I just read a lovely little book by Jeffrey Armstrong* called Karma: The Ancient Science of Cause and effect (Mandala Wisdom Library, 2007). It’s an explanation, in laymen’s terms, of the concept of karma and rebirth, taken from the Vedas. It’s not an explanation of Buddhist concepts of karma and rebirth. Armstrong states that all t he concepts are from the Vedic literature. (Other scholars of the Sramana claim that it originates from the Jains.) If you read it, you would swear it was Buddhist doctrine. The amazing thing is that every single concept sounds like it came from a Buddhist pamphlet: karma and rebirth, “birth, old age, sickness and death”; the several kinds of karma, the cycle of samsara, the wheel of rebirth, and so on. In other words, every single concept that we think of as Buddhist is not Buddhist but Vedic in origin. (Alternatively, some scholars say it originates with the Sramana, particularly the Jains, and was incorporated into the Vedic system by the Jains.) The Buddhists didn’t invent any of these ideas, they just interpreted them to fit their perspective. I have always felt that Buddhism doesn’t really make sense until you understand it within the context of the Vedas and the Upanishads. Buddhism draws from Vedic culture and is a response to the Upanishads, sometimes adopting these concepts wholly, sometimes differing from them.
But if you understand the Vedic concept of karma and rebirth as a Vedic worldview, then you can understand what the Buddha taught that was so radical and revolutionary for his time. Because amid all these pages and chapters on karma and rebirth, which is a very elaborate schema, what you won’t find is the one idea that is truly Buddhist: anatta, or ‘non-self’.
First, please you must get through your head the Vedic concept of self or atman. “Self” in the Vedic belief system is not your brain, mind, personality, ego, what today we call the psychological, personal “self”. ‘Self’ in the Vedic belief system is what we Westerners usually call “the Soul”, an eternal being or spirit that is pure consciousness that can take several kinds of bodies, that transmigrates from life to life, body to body, in a path of reincarnation or “rebirth,” from lowest life form to highest life form. This eternal Soul or Atman pre-exists embodied life and lives eternally, beyond embodied life. (The Jains also believed in an individual Atman that transmigrates to successive bodies.) Once the Soul takes a human body, then it goes through the cycle of rebirths in the caste system, from lowest to highest castes. Furthermore this ‘Self’ or Atman can take the form of a ‘god’ or ‘deva’ as well. “Moksha” or liberation happens when the Soul or ‘Self’ or pure Consciousness is permanently released from the physical and subtle bodies and from all future bodies, and exists once again as pure Consciousness, as pure Spirit, at one with Brahma.
The whole Vedic system of karma and rebirth is absolutely dependent on the presumed existence of this eternal ‘Self’ or Atman. If there is no eternal ‘Self’ or Atman that transmigrates from life to life, reaping the reward or punishment for its prior acts, then the whole Vedic system of karma and rebirth literally collapses as a cosmological system. It just goes “poof.”
So that’s what the Buddha did. He declared “anatta”, non-self, that there is no eternally existing ‘Self’ or Atman that transmigrates from life to life, body to body. By doing so, he utterly destroyed the entire Vedic system of karma and rebirth, samsara, moksha and so on. Thus he declared that the Vedic law of karma and rebirth, samsara, and all the rest had no authority over him and no effect on his life. It was all bunk.
The so-called “Buddhist concept of karma and rebirth” is not Buddhist at all but Vedic. And the Buddha destroyed that whole cosmological system by declaring anatta or non-self. That’s why anatta is the only truly Buddhist concept and the most critical one to the Buddha’s teaching.
The Vedic system has a theory of cause and effect as well, but heres the difference: Buddha used patticcasamutpada to explain how consciousness arises, that it arises ‘dependent on causes and conditions’ from form, feeling, perception, formation, consciousness. You see, the Vedas presume that the nature of the ‘Self’ or Atman is pure consciousness, that consciousness is eternally existing; in fact, it’s the only thing that is eternally existing.
The Buddha said, “no, there is no eternally existing Consciousness, no Atman, no ‘Self”. Thus consciousness is impermanent, as dependent on causes and conditions as everything else. In fact, the whole point of the teaching of the Five Skandas, or patticcasmutpada, is to show the practitioner exactly how consciousness arises, how it is dependent on the existence of the body, and since the body is impermanent, so is consciousness.
So by understanding that there is no eternally existing consciousness or ‘Self’, or Atman, the Buddha destroyed the entire Vedic cosmology, including all the “fetters” of being caught up in the chains of karma, the wheel of rebirth, samsara, the whole shooting match. He pulled the lynchpin that made it all fall apart, pulled the thread that made it all unravel. By doing so, Buddha so much as declared that he was instantly freed from the whole Vedic cosmology that had him and his compatriots seemingly trapped forever in a system of beliefs that no one could break out of. He liberated himself from the whole system, including the caste system that formed part of its structure.
That’s why the Buddha’s concept of ‘non-self’ was so radical and so liberating at the time. But ‘non-self’ doesn’t mean that you don’t have a human personality. That is precisely what you do have because it arises from the body, from the five skandhas including consciousness, from causes and conditions, and it’s impermanent.
When the Abbdhidharma tells you to “look at the five skandhas”, and asks: “is there a ‘Self’ there?” it’s ‘Self’ in the Vedic sense of an eternally existing Soul or Atman. Obviously, there is no Soul in the five skandhas; there’s just form, feeling, perception, formation, consciousness that makes up you, but not an eternal Soul or Atman or ‘Self’.
One can take the concept of non-self a bit further and say that no material object has any essential essence or permanent existence, but don’t overdo it, and don’t overthink it. Don’t make the mistake that most people make and say that “nothing has any real existence” which is nihilism. Material objects have real existence, just no permenant existence or unchanging essence.
The Vedic system of karma and rebirth was nothing more than a system of beliefs, and a misconception of the nature of life and consciousness. Thus ‘right view’ is essential to Buddhist liberation. Its perfectly ok to have useful concepts of various kinds, so long as one does not mistake them for ‘reality’ or ‘truth.’ They are nothing more than constructs.
Since the take-down of the Vedic belief system involves a loss of its system of morality, the Buddha offers the eight-fold path and the five precepts (paramitas, etc,), an ethical way of life that one lives outside the Vedic system of karma. The practitioner practices meditation and perceives empirical reality through experience rather than through an unprovable mythical belief system. The practitioner deconstructs all such metaphysical and cosmological ‘views’, and thus deconstructs their power and authority over him. Seen this way, the Buddha was a radical empiricist.
As Alice said at the end of her Adventures In Wonderland, “Why, you’re nothing more than a pack of cards.”
*Jeffery Armstrong is a Vedic scholar who has written several books on Yogic and Vedanta systems.