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“Can you explain how a human would be reborn as an animal, and an animal as a human? I understand that is unlikely.”
In a previous Ask a Buddhist, I explained a little bit about how karma and rebirth work, especially with regard to animal rebirth. There is much more about this in the Karma and Rebirth section of ThubtenChodron.org.
I wrote before:
In essence, whenever we engage in an action of body, speech, or mind, it leaves a subtle imprint that acts like a seed with the potential to ripen in a future experience. Virtuous actions done with virtuous motivations—like love, consideration for others, generosity and so forth—result in pleasurable experiences. Nonvirtuous actions of body speech, or mind, motivated by nonvirtuous minds—like confusion, anger, or greed—bring about unpleasant experiences. Ethically neutral actions result in neutral experiences.
These karmic “seeds” ripened during our lives, bringing their results—the events we encounter and the pleasurable, painful or neutral feelings we experience. When they ripen at the moment of death, they influence what our next rebirth will be. In general, the seed of a virtuous action brings a fortunate rebirth, which includes being born as a human. The seed of a nonvirtuous action causes an unfortunate rebirth, which can include birth as an animal of any type—mammal, bird, reptile, or insect. From this you can see that it’s not difficult for a human to be reborn as an animal.
Good ethical conduct is the main cause for rebirth as a human. Chiefly this means refraining from 10 destructive actions of body, speech, and mind—taking life (killing), taking what hasn’t been freely given (stealing), unkind and unwise sexual behavior (mainly adultery), lying, divisive speech, harsh speech, idle gossip, covetousness, malice, and wrong views—and cultivating their virtuous opposites. As we look around—and maybe look at our own lives—these causes are not easy to create!
While living virtuously—refraining from harming others and acting out of kindness—sets the stage for human rebirth, it’s also essential to have a peaceful mind at the time of death. Dying without clinging, rejoicing in a life well lived, and letting go with grace and even love, we create the best possible conditions for our virtuous karma to ripen.
We all have a mix seeds from virtuous and nonvirtuous actions in our mindstreams, “planted” during countless past lives. The Buddha compassionately taught practices for purifying the mind of negativities and gave meticulous instructions for cultivating qualities like impartial love, generosity, and wisdom.
In a nutshell, that mental cleansing of past destructive actions and developing good mental qualities is what Buddhist practice is all about. In the short term, they bring greater peace and happiness in this life and create the causes for human rebirth in the future. In the long term, committed practice in life after life leads to liberation and full awakening.