An excerpt from a letter dated around 21/Feb/06.
Firstly, I have to say that I'm no scholar, so quoting references is a rather weak point. But, as I understand it, a teaching historical Buddha has perfected the ten perfections prior to his last life so as to be capable of rediscovering the Dhamma, which would have died out by that time. It is hard enough to realise the Dhamma when it is clearly taught, but to find it anew must take a very special kind of person.
My reading is somewhat restricted due mainly to dyslexia, but have had some good luck in recommendations. First there was "The Word of the Buddha", Nyanatiloka; then "The Life of the Buddha", Nyanamoli; both in the Buddhist Publication Society, Kandy, Sri Lanka. Then various books by Nyanaponika all of which are in the BPS (which he founded), most notably "The Heart of Buddhist Meditation" and "The Power of Mindfulness"; but the best reference is SomaThera's translation of the Satipathana Sutta, commentaries & subcomys, (the format of which seems to have become a standard for this kind of work), I think it is called "The Way of Mindfulness" and is always reprinted in the same bright orange cover, again by BPS. Then the last BPS editor, Bhikkhu Bodhi, did some very fine works. All these, and more, can be found in the UK Wisdom web site: it is very sympathetic to the Theravada school. All these books give excellent reference details for all the passages that they quote from the Pali Cannon, which is, more or less, the extent of my knowledge. I must not forget Nyanamoli's translation of the Visudimagga, his non tech foot notes make fascinating reading, again BPS. What I like about Nyanamoli is his experimental approach: in the introduction to his "Guide" (Pali Text Society) he talks about the contextual function of language as against the more commonly held view of grammatical structure. In the reading of Pali, (or for that matter any other spiritual (or even artistic) tradition), this makes quite a lot of sense to me, though for technology and legality, the grammatical structure is probably more appropriate. Then I must not forget the many editions of the Dhamma Paada, especially Narada's several treatments. Lastly, but by no means leastly, Dr Henepola Gunaratana's "Mindfulness in Plain English" is frequently highly recommended. I have only seen exerts from this and they are most impressive.
For myself, I just take scriptural materials at face value and check them out in my own mindfulness practice. Anything of relevance I just quote off the top of my head and assume that my co-respondent will decided for himself on the validity of any point that I'm making. Mine is an essentially practical approach and as such am happy to have found the Forrest Tradition, which seems to reflect this attitude to a very high degree of skill and attainment. A good resource is our very own <http://www.luangta.com> if you have good Thai, or else:-
gives a good sample of first generation disciples of Ajaan Mun.
Having said all that, it may be useful, at this point, to consider some actual reflection on Kamma. Whole books are filled on this topic alone. It is most fruitful, bringing in the whole gamut of Pali Buddhism, from naive Cosmology to the eternal present moment that is mindfulness.
As you have probably gathered, this is an essentially practical approach and not too orthodox: though I like to feel that it is in fact consistent with "the party line", just a different way of looking at it. The Ajaan Mun lineage (at least, if not the whole of Forest traditions in general) put a lot of emphasis on the pure state of the Citta - the one who knows - far more so than what seems to be the case in scholastic Pali (where the emphasis is with stressing the third characteristic of 'no-self'). It seems to take the dryness out of Pali Buddhism and give it a certain spiritual nourishment: at Wat Pa Baan Taad we seem to get some keen interest from quite a few Mahayanists.
There is no contradiction here, and understanding this non-paradox is quite useful, if not pivotal, for many (interested) people: it all comes down to context.
There is no Self in the five Kundas. But something knows this! What is it that knows? The Citta never dies and was never born. There is always this knowing, it is merely a matter of realising it. Everything in Sa.msaara is in a constant state of flux: but what knows this? This knowing is the one constant element, it just doesn't realise it. Eventually it will realise that it has never been anything else.
However, it cannot know itself directly. The analogy is a camera being incapable of ever photographing itself. My own right eyeball has never directly seen my left eyeball, never mind it's own physical self. But the Citta can know itself indirectly, the most important aspect of this being that it is not anywhere to be found in the five Khandhas, nor can be said to own them in any way at all. It merely identifies with them, and in a bewildering number of ways: never for a moment suspecting that it is in fact doing this: nor that it needn't. This gives rise to the basic paranoia of annihilation: the flip side of which is the craving for sentient existence (meditators very soon developing a craving for fine material and non material existence).
We can now talk about Kamma in the context of accumulating tendencies. A problem arises in the life of a sentient being and he finds a solution that solves it very efficiently. So much so that he is tempted to use this solution the next time the problem arises. But things being as they are, nothing ever comes around again in exactly the same way, but the solution still works just as well, maybe for slightly different reasons. So the being is tempted to use this solution more often for wider variations of the problem, so much so that this solution begins to become a reflex response to this class of problem. And so a habit is born, over years becoming a compulsion until it is quite obsessive even if not as successful as it was initially. This could be a thought or attitude dealing with an unhappy state of mind. So we have a conditioning, accumulating tendency. It is so subtle that in the Forest Tradition mere thinking is understood as Kamma formations. These formations becoming Kilesas or mental functions with a will of their own, that for the practitioner become powerful hindrances to progress towards enlightenment, since this will result in their annihilation.
The approach of the Forest tradition is to simply realise that all this is just a manner of speaking, and that it is the Citta that is unknowingly doing everything (though serially, just one thing at a time (consistent with an ever changing 'now')): and that mindfulness is the practice that will bring it all down to a knowing of the nature of the (flux that is the) present moment, just as it is. If nothing else, this skilful Kamma (coming from a Citta that is still deluded) will result in skilful Kilesas in the future: which will still (be annihilated, or) have to be abandoned along with all the unskilful ones (depending on which way one looks at it).
Rebirth and past lives is just an extension of this concept. In its simplest form, rebirth is exactly the same as any two successive thought moments during a normal life. Just as a conditioned moment of consciousness passes away, so the next moment of consciousness arises conditioned by the previous one. At the time of death, at the dissolution of the body, the last moment of consciousness of that body conditions the next moment of consciousness, initiating an existence suitable (or corresponding) to it. A popular misconception is of a Citta floating around the Cosmos in search of some suitable landing strip, which is just more Space-Time assumption.
So, how long has this been going on for? Well, long enough for every single one of us to have had every conceivable kind of existence, (each one) for an incalculable number of life times. Looking at ones previous life or few doesn't even scratch the surface, though the strongest conditioning does seem to come from these in many cases.
For a comprehensive study of case histories I don't think you can beat Dr Ian Stevenson's work, and to a lesser extent the late Francis Story ("The Case for Rebirth") with whom he collaborated for a while (in Sri Lanka). I came across a smaller book entitled "The Children that Time Forgot" dealing with British cases, can't remember the two authors names, but the format was very similar.
The bottom line is that preoccupation with rebirth is very much an activity of Delusion, i.e. Space-Time. The power of the Sword of Wisdom will only ever be found in a close study of one's basic underlying assumptions. Time is a wrong interpretation (with respect to the 4NT) of changing moments of consciousness, and enables the jump to a conclusion of the existence of (movement and hence) space. These things are useful (in the world) but non the less pure convention: unspoken and unquestioned. The only reality that will liberate anyone from Dukkha is the correct assumptions (wrt 4NT) about the eternal ever-changing present moment, which (initially) requires a conscious effort, but (non the less) is known and questioned. Past lives illuminate the Dhamma (dependent origination), but non the less are a red herring to earnest practice (the practitioner must decide for himself how useful or otherwise this contemplation is, (I myself once went through a phase of Mt (Su)Maru reflection and found it enormously useful (though more wrt interconnectedness (e.g. telepathy, coincidence, divination, I_Ching etc.)))).