Avalokiteshvara, the Bodhisattva of Compassion

Karma and Rebirth

Buddhists are convinced that all things are bound up in a never-ending cycle of becoming and passing. They assume that humans, too, are reborn after death. 

Well before the emergence of Buddhism, the people of ancient India believed in the existence of an immortal Self locked in an eternal cycle of birth, death, and rebirth. This becoming and passing was determined by karma.

Buddhism embraced some of these ideas but rejected the concept of an immortal Self.

Expand your knowledge of karma and rebirth in this story, and learn what they have to do with the concept of suffering.

The Bodhisattva of Compassion Sitting in Meditation


The word “karma” literally means “action”. In Buddhism it refers not only to actual action, but also to the intent to act and to the consequences of action.

According to the concept of karma, every action has a cause and results in an effect, which can either be negative or positive. In this way one accumulates bad or good karma, as the case may be. A person’s karma has an influence on his or her present life but also on his or her future existences.

Jizo Bosatsu, Bodhisattva in the Guise of a Monk

Realms of Existence

A person’s karma also determines how he or she will be reborn.

According to Buddhism, there are six realms of existence. You may be reborn as a human being or an animal, or maybe as a hungry ghost; you might emerge in the realm of the gods or that of the titans, or even into the realms of hell. How long you stay there is again determined by your karma.

Jizo Bosatsu, Bodhisattva in the Guise of a Monk

The length of time one stays in any realm of existence is limited. Even gods and titans die – depending on their accumulated karma – and are reborn.

In other words, Buddhism knows neither eternal salvation in paradise nor everlasting damnation in one of the hells.

Instead, the ultimate goal is to break the eternal cycle of death and rebirth, and the best chance to achieve this is in an existence as a human being.

Shakyamuni Enters Nirvana


Why do Buddhists wish not to be reborn?

According to Buddhism, beings experience pain and suffering in every realm of existence, not only in hell. Even the gods and titans are subject to hate, craving, and ignorance, and regularly experience pain and disappointment.

Suffering can only be fully overcome outside the various realms of existence, when one no longer inhabits a body that can suffer.

Head of a Bodhisattva

Breaking the Cycle

Do all Buddhists really aspire to break the eternal cycle of rebirth? And what are the requirements for this?

According to some Buddhist traditions, only monks and nuns who live by strict doctrinal rules will ever get the chance to experience awakening and escape the cycle of death and rebirth. Most laypeople, by contrast, are enmeshed in a life of family and work. They must endeavour to accumulate good karma in order to be reborn into a better life..

Other schools maintain that attaining awakening and thus breaking the eternal cycle is possible for anyone.

Kannon, the Bodhisattva of Compassion

Good Karma – But How?

Most people will accumulate negative karma in the course of their lives. Despite their best efforts, they will not be able to avoid feeling anger or envy, they may offend or disappoint others, and so on.

Therefore, Buddhism provides different ways to obtain good karma. The most important one is to give selflessly and generously, for instance by giving alms to Buddhist monasteries in the form of food, clothes, and money.

Donating statues and pictures, or copies of sutra texts, or even entire temples, is also considered a good deed and leads to the accumulation of merit.

Avalokiteshvara, the Bodhisattva of Compassion


According to Mahayana Buddhism, there exist beings that have broken the eternal cycle of death and rebirth but have decided to remain in this world. They have delayed their entry into parinirvana – complete extinction – in order to support others in their quest for this goal.

Such beings are referred to as bodhisattvas. Literally translated the word means “awakened being”.

Avalokiteshvara, the Bodhisattva of Compassion

Out of a sense of compassion for all beings, bodhisattvas remain part of the eternal cycle of death and rebirth until all beings have found a way out. However, they are no longer subject to the laws of time and space and can take on different guises.

In art, bodhisattvas are usually depicted wearing the magnificent robes and adornments of an Indian prince.

Baizhang asked: What is the essence of the Buddha’s teachings?

Mazu answered: It is precisely there where you let go of life.

Karma and Rebirth