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On an old post about  #karma  (, +Patri Hernandez asked for specific comments on karma relating to individuals who wake up (enlightenment), specifically aski…
August 8th, 2012

illustration (attribution, if any possible, is at the end of the article)

On an old post about  #karma  (, +Patri Hernandez asked for specific comments on karma relating to individuals who wake up (enlightenment), specifically asking if there is a 'sudden' stop of this law. She also commented that people like U.G. Krishnamurti and others say there's no such thing (in order for karma to 'be,' reincarnation must take place; and there are many enlightened individuals like Ramesh Balsekar who deny the possibility of a soul incarnating many bodies...) and asked for views.

This is an extremely deep question and a single 'post' seems inappropriate. Here is a modest attempt at providing useful pointers in three sections: karma, rebirth, and is there such a thing?


So, summarising the initial post, what is karma? You will reap what you have intentionally sown; that's it. Ignorance or misunderstanding of the karmic consequences does not shield you from the consequences, but lack of intention does. There is no determinism for one act, but if you keep repeating acts, one day or another, the circumstances will allow for you to face the consequences... This is just stating that no one can always postpone consequences "forever" (one would need the ability to control all circumstances at all times). Repetition of unwholesome acts is enough to 'regularly' face the unsatisfactory consequences…

Let's rephrase this to make it easier to answer Patri's question. A key point of karma relates to intentional repetition, that is to say karma is another name for habits and, more generally, for mental constructs that make us repeat judgements, preferences and 'tendencies'. It is understood in Buddhism that freedom from greed, hatred and delusion (i.e. nirvana) is reached when one's mental constructs stop obscuring reality "as it is."

For example, we experience some situation, which results in a pleasant feeling. We tend to construct a mental representation associating pleasure with some characteristics of the situation: we might associate e.g. the pleasure of dining with the company of this or that person, rather than with the particular dish chosen (in other situations, we might reach a different 'representation'…). We will project such a 'model' in future situations and might seek pleasant experiences accordingly while also attempting to avoid the unpleasant experiences. A model is just a model though, and by trying to distinguish what's pleasant from what's neutral or unpleasant in a situation, it always forgets the role of some circumstance or another. Hence, dining again with the same person would not necessarily lead to the same pleasure: for example, a poisoned dish or boredom might spoil the date… Nirvāṇa is the extinction of such mental constructs, i.e. the end of karma. Such extinction is the end of ignorance, i.e. it is wisdom that allows us stepping back from the naïve projections which make us confuse a simplistic model with Reality, confuse a few historical events with Permanency and Verity, which make us 'project' pleasure or pain based on such generalisations (thus fuelling greed and aversion).

So does karma stop with Enlightenment? No. But the generation of new karma stops. One could argue the latter is the very definition of Enlightenment… When one stops creating erroneous models of the world, it doesn't remove inertia from the world. This is the 'nirvana with residue.' When one realises that a turn has been missed and that the car is heading straight into a wall, the realisation itself is not enough to stop the car right there and then; but it might be enough to drive more cautiously next time. 

Will Enlightened individuals continue to generate models, or 'conventional truths,' during the remainder of their life? Yes. Will they create new karma after Enlightenment? No, because their wisdom prevents them from mistakenly interpreting such new models as ultimate Truths. They'll use models for what they're good at, but they won't erroneously start searching the Holy Grail (of perfect bliss thanks to something or someone or some circumstance, or of perfect non-Suffering thanks to avoidance of something or someone or some circumstance). Many people have insights which give a glimpse to nirvāṇa, but nirvāṇa is reached when the ability to step back is no longer needed. At no moment does the Enlightened person imagine anymore an illusory Absolute from which he/she would then need to take some distance from. The wisdom is deep enough to avoid the arising of ignorance, i.e. of karma… that's 'permanent' nirvāṇa, the famously 'unconditioned' Nirvāṇa.

The above treatment clearly did not address karmic seeds, as they are understood for example in schools related to Yogācāra. I am unfortunately not an expert of such schools, but from what I understand of them, the interpretation of karmic seeds as the above-mentioned mental constructs is not contradictory, at least during one's life. In such schools, the ālayavijñāna (store-house consciousness) is the basis of the other seven consciousnesses; it stores karmic seeds that will mature and drive one's experience, but most of such experiences will lead to reactions, new 'illusions' and new 'mental constructs,' i.e. to new karmic seeds… thus the vicious karmic circle of saṃsāra: illusions and ignorance give rise to more illusions and ignorance.


On rebirth, it becomes a bit trickier. The ancient doctrine of Pratītyasamutpāda (or the 12 nidānas, 12 links of dependent origination) clearly states that ignorance will lead to (thirst which will lead to) rebirth. Nirvāṇa, the escape from cyclical rebirth, is achieved by the end of ignorance (cf. above). Similarly, Yogācāra-related schools associate rebirth with lack of purity in ālayavijñāna. So, in all cases, rebirth relates to greed and hatred, reasons to come back in saṃsāra (in order to get something, or get away from something). An active intention (lust or aversion) is what causes rebirth. Lust or aversion are based on deluded beliefs that some things are intrinsically pleasurable or disagreeable, i.e. are based on ignorance. But our habits and tendencies are constantly updated or changing; how could they transmigrate without some 'solidity'? This has been a debate for as long as Buddhism has existed, so I won't pretend to offer a definitive answer. However here is a suggestion that might help understand why solidity is not required.

Imagine an individual, A, is about to die. In his last breath, A shouts his personal story in the world, then dies. Imagine another individual, B, now gets born and hears the story of A (more or less directly, allowing for faint signals and also echoes…) and having no personality yet, i.e. no personal history, individual B appropriates the story of A as being his own. B would rightly consider himself the rebirth of A, and more importantly nobody would know any different. To extend this now to our saṃsāra, imagine that the message that A sends is simply the set of all the contributions of A into the world (i.e. a message sent during the whole of A's life, but the aggregation of which is summarised in only one instant known as the 'present')… If A contributed to a consumerist world in which money is the "be all and end all" of human life, B (born now and educated in such a world) will likely behave exactly as a reborn A… The interconnection between our karma and life allows for the existence of echoes, which in turn allows for karma to transmigrate without anything 'solid' carried across.

Another image would be the casting of a statue [hence the image associated to this post!]: statue A allows the preparation of the mould (i.e. the 'environment' which A shapes), a mould which will allow statue B to be cast (but only once A is not longer in place). B may then identify with what A 'was,' irrespective of whether A still exists or has been destroyed…

Tibetan buddhists can recognise the rebirth of tulkus in several bodies. This idea fits well with the analogies of echo, or of casting… although obviously Tibetans would have their own expressions. More ignorant people (less able to control their intention at the time of death, therefore less able to control rebirth) would end up experiencing 'noisier' versions of rebirth. This fits well the practice of Bodhisattva vows, as sincere vows would result in single-pointed intention at death, thus allowing a suitable rebirth to continue the work…

Consciousness is a tendency to 'make sense' out of a chaos of stimuli, but this making 'sense' is at the cost of creating illusions, stories, veils of explanations, etc. One of the traps when 'creating sense' is to assign 'identity' to what merely exhibits some conditioned 'continuity.' When we fall into this trap regarding a sense of self, the trap is called 'rebirth.' The explanation itself, the 'result' of falling into the trap, is called 'reincarnation:' believing in a rebirth that preserves 'individuality' or 'identity.'

Now to the last question of Patri:


Gotama is said to have remembered all his previous lives in the night preceding nirvāṇa. But he is also said to have realised non-Self, i.e. to have realised the end of the illusion that identify one's habits and tendencies with who one 'is.'

Habits are feeble and changing, but they have some inertia. They are ultimately impermanent, but they can shape the world enough to pass down to the next generation. To identify with something impermanent is only creating the illusion of identity. The very concept of identity supposes permanence: that is 'me' now and that was 'me' then, not two different people. So identity cannot be based on habits, beliefs, tendencies or mental constructs.

My interpretation is that when Gotama "remembered all 'his' previous lives" (although 'his' no longer makes sense without identity), he actually remembered how, in life B, he created an illusory Self by identifying himself to another illusory Self from his previous life, A! He remembered how he 'appropriated' the echo as 'his own.' Seeing the illusion of the Self, he saw the illusion of such appropriation, and ultimately the illusion of reincarnation (no Self transmigrates, although rebirth can exist via the echo or the mould mechanisms). He saw how one may 'identify' to a previous life as a consequence of ignorance of the nature of Self (perceived as an 'entity').

In such interpretation, Krishnamurti and others can express a truth: if there is no Self, there is no 'individual' karma. This does not mean one would not suffer consequences of his/her actions (such an interpretation is a very common mistake): one will 'identify' again and again to the set of habits, tendencies, etc., that he/she appropriates as his/her Self. One will even 'identify' through rebirth (whether one 'remembers' previous lives or not is irrelevant: one is born in a world shaped by previous lives with their values, habits, beliefs, tendencies, etc. That's it!). So one will 'identify' as experiencing the consequences of one's own action. You might think that this is an illusion, and it is, that's the point of the Teachings! But until Enlightenment 'you' will continue 'identifying' nonetheless… You will not identify with 'your' Self and 'your' actions without identifying with 'your' consequences too; Nirvāṇa is not realised only when convenient. You cannot just intellectually 'understand' in order to get free from illusion and identification; you need to realise the nature of illusion through the bone! Only an Enlightened person will perceive the interconnection of beings enough to see that experiencing the consequences of one's actions or of another's is the same, because there is no separation between oneself and another.

[photo: © Mike Strick (]
[Recently, +Běn Zhēn  was asking googlers if they believed in reincarnation (, I suppose answers are still welcome.]
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