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Correct me if I'm wrong about my current understanding of Buddhism: There is no eternal self or essence in me, but I am just a conditioned-self, an illusion created by the interaction of the five aggregates. Each time I do something, or will something, its this distorted conditioned-self in play, right?

Now, I want to understand what happens to this conditioned self when we die. You say its just an illusion, but lets take a practical example: A person dies in New York, and then is being reborn in Washington D.C the next moment. So here, you want to say the conditioned-self (illusion) travelled all the way from New York to D.C. to affect his/her next birth?

As a corollary to this question, I would also like to understand the technicality of kamma. Say a person violates the precept of non-killing in New York in his/her present birth. How does the kamma know whom to punish 50 years later when that same person is reborn in D.C.? (You may say here that there is no external law-maker, but kamma is just in our minds. But that's still begging the question - How does it know whom to punish 50 years later?)

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The question of how karma works in light of the concept of non-self has been answered several times on this site (see "Related" in the sidebar). That being said, you raise a couple of interesting objections, namely the seemingly impossible jump through time and space.

First, let's be clear. The Buddha never said "there is no self". What he did say is that all things are non-self and that he didn't see any view of self that wouldn't lead to suffering for someone who held it. This may sound like splitting hairs, but it is important in helping understand the nature of reality, as well as karma and rebirth.

Reality, according to the Buddha, is experience-based; this means that, to some extent, even time and space are dependent on the mind. This is why body and mind (naama-ruupa) are said to be dependent on consciousness (vi~n~naa.na). Experience doesn't admit of things like "self" or "soul", or "cat" or "dog", for that matter. But it also doesn't admit of existential questions like "is there a self?" The question itself doesn't work in an experiential paradigm, since there is no impersonal spatio-temporal framework in which to place the object in question. "Is there a cat in the room?" requires the existence of a room to make sense.

In fact, experience doesn't admit of continuity, either, which is perhaps more pertinent to your question. The mind only lasts for a moment, being defined as the awareness of a single experience, arising and ceasing with the object of experience. Hearing this, it is common to question how rebirth and karma can therefore have any effect over space-time. Given, however, the premise that reality is based on experience, such questions are a matter of a conflation of paradigms.

Simply put, the mind doesn't move from one place to another, or last from one moment (or life) to another, "place" and "time" are considered a product of experience. An experience of seeing is "real" whether it occurs with eyes opened or closed. The idea that "I am in this room" is only valid in the context of the experiences that give rise to it.

I recently had an opportunity to watch a demo on Occulus Rift, my first experience of virtual reality. It's amazing how easily the mind is completely tricked into thinking that what it sees is "real". But that is the point; it is real, from within an experiential paradigm.

Scientists have done studies wherein they tricked a subject into thinking they were behind themselves, and the subject felt like they were outside their bodies. When sleeping, it is common for people to have out-of-body experiences. Near death, it is common to have OOBEs or or even visions of other worlds or deceased individuals. Some people claim to be visited by people who have recently died, or are on their death bed in far away cities. All of this is anecdotal, but it lends credence to the idea that the mind is at least somewhat independent of space, which from a Buddhist point of view is empirically true.

So, to actually answering your question, how does it work? The mind doesn't travel through space or time, space and time are a product of matter, which in turn is at least somewhat dependent on the mind ("Interdependent with" might be a better description). During life, body and mind work together to create the illusion of an impersonal spatio-temporal reality that is, in reality, made up of a causal framework (i.e. based on cause and effect) of momentary experiences that affect each other and direct one's life according to one's past deeds.

At the moment of death, something weird happens, but not categorically different. "The mind" has been habitually focussed on "the body", meaning that there is a habit for most experiences to occur in a specific locale, dependent on specific stimuli. The body, for all intents and purposes, is more like a prison than a progenitor for the mind. This is why OOBEs are uncommon and NDEs are actually fairly common (~20% by one doctor's estimation). Even still, the mind is capable of procuring visions of far away places and long-lost memories, especially when the body is dormant (i.e. dreaming when asleep).

At the moment of death, however, there is no pull of attraction to the body, so the mind is (mostly) free to wander. Strange things apparently happen after physical death, but eventually the mind states coalesce and decide upon a new object of attachment, usually based on old, engrained habits (humans become humans, etc.). As a result, and based on various karmic qualities, a new path is chosen and set out upon, giving rise to rebirth. This may lead the mind to appear to "travel" thousands or even millions or billions of kilometres in a moment, but what is really happening is that the new physical phenomena are being created by the mind, wherever the mind happens to incline. I.e., the newborn foetus's mind is affected by the prior mind of the being to be born, regardless of "where" that mind occurred.

This concept of "movement" of the mind from one location to another actually occurs all the time; in human life, however, it is loosely limited to the confines of this six-foot frame. The point is, space-time is dependent on matter, not the other way around, and the mind is not entirely dependent on either (being able to remember past (and present) lives and even have visions of the future). This doesn't mean that the mind is entirely free to do as it chooses, it just means that it is confined to a different set of laws, ones that don't preclude the potential for it to arise in conjunction with physical phenomena in diverse reaches of the physical universe.

Interestingly, there are stories in the texts of rebirth-preparatory matter arising before one's mental relocation; mansions arising spontaneously in heaven to await their master who is busy doing good deeds on Earth, for example. This only presents difficulty if we are stuck in a spatio-temporal, impersonal paradigm for reality, which from a Buddhist point of view is absolutely false.

Karma is far more complex, but not difficult to understand in principle. The interactions between streams of conscious experience is causal as well, and leads beings to be reborn in connection with other beings who share their karmic histories, simply based on the energy of their past interactions, similar to the complex attractions and repulsions between physical particles. So, fifty years later, something you did in a past life might come back to kick you in the pants, just like a rock you throw away from the Earth can come back to hit you on the head. More importantly, everything we do at every moment has the potential to affect the immediate direction of the individual, meaning karma is very much about momentary causality, rather than future incidental results.

Sorry for the length, but I think this is actually a very important issue; what seems like a bit of tangential dilemma from a practical meditative point of view turns out to be a crucial sticking point towards proper understanding of reality and giving up views of self. Ultimately, however, you can only really understand these concepts by meditation on experiential reality; be reassured, however, that that is all it takes - no abstract ratiocination required :)

  • Thank you for this detailed answer. It's actually helpful in answering something I had asked about here: buddhism.stackexchange.com/questions/7308/… :) – Robin111 Feb 22 '15 at 13:42
  • What do you mean when you write "mind"? Is it nāma, the four aggregates other than rūpa? – michau Feb 23 '15 at 8:15
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    @michau yes, that is what I mean. – yuttadhammo Feb 24 '15 at 5:14
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Check out my answer to a different question which answers your question about what happens to this "self" when it dies. That answer I made is the product of 10 years of passionate research into Buddhism and is delicately interwoven with many different topics in Buddhism. I am assuming you will need to heavily research the topics as well.

How does it [karma] know whom to punish 50 years later?

It's just as if a man were wounded with an arrow thickly smeared with poison. His friends & companions, kinsmen & relatives would provide him with a surgeon, and the man would say, 'I won't have this arrow removed until I know whether the man who wounded me was a noble warrior, a priest, a merchant, or a worker.' He would say, 'I won't have this arrow removed until I know the given name & clan name of the man who wounded me... until I know whether he was tall, medium, or short... until I know whether he was dark, ruddy-brown, or golden-colored... until I know his home village, town, or city... until I know whether the bow with which I was wounded was a long bow or a crossbow... until I know whether the bowstring with which I was wounded was fiber, bamboo threads, sinew, hemp, or bark... until I know whether the shaft with which I was wounded was wild or cultivated... until I know whether the feathers of the shaft with which I was wounded were those of a vulture, a stork, a hawk, a peacock, or another bird... until I know whether the shaft with which I was wounded was bound with the sinew of an ox, a water buffalo, a langur, or a monkey.' He would say, 'I won't have this arrow removed until I know whether the shaft with which I was wounded was that of a common arrow, a curved arrow, a barbed, a calf-toothed, or an oleander arrow.' The man would die and those things would still remain unknown to him.

—Cula-Malunkyovada Sutta: The Shorter Instructions to Malunkya" (MN 63), Majjhima Nikaya

Although there are plenty of suttas, particularly the Surangama Sutra, where the Buddha analyzes karmic causes, in Buddhism it is emphasized that the precise mechanisms of karma is not important to fully understand basically because it is a waste of life to watch and write about every domino that hits another domino when we have the antidote (The Four Noble Truths) right under our nose!

Karma is mind-made made as you have said and analyzing the contents of the mind is not always beneficial. In Buddhism, oftentimes, the solution to issues is to not be stuck in analyzing, but to learn to just be. To learn to just be there and be aware and calm without trying. Can you do this? It's hard isn't it? Nonetheless, it is a big part of Buddhist training.

All you need to know is that there are beneficial results from doing beneficial things (whether to oneself or to others) and harmful results from doing harmful things (to oneself and others).

The reason for this is because we are not self, we are all actually One Thing aka The Universe.

There is no self.

Hurting others is hurting oneself. Hurting oneself is hurting others.

Knowing this much one should make sure to avoid all errors and strive to follow the 4 Noble Truths exactly first and cut off all wandering thoughts because the opportunity we have in this life is rare! In this way, following the precepts is a child's game!

Now... to answer your question: because the 8th consciousness (alaya) stores all the seeds of all actions and reactions until the right time and conditions come for the reward/retribution to come forth, creating even more seeds... This part of your consciousness is like a massive calculator and storehouse combined into one, it's really messy and ugly and mean because all those seeds will fruition just when the right causes come. The collective storehouse is the same for the person reincarnation 50 years later. The karmic act of evil (the seed) may need time to grow and ferment sometimes many lives because there are four types of karma.

Anyway, not that important to understand especially because when you achieve dhyana, you will be able to see all your karma and answer all these (seemingly relevant but Actually irrelevant) questions on your own with direct true knowing aka prajna insight.

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"[...]lets take a practical example: A person dies in New York, and then is being reborn in Washington D.C the next moment. So here, you want to say the conditioned-self (illusion) travelled all the way from New York to D.C. to affect his/her next birth?"

In the suttas, we read:

[...] some beings here, with the breakup of the body, after death, are reborn in the plane of [...]

In the canon there is little more than that about that intermediary stage. So, grossly speaking, the example is assuming that:

  • after death, there is, momentarily, a conditioned self (4 aggregates?)
  • these four aggregates travel through space
  • they do so to affect the next birth

Naturally, one could not state the above solely based on that single line; most of what was recorded about rebirth says "... upon death, the being reappears at ...".

However, other things are said in the suttas. It is asserted that the D.C person becoming is conditioned by the NY person. The later "inherits" the former's kamma, and is somewhat of a product of that kamma.

Furthermore, it's implied that the D.C person is "the same" as the NY person when the suttas say "he died and reappeared at ...", otherwise it would just be said "people appears" -- but that would be in synch with annihilationism. However, it is also implied he is "not the same" as the NY person. Thus, the popular punch line: "he is not the same nor he is another".

Now, as far as physics goes, traveling might not be necessary. Nor "affect". Simply "appearing" could suffice. But this as far as I'll go on the speculation route.

"Say a person violates the precept of non-killing in New York in his/her present birth. How does the kamma know whom to punish 50 years later when that same person is reborn in D.C.?"

Well, of course, kamma doesn't really "knows" or "punishes". It's as punishing as the redness on the skin after scratching it.

Things happen, reactions are manifested. And everything, being the product of the entire past, carries finger prints of the entire past. And these finger prints find their way to expressing themselves when the environment favors it (be it in the next moment, 50 years, or aeons later).

"[...]But that's still begging the question - How does it know whom to punish 50 years later?"

I don't know. Nobody is believed to know the exact mechanics of kamma.

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Let me try to give "non-canonical" answers today. Please excuse any pun or humour.

I am just a conditioned-self, an illusion created by the interaction of the five aggregates. Each time I do something, or will something, its this distorted conditioned-self in play, right?

It's just like on your Windows PC, you have many programs or applications or windows like Microsoft Word, Firefox, Notepad, Skype etc. Each are different windows you can open, close, minimize, maximize etc. You can do productive stuff on them. They are real. You can use them. But in reality, it is caused by the interactions of machine code in the processor and memories, which itself is caused by the controlled movement of electrons (aka electronics). The windows are real, but they are not permanent and they arise out of the interactions of the various processes.

So, you can say, "all software is not permanent" and "all phenomena is not program". Or there is no permanent "program" (self) behind Firefox that is responsible to decide all that it does. But it does appear like that, doesn't it? Actually, it's the inter-working between various processes and components.

A person dies in New York, and then is being reborn in Washington D.C the next moment. So here, you want to say the conditioned-self (illusion) travelled all the way from New York to D.C. to affect his/her next birth?

It's not something physical that is transferred. It's information. You don't have to take out the harddisk from one computer and place it in another to use Skype there. You just need to copy the Skype software and your previous history onto it. The new physical computer is completely different from the old one. But it's only the software that gets transferred. When you start it, the Skype appears as real as the previous one, and with the previous state too. But it's still not permanent, and is the result of the interaction between many processes.

The idea that thinking about New York takes about as much time as thinking about Singapore or heavan, is found in Milindapanha 3.7.4.

How does the kamma know whom to punish 50 years later when that same person is reborn in D.C.? (You may say here that there is no external law-maker, but kamma is just in our minds. But that's still begging the question - How does it know whom to punish 50 years later?)

From Wikipedia, you can read the story of Joseph Ratzinger. As a five year old boy, he was awe-struck by the distinctive robes of the visiting Cardinal Archbishop of Munich and the ceremonies to grandly welcome him. Little Ratzinger announced that very day that he too would one day become a cardinal.

He became Pope Benedict XVI 73 years later. During his papacy, he reintroduced the traditional red papal shoes, the traditional red papal camel skin hat (camauro) and the traditional red wide-brimmed hat (capello romano). He also reintroduced an old version of the pallium and also the papal fanon. All of these grand papal vestments were not in use for many papacies but were revived again by Pope Benedict XVI. However, I think Pope Francis has dropped most of these for simpler garb.

So, my point is that karma is not a system of justice and retribution, but rather, cause and effect. The seed of thought that appeared in the mind of a 5-year old boy with regards to the grand attire of a cardinal, drove him towards becoming a pope 73 years later, who had a personal interest in reviving the use of old grand vestments.

(By the way, I'm not ridiculing the good pope. He was certainly very qualified for the role, and was not too attached to it, that he voluntarily gave it up when he felt that he was no longer physically fit to fulfil it. He now wears simple papal robes and does not interfere with or criticize the decisions made by his successor)

Similarly, our thoughts and actions (karma) shape our inclinations and our future. By some mechanism that I don't understand, our karma also shapes our future (next life) physical forms, families that we are born in and, the fortunes or misfortunes that we experience. They were not meted out by a judge, but they were manifested as effects due to past causes.

  • I'm happy to read your non-canonical answer and explanation. It was refreshingly original. The example of the Pope -- not typical on this site -- is also much appreciate. – Krishnaraj Rao Sep 24 '15 at 17:47
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I once listened to a talk by a monk who gave a good metaphor on this. He said that one should think of rebirth as a mango tree. Lets say you have a mango tree in your garden. Some day that mango tree will blossom if the right conditions are made.

If the right conditions are there mango fruits will appear on the tree. At some point a mango fruit will fall from the tree and land on the earth. After a while the seed of that mango fruit will become a new mango tree if the right conditions are met.

In that way there is a continuation of the mango tree. Its not the same one as the prior tree but at the same time its not completely different.

Another example could be a candlelight with a flame. Let say you have a candlelight and you then use that candlelight to ignite a new candlelight. Is that then the same flame? No but its not entirely different either.

Regarding your question about kamma.

This is actually one of The Four Imponderables - Acinteyya (AN: 4.77 - Acintita Sutta). These are questions that the Buddha said one should not think about.

Why?

Because they will only leave the mind distressed and agitated. The interplay between objects are so complex that one can never fully understand it. Unless one is a Buddha one should not bother with these questions.

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