Karma is what is reborn. At the end of a life one looks back. A process of life review occurs. From this review something stands out as the hallmark of the life that has been lived. Perhaps it was a particular meeting: “In this life I met Tom.” Perhaps Tom was the great love of one’s life. Or, perhaps, Tom was a Buddha or great exemplar whose influence made all the difference. Or, perhaps Tom was an enemy that one cannot forgive or forget. Or, what stands out might be an event or circumstance, especially one that is in some sense unfinished business.

Whatever it may be this image will survive the bardo and form the foundation (bhavanga) of the next life. If the root of the bhavanga is the memory that one never succeeded in getting revenge on one’s enemy, then in the new life there will be a persistent tendency toward vengeance, bitterness and frustration. If the root of the bhavanga is the memory that one met a Biuddha, then in the new life there will be a continual pull toward the holy life. And so on.

The bhavanga never becomes conscious. It is an undertow in life. Although it is a persistent condition that pervades life, it is not completely coercive. It is possible for a person to rise above their nature. Buddhism is not deterministic.

Thus, in one sense, a person is nothing but their karma. The karmic continuum makes them what they are. On the other hand, it is in the nature of karma that there is always a window of freedom. Liberation, as it were, leaps free from karma itself.

A person is their karma, but this means that they are a reflection of their world. A living being is a mirror of the universe. Whether a mirror is round or square it is always reflecting and it does not have to do anything in order to reflect. Karma may mean that the reflection is distorted, but it is still a reflection of everything just as it is. What is in the mirror is really neither good nor bad, it is just so.

Everything that is reflected in the mirror is other than self. Thus it is Dharma. Karma thus puts one in the position to be totally and eternally filled with Dharma. The distortion of the Dharma generates new karma. The presence of the Dharma makes liberation a perennial and ineradicable possibility.

Thus, in the full sense, a person is not just a body, but is the whole universe reflected as a body and a whole body reflecting the universe. Thus, action is the universe making use of the universe and doing so in a more or less skilful manner. When there is much need there is much use; when there is little need there is little use; but it is never the case that the whole universe is making use of the whole body, nor that the whole body is making use of the whole universe. One simply goes on making use according to circumstance. The miscellaneous circumstances of daily life are the ground of delusion and enlightenment.

The Buddhadharma exists because of this eternal incompleteness. Since the whole is never using the whole there is a dynamic and so we have deeds that are generous or mean, compassionate or cruel, skilful or foolish and, accordingly, karma continues to unfold, life after life, world after world, never reaching an end.

However, Buddha says that there is an end to all this. There is a stage in which one can know that what needed to be done has been done. And this might not be any different from cutting wood and fetching water.

If, at the end of life, one can look back down the years without regret, it will not matter what experiences one then encounters, one will pass through whatever fires there may be.

Now if what is reborn is karma, it follows that if there were no karma there would be no rebirth and many Buddhist texts refer to this possibility. This raises the interesting question of what having no karma might mean. What would it look like. We shall come back to this question.

However, we can at this point deal with a related matter. There is a common idea that what is necessary is to pay off one’s karmic debt. This idea has a venerable history, but it is not Buddhist. In the original Vedic notion of karma it was understood rather in such terms, and especially in the sense that one owed a debt to the ancestors and spirits who had granted one a human existence. In that version, the paying off of karma was mainly a ritual matter. One had to support the deities by sacrifice and ceremony. Around the time of Buddha a number of other sages advanced a more moralised version of this idea. The Jains, for instance, believed in penance. By voluntarily taking on suffering one could pay off one’s karmic debt for misdeeds committed in previous existence. The Buddha agreed that karma was a matter of action bearing fruit but he did not believe in penance. He had tried it and found it wanting.

Thus, in the Buddhist scheme of things, enlightenment is an ever present possibility even for the person laden with the heaviest karma. For sure there were some later controversies about whether or not those most extremely so laden were not “ichantika” - beyond salvation - but the general conclusion was that the idea of ichantika was a false doctrine. Even the most sinful person can attain liberation. Indeed, it might actually be the person whose karma is most gross who wakes up to the fact more quickly. In any case, the whole purpose of Buddha in teaching was to reach karma laden beings - only the bombu are saved.

So escape from the wheel of rebirth, in Buddhism, is not a matter of paying off karma but of leaping free from it by virtue of an insight into human nature that gives rise to compassion and wisdom.

However, here arises a further seeming problem. Being caught up in karma is delusion, which we can take to be the absence of such insight. Now delusion only gives rise to more delusion, just as karma, of itself, only leads to more karma. Thus, the realm of enlightenment has to be conceived of as in some real sense completely separate and detached from the world of karma and delusion. This means that there is nothing that one can do within the realm of karma and delusion that will generate enlightenment. There is no method. Another way of saying the same thing is that there is no condition that can give rise to the unconditioned.

This is why enlightenment is sudden and discontinuous with the prior unenlightened state. Thus, it can be said that enlightenment has a past and a future and delusion has a past and a future, but the past of enlightenment is not delusion. The past of enlightenment is only the enlightenment of all Buddhas from beginingless time. The past and future of delusion is more delusion.

The ordinary deluded person thinks of enlightenment as a kind of potential possession: something that he or she is going to get, possess and benefit from as a kind of reward. This is certainly delusion. The enlightened person is only aware of delusion being ceaselessly enlightened, which is to say, things taking their natural course.

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