Karma (from Sanskrit: action, work) is the energy which drives Saṃsāra, the cycle of suffering and rebirth for each being. Good, skillful (Pāli: kusala) and bad, unskillful (Pāli: akusala) actions produce “seeds” in the mind which come to fruition either in this life or in a subsequent rebirth. The avoidance of unwholesome actions and the cultivation of positive actions is called Śīla (from Sanskrit: ethical conduct).
In Buddhism, Karma specifically refers to those actions (of body, speech, and mind) that spring from mental intent (Pāli: cetana), and which bring about a consequence (or fruit, Sanskrit: phala) or result (Pāli: vipāka). Every time a person acts there is some quality of intention at the base of the mind and it is that quality rather than the outward appearance of the action that determines its effect.
In Theravada Buddhism there is no divine salvation or forgiveness for one’s Karma. Some Mahayana traditions hold different views. For example, the texts of certain Sutras (such as the Lotus Sutra, the Angulimaliya Sutra and the Nirvana Sutra) claim that reciting or merely hearing their texts can expunge great swathes of negative Karma. Similarly, the Japanese Pure Land teacher Genshin taught that Buddha Amitabha has the power to destroy the Karma that would otherwise bind one in Saṃsāra.
Each rebirth takes place within one of five realms, according to Theravadins, or six according to other schools.These are further subdivided into 31 planes of existence:
- Naraka beings: those who live in one of many Narakas (Hells)
- Animals: sharing some space with humans, but considered another type of life
- Preta: Sometimes sharing some space with humans, but invisible to most people; an important variety is the hungry ghost
- Human beings: one of the realms of rebirth in which attaining Nirvana is possible
- Asuras: variously translated as lowly deities, demons, titans, antigods; not recognized by Theravada (Mahavihara) tradition as a separate realm.
- Devas including Brahmas: variously translated as gods, deities, spirits, angels, or left untranslated
Rebirths in some of the higher heavens, known as the Śuddhāvāsa Worlds (Pure Abodes), can be attained only by anāgāmis (non-returners). Rebirths in the arupa-dhatu (formless realms) can be attained only by those who can meditate on the arupa-jhānas.
According to East Asian and Tibetan Buddhism, there is an intermediate state between one life and the next, but Theravada rejects this.
The Cycle of Samsara
Sentient beings crave pleasure and are averse to pain from birth to death. In being controlled by these attitudes, they perpetuate the cycle of conditioned existence and suffering (Samsara), and produce the causes and conditions of the next rebirth after death. Each rebirth repeats this process in an involuntary cycle, which Buddhists strive to end by eradicating these causes and conditions, applying the methods laid out by the Buddha.