In 1974, together with two hundred other young travellers, I spent a month at a small monastery on a hilltop overlooking Kathmandu valley, listening to lamas explain Tibetan Buddhism. With my medical background I easily accepted the psychological aspect of the teachings, but my scientific mind found it difficult to accommodate the concepts of karma and reincarnation. It took another nine months of deep reflection to become convinced of the validity of these two concepts. In this essay I shall try to present a clear picture of the Buddhist world-view.
The Buddhist contribution to the eternal debate about how the universe began is simple: there was no beginning. Before this world there was life on other worlds, before this universe there was life in other universes. Life itself has two forms: the thinking and feeling world of animals and humans, and non-sentient life, the world of plants, fungi, bacteria, and so on. These two forms of life exist in a relationship of mutual interdependence, with the dominant form being sentient life because consciousness bears karma, the creative force of the universe.
Our bodies, which are dependent upon our genes and the food we eat, are temporary appearances that will soon be reduced to their component parts. Buddhism says that every atom is a continuum of ever-changing physical energy states that cannot arise from nothing. The energy of a present atom necessarily arises from a prior atom or energy state, and so on, back into a beginningless past. Some believe there was a beginning when matter arose from nothing. Faith in this idea is the other extreme of the belief that, for no apparent reason, everything was created by an omnipotent deity. Buddhism rejects both concepts.
As with our bodies, our minds are also ever-changing continuums. Their substance, however, is not material — it is simply the phenomenon of awareness, or consciousness, itself. The present moment of consciousness arises as a continuity of the previous moment and, in turn, gives rise to the future moment of consciousness. The three moments of consciousness are different, but belong to the same continuum. Thus, at any moment in time, the mind is part of a stream of awareness, and it exists in dependence upon three things: the prior moment of consciousness, a sense organ, and the object of awareness. We have five types of sensory awareness — seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting and touching — and a sixth awareness is called mental consciousness. Each of these six types of awareness is variously associated with feelings of happiness and unhappiness; emotions such as love, hate, patience, anger, desire, generosity, and so on are associated with the mental consciousness. If we look back to our first moment of awareness in this life, as our mental continuum cannot have been created by the nervous system, it cannot have broken off from our parents’ minds, and it cannot have come from nothing, then it must have come from a previous life.
Looking back even further, there can be no conclusion other than the realisation that our minds have a beginningless past.
Mental consciousness mostly functions at the level of thought, or conceptualisation. Thoughts are awareness of external or abstract things that are comprehended through the appearance of a mental image of the object. Thoughts always have an element of mistake in that they confuse the mental image of the object with the object itself. Such confusion is only eliminated when mental consciousness directly observes its object without the
intermediary of a mental image. Direct mental awareness needs to be cultivated in meditation, and focussing this awareness upon the ultimate reality of all things, emptiness of inherent existence, is one of the two main aspects of the Buddhist path. The other main aspect is the generation of compassion for every sentient being.
Every sentient being has a unique stream of consciousness that cannot be divided into separate streams, nor can different streams of consciousness be merged into one. A Buddha is a living being with a mind, but a Buddha is not a sentient being because the term is only used for those whose minds are contaminated by ignorance. Just as life is beginningless, there was never a first Buddha. By following the teachings of previous Buddhas, a vast
number of sentient beings have attained buddhahood, divesting themselves of all impairments to perfect wisdom and training in unlimited compassion. In achieving their natural potential of buddhahood, they do not abandon the world. As long as suffering remains, they will always be there to guide sentient beings towards safety, provided they are prepared and able to listen.
Although there was no original creator, our present world and its inhabitants must still have a cause. So what is the cause of the world? A famous Buddhist text begins its chapter on karma with the statement, “This multifarious world of sentient beings and their environment arose from the karma of sentient beings.”
The literal meaning of karma is action. Specifically, karma refers to the intention or purpose behind our actions. Behind every act of doing, saying, and thinking, there is an intention. Apart from the direct effect of our every action on the external world, there is also an internal effect: the establishment of an energy potential on our mental continuum. This
potential, or karmic imprint, has the capacity to connect our mind-stream in the future with an experience similar to the intended action we have just performed. It does so by producing an “instinctive” intention or impulse that moves our mind towards a pleasant or an unpleasant situation. Thus our present experiences in life are reflections of our pastbehaviour in this and previous lives. Actions motivated by harmful attitudes create potentials
for unpleasant experiences, and actions motivated by benevolent attitudes create potentials for pleasant experiences.
Unlike the body, the mental continuum survives death. Supported by a subtle form of physical energy, it passes through a dream-like intermediate state into a future body, carrying with it a great collection of karmic potentials from past lives, as well as the seeds of all our positive and negative mental qualities. Driven by desire for pleasure and aversion to pain, but
unaware of the underlying causes of pleasure and pain, sentient beings are born again and again within six realms of existence that are reflections of their own minds. When the present life is finishing, unsatisfied desire for pleasure ripens the karmic potential that irresistibly moves our mind towards a new life. Beings born in hell or as hungry spirits have
bodies with an apparent ability to experience physical pleasure, but, because they have harmed others in selfish pursuit of pleasure in past lives, their karma leads them only towards intolerable suffering. Animals have a better opportunity to experience pleasure, but with their limited intellectual capacity they are unable to avoid being eaten by predators or
exploited by humans.
The great advantage of being born with a human body is that the human brain provides the best support for mind to manifest its potential intelligence. We can use our intelligence to seek pleasure and avoid pain, but such benefits are temporary and there is danger of creating
negative karma through desire and anger and increasing our self-centred ignorance. It is far better to use our intelligence to increase our wisdom by investigating the actual cause of suffering – karma and disturbing emotions – and by investigating the ultimate nature of all things, emptiness. Through wisdom we will be able to abandon forever the causes for suffering rebirth, and by renouncing desire and cultivating morality and compassion we will
be able to help others while experiencing continual bliss. Beings born as demigods or as divine beings in heavens have even greater opportunities to enjoy physical and mental pleasure, but such indulgence numbs their intellects and they have little incentive to renounce desire. We have all been born countless times in every level of the six realms, yet we are still dissatisfied, still chasing the illusion of perfect happiness and freedom within mundane life.
Through the perfection of wisdom and compassion we can eliminate the causes for rebirth – karma and disturbing emotions – that arise from ignorance, and attain buddhahood. Thus, although there was no beginning, there can be an end to our personal wheel of life.