Rebirth, karma and meditation

by Paul Williams

[The following is part of a discussion of Buddhist cosmology in general, and the threefold world in particular]

Mental intentions (karman — plural of karma) which are wholesome, animated by the three basic virtuous states of mind, non-greed, non-hatred, and non-delusion, give rise to appropriate acts and favourable rebirths. Unwholesome intentions animated by greed, hatred, and delusion produce unfavourable rebirths. The favourable rebirths here are rebirths as a human or as a god (Brahma) of the desire realm. Unfavourable rebirths are rebirths in hells, as a ghost, or as an animal (including a fish, worms, bugs, etc.). Thus favourable and unfavourable rebirths spring from states of mind. And there are some specific wholesome states of mind in addition to these that occur only in meditation: these are states such as attaining one of the four meditations (Sanskrit: dhyanas; Pali: jhanas).

Favourable rebirth as a god of the desire realm, enjoying various sensual pleasures, occurs through acts animated by such states of mind as non-greed, non-hatred, and non-delusion. Similarly the favourable rebirth as a god of the form realm occurs by having accustomed oneself to one or more of the four dhyanas. A monk who, for example, has cultivated the path to a high level removes various negative factors preventing the attainment of enlightenment and attains the fourth dhyana; after death, that monk will be reborn in one of the pure abodes, corresponding to the fourth dhyana, and will there attain enlightenment. Thus, given that rebirth accords with mental events, reference to the higher planes as corresponding to meditative states simply describes the sort of mental event which is necessary in order to attain rebirth on those planes. The ‘bodies’ of those reborn there — defined in terms of experiences of seeing and hearing plus consciousness for the form realm; and consciousness alone for the formless realm — are the bodies that support and express experience on those planes. Beings reborn on those planes are undergoing the experiences of those dhyanas.

It follows from all of this that when in this life the meditator attains to, say, the third dhyana, that meditator is undergoing temporarily the experience of one reborn as a god on that particular plane of the form realm: that is what being reborn there is like. Correspondingly, for one undergoing any of the appropriate mental states in this life, one undergoes temporarily the experience associated with being reborn on the appropriate plane. Thus if one is overwhelmed with greed, hatred, or delusion, one is in the state of one born as a ghost, in hell, or an animal respectively. But one familiar with the third dhyana will, after death, be reborn on the appropriate plane for that dhyana. The appropriate plane of the cosmology is not simply a description of the mental state of a meditator. Similarly, in spite of a common suggestion among some modern Buddhists, the plane of hell is not simply a description of the state of mind of one in this life full of hatred. As one’s mind is, so one actually becomes.


Williams, Paul and Tribe, Anthony. Buddhist Thought: A Complete Introduction to the Indian Tradition. London and New York: Routledge, 2000 (pp. 79-80).

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