Buddhism and the Law of Karma

Physical scientists focus on and describe the laws that govern the operations of matter and energy on the material plane. They are unable, however, to provide us any realistic insight to the operation of moral and ethical laws for our higher emotional and mental parts of our being. Buddhism however takes up this challenge and proposes a schema of law and organized action for the moral being of man, through their discussion of the law of karma. The Buddhist framework provides us the system that explains and helps us to gain mastery over our moral and ethical impulses and our relationships to the social organization of life.

At the same time, just as the physical scientists cannot and do not explain anything beyond the physical laws of nature, the Buddhist conception assigns what is beyond our human range to a silent, uninvolved status, called Nirvana, which is beyond the impulsions of the senses and the force of desire, and therefore, is the place where the law of karma is dissolved into a Oneness of quiescence.

Sri Aurobindo, while acknowledging the progress represented by the Buddhist conception, also notes that it has a similar gap when it goes beyond the mental/emotional status of humanity, to what the physical scientist has when he tries to go beyond physical, material nature.

Sri Aurobindo advises that just as the next stage of progress revealed the operations of a set of principles, so also when we move beyond the limitations of the human mental framework, we can expect to find another level and a corresponding set of principles operative there.

“It is by no means so certain that a high spiritual negation of what I am is my only possible road to perfection; a high spiritual affirmation and absolute of what I am may be also a feasible way and gate.”

“To the everlasting No the living being may resign itself by an effort, a sorrowful or a superb turning upon itself and existence, but the everlasting Yes is its native attraction: our spiritual orientation, the magnetism that draws the soul, is to eternal Being and not to eternal Non-Being.”

Sri Aurobindo, Rebirth and Karma, Section I, Chapter 8, Karma, pp. 72-73,

Implications of the Buddhist Approach to Rebirth

The Buddhist approaches recognizes rebirth as well as karma. It starts from the mechanical recurrence proposition for the physical existence, and recognizes that there is an energy that propels this rebirth process forward according to the chain of cause and effect, karma. Buddhism however does not accept nor recognize any eternity to the soul; rather it treats the soul much in the same way it treats the body, as a phenomenon of the mechanical cause and effect which acts based on the desire-will.

Sri Aurobindo describes it thus: “As this constant hereditary succession of lives is a prolongation of the one universal principle of life by a continued creation of similar bodies, a mechanical recurrence, so the system of soul rebirth too is a constant prolongation of the principle of the soul-life by a continued creation through Karma of similar embodied associations and experiences, a mechanical recurrence. As the cause of all this physical birth and long hereditary continuation is an obscure will to life in Matter, so the cause of continued soul birth is an ignorant desire or will to be in the universal energy of Karma. As the constant wheelings of the universe and the motions of its forces generate individual existences who escape from or end in being by an individual dissolution, so there is this constant wheel of becoming and motion of Karma which forms into individualised soul-lives that must escape from their continuity by a dissolving cessation. An extinction of the embodied consciousness is our apparent material end; for soul too the end is extinction, the blank satisfaction of Nothingness or some ineffable bliss of a superconscient Non-Being. The affirmation of the mechanical occurrence or recurrence of birth is the essence of this view; but while the bodily life suffers an enforced end and dissolution, the soul life ceases by a willed self-extinction.”

The Buddhist view is, in its own right, an enormous progress from the view that treats life and physical existence purely as consisting of an essentially meaningless procession of days ending in death with no purpose or significance; but it does not yet provide us any affirmative rationale for the existence of the universe and the entire structure of life and being.

Sri Aurobindo,