The Buddha’s view on Karma and rebirth

The first teaching on the Four Noble truths has its reason for disciples to understand the reality of all phenomenons as a start for cultivation. The reality of the nature connects us as an inter-relating of suffering and itscause. The Buddha emphasizes that the external phenomenon defilements affects our mental and physical state of greed, hatred, and delusion which give rise to the suffering in our daily living. These sufferings arise from the attachment and clinging and grasping in delusion. The Buddha then gives the truth of the nature of its cessation and the truth of the nature of the path leading to its cessation with the cultivation of eightfold path to purify our body, speech and mind in wholesome deeds for the liberation from suffering.

          According to the Buddha, the suffering of our mental and physical upon ourselves. For this reason, the Buddha teaches on Karma. This word Karma is a Sanskrit term and even existed before Buddha’s time in ancient India. Buddha defined it as ‘action’ and one requires responsible of one’s action. According to Anguttaa Nikaya 6.63 in Harvey (1990p.39) translated thequote as ‘ It is will (cetana), O monks, that I call karma; having willed, one acts through body, speech and mind (A.III.415). In ancient India there were the cast system with the most upper class as the Brahmin and the lower casts which determined by birth in the society. However, the Buddha says that “ Not by birth is one a Brahmin or an outcaste, but by deeds (karma)Gombrich(1988 p.68). The Buddha says that Brahmins have done well in their previous lives so it has resulted in the present favorable circumstance in which they find themselves. But fundamentally, they are no different from everyone else. The basic point was that only through deed become noble. Kyabgon (2015 p. 33) stated that by developing good character, and cultivating the necessary mental and spiritual faculties become noble. A poor, powerless person leads a dignified way of life is noble and a rich, powerful person leads an undignified life is ignoble. In the passage of Anuttara Nikaya “ If one has done good work and live well, then no one can stop the individual from living the blessed life that would surely follow. One is protected even from natural disasters or other calamities” Kyabgonfurther stated that this sutra mentioned no one can snatch away from one’s good work, which is significant.

          Vasiubandhu in the 4th century, his well-known Abhidharmakosa for all Buddhist traditions, had a study of Karma which elaborated the cause and condition for the ripened result. The karma could be created in the past life and ripened this lifetime, and the present of the karma will result in the next lifetime. The ripened state could depend on the arising condition. Thus, the wholesome and unwholesome deeds left the seeds to its fruition with the rise of condition. According to the Mahayana tradition, the seeds stored in the consciousness (Sanskrit: Alayavijnana) for sometime and until such time as they ripen into experience.

          Harvey (1990 p. 39) also stated that “The movement of beings between rebirths is not a haphazard process but is ordered and governed by the law of karma, the principle that beings are reborn according to the nature and quality of their past actions; they are ‘heir’ to their actions (M.III.123). The law of karma is seen as a natural law inherent in the nature of things, like the law of physics.

          It is not operated by a God, and indeed the gods are themselves under its sway. Good and bad rebirths are not, therefore, seen as ‘rewards” and “punishments’, but as simply the natural results of certain kinds of action.” Harvey further stated, “Depending on how one acts, one may experience ‘heavenly’ or ‘hellish’ states of mind. The Buddhist would say that it is reasonable to suppose that this process of change, determined especially by the nature of one’s actions, does not abruptly stop at death, but carries on. The Buddha says that to believe in karma and rebirth, and accordingly live a moral life, will lead to a good rebirth (P.47)”.

          The Buddha’s teaching in the Karmic theory could be in good karma, bad karma or neutral karma. Good moral actions lead to wholesome good fruitful deeds and rebirths, bad moral actions lead to bad experience deeds and unwholesome rebirths. Thus a noble person comes through good work and through living one’s life in a proper way. The Karma cause and effect requires the right environment has to be present for a seed to sprout with the right amount of water, sunlight and even the right soil conditions. This karma seed depends on these conditions with any lack of one the conditions may remain dormant for certain period. This would be that the effect does not have to be a direct from the cause, instead variance involved. The Buddha states in Samyutta Nikaya that even an individual commits very bad action during one’s life will not directly to the bad deed result to rebirth to the lower realm, this depends on the last mind action at the time of death. Thus, if one reviewing the past with regretting certain actions, even there is nothing to be done at that stage, the last mind action before death would significant the quality and depth of one’s sincerity toward variance rebirth (Kyabgon p.35).


          Buddha left his kingdom for the intention of finding the solution of birth, aging, illness and death. His enlightenment under the Bodhi tree realized the death and rebirth in his own past lives had the connection between karma or action and rebirth. Thus, in his teaching he emphasises rebirth and its relation to karma. Thanissaro Bhikkhu (AN 2.18) translated the teaching of Buddha to Ven. Ananda:

‘As Ven. Ananda was sitting there, the Blessed One said to him, “I say categorically, Ananda, that bodily misconduct, verbal misconduct, & mentalmisconduct should not be done.”

Ven. Ananda replied, “ Given that the Blessed One has declared that bodily misconduct, verbal misconduct, & mental misconduct should not be done, what drawbacks could one expect when doing what should not be done?”

Buddha then explained “… One can fault oneself; observant people, on close examination, criticize one; one’s bad reputation gets spread about; one dies confused; and — with the breakup of the body, after death — one reappears in a plane of deprivation, a bad destination, a lower realm, hell…”

“I say categorically, Ananda, that good bodily conduct, good verbal conduct, & good mental conduct should be done.”

Ven. Ananda asked again “Given that the Blessed One has declared, that good bodily conduct, good verbal conduct, & good mental conduct should be done, what rewards can one expect when doing what should be done?”

Buddha replied “… One doesn’t fault oneself; observant people, on close examination, praise one; one’s good reputation gets spread about; one dies unconfused; and — with the breakup of the body, after death — one reappears in a good destination, a heavenly world.”

“Now this, monks, is the noble truth of stress: Birth is stressful, aging is stressful, death is stressful; sorrow, lamentation, pain, distress, & despair are stressful; association with the unbeloved is stressful, separation from the loved is stressful, not getting what is wanted is stressful. In short, the five clinging-aggregates are stressful.” – SN 56.11’.

“And this, monks, is the noble truth of the origination of stress: the craving that makes for further becoming — accompanied by passion & delight, relishing now here & now there — i.e., craving for sensuality, craving for becoming, craving for non-becoming.” – SN 56.11.’

Thanissaro Bhikkhu stated that it is clear that when we look at the Buddha’s own account of how he explored the causes of suffering after having seen, in his first two knowledge, the sufferings caused by repeated birth. He looked into the possible causes of birth and traced them deep into the mind:

Buddha again said “Monks, before my awakening, when I was still just an unawakened bodhisatta, the realization came to me: How this world has fallen on difficulty! It is born, it ages, it dies, it falls away & re–arises, but it does not discern the escape from this stress, from this aging & death. whenwill it discern the escape from this stress, from this aging & death?”

“Then the thought occurred to me, ‘Aging & death exist when what exists? From what as a requisite condition come aging & death?’ From my appropriate attention there came the breakthrough of discernment: ‘Aging & death exist when birth exists. From birth as a requisite condition comes aging & death. Then the thought occurred to me, ‘Birth exists when what exists? From what as a requisite condition comes birth?’ From my appropriate attention there came the breakthrough of discernment: ‘Birth exists when becoming exists. From becoming as a requisite condition comes birth…”.

On conclusion the Buddha explains that the condition of birth, aging and death exit due to the connection between karma and rebirth, which has the origination of stress, that craving makes for further becoming.

However, the Buddha says due to many of his past lives cultivations has accumulated lots of good deeds, he had the good condition to cultivate to be enlightened that lifetime.


Harvey, Peter – 1990 Introduction to Buddhism

by Cambridge University Press

Gombrich, Richard – 1988 Theravada Buddhism

by Routledge & Kegan Paul

Kyabgon, Traleg – 2015 Karma by Shambhala

Thanissaro Bhikkhu – 2012 The Truth of Rebirth-And why it matters for Buddhist Practice by

By Master Lian Zhi M.A.