Karma and Rebirth in Buddhism

Updated on February 2, 2017

Karma and Rebirth

Karma is defined as the result of intentional actions through body, speech, or mind [1].

These actions mold the conscious in a way that crafts one’s future life or rebirth.

The ripple effect is strong in all of Buddha’s teachings but strongest in karma’s influence on rebirth states.

Wholesome acts can lead to positive rebirths and eventual Nirvana, where unwholesome acts, driven by the three root evils center in The Wheel of Life produce unwholesome rebirths [1].

The Golden Rule of doing unto others as one would have done to him is the message in attaining a wholesome rebirth; be good, do good, and good will be the result.

Thusly, one must understand the cause and effect nature of life to understand the way out. The fabric of cause and effect relationships and how they mutually condition each other is the basis of karma [2].

Karma fuels the wheel of life, and only a life that is fruitful without regret can achieve Nirvana.

However, it is not that simple.

Simply being a good person will not give you a great rebirth or a way out. It is dependent on the degree of wholesomeness one acts upon, as well as the resolution of the Twelve Links.

In other words, there are different ‘prize levels’ one can achieve based on wholesomeness and understanding in his life.

  • The Hell Realms where one goes after self-indulgence and ignorance.
  • Hungry Ghosts for those who had earthly attachments they will return as a subtle part of the earth.
  • Animal Realm where a person driven by impulse lives in animalistic conditions.
  • The Human Realm where one is rewarded for good karma and moral and virtue are cultivated.
  • Lastly, the realm of Lower Gods where rebirths are for spirits who can assume human form but achieve a higher knowing and wholesomeness to arrive.

All realms are decided by the karma one created in his past life.

Interestingly, it is difficult to believe the Human realm is a rebirth for those who have achieved good karma and wholesomeness as we are surrounded by so many humans who are the opposite.

Then again, it may be arrogant to assume this is the Human realm at all. One can only find out by discovering the truths and overcoming suffering and ego.

How The Twelve Links Relate to Rebirth

As Buddha described in the Four Noble Truths, accepting them is key to having the ability to focus on changing the Twelve Links of Dependent Arising to discover why one’s life has suffering, how it impacts his consciousness, and change his thoughts, actions, and mentality to eventually escape the Wheel of Life.

Nirvana is the escape, and it is only achieved through extinguishing the fires of suffering that light the next to achieve clarity of mind, body, and spirit [1].

The fire is within all beings, it is a fire of passion, hatred, greed, perception, and ignorance that breathes life into suffering. Thus, to achieve an escape from rebirth, one must discover the core fire burning and what its main source of fuel is [1].

This requires taking self-inventory and admitting flaws that may be difficult to own. Once admitted, it requires dedication and change in thought and action. An arduous journey that when compared to self-indulgence is easier to ignore.

Thus, it may not be an oft traveled path. This path of Buddha’s Middle way requires the truth of oneself to be reviewed, owned, and changed. It is a life avoidant of sensual pleasures and self-torment by curing the cause of suffering, whatever it may be.

Envy, a desire to live forever, a refusal to accept death, a fear of dying, a lifelong pursuit of lasting happiness, crime, greed, hatred, violence, and self-centered thought and action are all ingredients to a batch of eternal rebirths and inability to escape suffering. With the physical nature of life, and all the temptations and perceptions shaped by society, it is difficult to let go of a self-centered or satiating path and be fully accountable.

Awakening is the Key to Escape the Cycle of Death and Rebirth

Buddha’s teachings make it clear that we are all accountable for our past, present and future. With his teachings one who is suffering in poverty, pain, and an unfortunate life is reaping what he has sown in his past life. His choices continue to create the karma that fuels the Wheel of Life for rebirth.

Buddha stated all karma must be destroyed to achieve awakening, because it is the very ticket to rebirth. Whether good or bad, it seems producing any sort of ripple in action is not good if it traps one. This is difficult to grasp. One would think good karma is the vehicle to escaping the cycle, and if it is not, how does one live without creating any karma at all? How does one escape without making any ripples?

The desire to escape with Buddha’s teachings is easily generated. To agree and understand life is not permanent and to realize it is full of suffering leads one to want to escape from it in any means necessary. Escaping from it is only achieved through changing deeds which lead to karma which lead to rebirth.

Because Karma is a fuel that can be burned off, it appears to be an indicator of lessons that still need to be learned. We are here because we have not yet learned all the lessons of life in all stages. Thus we must tend to the wild gardens of our life and prune them with insight.

We have a priceless opportunity to choose to create good karma through actions, thoughts, and perceptions which will result in more fortunate rebirths [3]. Yet a deeper understanding of impermanence, extinguishing dissatisfactions and suffering caused by poor choices, perception, and ego, and choosing to live a wholesome life are keys to escaping the rebirth cycle completely [1].

The meaning of life and the odyssey to discover it is rich with opportunities to reflect on one’s own thoughts, perceptions, and suffering. It can be uncomfortable, but necessary for change.

Although all things are in a constant state of change, only a person can change his thoughts and actions or they will remain the same. It is this requirement in life to prune the garden of the body, soul, and mind to break free from a world bound by suffering and evil.

A deeper understanding of why one lives the life he lives is the first step in discovering the truth to it. The truth is likely the door to a better world. Presumably only those who have awoken from the sleep of self-centeredness and suffering have passed through it.


[1] D. Mitchell and S. Jacoby, Buddhism: Introducing the Buddhist Experience, New York: Oxford University Press, 2014.

[2]P. Ratanakul, "The Buddhist Concept of Life, Suffering and Death, and Related Bioethical Issues," Eubios Journal of Asian and International Bioethics, pp. 1-10, 2004.

[3]W. King, "A BUDDHIST ETHIC WITHOUT KARMIC REBIRTH?," Journal of Buddhist Ethics, pp. 33-44, 1994.


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    • ValKaras profile image

      Val Karas 

      3 years ago from Canada

      Tara---I admire your presentation of the Buddha's teachings about karma---even though I can only agree with them partially.

      Namely, to avoid a lengthy argument, much of it is tailored for the folks of his times, when complexities of life could be boiled down to an almost monk-ish existence filled with meditation, yoga, concentration and contemplation.

      Yes, ego is the culprit to be defeated, and it can lead to a version of enlightenment suitable to modern life. I must say, not everybody is mentally "cut" to take that path. But the story could go much further, and suffice it to say that karma doesn't have to be all that "strict" a concept.

      For example, I am doing a version of qigong---doing the same goodness to me as that "ancient sacred qigong practice". And I am slipping into a theta brain wave state at will, which took ancient cave meditators decades to achieve.

      Many things are achievable without following the word of great teachers of the Mankind. And ego may be just a good meditation and self-hypnosis away from being "put out of business".

      However, don't take me wrong---I love ancient teachings, and your article is really a great presentation of the Buddha's teaching on karma. Thank you, Tara.

    • Larry Rankin profile image

      Larry Rankin 

      3 years ago from Oklahoma

      Another great read!

    • MizBejabbers profile image

      Doris James MizBejabbers 

      3 years ago from Beautiful South

      Karma is an interesting subject. Many people don't realize that a person can live a "godly" life of good thoughts and intentions, yet some of the vows they make can follow them into the next life. Unless those vows, superfluous to the present life, are dealt with in a positive manner, they can impede the progress of the present life. An example I can think of is that they wonder why the Law of Attraction doesn't work when they are carrying over vows of poverty and chastity from the life of a monk or nun.

      Very good article, Tara.


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