One who does evil grieves in this life,
Grieves in the next,
Grieves in both worlds.
Seeing one’s own defiled acts brings grief and affliction.
One who makes merit rejoices in this life,
Rejoices in the next,
Rejoices in both worlds.
Seeing one’s own pure acts brings joy and delight. (translated by Gil Fronsdal)
These verses reflect an assumption in the Pali canon that karma is at work across lifetimes. So, theoretically, grieving our unwholesome actions and rejoicing in our wholesome actions occur during the life we are living, and continue in another world, a “next life”.
In the Pali canon, one could divide the suttas into two categories, one subset directed at laypeople whose highest aspiration is to earn rebirth in a happy place – one of the several higher (pleasanter) planes of existence, and another subset directed at those students who are aiming towards full liberation, or putting an end to the cycle of births and deaths. These verses seem to be addressed to the first category, laypeople hoping for an improved destination for their next life.
The idea of rebirth in the Buddha’s teachings is problematic for many of us. How is it to be reconciled with the idea of anattā, the not-self characteristic inherent in all experience? The short answer is that something (a karmic energy flow?) continues from one life to another, but what gets reborn (not re-incarnated) is not “us” as an individual personality with a history and a memory, but an entirely new individual. Some teachers use the analogy of one candle burning down and lighting a new candle on its way out.
Some religions tell us we should do good in order to be reborn in a heaven of some description, possibly even garnering “eternal” life. A big difference between this idea and the Buddha’s teachings is that in the Buddha’s cosmology, the goal can either be continual improvement (through our karmically beneficial actions) or NOT being re-born anywhere. Being born, suffering, and dying, in a ceaselessly repeating cycle, is not seen as a positive outcome, even if we (or the person our energy is transferred to) are reborn in one of the heavenly realms. It’s all temporary, both the suffering and the respite. The ultimate freedom is liberation from the cycle of birth and death; absolute peace, no more becoming, creating, destroying, etc.
It is not necessary to have a belief in or an opinion about rebirth to get the point of these verses. When our intentions and actions are wholesome, joy and a peaceful heart are the result, immediately and in the long term. When our intentions and actions are unwholesome, inner peace will elude us. Mindfulness can help us maintain awareness of what we’re doing, of whether we are pursuing our finer intentions or our more base ones.