[INDOLOGY] sources for the idea that reincarnation is a semi-random process?

Rupert Gethin Rupert.Gethin at bristol.ac.uk
Mon Nov 16 12:50:38 UTC 2020

Dear Dean,

Not sure if the following is relevant to you query.

The idea that good karman doesn’t invariably immediately lead to pleasant rebirth and bad karman doesn’t invariably immediately lead to unpleasant rebirth is discussed in the Mahakammavibhaṅga-sutta (MN III 207–15, with parallels surviving in Chinese and Tibetan translation).

Later Buddhist systematic thought in the Abhidharma traditions of both the Theravāda and Sarvāstivāda refers to the following categories of karman in the context of determining which of a being's infinite past actions might determine rebirth:

weighty (garuka/guru)
near to death (āsanna)
habitual (āciṇṇa/abhyasta)
something previously done (kaṭattākamma/pūrvakṛta)

See e.g. Vism 601–602 (XIX.14–16), Abhidh-k-bh (Pradhan) 477, Abhidh-k-vy (Wogihara) 719.

In other words, if you have done something really ‘weighty' in this life (killed your mother or father, etc.) you're going to experience the unpleasant results in your next rebirth come what may. If you haven’t done anything weighty (most of us?), then either something done close to the time of death or something done habitually will tend to come into play (there is some hesitation in the sources on whether to give precedence to near-death actions or habitual actions). Failing these two, then any past action from any past life may, depending on a variety of conditions, come into play. The sources add that only buddhas can really see and understand the complex of conditions that govern which karman ripens when. Thus from the perspective of ordinary folk it may appear random, but from the perspective of a buddha it is not.

Best wishes,

Rupert Gethin
Professor of Buddhist Studies
University of Bristol

Email: Rupert.Gethin at bristol.ac.uk<mailto:Rupert.Gethin at bristol.ac.uk>

On 15 Nov 2020, at 23:53, Dean Michael Anderson via INDOLOGY <indology at list.indology.info<mailto:indology at list.indology.info>> wrote:

Dear fellow members of the Indology list,

Most people think of reincarnation being a somewhat deterministic process based on past karma.

I read someplace, however, that Tibetans, and maybe other Buddhists, consider the process of assigning one's karma for the next life as something akin to reaching into a box of chips and grabbing a random collection of karmas that set in motion the next life. Thus, it is not so strictly deterministic.

I'm sorry if I'm not describing this accurately.

Can anyone point me to some original sources or commentaries for this idea ?

Also, is this something that is mentioned in Hinduism or other reincarnation-based religions?


Dean Anderson

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