Namaste and Salaam Syed,
thank you for the post.
i agree with Saponification... the Buddhanet e-learning links are probably the best that you could find, at this point in your search of our tradition.
that being said, i will offer my own limited view on your questions... a "simple" answer as it were
Salim Syed said:
I have read a little about reincarnation and Karam. My understanding is that in Karma one is reincarnated into another being based on ones previous lifes good and bad deeds. (I think this is correct).
first and foremost, and this can be hard to get straight, Buddhism does not teach reincarnation, our teaching is of rebirth, and whilst the two may seem to be the same, they are not.
simplistically, reincarnation is a teaching which implies that there is something in-carnated and this incarnation then re-in-carnates in various forms. essentially, the bit here is that this in-carnation is an eternal aspect of self or soul. in Buddhism, this idea of a permentant self or soul is called the Atman, which is, essentially, the Sanatana Dharma (Hindu) belief.
Buddhism, by contrast, teaches An-Atman. in Sanskrit, the prefix "an" denotes the negative; so the teaching is called No Self or Soul.
so... since, in our view, there is nothing incarnated to begin with, there can be no re-incarnation.
so.. what is rebirth?
this is a more difficult question to really get without some proper foundation of our teachings being established. simplisitically, we can say that what is reborn is the total sum of our accumulated actions (postive or negative) along with very subtle aspect of consciousness.
the typical analogy used in our teaching is the image of two candles, one lit and the other unlit. your thoughts, feelings, emotive states and karma are the "flame" of the burning candle. when you touch the flame to the new candle, the flame is not the same as the one which was originally burning, however, without the original flame, this flame would not arise.
of course, this is very lose and fast... so, it would be of benefit for you to read the more thorough explanations, should you be so inclined.
I was wondering how this takes place i.e. what force is there that judges the good and bad, and constantly keeps the process of reincarnation going.
in the Buddhist teaching, there is no being that sits in judgement upon our actions and no Judgement Day. in the Buddhist understanding of reality, it is understood that, as the common saying goes "you reap what you sow." which is a rather short-hand way of saying that, for Buddhists, the process of these "rebirths" is primarily due to karma, that is, the accumulation of positive or negative ethical and moral intentional actions, thoughts and feelings.
using another analogy.. that of a farmer, is also quite prevelant in our teachings.
if a farmer plants a crop, tends to it well, provides water and removes weeds; when the harvest is gathered, we do not say that he is being "rewarded", rather, he is reaping what he sowed. by the same token, if that farmer chooses not to water his field, remove the weeds and take care of it, when the harvest is bitter, we do not say that he is being punished, again, he is reaping what he sowed.
this is, in some sense, similiar to the Islamic view that each being will be responsible for their own actions at Judgement Day, with the obvious differences not withstanding.
Is this based on one God or many Gods or no God.
Saponification is correct... Buddhism does not deny that there are beings which are called Gods. far from it actually. so, in this sense, Buddhism is not atheistic at all. by the same token, Buddhism does deny that there is an ultimate Creator Deity, and in this narrow sense, is atheistic.
so... our process of rebirth is not predicated upon any divine being, one way or the other. in point of fact, in our teachings, the Gods, too, are subject to karma and, eventually, rebirth. thus, for the Buddhist, taking rebirth in the Heavenly realms is not really a goal... to take rebirth as a human is the best rebirth that a being can have, in our teaching.
If it is based on no God, then what is the controlling force behind reincarnation.
rebirth, in our view, is considered a natural process... rather like gravity. thus, no controlling force is necessary as it operates quite automatically.
there are various factors which determine the nature of a sentient beings rebirth, as chief as Karma is, and it is pretty darned important, it is only 1 of 24 psychological factors that condition the next arising.
Please forgive my ignorance, eastern religions are very unknown to me.
Appreciate your responses ...
it is through discussion and dialog, of this nature, that we can hope to gain a better understanding of the myraid beings that inhabit this planet and the means that they have for understanding the whys of their existence, such that it is.
as i say, this is a rather simplistic and somewhat general response.