From Thought to Destiny: Rebirth and Karmic Spillage

Uposatha Teaching: First Quarter, November 14, 2010.

Index to Current Series
Thought – Act – HabitCharacterDestiny

We have been considering the Buddha’s teachings on Rebirth for the last few weeks, including the pragmatic case for Rebirth and the scientific case for Rebirth. I want to consider this week a parallel phenomenon that might help us understand the Buddha’s teachings on Rebirth, one that has much of the pragmatic value of Rebirth but is more grounded in a more scientistic understanding (that is grounded in commonly accepted observables) of Karmic consequence.

Karmic Spillage. Aside from missing a mechanism by which Rebirth can happen, the traditional Buddhist account of Rebirth seems to account for only part, and perhaps a small part, of the migration of Karmic dispositions from one life to another. Recall that Rebirth is not the continuance of You, that is, of a Person, Soul or Self, after your death, but rather the transmission of the stream of karmic dispositions from your current life to a serially succeeding life, where, delivered as a neat package, it can continue to evolve according to one’s practice. However, there are many other better understood paths for the transmission of karmic dispositions from one life to another and this suggests that Rebirth as traditionally understood can be no more than a part of karmic transmission. The following are some other sources and targets of our Karmic dispositions. Notice that each of these involves transmission of karmic dispositions from life to life, but in a lateral, not in a serial, fashion.

  1. Genetic influences. Many of our inborn karmic dispositions seem to be inherited from our parents, not from a recently deceased being. The genetic conditioning of predispositions is well established in modern science. These include not only highly individualized tendencies, such as a predisposition toward anger or toward alcoholism, but also species-wide tendencies such as a predisposition toward affection or toward play.
  2. Emulated behaviors. Many behaviors are simply learned through example from parents and others in the immediate environment or even from TV characters. There is some evidence that humans learn behaviors simply by observation. So, it is common that if a parent smokes, the child will grow up to smoke, if the parent is abusive, the child will grow up to be abusive. If the parents are studious and like to snack, the child will grow up studious and disposed toward snacks.
  3. Cultural influences. The culture in which an individual is embedded sets norms for behaviors and values and provides a set of role models which the individual is encouraged to emulate. If the culture is tolerant and creative, the individual will tend to be tolerant and creative. Unfortunately we live in a mass- media culture that is to a high degree deliberately manipulated by commercial and political interests to encourage greed and aversion with alarmingly adverse effects on the well-being of the individual.
  4. Stimulus and response. Association with a person of certain karmic habits to which you must habitually respond produces new karmic habits in yourself. This is different from emulating another’s behavior.
    For instance, actions performed out of anger tend to adversely affect others, in whom anger or fear may thereby be evoked. Living with an angry person may turn you into either an angy person or a fearful person, as your emotional response becomes habitual.
    Notice that in this case your particular karmic disposition might not show up as the same particular disposition in another, as your anger may show up as another’s fear, or your kindness may show up as another’s sense of security. I speculate however that unskillful factors in yourself will tend to evoke unskillful factors in others and that skillful factors in yourself will tend to evoke skillful factors in others.
    Likewise a single stimulus can initiate a chain of stimuli and responses that grow progressively in karmic consequences, as when speech motivated by hate inspires another to commit an act of terrorism which leads, along with injury and loss of life, to fear, anger and plans for vengeance.

Most of these factors poorly understood in Buddha’s day. But, in fact, your Karma, constantly spilling over others, becomes their karma. And their Karma, constantly spilling over you, becomes your Karma. Although the transmission is lateral, your karmic dispositions may be carried into the future and past the end of your own life, in fact indefinitely, by those who outlive you. However, unlike through the conventional model of Rebirth, through these mechanisms your karmic inheritance is not delivered to you in a neat package at birth to be worked on during your life, and your karmic heritage is not neatly packed together at death to be delivered to a single individual at birth. Rather your karmic inheritance is delivered from many sources and your karmic legacy is dispersed widely and selectively, both throughout the span of your life.

For instance, your present alcoholism may still persist a century from now, in your great grandchildren, or in the great grandchildren of your current drinking buddies, and may have been alive in your great grandfather or in the great grandfathers of your drinking buddies. In fact tracing your karmic legacy can become very complex indeed: Your greed or the cumulative greed of you and people like you can through the fabric of human and social relations, through economic and political forces, show up unknown to you in violence and war elsewhere, with their own grave karmic consequences. Similarly a single karmic act on your part, for instance, yelling at someone in anger, could well initiate a series of Karmic actions involving many actors with grave Karmic consequences of which you will never be aware.

Similarities of Karmic Spillage and Rebirth. Karmic spillage does not contradict Rebirth; if it did it would defeat Rebirth, since it is independently verifiable. It does, however, cover much of the same ground, the transmission of karmic dispositions from one life to another. Its primary difference is that it includes in its purview lateral as well as serial transmission..The ripening of karma beyond the present life also acquires an even more profound dimension: As in the case of hateful speech ripening in the great suffering of a terrorist bombing, it is easy to appreciate that virtually all of our actions have consequences, often unseen, beyond ourselves, In fact the Butterfly Effect.tells us that the consequences of actions are unlimited, each action effectively has the capacity to write future history.

Karmic Spillage can be given a clear pragmatic function in Buddhism in providing a view that the consequences and goals of practice extend far beyond the comfort of this one life. Buddhist practice is about meeting the present moment and acting appropriately, that is, with Karmic purity, over and over. Rebirth puts that in the wider context that helps us recognize why we do that, what the full consequences of our virtue or nonvirtue are. To paraphrase Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi:

To take full cognizance of the principle of Karmic Spillage will give us that panoramic perspective from which we can survey our lives in their broader context and total network of relationships.

The difference from Rebirth is that the Goal becomes much more ambitious, not the building of a cathedral or of a single Buddha, the perfection of a human character, but rather the perfection of all human character. Karmic Spillage gives our practice more of a Mahayana flavor. This is a cooperative endeavor that requires a great faith that others will be there to move all of human society karmically in the right direction, now and in generations and centuries to come. Along with patience this project contains within it a sense of urgency as the huge consequences of our karmic actions for the larger society dwarfs all petty considerations in our small lives; after all the consequences of every decision they we make has huge consequences. This means you will continue to practice virtue, even under the pressure of bad times or of good short-term gains, not only because your actions have immediate consequences beyond yourself, in the example you set and in the responses you evoke, but because it is your internal virtuous karma will influence your future actions. Your small life will acquire huge meaning in the context of this project. Sicknesses, deaths, births, falling stock prices will barely deter you in your determination to see the work continue without interruption. Embedded within a karmic network extending far beyond this current life, your attitude, motives, inspiration and relation to practice would be profoundly different and your progress greater in this life than otherwise.

Monastic practice serves as an example. Generally defined as the path to the perfection of a single human character, the monastic practice also entails inspiring others and ensuring the integrity and continuity of the Buddhasasana. This is the obligation to ensure that monastic actions are always worthy of emulation, that they exhibit virtue, that their consequences will always encourage, and not weaken, the success of Buddhist understanding and practice for all and for future generations, that is, that they move in the direction of ending afflictions for all beings..

Next week we will conclude the discussion of Rebirth by summarizing the variety of perspectives we have discussed in the last few weeks, including whether to take Karmic Spillage as a substitute or as a supplement to Rebirth.

One Response to “From Thought to Destiny: Rebirth and Karmic Spillage”

  1. tommy Says:

    Great article, and one which unfortunatley for me reaffirms my long standing sense that i was somehow making things go wrong in the world, but it was dismissed as psychosis by my mental health proffessionals.

    I intuitively felt that my words, deeds, emotions and thoughts always had a great power and influence and were causing a butterfly effect, but the implications of this notion was just too much for my mind to withstand, so i carried on going the way i was going and stuck to the scientific ‘logical’ mentality because it suited me.

    popping valium, anything to mask the truth. I feel as an empty shell with nearly nothing left in me as of now, and i also have the intuitive feeling that my death is not far away. I’m 33, and, well, not looking forward to whatever may be coming. However, Thanks for the bare truth – maybe if id read this ten years ago i may have chosen my Way a bit more wisely.


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