How do Buddhists that think of karma figuratively -- non literal -- not what is ordinarily meant -- do so about rebirth? They surely cannot believe rebirth is literal, so what exactly is it?

An answer from any perspective would be most welcome.

Among these Buddhists, however, this has led to the rejection not of non-self but of rebirth. (Historically this response was not unknown among East Asian Buddhists, and it is not rare among Western Buddhists today.) The evidence that the Buddha himself accepted rebirth and karma seems quite strong, however... this sort of ‘noble lie’ justification for the Buddha teaching a doctrine he does not accept fails in the face of the evidence that he also taught it to quite advanced monastics

Emphasis added


So I'm not asking what the Buddha thought - we don't actually know - or any specific historical Buddhists. I am just seeking clarity on how you think of rebirth without literal karma^ , pretty uninterested in its psychological / self justification aspect, thanks.


a causal relationship between action (karma) and ‘fruit’ (phala), the latter being an experience of pleasure, pain or indifference for the agent of the action

  • What do you mean by "figuratively" when applied to karma? – ruben2020 Aug 28 at 11:05
  • that the agent of the action experiences its karmic result @ruben2020 i'd guess – user2512 Aug 28 at 11:30
  • isn't that what's called "literal"? – Andrei Volkov Aug 28 at 13:10
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    The question isn't clear to me. The reference doesn't mention "figurative". The word "figurative" to me means, "metaphorical". If you're asking about people who think of karma "figuratively" or "metaphorically" -- what is "karma" a "metaphor" of? Can you quote anyone describing it as a metaphor? And I think you're saying that people who think of karma "figuratively" think of rebirth as "figurative" too. So you're asking for any explanation of a "figurative" understanding of karma and of rebirth? But excluding any "psychological" aspect?? – ChrisW Aug 28 at 13:30
  • it just means non-literal, if you look it up @ChrisW – user2512 Aug 28 at 13:33

You are looking at karma and rebirth as having two different perspectives - figurative/ metaphorical or literal.

There's another two ways to look at this - "there is a self" and "all phenomena is not self".

If there is a self, you would think that the person who committed some action, would experience its results.

If there is a self, this self would be reborn after death. Most people take consciousness to be the self i.e. the same consciousness that moves throughout one's life and then after death, continues in another body.

What if all phenomena is not self?

From the SN 12.17 (although this quote comes from here):

Again, when the Buddha was asked by the naked ascetic Kassapa whether suffering was of one's own making or of another's or both or neither, the Buddha replied "Do not put it like that." When asked whether there was no suffering or whether the Buddha neither knew nor saw it, the Buddha replied that there was, and that he both knew and saw it. He then said "Kassapa, if one asserts that 'He who makes (it) feels (it): being one existent from the beginning, his suffering is of his own making,' then one arrives at eternalism. But if one asserts that one makes (it), another feels (it); being one existent crushed out by feeling, his suffering is of another's making,' then one arrives at annihilationism. Instead of resorting to either extreme a Tathaagata teaches the Dhamma by the middle way (by dependent origination)".

So, the Buddha taught karma, but he also taught anatta.

In AN 5.57 (below), the Buddha told us to think "I am the owner of my kamma, the heir of my kamma", but this is only a soteriological tool, a skillful means, and not proof that there is a self.

“And for the sake of what benefit should a woman or a man, a householder or one gone forth, often reflect thus: ‘I am the owner of my kamma, the heir of my kamma; I have kamma as my origin, kamma as my relative, kamma as my resort; I will be the heir of whatever kamma, good or bad, that I do’? People engage in misconduct by body, speech, and mind. But when one often reflects upon this theme, such misconduct is either completely abandoned or diminished. It is for the sake of this benefit that a woman or a man, a householder or one gone forth, should often reflect thus: ‘I am the owner of my kamma, the heir of my kamma; I have kamma as my origin, kamma as my relative, kamma as my resort; I will be the heir of whatever kamma, good or bad, that I do.’

And what about rebirth?

From MN 38:

As he was sitting there, the Blessed One said to him, "Is it true, Sāti, that this pernicious view has arisen in you — 'As I understand the Dhamma taught by the Blessed One, it is just this consciousness that runs and wanders on, not another'?"

"Exactly so, lord. As I understand the Dhamma taught by the Blessed One, it is just this consciousness that runs and wanders on, not another."

"Which consciousness, Sāti, is that?"

"This speaker, this knower, lord, that is sensitive here & there to the ripening of good & evil actions."

"And to whom, worthless man, do you understand me to have taught the Dhamma like that? Haven't I, in many ways, said of dependently co-arisen consciousness, 'Apart from a requisite condition, there is no coming-into-play of consciousness'? But you, through your own poor grasp, not only slander us but also dig yourself up [by the root] and produce much demerit for yourself. That will lead to your long-term harm & suffering."

When it comes to rebirth, you must ask WHO or WHAT is reborn?

Is it the self? Is it consciousness? None of these are permanent even in one's life. They are impermanent, conditioned, dependently arising and ceasing. The self is just a mental idea. Please see this answer.

So what is reborn? Well, suffering is reborn, and the mental idea of the self is reborn.

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I think of karma, seeds of karma, and fruits of karma as individual's action, latent effects of such action, and individual experience resulting from past action, correspondingly. Nothing more, nothing less. I don't read any unscientific mumbo-jumbo into these concepts, purely cause-and-effect.

I think of rebirth as a type of karmic process that spans multiple lifetimes. An action is performed in one life, its seeds remain latent after death, then in another life the effects of those actions influence, shape, and configure individual's background, environment, and therefore personality, in a certain way. Nothing more, nothing less. I don't read any unscientific mumbo-jumbo into these concepts, purely cause-and-effect.

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  • Are you saying that literally every cause-and-effect chain is a karmic process, even if a good intent produces negative results? – michau Sep 8 at 9:17
  • Of course, ignorance is a klesha too! – Andrei Volkov Sep 8 at 11:46
  • But is it ignorance when you have to choose between two evils, and choose the lesser one? – michau Sep 9 at 14:06
  • When there's choice, there's ignorance. When there's omniscience - the notion of "choice" is not applicable. – Andrei Volkov Sep 9 at 14:23

'Kamma' means 'intentional action' therefore is never 'figurative'.

As for the word 'rebirth' meaning 'reincarnation', there appears no equivalent Pali word in the original scriptures. Therefore what is actually 'figurative' is the idea of a 'rebirth after the ending of life'.

In original Buddhism, the literal meaning of 'death' ('marana') & 'following from' ('upapajjati') appears to refer to types of egoism or self-views.

SN 12.2 defines 'death' as the death of 'a being'. SN 23.2 & SN 5.10 define 'a being' as a state of attachment; as a view.

In summary, because of attachment or self-view, kamma is performed; and because of attachment or self-view, results of kamma are reaped.

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I don't know if you're familiar with psychology, but there's a theory there called the "Cycle of Violence", which holds that violent acts repeat themselves. They don't just repeat themselves within relationships — as each person in turn takes revenge or retribution for the other's violent behavior — but repeat across society as people turn their desire for retribution outward towards others. They even repeat across generations, where those who are exposed to violent acts as children expose their own children to violence. Exposure to violence creates a kind of 'resonance' such that violence arises in us and exposes others.

Expanding this idea brings us to a non-reincarnation understanding of karma. Every attitude we present to the world — anger, joy, avarice, fear, stubbornness, vanity, peace, etc — impacts those around us. And like tuning forks, others resonate to our attitude, sympathetically or discordantly, outwards to others and back to us, so that the whole world (to some limited extent) rings like a bell to our attitude. Once we're caught in that resonance, that tone keeps coming back to our lives; as that tone spreads outward, others get caught in it, and that tone keeps coming back to their lives.

If we think of the 'self' as the confluence of those attitudes (the collection of frequencies we resonate at), then that 'self' is constantly reconstructing itself out of its own echoes. Even after a body dies, that self still constantly reconstructs itself in other bodies that have been caught in the resonance.

The dharma, thus, is to still those resonances we do not wish to reconstruct themselves. By not taking those attitudes, and not resonating to them when we are exposed to them in the world, by stilling the self, we pass on only what is universal and good, and that 'self' never reconstitutes itself.

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If you assume no 'I' or '' mine', no rebirth.

If you assume 'I' or 'mine', rebirth makes sense.

The universe is empty, energy can only change forms. So for 'now', everywhere sums up to 0.

Flip 90 degrees, so for 'here' (I), everywhen sums up to 0.

This is kamma-vipaka. All action has entirely linear consequences overall. Good = good, bad = bad. This way, action can sum to 0.

But it is a lower truth - because it assumes an 'I', it is not worthy of monks, who must eschew all self concern.

An approximation, not unlike God as an approximation, except more accurate.

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I think of rebirth as the end of a life, nothing more, with the caveat that the agent experiences the result.

I do not know how to unpack that tension into everyday language, but such is the middle, anyway.

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    Each word by itself makes sense, but together it reads as utter nonsense, sorry. – Andrei Volkov Aug 28 at 19:07
  • ha, well at least there's that then. – user2512 Aug 28 at 19:53

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