Today in America we have a fascination with all things Eastern, particularly from the far east. This fascination isn’t something that leads to any full study of, say, Hinduism or Buddhism, but rather, what culture likes to do is take the postmodern spirituality that already exists (basically a grab bag) and then put eastern mystical terminology with it. It certainly makes it sound much more sophisticated, but it really doesn’t have anything to do with the actual concept behind the words being used.
This isn’t a phenomenon limited to far eastern religions, as words like “god” or “jesus” can have incredibly different meanings, depending on who is talking about it. However, I’m going to cover a couple of interrelated topics that are rather common, Karma and Reincarnation.
When you hear this term used, what’s generally meant as a synonym for the old phrase “what goes around, comes around”. Alternatively, this is used to mean that people (bad or good) will get what they deserve. Interestingly, this is far closer to the biblical principle of sowing and reaping. Sowing and reaping is found all over scripture (Ps. 126:5-6; Pro. 22:8; Gal. 6:7-9; 2 Cor. 9:6 etc.), but the secular person is going to likely be averse to the Bible (at least as anything more than a helpful, spiritual guide to some people). Unfortunately, the idea of Karma are not nearly as nice as people would hope it to be.
In order to understand Karma, you first have to understand a few things about Buddhism, the system from which it comes. The Buddha is reported to have said that the only thing he discovered, and therefore teaches, is suffering (Dukkha) and the cessation of it. Suffering is a big concept in Buddhism (surprising, isn’t it?) , and is even one of their Four Noble Truths. This can get complicated, but I’ll just touch on the basics. Essentially, suffering is a fact of life, and so the Buddha attempted to make sense of it. Since the cause of suffering isn’t always obvious, there must be a reason or a cause for it. The conclusion is that there must be a former life where the person performed bad deeds, and is now having to pay the price for those deeds in the present life. Karma is the force behind this idea. Karma is basically the energy within actions, and their consequences. If someone is experiencing hardship in this life, it is because they have bad karma that they have to “pay off” from a previous life. Since suffering is always present, there will always be some degree of “bad” karma that needs to be payed off. This takes us to the idea of reincarnation.
As we have already covered, suffering is a constant thing in our lives in one way or another, and the explanation for this in Buddhism is that you must have committed some wrong in a previous life, and so your present suffering is the resulting karma of the bad actions in that previous life. They call this cycle of reincarnation the Wheel of Samsara. There’s a lot of depth to the wheel that I won’t get into, but the goal is to ultimately escape the wheel. The best realm (the wheel has 6 realms) to make progress toward this goal is the human realm (convenient) because it is there that you can best practice the Noble Eightfold Path. Essentially, if you can tip the karma scales enough in the “good” direction, then you will be able to escape the endless cycle of reincarnation, and attain Nirvana.
Ultimately, desire or craving is the cause for suffering, and so the goal of the Buddhist is to detach themselves from all worldly desires (both love of money and love of family, for example) through meditation. Again, this is something that can get very complicated, but that is the basic understanding.
The bottom line is that this is a horrible way to live. The Buddhist has no certainty of “salvation”, and the whole idea rests on a largely unprovable assertion. More than that, though, there is no comfort in the system. An endless cycle of working to pay off the debt of a perhaps limitless set of past existences?!? Do you sense the void in which to speak the gospel? As Christians, we need to be able to share the truth and love of Christ to not only Buddhists, but also those with either an interest in eastern things, or merely those who co-opt eastern terms for their own purposes.
The only source of salvation comes through Jesus. This is a truth that these people need to hear, and hopefully this gives you some starting points for conversation.