Buddhists believe in life after death, and this is an important motivation for Buddhists to be careful about their actions, speech, and thoughts in this life. Whatever we do with intention is called kamma, which has impetus leading to results (vipäka). When people talk loosely about kamma in the sense of 'fate', they are often referring to vipäka, which is the result of kamma, not kamma itself. To understand why and how rebirth takes place we need to understand about the law of kamma. It is a natural law, not unlike Newton's first law of motion - to every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. However, the law of kamma operates in the realm of morality, ethics, and psychology, though results often affect the physical realm too.

There is no Almighty God in Buddhism who decides on the destiny of beings, but kamma is an almighty force. However, it is an extreme, and wrong, view to believe that everything happens as a result of kamma. Using the analogy of a plant, past kamma is like the seed, present kamma is like the effort of cultivating the plant - sunlight, soil, fertiliser, water, pesticides, etc. are also vital to the plant's healthy growth. So past kamma is only responsible for about one sixteenth, the remainder is due to other causes.

The infinite variety of volitional actions (kammas) done by living beings divides them into high and low states: killing and cruelty result in short lives, kindness and compassion lengthen life. Stealing in this life results in poverty in future lives, but generosity leads to wealth. Honour and respect shown to others leads to positions of status and privilege, while disrespect results in the opposite. Jealousy leads to powerlessness, while appreciation of others' abilities leads to influence. Not every kamma can give its result immediately, and its result is not a fixed quantity, since we can do other kammas afterwards that mitigate or enhance its potency. For example, if we shoot a snooker ball along a table, another ball can alter its course or even reverse its direction. However, if we fire a rifle bullet it is much harder to change its course after it has left the barrel. The potency of kamma depends on its target too. An angry thought directed at a criminal who is trying to kill us would be less potent than anger directed towards, say, our mother who is trying to stop us doing something shameful. The more pure-hearted the target of our thoughts, the more powerful the kamma will be - and this applies to wholesome kammas too. So kindness shown to saintly persons like the Buddha has enormous potential, whereas equivalent kindness directed towards animals or drug addicts will have relatively little result, though still not insignificant. Actions that are repeated and become habitual, also have enormous potential for good or evil.

The realm where rebirth takes place depends only on the very last moment of consciousness at death, though this last moment is also conditioned by actions and thoughts done when death is near. So the Buddhist tradition is to encourage dying persons by reminding them of good deeds they have done. Children should try not to weep or cling to their dying parents as this may lead to unwholesome mental states and unfortunate rebirth. The importance of the final moments is clearly illustrated by a story from the time of the Buddha.

A large gang of robbers was caught by the Buddhist king who offered to spare the life of any one of the robbers who would execute all the others. The robber chief volunteered to do this, executed all his former comrades, and remained in the king's service as his executioner until his old age. On the day that he was due to die, the executioner met Venerable Säriputta, the chief disciple of the Buddha, and offered his own meal to him. Venerable Säriputta tried to teach the executioner, but he could not listen attentively due to remorse over his many evil deeds. Venerable Säriputta then asked him if he had wanted to kill all the people that he had executed. He replied that he had only done what he had to do. This put his mind at rest so that he was able to pay attention to Säriputta's teaching. By meditating effectively as instructed, the executioner attained a deep stage of insight knowledge close to his death, and when he died he was reborn in a heavenly realm.

This story shows how important present actions are when compared to past kammas. Even in the midst of doing evil deeds it is possible to have many moments of skilful thoughts such as, 'This action that I am doing is very shameful and is liable to lead to evil consequences.' Conversely, while doing a good deed we can have many unskilful thoughts such as, 'I am a very kind and generous person who only thinks about the benefit of others.' The law of kamma is very profound - trying to predict what results from a given kamma is only within the understanding of the Buddha or someone like him. Nevertheless, we can easily understand that it is vital to cultivate wholesome thoughts, speech, and deeds at every opportunity - but we must not cultivate unwholesome thoughts since they grow like weeds without any encouragement. The key point is to purify the mind through meditation, and to straighten out wrong views. Wrong views are very harmful because people always do what they think will lead to their own happiness, they never want to be unhappy. However, due to wrong view they imagine wrong to be right, just like someone lost in the desert who thinks that north is south. The harder they try, the farther astray they go.

All the various realms of existence come into being due to the kamma of the beings who live there. English people build brick houses, Eskimos build igloos, and Pygmies build grass huts. Hell realms come into being from hatred and anger. One who dies with hatred will be reborn in hell. Animal realms come about through lust and delusion. Ghost realms arise from attachment and craving. Demon realms arise from envy and meanness. Celestial realms arise from morality, generosity, reverence, etc., and Brahmä realms arise from universal loving-kindness, compassion, sympathetic-joy, and equanimity. The human realm is the result of generosity, kindness, and wisdom.

The various realms of existence are completely open to most living beings. Human beings or deities can be reborn as animals, animals can be reborn as humans or deities, and there is no guarantee of being reborn in the same realm again after death. The last thought-moment is the deciding factor. Only those who have realised nibbäna are assured of rebirth in the higher realms of existence - most human beings and deities are facing downwards since the majority are inclined to indulge in selfish pleasure rather than trying to do good deeds. It is even harder for an animal to be reborn in higher realms since it lives by primitive instincts, which means a lot of lustful, aggressive, and deluded kamma. Some pets may live a life of luxury, enjoying the company of compassionate and intelligent human beings, but how can they donate things to others or study religion? The human realm is therefore a very precious opportunity that most people squander by behaving no better than animals. To meet a Buddha or his teachings is even rarer than human rebirth. Even those born in Buddhist countries do not always practise the Buddha's teachings carefully. Among those who practise it sincerely, only those who have enough wisdom and energy will gain liberation in this very life. Many good people are self-satisfied with doing pious deeds, since they lack a deep and thorough knowledge. The executioner in the story was more spiritually advanced than many so-called Buddhists of today. He was blessed to meet an excellent teacher like Säriputta, but also wise enough to realise his own faults.

Theraväda Buddhists do not use the terms 'transmigration' or 'reincarnation' because they both imply the existence of a permanent soul or self, which is contrary to the Buddha's teaching of anatta.

I will try to clarify the distinction between the Buddhist doctrine of 'rebirth' and the Hindu idea of 'Transmigration' - it is an important point, and one that is usually misunderstood. This is hardly surprising, since it is through not understanding the nature of a person or being, a self or a soul, that we have all wandered so long in the cycle of birth and death. The Buddha's teaching of anatta was a radical departure from the theory of transmigration of souls that was commonly supposed to be true at his time. Unless one studies carefully, or practises insight meditation with a strong commitment, one will always tend to misunderstand things. Generally, people will err on the side of eternalism, or on the side annihilationism, instead of seeing the Middle Path of Buddhism.

The following extracts are all from 'The Debate of King Milinda' (Motilal Books, PO Box 324, Borehamwood, Herts, WD6 1NB, UK, Tel: 0181 905 1244, Fax 0181 905 1108, e-mail - an abridgement of the translation of the Milindapañha a famous work of Buddhist literature from the 1st century BC based on dialogues between a Buddhist monk and a Bactrian Greek king - Menander.

First, What is in a Name?

King Milinda went to Nägasena and after exchanging polite and friendly greetings, took his seat respectfully to one side. Milinda began by asking:

1. How is your reverence known, and what sir, is your name?

O king, I am known as Nägasena, but that is only a designation in common use, for no permanent individual can be found.

Then Milinda called upon the Bactrian Greeks and the monks to bear witness: 'This Nägasena says that no permanent individual is implied in his name. Is it possible to approve of that?' Then he turned to Nägasena and said, 'If, most venerable Nägasena, that is true, who is it who gives you robes, food and shelter? Who lives the righteous life? Or again, who kills living beings, steals, commits adultery, tells lies or takes strong drink? If what you say is true then there is neither merit nor demerit, nor is there any doer of good or evil deeds and no result of kamma. If, venerable sir, a man were to kill you there would be no murder, and it follows that there are no masters or teachers in your Order. You say that you are called Nägasena; now what is that Nägasena? Is it the hair?'

* I don't say that, great king.
* Is it then the nails, teeth, skin or other parts of the body?
* Certainly not.º
* Or is it the body, or feelings, or perceptions, or formations, or consciousness? Is it all of these combined? Or is it something outside of them that is Nägasena?

And still Nägasena answered: 'It is none of these.'

* Then, ask as I may, I can discover no Nägasena. Nägasena is an empty sound. Who is it we see before us? It is a falsehood that your reverence has spoken.
* You, sir, have been reared in great luxury as becomes your noble birth. How did you come here, by foot or in a chariot?
* In a chariot, venerable sir.
* Then, explain sir, what that is. Is it the axle? Or the wheels, or the chassis, or reins, or yoke that is the chariot? Is it all of these combined, or is it something apart from them?
* It is none of these things, venerable sir.
* Then, sir, this chariot is an empty sound. You spoke falsely when you said that you came here in a chariot. You are a great king of India. Who are you afraid of that you speak an untruth? And he called upon the Bactrian Greeks and the monks to bear witness: 'This King Milinda has said that he came here by a chariot but when asked ?What is it?, he is unable to show it. Is it possible to approve of that?'

Then the five hundred Bactrian Greeks shouted their approval and said to the king, 'Get out of that if you can!'

* Venerable sir, I have spoken the truth. It is because it has all these parts that it comes under the term chariot.
* Very good, sir, your majesty has rightly grasped the meaning. Even so it is because of the thirty-two kinds of organic matter in a human body and the five aggregates of being that I come under the term Nägasena. As it was said by Sister Vajøra in the presence of the Blessed One, 'Just as it is by the existence of the various parts that the word, Chariot, is used, just so is it that when the aggregates of being are there we talk of a being.'
* Most wonderful, Nägasena, most extraordinary that you have solved this puzzle, difficult though it was. If the Buddha himself were here he would approve of your reply.

2. How many rains do you have Nägasena?

* Seven, your majesty.
* But how can you say it is your seven; is it you who are seven or the number that is seven?

And Nägasena said, 'Your shadow is now on the ground. Are you the king, or is the shadow the king?'

* I am the king, Nägasena, but the shadow comes into being because of me.
* Just so, O king, the number of the years is seven, I am not seven. But it is because of me that the number seven comes into being and it is mine in the same sense as the shadow is yours.
* Most wonderful, Nägasena, and extraordinary. Well has this puzzle been solved by you, difficult as it was.

Rebuttal of the Soul Belief

3. And Devamantiya, Anantakäya and Mankura went to Nägasena's hermitage to accompany the monks to the palace. As they were walking along together Anantakäya said to Nägasena, 'When, your reverence, I say, Nägasena, what is that Nägasena?

* What do you think that Nägasena is?
* The soul, the inner breath which comes and goes.
* But if that breath, having gone out, should not return would that man still be alive?
* Certainly not.
* But when those trumpeters and the like have blown their trumpets does their breath return to them?
* No venerable sir, it doesnot.
* Then why donot they die?
* I am not capable of arguing with you sir, pray tell me how it is.
* There is no soul in the breath. These inhalations and exhalations are merely constituent powers of the bodily frame. Then the elder talked to him on the Abhidhamma and Anantakäya was satisfied with his explanation.

Who, Or What is Reborn?

4. He who is reborn, Nägasena, is he the same person or another?

* Neither the same nor another.
* Give me an illustration.
* In the case of a pot of milk which turns first to curds, then to butter, then to ghee; it would not be right to say that the ghee, butter and curds were the same as the milk but they have come from that so neither would it be right to say that they are something else.

5. What is it, Nägasena, that is reborn?

* Mind and matter.
* Is it this very mind and matter that is reborn?
* No, it is not, but by this mind and matter deeds are done and because of those deeds another mind and matter is reborn; but that mind and matter is not thereby released from the results of its previous deeds.
* Give me an illustration.
* It is like a fire which a man might kindle and, having warmed himself, he might leave it burning and go away. Then if that fire were to set light to another man's field and the owner were to seize him and accuse him before the king, and he were to say, 'Your majesty, I did not set this man's field on fire. The fire that I left burning was different to that which burnt his field. I am not guilty'. Would he deserve punishment?
* Indeed, yes, because whatever he might say the latter fire resulted from the former one.
* Just so, O king, by this mind and matter deeds are done and because of those deeds another mind and matter is reborn; but that mind and matter is not thereby released from the results of its previous deeds.

6. Is there, Nägasena, such a thing as 'The one who knows(vedagu)?'

* What is this thing?
* The living principle within which sees, hears, tastes, smells, feels and discerns things; just as we, sitting here, can look out of any window we wish to.
* If, O king, the living principle within can see, hear, taste, smell and feel things like you say, can it not also see forms through the ear and so on?
* No, venerable sir.
* Then, O king, the living principle within cannot make use of whichever sense it pleases as you suggested. It is, O king, by reason of the eye and forms that sight and those other conditions arise, namely; contact, feeling, perception, intention, one-pointedness, vitality and attention. Each arises simultaneously with its cause and herein 'The one who knows' cannot be found.

Transmigration or Rebirth?

7. Is there any being who transmigrates from this body to another?

* No there is not.
* If that is so, would there not be an escape from the result of evil deeds?
* Yes there would be an escape if they were not to be reborn but there would not be if they were to be reborn. This mind and body process commits deeds either pure or impure, and because of that kamma another mind and body process is reborn. Therefore this mind and body is not free from its evil deeds.
* Give me an illustration.
* If a thief were to steal another man's mangoes, would he deserve punishment?
* Indeed he would.
* But the mangoes he stole were not those that the owner had planted; why should he deserve punishment?
* Because those that he stole resulted from the others.
* Just so, O king, this mind and body process commits deeds either pure or impure, and because of that kamma another mind and body process is reborn. Therefore this mind and body is not free from its evil deeds.

8. When deeds are committed by one mind and body process, where do they remain?

The deeds follow them, O king, like a shadow that never leaves. But one cannot point them out saying, 'Those deeds are here or there, just as the fruits of a tree cannot be pointed out before they are produced.

9. Would he who is about to be reborn know it?

Yes he would, just as a farmer who puts seed into the ground, seeing it rain well, would know that a crop will be produced.

Buddhists believe that death is always followed by rebirth until one attains full enlightenment (Arahantship), which means the eradication of all ignorance and attachment. With this attainment the Arahant puts an end to kamma, so the cycle of rebirth and consequent suffering, old age, and death is cut off at the death of an arahant or Buddha, which is called his parinibbäna.

Bhikkhu Pesala

Wembley Vihära, January 2000