Sayadaw U Tejaniya responds to a question about karma and rebirth during a reporting session at the IMS Dhamma Everywhere Retreat (full audio here).
This is the first time I heard him speak directly to this issue and I found his reply very confirming. Though he doesn’t explicitly speak to the literal interpretation and leaves open a range of interpretations on this issue, I asked him to clarify my own understanding later and questioned him if what was really important in the concept of rebirth was the moment to moment arising and passing away as opposed to what happens when this body dies, and he said yes.
The transcription is my own, I have not included every word and I ask that you forgive me for any discrepancy in the audio recording. The run time of the audio clip is just under 7 minutes, translation and all.
Translation: MaThet (Moushumi) Ghosh
The questioner (Q) is a yogi/retreatant and the respondent (A) is Sayadaw U Tejaniya as translated by MaThet. Steve Armstrong, an American teacher in the insight meditation tradition, also a student of SUT, comments.
Q: How does bad karma follow you, how does it know to attach to you? How does your bad karma in this life follow you in the next life if there is no self to identify to?
A: I’ll try to explain. You know that because of wrong view, there is nama-rupa. Yes? We know that. And this nama-rupa continues because of the wrong view. So wrong view is the cause for the nama-rupa to continue existing, yes? So, now, each nama-rupa arises to pass away. So the nama-rupa is gone. But because delusion is still present, the next nama-rupa arises. But where does this next nama-rupa get its qualities from? It gets it from the previous one which disappeared.
[Translator: So there’s an example of a lighted candle, where the fire is given to the next candle. Where you know this candle is not that candle, but the qualities are passed on so there’s a chain of causation. So although the father nama-rupa lives and dies and then the son comes up, the son takes qualities from that father and then passes those qualities on to his son when he dies.]
Q: So it takes a “life of its own” and just follows you?
A: It has its feeling itself, so long as delusion (avija) is present. So that’s why an arhant no longer has that avija, and there is no longer cause and effect, nobody there, nobody who goes to nibbana.
[Translator: I mean he’s explained about the avija in the other sessions, how dependent origination doesn’t happen one by one, it’s simultaneous. So you’re given a whole chain from avija to nama-rupa. And the moment avija is there, there’s already nama-rupa. It’s a cause and effect chain. It’s sort of like when the sun rises there’s light. It’s simultaneous. You cannot take one away without the other.]
Q: I thought it was a chain of cause and effect. It’s simultaneous?
S.A. It’s a chain of cause and effect but not a time change.
[Translator: All together.]
A: So there are two wrong views associated with this chain of cause and effect, this nama-rupa. 1) Thinking that the form—the conceptual form it takes in a lifetime, a person who is carrying this nama-rupa—carries on in another form after this lifetime and is a completely different person. That’s a kind of wrong view, that everything ends in this life. That this nama-rupa ends and it has nothing to do with the next. That’s one kind of wrong view. 2) The other wrong view is to think that the first nama-rupa is the last nama-rupa, that this person in this lifetime continues in different names for the rest of his lifetimes until he’s enlightened. It’s Joe who changed names to Nancy and so on … that’s wrong view … that there’s a soul so to speak.
Q: But the consciousness has a kind of ID marker that the karma can find and follow?
A: So, it’s like this: although this nama-rupa is not the next nama-rupa, the next nama-rupa still bears the effects of the last nama-rupa. So if this nama-rupa has a lot of kusala, then the next nama-rupa will inherit it, and depending on what this nama-rupa does with it, it will pass it on to the next one. So, you know, all this can change. Sometimes it’s going up, sometimes going down. Because each one has a minuscule part to play in the whole chain.
Arhant: One who has attained liberation from suffering and the cycle of birth and death.
Kusala: wholesome, skillful, good, meritorious.
Nama-rupa: (lit. ‘name and form’). Mind-and-Body, mentality and corporeality.
Nibbana (Skt: nirvana): liberation, the ending of suffering.
Paticca samuppada: dependent origination, dependent arising and so on is a key doctrine in early Buddhist thought and can be understood most simply as the process that leads from ignorance to rebirth.
Right attitude or right view (the opposite of wrong view) in Sayadaw U Tejaniya’s teachings - available in 11 languages on his site, free for downloading as “23 Points”
Posts on this Tumblr tagged with dependent origination
A progressive view on rebirth with link to Buddhadasa Bhikkhu essay on anatta and rebirth