Karma and Rebirth

I. Rebirth and Cosmology
A. Samsara ("wandering on" or "that which turns around forever") is the word used to refer to the unending cycle of births and rebirths. There is no beginning to this cycle. Time is measured in kappas or kalpas, immeasurable eons A kappa is the unit to measure the coming and going of world-systems. The Buddha is said to have remember ninety-one kappas ago. Within the present universe there are other world-systems with other beings going through countless rebirths. How long is a kappa? If there were a seven mile high mountain of solid granite, and once a century it was stroked with a piece of fine cloth, it would be worn away before a kappa had passed. Still, more kappas have passed than there are grains of sand on the banks of the river Ganges.
B. The cycle of births does not just involve humans. If it did, the human population explosion would be hard to explain! There are animal births and many other realms as well.
C. The different realms of rebirth are:
1. Humans. This is considered a fortunate birth. In fact, it is the only birth in which one can achieve enlightenment.
2. Animals. Animals as low as insects are counted among possible rebirths. Plants are not counted. An animal birth is considered unfortunate, due to the vast extent of animal suffering.
3. Petas. These are among the beings that are not normally visible. They have bodies made of subtle matter and are on earth due to prior attachments. "Hungry ghosts" are in this category. This is an obviously undesirable birth.
4. Hell-beings. There are various hells: hells where beings are tormented by being burned and eaten alive repeatedly, hells where everything appears repulsive to the senses. Each hell is appropriate to individuals past actions. None is eternal. All inhabitants of a hell will eventually achieve a human birth again. Still, a birth in hell is an unfortunate affair.
5. Asuras (Titans). God-like but power-hungry beings. While more powerful than human beings (they are virtually gods), this is nevertheless considered to be an unfortunate birth.
6. Devas (gods). Gods live in various heavens: the sense-desire heavens (Mara lives in the highest of these); pure form, and formless. The top heavens correspond to the states of consciousness produced in meditation (jhana). Life-spans increase the higher you go -up to 84,000 kappas for the subtlest form of consciousness possible.
D. Details of the level of rebirth:
1. The Formless Realm: four types of purely mental rebirth.
2. The Pure Form Realm: five "pure abodes." Brahma is here.
3. The Sense-Desire Realm: six heavens in which dwell devas, Indra, bodhisattvas, below which are humans, asuras, animals, petas, and hell-beings.
E. The Questions of a Creator God and the Origins of Human Life.
1. There is no beginning, and no need for a creator God. The closest is Brahma, who has regarded himself as a creator deity, but he is in error. Brahma is regarded as a real and glorious being, he is inferior to the Buddha in wisdom.
2. There is no true creation story, but the closest to it are stories of how at the beginning of a new world system, recently departed gods become physical beings out a desire for the physical bounty that's available. They then develop sexuality and become proud of their appearance. The environment initially is rich in food, but they exploit it out of greed resulting in scarcity. They then form a social contract to protect "private property," provide for law, and punish wrongdoers. This is a sort Buddhist "fall" resulting from greed and pride.
F. The Implications of the Rebirth Perspective
1. Samsara serves no purposed and was not designed. It just is. All unenlightened people will be reborn, whether they like it or not. The only sensible thing to do is to strive for Nibbana and Arhantship or Buddhahood. The heavenly births are not tantamount to salvation.
2. Within a round of rebirths, all beings are a part of the same cycle of lives. We've all been hungry ghosts, animals, and gods in the past and are likely to be in the future. The form of suffering you witness in other humans and animals was once experienced by you. Whoever you now meet was at one time a close relative or friend. Thus, lovingkindness toward them is appropriate.
3. Compassion and non-violence to all beings is urged, but the more complex a being is the worse it is to kill it. So, killing a human is far more serious than killing a fly.
4. A human birth is special. In lower realms, there is much suffering and little freedom. Higher realms feed complacency. The human realm is the middle realm with just enough suffering for motivation and enough freedom to be able to act so as to end suffering.
II. Karma
A. Karma is a natural law, comparable to a law of physics. It is not divinely created or operated.
B. A person's actions mold her consciousness and will have physical effects both in this life and the next.
C. Crucially, it's intentional actions that matter.
D. Actions produces seeds which can come to fruition in this life, or in several lifetimes.
E. Karma is not fatalistic. Karma does not determine one's present intentions. Freedom of the will is important.
F. Good actions are called kusala (skilful) which means they produce an uplifting mental state in the doer. Actions that produce harm to oneself or others are akusala or unskilful - motivated by greed, hatred, and delusion.
G. Auspicious Actions and "Merit": some actions like listening to sermons or giving to monks grants one merit (good karma). In some traditions, one can also get good merit indirectly by empathizing with those who perform auspicious actions. Some traditions also permit the transferring of merit.
III. Belief in Rebirth and Karma
A. The Buddha's wager (compare Pascal): If you believe in karma/rebirth and act on those principles by living a moral life, following the eightfold path, you stand to gain immensely if right, but you lose nothing if you are wrong.
B. There is some anecdotal evidence that rebirth would certainly explain.
C. Karma and Rebirth are important to Buddhism, but they are not the most crucial. The most important are the Four Noble Truths. The Buddha referred to two types of wisdom - an ordinary wisdom that leads to good rebirths and an insight which enables one to direct perceive the Four Noble Truths.