The central concept in Buddhism is pratitya samutpada which literally means 'existing on account of arising together', or more simply conditionality. This means that all things come about because of the conditions that surround them. Nothing exists independently we are all interconnected and interdependent on everything around us. For example we in the west have a tendancy to lean towards the scientific an are likely to dismiss anything that doesn't have concrete proof. With this in mind and the people present our study night on karma and rebirth was incredibly heated.
Karma in Buddhism is different to the karma taught in Hinduism, Hindu's believe karma implies whatever ill effects are happening now they are directly linked to past actions. This can lead to a lack of responsilibilty and compassion for social injustice. Karma means action, so the way we act, speak and think have a powerful influence on how we will deal with our future days. This is seen as the right view and is essential to believe in this if you are to be a Buddhist. We always need to take responsibility for any bad thing that may happen to us. We should always think that it may have something to do with our past actions although it does not have anything to do with our karma. This way we will be compassionate to others and try to resolve the conditions put in place for the bad thing to arise. It is this skillfulness that aids us to evolve in a more positive diretion and our lives will be more pleasant. To be content lead to contentment with the world, to be angry leads to anger with the world but it is important to remember that karma has nothing to do with rewards or punishments but simply how we experience things as a reflection of our state of being.
There are five types of conditionality:-
Physical or inorganic such as earthquakes, tsunami's, other natural disasters. Not collective karma.
Biological such as illnesses, the flu' is caused because of a virus and not past actions.
Psychological as in mental states that are due to past experiences we had no influence over. Not due to karmic choices.
Karmic - Karma Niyama, the effects of ethics which we do have choice over.
Dharmic - Dharma Niyama, some kind of sign that we are heading in the right direction.
Dharma Niyama is worth looking into a bit more closely as the concept makes sense up to a point but after that it can get hazy. I said above that it could be described as a sign that we are heading in the right direction. It might make more sense though if we look at it as an extention of our consciousness. There is so much of our consciousness that we do not understand, do not look to it because we are not aware of how far it can go. If you are practising to any degree then stuff will change and shift. Is this to do with just sitting on a cushion and concentrating? Or is it some 'other power' that enters our consciousness to tell us what direction to travel in? This topic was the dominant discussion point in our study night. Our scientific conditioning forces us to look at this in a rational way. In just being still and concentrating gives way to more thoughts to come to us, things that we wouldn't think about normally. What happens on the surface can be quite different from what is going on underneath. Is it more about 'hidden' power and not 'other' power? We are all able to draw something out that we never realised existed. Is it just that we dont know our own minds enough? All of these points try to give us a more tangable explaination as to what happening when we meditate and we, as westerners, feel that is it important to be able to explain these processes and to be able to have control over it. To imagine purity is to assimilate purity but if this purity exists as some 'other' power that comes to you this could be seen as disenpowering as it hasn't happened through your own efforts.
It is interesting to note that eastern cultures hold the imagination with much more majesty then we do. They ascibe much more weight to dreams and visions as being something that it worth more of our attention. Stories and myths are also held with more attention as a way to teach but are these just metaphors for rational explainations or are they something real, an 'other world' thing? Is it our scientific conditioning that says that we can't understand what could be miraculous or is it the 5000 year old view that does not understand that miracles do not happen.
It terms of Buddhism and as I have mentioned many times before, finding the middle way could give you the answer. As the thrid fetter states, rites and rituals are a means to an end and not an end in itself. Eventually we all have to give ourselves up to something bigger.
Rebirth (which is closely linked to Karma) again differs to how it is understood in Hinduism. It is believed in Hinduism that an unchanging soul passes from vessel to vessel by way of punishment or reward for good or bad actions. The Buddhist take on this is that there is a constantly changing stream of engery that is shaped and transformed by the lives it lives and actions it takes. It is merely a continuation of a process. Ideas of rebirth are difficult for westerners to grasp hold of because, as i said before, there is no concrete proof of it. This is a part of many westerners conditioning and maybe it is important to believe in those things that we cannot fully understand.
There are four different types of karma:-
Weighty karma - something that has a major impact on us and others which leads to a strong effect on our emotions such as meditation.
Death-proximate (near death) karma - these are actions that will have an effect on our rebirth as they are performed when close to death.
Habital karma - Something we do regularly without noticing but eventually will build up to something massive.
Residual karma - which is basically everything else.
Victims of habitual karma will not challenge or change these habits because due to the habital nature of it there is a lack of awareness of what is happening. In this culture there are many victims of this due to many vague and halfhearted sets of beliefs this leads to us having a fatalistic, 'why me', attitude and a sense no control. The media is a good example of this as constant bombardment of negative news stories and advertisments is bound to have an effect on our inner being. Legal systems and social etiquette are some others. These prevail in our society and questions of 'what are my rights?' can be heard all over. We can spend our lives fulfilling social positions and still not get what is needed. It is so easy to hide behind the media or law that we have gone from blaming God for our problems to blaming other people, "there must be a reason for this happening, I must find the agent behind why this is happening and once I find them I will inflict my pain onto them in some way". By throwing yourself into Buddhsim and throwing out vague beliefs and the TV will help in understanding why these bad things happen. How we think creates our experience if we constantly believe that we are living in a harsh and hostile environment then this is what we will get back. It maybe that there is no choice over what thoughts may arise but what is important is how you deal with those thoughts. If you feel like you maybe losing control and you panic because of this then control will fall away more rapidily, but if you keep calm, you are more likely to come through it unscathed. Consciousness grows and changes and thoughts are just a part of the experience. What we do in this life does have consequences after we die and our ego's would love for us to live on and on and on but ego will also say that it will be you as you are now that gets reborn and this is simply not the case in Buddhism. Frstly to gain Enlightenment you must let go of the self and ego, and secondly we are constantly changing beings. What we are when we are born is not what we are when we die. It is not necessary to believe in rebirh if you are a Buddhist. Whether you believe in panning lives or whether you live on a moment to moment basis, either is ok as long as each moment has your full attention.