This Dark Age

A manual for life in the modern world.

By Daniel Schwindt

The Theory of Soul-Wandering: Samsara and Kamma

When we come to the theory of soul-wandering, and the passing of life from one body to another at death, we need to acknowledge the situation and way of thinking in the pre-Buddhist era, which also went to form the way of speaking in early Buddhism. Again, this is exceedingly important when it comes to understanding the doctrine we are about to discuss in its proper light, since the way of speaking about it is ambiguous and lead to two different understandings, both acceptable in their order.

In the Bhagavad Gita (ii, 22.) it is said: “As a man lays aside outworn garments and takes others that are new, so the Body-Dweller puts away outworn bodies and goes to others that are new.”

Here the language used suggests that at death something like the individual soul separates from the body and then attaches itself to a new body to live another terrestrial life much like the first. And this is in fact the popular understanding of the saying; yet another might read this and understand that the Body-Dweller is ultimately none other than the individuated Self, and that, if we speak of the Self as dweller in one body and then next, this is simply an acknowledgement of the fact that there is no life that does not rely on the Self: thus, Sankara’s doctrine that: the Self is the only transmigrant. The Self being the supra-individual principle of the individual consciousness, there is no need to see in this process the survival of a soul, but only the one-ness of the Self.

There is another distinction that needs to be made, which is that there are a number of processes and concepts, distinct and legitimate in themselves, that are sometimes imagined as equivalent to ‘reincarnation’ but which are not. The one we have in mind here is metempsychosis, which involves the transmission of psychic elements but not the actual personality.

At any rate, that in early Buddhism and pre-Buddhist Brahmanism there was allowance for the belief in an animistic (soul-centered) transmigration involving the actual rebirth of the same soul in a new body, this does not mean that the doctrine was confused or polluted by contradictory understandings. The animistic and more ‘literal’ interpretation is necessary for the non-philosopher for the sake of worship, and this same leniency is recommended by another Buddhist master: “Moral and virtuous Wanderers and Brahmans do not force maturity on that which is unripe; they, being wise, wait for that maturity.”[1]

To higher men it is proper to preach Dukkha, Anicca, and Anatta in their purity, but one does not insist that less learned men comprehend the most difficult teachings, of which the principle of Non-Egoity certainly is. Thus, the Bhagavad Gita (iii, 29) also says: “Let not him that knoweth much awaken doubt in slower men of lesser wit.”

The reader will note that in enunciating the principle of preaching according to the knowledge of the listerner we have referred to Bhramanical texts and not Buddhist: this is because the Buddha was an iconoclast through and through, and he did not employ the technique we’ve just explained, and our purpose in explaining it was to lay the groundwork for a proper understanding of the Buddha’s adoption of the popular, animistic way of speaking. His approach, emphasizing a single point to exhaustion, did not allow for subtleties of meaning and differentiated understandings, at least not in his manner of public exposition. He adopted the common ways of speaking that he found ready at hand, but in many cases employed terms with altered meaning.

We dwell on all of this because it is necessary for a proper understanding of the doctrine of Soul-Wandering, or Samsara. Nowhere in Buddhism is the transmigration of souls enunciated, and it must be understood that what is meant is only a kind of metempsychosis: the transmigration of character, and if of personality as well it is personality without the ‘person,’ in the same sense that the child is the reincarnation of the parent insofar as certain psychic elements and the ‘personality’ are concerned.

The Buddha uses a number of rhetorical devices to illustrate that no thing transmigrate: life is a flame, and transmigration or rebirth is the transmitting of the flame from one combustible object to another, such as with one candle that, on the verge of burning itself out, is used at the last moment to light another candle: we do not say that it is the same candle and it would seem odd to us even to say that it is the same flame: it should be equally awkward, viewed in this light, to conceive of transmigration as the ‘same soul’ moving from body to body.

We can now identify the notion of kamma, which means simply ‘action,’ be that of thought, word, or deed. If we envision transmigration by another simile, that of a line of billiard balls, we can liken the process to the ‘movement’ conveyed when one ball strikes a second. The first ball stops ‘dead,’ but its movement passes on into the second ball. What is necessary to understand is that the precise nature and magnitude of the movement of the second ball is determined by what was conveyed to it through the first, and all that it does is owed to the aggregate of previous actions, to the kamma, of the previous ball, and not only the previous ball but the cue by which it was struck, and so on.

In essence, actions are followed by consequences, and the experience of life is cause and effect, and the aggregate of causes previous to our existence and which led to it and are now ‘possessed’ in us as in the second billiard ball, this is ‘character.’ Through this character the future behavior of the individual is largely determined.

We say ‘largely’ and not ‘completely’ in order to avoid the accusation of mechanistic predestination as conceived by the modern mind. It does not serve to eliminate responsibility or render effort futile, but only acknowledges that we must lie in the bed we have made: one must reap what we’ve sown. Kamma is the simply recognition of this fact–of consequences following from actions. The flipside is that every action taken has the capacity–not all at once but little by little–to alter the nature of the harvest. We can begin to improve the condition of the bed. Hence the Buddhist emphasis on ‘Right Effort.’

The result of the these two doctrines–kamma and samsara, or ‘deeds’ and ‘wandering’–we arrive at the conclusion that our history does not begin at birth. Thus:

“Man is born like a garden ready planted and sown.”


“Before I was born out of my mother generations guided me…Now on this spot I stand.”

“For what is our individuality? Most certainly it is not individuality at all; it is multiplicity incalculable. What is the human body? A form built up out of billions of living entities, an impermanent agglomeration of individuals called cells. And the human soul? A composite of quintillions of souls. We are, each and all, infinite compounds of fragments of anterior lives.”[2]

In the words of Ananda: “a congeries diseased, teeming with many purposes and places, and yet in whom there is no power to persist.”

[1] Payasi Sutta, Dialogues of the Buddha, ii, 332.

[2] Lafcadio Hearn, Gleanings in Buddha-Fields.

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