|Painting by Donna Birdwell|
But first there is a difference in how Buddhists and Judeo-Christians see birth. I'm looking at a painting by Donna Birdwell that shows a woman floating in the water in an almost embryonic position. There is a path of petals on the surface of the water, and more petals rising from the woman as she breathes.
Dark petals are coming from her feet and hands. These petals tell me where she came from, while the light petals show where she is going.
The distinction of how birth is seen in Buddhism and Judeo-Christian belief is critical here.
In Buddhism there is no birth and death, nor any beginning or end. Our lives, though they appear to many as linear, are more like a circle or a spiral where “what goes around comes around. Though with each “rebirth” we get a fresh start, we inherit much. Call this karma if you want.
I read some years ago that someone taught planarian to avoid light (see: http://community.dur.ac.uk/robert.kentridge/bpp2mem1.html) and then ground up the planarian and fed it to little ones and then the fed planarian could learn faster to respond to the light. So it is with karma. Like height needed for basketballs or big brains needed in physics, we inherit karma. It is with what we start. If we were bad in the past we'd have a lot of stale stick stuff in us and we'd have to work hard to clean it up.
Original sin seems to differ from karma. Because Eve disobeyed God and ate the fruit humans will forever have to pay. In the original sin scenario, no matter what is done in this life, the next time around you are born as a sinner. (Note: I don’t accept this view of Genesis.)
In the karma model, you could start as one in previous lives had done much harm. This is different existentially from one who is a sinner. In the Judeo-Christian baby, the kid is off on the wrong track from the get go, while the Buddhist Babe is born with Buddha nature, and yet may need to work through a karmic legacy to retrieve that innocence.
The baby in the painting floats in the water. There is a circle formed with her arm and head. She will wake up and see what challenges arise for her. She is naked with only the inheritance of who she really is—her Buddha nature. Her karmic legacy is what she carried from her previous life. It is not who she is, but rather that the opportunities and challenges she will meet.