Lecture Twelve: Action 12.4

12.4 Action and rebirth


Although perhaps less famous than the claim of ‘non-self,’ a crucial tenet of the Buddha’s teaching is that action (kamma) is based on intention (cetanā). This teaching has a clear and polemical historical context. From the Vedic period onwards, as discussed in Lecture Five, action (Sanskrit karma) was paradigmatically identified with the sacrifice. In the Brahmanical culture, the validity of a sacrifice came to be associated with a form of orthopraxis. A successful and effective sacrifice is one that is performed according to the right prescriptions in the right way. Since sacrifice is a physical operation, its validity might eventually be somehow dissociated from the intentions or the understanding of the performers (although ideally the two would go together). Against this tendency, the older Upaniṣads witness (as observed in Lecture Six) a sort of internalization and spiritualization of the sacrifice. The true sacrifice is performed ‘within’ one’s own consciousness or understanding, and hence one’s thoughts and attitude (including intention) becomes crucial. One output of this process surfaces in the Bhagavad-Gītā, in which intentions become paramount for freedom.

The Buddha’s teaching emerged during this evolution and likely contributed to it. On the one hand, the Buddha generalizes the notion of action, extending it to all sorts of doings and ways agency is expressed. Ritual sacrifices, for their part, become dispensable, as the Buddha does not formally recognize the authority of the Vedas (hence Buddhism is considered ‘heretical’ from a traditionalist Brahminic point of view). At the same time, the Buddha counters both the traditional emphasis on orthopraxis and also the attention to physical actions paid by rival sects, like the Jains. For the Jains all actions harm other living beings, and this harm defiles the mind, even if the harm is unintentional. By contending that actions are primarily intentions, the Buddha seeks to establish a hierarchy among three main domains of actions: thoughts, speech, and body. Bodily actions are the more external and the more derivative, speech actions directly depend on thoughts, and thoughts define the core domain in which intentions arise. Unintentional harm caused by physical actions does not count as a defiling action, but all thoughts based on intentions of harm do count even if they do not result in physical actions. In this hierarchy, thoughts (and not physical actions) are the most important domain, since it is there that all forms of actions find their source.[1]

Historically speaking, the doctrine of action becomes associated with the idea of rebirth. As already mentioned in previous lectures, Gananath Obeyesekere, in his Imagining Karma (2002) has provided a comparative study of rebirth beliefs in various cultures and periods. He observed that rebirth doctrines are common in small-scale societies. At death, one travels back to the world of the forefather, where one stays for some time, and eventually is reborn again. Often there is a strong tendency to conceive of rebirth as happening within one’s own kinship, although rebirth in other animal realms is also possible. Although there is little textual evidence, it is plausible to admit that it was endorsed in the Vedic culture, as we discussed in Lecture Five. This basic rebirth structure can be further complexified through what Obeyesekere calls ‘ethicization.’ A first step of ethicization occurs when the afterlife destiny is determined by the moral quality of one’s actions during life. This often entails moving to a place of reward or punishment after death, where one stays for a certain time, which depends on the quality of one’s deeds. When this period is exhausted, one is ready to take a new birth, which provides one with a fresh start. Hence, the moral quality of one’s actions during life has a direct impact on one’s afterlife, but it is not directly linked with one’s subsequent rebirth. Plato, for instance, endorsed this view. However, ethicization can be pushed a step further, and the very nature of one’s rebirth can become dependent upon the quality of one’s past actions. This presupposes that one’s moral account is not periodically emptied after death or in the immediate afterlife period but affects one’s journeying from one rebirth to the next.

The discourses of the Buddha witness this more elaborate account of rebirth as dependent upon the moral quality of actions. They also show that this doctrine was a matter of contention and various other sects disagreed about rebirth and its dependence on action. Today, the belief in rebirth is sometimes glossed over as something that the Buddha just inherited from his cultural context (entailing that it is not essential to his teaching and can be dropped without damage). But this seems historically misleading because the discourses of the Buddha are one of the oldest sources in which such a view receives a full-blown articulation. Even the oldest Upaniṣads provide only relatively scattered references to rebirth, and do not seem to support the two-step ethicized view defended by the Buddha. Moreover, the doctrine of rebirth is presented in the discourses themselves as surrounded by a wide range of alterative views and disputes (e.g., DN 2). As Ajahn Ṭhānissaro observes:

it’s important to understand that, in teaching rebirth, the Buddha was not just adopting a cultural assumption from his time. Rebirth was a hot topic in ancient India. Some people argued that it did happen, others argued very strongly that it didn’t, with the argument centering around how you defined what a person was, and then showing how what you were could or couldn’t take birth.[2]

So when the Buddha was teaching rebirth, he was consciously taking sides on the issue. But he did it in a novel way. Instead of trying to define what does or doesn’t take rebirth—things you can’t even see—he talked about rebirth as a process that happens through clinging and craving: mental actions you can observe and can exert some control over.

Now, the Buddha never said that he could prove rebirth, but he did say that it’s a useful working hypothesis—and for two reasons. One is that the practice will ultimately confirm that it is true; and, second, that it’s useful for fostering skillful attitudes that help in developing the path. (Ṭhānissaro 2011, 39)

Rebirth and its association with kamma are best understood as an essential pedagogical component of the Buddha’s teaching. Here is how this intuition could be spelled out further.

In presenting his own key discovery, the Buddha often phrases it in terms of a middle path (Pāli magga) between two extremes. The ‘Discourse on setting in motion the wheel of reality’ (Dhamma-cakka-pavattana-sutta, SN 56.11) is regarded by the tradition as the first public speech of the Buddha and one of the most important canonical sources for the presentation of the Buddha’s core insights, which are presented according to the scheme of the ‘four noble truths.’ Here, the middle path is framed as moving between indulgence in sensual pleasures (which is considered one extreme), and ascetic self-mortification (which is considered the opposite extreme). Sensual pleasures are commonly associated with the ordinary way of life, in which people mostly seek to maximize enjoyment for the sake of minimizing suffering and covering it up. Ascetic self-mortification encompasses a wide range of practices that were common among samaṇā at the time (Jains provide an instance) and that the Buddha himself tried out for some time in his quest for awakening. Both these extremes are prima facie concerned with ways of living this current life, but they are also associated with rebirth beliefs. The way of sensual pleasures can be connected with two attitudes: one is to seek a pleasant form of existence, in this life or in the next; the other is to maximize pleasure in this life, since there will be nothing else afterwards. The first option can be considered a more traditional view of rebirth, while the second might be associated with a form of naturalism (to use the terminology from Lecture Two), in which the person is reduced to the living body and is believed to be annihilated at death. The way of ascetic self-mortification is instead aimed at gaining freedom from rebirth altogether through some form of purification (Jains consider that painful practices could support this goal), but also by ultimately stopping or switching off experience and ordinary selfhood. This includes the range of practices we discussed in Lecture Six, and which were connected with anesthetic trance.

The middle path presented by the Buddha is thus also a middle path between not just alternative ways of living, but alternative eschatological views about the afterlife. Seeking pleasure is consistent with both a belief in the survival of the self after death (traditional rebirth) and its annihilation at death (naturalism); while seeking self-mortification is consistent with both the idea of reaching a state of liberation in which the self is still present, but utterly purified (the Jain view, for instance), and one where it is ultimately extinguished in the intransitive experience of the true Self or ultimate reality (the Upaniṣadic view). Given this complexity, the Buddha sometimes rephrases the extremes between which his path travels not in terms of sensuality and self-mortification, but rather as the extremes of existence and nonexistence (SN 12.15, Ud 3.10). Seeking existence is the attitude of those who try to appropriate any state, condition, or life-form (material or immaterial), for the sake of maximizing pleasure and minimizing suffering. This attitude is built on an implicit commitment to the ontological reality of the self that performs this appropriation and its survival after death. Traditional believers in rebirth, as well as ascetics seeking purification through suffering, would fall in this category. Seeking nonexistence is built instead on the view that the self is either identical with the body, and hence is annihilated at death (materialism), or that the ordinary self should be dissolved in order to reach the true Self (Upaniṣads).

In his discourse on the four noble truths (SN 56.11), the Buddha clearly unifies the attitudes of seeking pleasures, seeking existence, or seeking nonexistence under the common force of thirst (Pāli taṇhā), which is also identified as the force that sustains rebirth. In this context, the doctrine of rebirth has a debunking function with respect to the opposite extremes that the Buddha is targeting. On the one hand, against those who seek to acquire or appropriate a definite state of being or a life-form, the view of rebirth shows that no state whatsoever (including the most sublime and divine states) is genuinely certain or permanent. Since the only way of entering a state of existence is by taking birth in it, any state of existence is something that arises at some point, and hence, is structurally doomed to cease as well. This is the most fundamental insight into the nature of uncertainty (anicca), which the same discourse spells out thus: ‘whatever has the reality of originating, all of that has the reality of ceasing’ (yaṃ kiñci samudayadhammaṃ sabbaṃ taṃ nirodhadhamman, SN 56.11). On the other hand, against those who believe in annihilation or who seek to extinguish (annihilate) the ordinary self, rebirth shows that death or cessation of biological life is never ultimate and as long as thirst is active there is no escape from the round of rebirth.

This is why the Buddha can present thirst as both a conditioning condition for the origination of suffering and a conditioned condition that arises out of suffering. Thirst feeds back on itself. Any state of existence in which one has taken birth is subject to uncertainty, it is subject to change, to decay, and to death. This is the structural dissonance inherent in life. On the one hand, the Buddha goes along with a more widespread belief that thirst is the reason why one takes birth in the first place, and hence thirst can be regarded as the origin (the conditioning condition) of suffering (first noble truth).[3] On the other hand, though, thirst itself is a conative attitude aimed at reacting against suffering and escaping from it, seeking something better, or at least seeking distraction and anaesthesia. In this sense, thirst is thus also something that originates from that same structural suffering that always resonates in the background of any experience. Thirst and suffering co-condition each other and are co-originated.

The Buddha’s injunction is to shift the focus of attention. Instead of seeking the perfect form of existence, maximizing pleasure in this current life-form (under the assumption that there will be nothing after), or trying to annihilate the self instead, one should let go of thirst itself, stop it, abandon it. Faced with suffering, one should become able to withstand that suffering without the need, urgency, or even duty of escaping from it. By not fostering thirst, suffering itself will eventually fade away. A problem is such only because it is felt painfully, but if there is no aversion to this painful feeling, the feeling itself cannot be a problem. Hence the real problem is aversion (thirst), not feeling (suffering). That is the Buddha’s stroke of genius. Don’t look at what is in front of you, look rather at the pull that forces you to do what you do. And how can one achieve this cessation of thirst? This is the noble path (magga) discovered by the Buddha. In developing this view, the Buddha also relativizes the opposite extremes of sensuality and self-mortification, existence and nonexistence. Ultimately, it does not matter which one is preferred, since they are all underpinned by the same structure based on thirst, and they are all relinquished when this structure is relinquished.

The Buddha’s discovery is not just about the relation between thirst and suffering, but also about how one can break that relation. His discovery is the discovery not only of a truth (or a state of affairs, a fact), but also of a path, of a practice, of a way of living. In the discourse on the four noble truths, the path is articulated in its canonical form, which encompasses eight ingredients or factors. We shall discuss this in detail in the next lecture. For now, it is sufficient to remark that the path is both what originates in the cessation of thirst, and what fully realizes and deepens that same cessation. Again, we are confronted with a feedback loop: insofar as one manages to observe how the reduction of thirst leads to a reduction of suffering, in that same measure one is already practicing the Buddha’s path; however, the more this practice becomes systematic, deliberate, profound, and well-articulated, the more that cessation of thirst and suffering will become equally profound and irreversible. Someone with musical talent might be naturally able to make some steps in learning music, but that natural talent can be taken to an entirely further level when cultivated methodically. The same applies to the Buddha’s teachings.

Concerning the issue of rebirth, the Buddha exploits this view to block opposite extremes, which actually share a common root in thirst. First accepting a view about rebirth is strategically and pedagogically necessary for practicing the Buddha’s teaching, because that view is necessary to counter one of the two alternative views that are most likely to be present: an annihilationist view, or an eternalist view.[4] Providing a metaphysical explanation of why and how rebirth works is beside the point, although this did not prevent almost all Buddhist traditions and schools from developing their own accounts. Metaphysical speculations and schisms between different schools about this issue are only to be expected, as they occurred throughout the history of Buddhism.[5] However, for someone that is fully free from appropriation and mastery, there is no meaning in trying to say ‘this is mine, this I am’ and without this sort of appropriation any questions about what will happen to that person after the death of their body is meaningless. Freedom from rebirth is not achieved by reaching towards some state that will last forever, but rather by fully exploiting the transformative potential of this view, until it will be no longer needed and it is possible to simply drop it. This is why freedom from ownership is also freedom from rebirth.

However, from a pedagogic point of view, the focus on rebirth draws attention to the domain of actions as the playground where everything else is decided. Thirst, after all, is a root of action. Rebirth thus serves also an immediate and pragmatic role: it serves to point out where actual practice genuinely begins, namely, in the careful observation and handling of intentions and actions.

  1. For a more detailed historical discussion of the Buddhist doctrine of kamma in its context, see Richard Gombrich, What the Buddha Thought (2009), chapters 3-4.
  2. Jonardon Ganeri, in his The Concealed Art of the Soul (2007), appendix B (pp. 223-228) provides a synthetic map of the relevant historical debate and how the Buddhist proposal would fit it.
  3. Already in the Vedic creation hymns discussed in Lecture Five there is a hint towards the idea that sensual desire (kāma) is the pivotal principle that leads to birth, differentiation, and eventually to death. In the Buddha’s presentation, thirst for sensual pleasures is only one facet of thirst, which is complemented by the more fundamental thirst for existence (any form of existence or experience whatsoever) and thirst for nonexistence (thirst for extinguishing experience completely). Hence, in the Buddhist perspective, the idea of practicing for the sake of extinguishing the empirical self falls in the scope of thirst for nonexistence, while practicing for the sake of recovering an eternal Self falls in the scope of thirst for existence.
  4. In contemporary Western Buddhism, a growing trend consists in offering a ‘secularized’ version of the Buddha’s teaching, which dispenses completely with any references to the doctrine of kamma and rebirth. Stephen Batchelor, in his Secular Buddhism. Imagining the Dharma in an Uncertain World (2017) provides a good instance of how this can be developed. However, this approach has three main problems. First, hermeneutically or methodologically speaking, this form of secularization consists in distinguishing in the Pāli canon between an original core of teachings that are unique of the Buddha, from a broader background of views that the Buddha shared with his contemporaries. Secularism thus advocates for retaining the former while dropping the latter, and it happens that kamma and rebirth belong to what can be left behind. While one might try to distinguish elements that become apparent in the Buddhist teachings and that are absent or significantly different in their historical context, the idea of neatly detaching and separating the former from the latter is unwarranted. Ideas, views, and practices, cannot be carved up in such a way that they could survive independently from their shared background of meaning. We already discussed in Lecture Five an instance in which a tension might arise between commonality and emancipation, but it can be easily realized that no alleged ‘unique’ doctrine can be separated from its background without entirely losing its meaning. Second, from a historical point of view, as already pointed out, the doctrine of rebirth was far from an accepted and uncontroversial issue, it was rather a matter of enduring debate and dispute. Hence, in positioning himself in this debate, the Buddha could not be taken to simply endorse a received view, but rather he deliberately used it for his own purposes. Third, from a soteriological point of view, Batchelor still argues that awakening has to do with the extinction of greed, aversion, and ignorance, while this task is now undertaken for the sake of improving one’s current life on earth, without any concerns for what happens after death. The explicit assumption in this approach is that one knows (has a view) about what happens after death, namely, annihilation. But if one does not see the connection between the annihilationist view and the workings of greed, aversion, and ignorance, one is not seeing the essential point of the Buddha’s teaching, hence there is no practice for the purpose of awakening. This is why the belief in kamma and rebirth is presented as part of the mundane right view that is a necessary prerequisite for embarking in practice. Buddhist secularism seems blind to the way in which the annihilationist view supports those same attitudes of greed, aversion, and ignorance that practice aims at uprooting.
  5. One relatively standard option defended already in the early Abhidharma is that there is no enduring subject that moves from one life to the next (no ‘soul’ or substantial self), but rather a continuation of the same stream of moments of consciousness that from one life ‘leaps’ into another, mostly based on the dominant impulses that are present at the moment of physical death.


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