Karma and Rebirth
one of the hardest of the Buddhist doctrines is that of Karma. It is a doctrine,
not only hard in itself, but it seems to contradict their other tenets. The Buddhists,
as we have seen, resolve the human being into a number of elements called dhammas
which possess no permanent existence, and they say that on account of this transitoriness
no one of these can be considered as the individual, the Ego, the "self."
There is therefore here nothing to be reborn -- nothing to transmigrate. How then
is it, that when he has thus denied all substantive existence to everything which
to the Occidental thinker appears to possess the greatest reality, the Oriental
should attribute to karma this faculty of being reborn indefinitely?
karma means 'deeds,' or, as it is often used in the singular, it might perhaps
be translated by 'performance' or 'action.' How can substantive reality be attributed
to a mere conception of the mind like that of deed or performance, when it is
denied of all those components of the human being of which we are cognizant by
means of our senses and our self-consciousness? How can any deed be said to be
immortal, except in a purely figurative sense, meaning that the memory or else
the objective effect of it persists? Now if we look at this doctrine of Karma
a little more closely, we may see that it is not so very unlike Christian ideas.
If we were to translate  the word karma somewhat freely, we might call it
'character.' And what, indeed, do we ordinarily mean when we speak of personal
immortality, unless it be that the characters of our friends are reborn in heaven?
It is evidently not the body that is reborn, for that is left behind with us.
And what do we know of the spirit except simply its manifestations, and what we
may argue from our own self-consciousness? Our knowledge of our friend is composed
of what our senses tell us of his body and what we observe of his deeds. It is
his character, his particular set of deeds, or karma, that we think of as surviving
death; and this is exactly what the Buddhists do, -- the only difference being
that we claim the existence of an Ego. This we claim to know by self-inspection;
and therefore, when we speak metaphysically, we say that it is our friend's Ego,
or soul, that is reborn, and that our friend's character, which is really all
we directly know of our friend, is simply the manifestation of that Ego. But as
the Buddhists deny the existence of any soul, it is only observed character, or
karma, that is left to be reborn. The reader will see, I think, that the two doctrines
are really very similar, if we but leave the postulation of an Ego out of the
But the question still remains: How can character that is no entity
in itself be reborn? Now here it is to be noted that the word 'karma' covers two
distinct ideas; namely, the deed itself, and the effects of that deed in modifying
the subsequent character and fortunes of the doer. The Buddhists say that this
subjective effect continues after death into the next life. The following illustration
may tend to make the general idea of the perpetuation of character without identity
of substance seem more reasonable. Why cannot a swallow's egg hatch out a lark?
or a lark's a swallow? Is there any difference perceptible between the two eggs
in respect of composition or structure, adequate to account for the difference
in the  result? If not, how is it that the egg of the lark will never hatch
out into any other kind of a bird than a lark, and that a swallow's egg must always
yield a swallow? Now although it is true that if we take the eggs before the first
sign of an embryo has appeared we may not be able to detect any physical or chemical
difference that would seem to account for the difference in the result, yet we
know the why and wherefore of that difference. A swallow's egg cannot hatch out
a lark because of the difference in heredity. The countless influences that affected
the ancestors of that egg, and the numberless actions performed under those influences
are in some mysterious way stored up in that egg, and must bear their own fruit
and none other. Therefore a swallow's egg cannot hatch out a lark, because a lark
is the result of an entirely different set of conditions; as we might say, its
karma is different. But of course the Buddhists do not mean heredity when they
use the word karma. 'Karma' expresses, not that which a man inherits from his
ancestors, but that which he inherits from himself in some previous state of existence.
But with this difference the Buddhist doctrine and the scientific doctrine of
heredity seem very similar.
Not all deeds, however, are fruitful and perpetuate
existence. Karma is like heredity in that it is an informing principle which must
have an embodiment. Just as the informing principle of an egg would never find
expression without the accompaniment of yolk, albumen, and other material constituents,
so karma embeds itself in objects of desire in order to form that factitious entity
which goes by the name of man. If karma be performed in a state of pure passionlessness,
that is, without attachment to anything, then it is barren. The fruitful karma
will be quickly undermined and not suffered to bear the full fruit it otherwise
would have done. Like a tree whose nourishment has been poisoned, the being who
 performs such karma will cease to be. See § 40, § 76 in Chapter
IV, and § 41, which last is given by way of illustration of § 40 b.
Thus a being without karma is as arbitrary a conception as a chicken without heredity,
that is, one formed by creative fiat independent of antecedent conditions.
illustration of the doctrine of repeated existence I give at the end of this chapter
a number of "Birth-Stories," as they are called; namely, stories concerning
the anterior "births" or existences of The Buddha. There is a separate
work in the Buddhist Scriptures called the "J¤taka," or "Book
of Birth-Stories," containing several hundred such tales. They form a mine
of folk-lore, and, though credited to The Buddha, can hardly have been original
with him. The ancient Buddhists, like other Orientals, appear to have been fond
of gathering together in little companies and listening while some one of their
number related a tale or fable; and ancient Buddhist sculptures have come down
to the present day representing scenes taken out of these same stories that fill
the J¤taka. Some of these tales are much traveled ones, and are to be found
in Æsop's Fables, and in La Fontaine, and other European works. As a sample
I give "The Ass in the Lion's Skin." Another instance of folk-lore common
to both the Orient and the Occident, but not given as a Birth-Story, occurs in
this chapter. The P¤li version is entitled "Death's Messengers,"
while "The Three Warnings" gives the same general idea in English dress.
There are other English versions extant, and German, French, and Latin ones, so
that this is an interesting instance of how a fable will travel about from country
to country and from clime to clime, varying in dress to suit the habits, customs,
and ways of thinking of the different peoples who adopt it into their literatures
and then often forget its alien origin.