evil people who live long, prosperous, luxurious lives. For example, King Leopold II of Belgian, whose forced labor camps resulted in the deaths of 3-5 million Congolese in the late 19th century, lived a life of extravagance and luxury. His Villa Leopolda, a house he built in France for his mistress, was recently in the news when the Russian billionaire, Mikhail Prokhorov, defaulted on his agreement to buy the Villa. The selling price was $736 million! America’s robber barons, our own exemplars of unabated, opportunistic venality and greed from the same time period, seem modest in comparison. Consider Cornelius Vanderbilt, whose summer “cottage” in Newport, Rhode Island is valued only at about $150 million!
The world is full of morally unscrupulous people who enjoy happiness, esteem, and success. On the other hand, we all know people who lead lives of utmost integrity, but who endure great suffering. One lifetime is just too short for the principle of moral equilibrium to reveal itself. Karma needs more time to work itself out.
The knowledge that our good and bad actions determine the quality of our future, in the nearterm and in future lives, affords us a powerful reason to avoid unwholesome conduct and to diligently pursue the good. Only when we realize that there is this moral equilibrium are we truly on the Path; only then is it a joy to be alive. Otherwise, the world is a dark and dangerous place, regardless of how successful we might be at any given moment.
Belief in rebirth and karma is fundamental to Buddhism. With these, we know our present living conditions, our dispositions and aptitudes, our virtues and faults, to be the results of our actions in the past, in this and in our previous lives. With that understanding, we bequeath our present actions to our future lives. We know that our present actions of body, speech, and mind, if well-chosen, will advance us along our spiritual Path, ushering us to peace and liberation.
Finally, there is a deeper significance to karma and rebirth that bears mentioning, and which has profound implications for the cause of ethical conduct. That is, if we inherit our personal lives from our own karmic past, the universe itself must be intrinsically both ethical and meaningful.
Together rebirth and karma make the universe an orderly, integrated whole, with transcendent significance. A logical pattern is revealed, not only in the physical and biological domains, but also in the ethical domain. We are able to discern the logic and see the pattern by virtue of knowing and practicing with the concepts of rebirth and karma.
Together rebirth and karma teach us that, beyond the range of normal perception, a moral law holds sway over our deeds, and, through our deeds, over our destiny. Karma, operating across the sum total of our lives, locks our volitional actions into the dynamics of the universe, thus making ethics an expression of the intrinsic orderliness of the cosmos.