What survives the death of the physical body?
Let us now return to the question with which we began: How can there be personal identity through one or more lifetimes? Buddhist lore is, after all, filled with stories of personalities surviving the death of a body and being more or less transferred from one body to another, usually without any memory of the experiences of the previous body. Popular lore, in other words does speak of rebirth as something that involves the retention of a personal identity as Parfit describes identity. Recall that Parfit claimed, rightly I think, that identity is a one-one relation. So if the pop star Madonna is the continuation through rebirth of the personal identity of the Egyptian queen Cleopatra, then there can be only one occurrence of that personal identity at a time. It cannot be the case that both Madonna and Derek Parfit are continuations of the personal identity of Cleopatra. If they both believe that they are a continuation of Cleopatra’s personal identity, then at least one of them is entertaining a false belief.
Since Derek Parfit’s name has once again come to the forefront, let me say that I would like to suggest that he has also given the most promising approach to the question that is the subject of this module. His approach is to drop the idea of personal identity altogether and replace it with the idea of personal survival. Recall that for Parfit survival is not a one-one relation but a one-many relation. It can be said without contradiction that a person survives in many ways and that these ways can occur at the same time. And this, I think, is something that gets very close to the heart of the purpose of teaching the doctrine of karma.
The Buddhist doctrine of karma is that every action has consequences. But no action has only one consequence. Think, for example, of my action of writing this module. That action (or set of actions) has a multitude of consequences. It puts some people to sleep, while it makes others very much awake in states of impatience or annoyance. Moreover, this or any other action sets in motion a chain of consequences that will continue for a very long time. Everyone who is in any way affected by those consequences can be seen as someone who participates in the survival of the person who performed the action. A student participates in the survival of all her teachers. Everyone of of us participates in the survival of everyone who has ever existed in history, for all of us are in some way, even if only a small way, affected by the actions of all who have gone before us.
It is this realization that all our actions survive, potentially forever, through their consequences that is the central point in all the Buddhist discussions of karma. Personal identity has nothing to do with it except to get in the way of one’s grasping that central point.