Crossing the event horizon of a black hole (astrophysical bodies born from the inward collapse of a massive star) means no coming back, because a black hole is not just an invisible object, but the collection of happenings that we, who are outside of the black hole, say don’t happen at all. This extraordinary and literal hole in the fabric of spacetime deletes entire occurrences within itself from every external observer’s self-consistent history of the universe. Whoever and whatever crosses a black hole’s event horizon simply stops at the edge to an outside observer is forever stuck there to our eyes, even as that thing or person does cross the event horizon and moves inevitably towards the singularity of infinite gravitational density. It can never be a part of the spatial or temporal region that is our known universe, ever again.
What about that thing’s karma? Karma, as it is classically understood, can only be totally expunged through total liberation from samsara (the attainment of Buddhahood) or intervention through a celestial Buddha. The violent death of Maudgalyayana, one of the Buddha’s chief disciples, is commonly used as an example of the inevitability of karma. This was because he committed matricide and patricide in a previous distant life, and even with the Maudgalyayana’s attainment of arahatship, there was no escaping the severe karma for two of Buddhism’s Five Grave Offences. Like causality itself, karma is like an arrow that chases the sentient being through infinite past lives and infinite future lives, ripening with a ruthless yet not immediately discernable inevitability.
So what happens to a sentient being’s karma if the being falls into a black hole, that region where there is neither “where” nor even “when?” Does that being’s karma stay in this observable universe or follow that being towards the singularity? All the rules governing an entity’s history or worldline seem to break down when that entity enters a black hole.
Quantum physicists are reluctant to give up the idea that information* really can be destroyed, otherwise much of our fundamental laws of physics (and which have worked quite well) will have to go out the window. In a recent video on YouTube, Kurzgesagt outlined two other solutions without violating the information conservation principle. The first is that information could be hidden from us; perhaps a part of the black hole splits off and forms a baby outside of our own observable universe. My puny mind tends to think of karma in this way too, for the moment. Karma is a fundamental component of the sentient being’s information. The information and karma of the beings that fell into the black hole would therefore be in that other universe, even though we can never observe them. Or in another scenario, perhaps information is not lost after all, and that a black hole “stores” a sentient being’s karma and information like some cosmic supercomputer.
There are many other intellectually tantalizing possibilities. Perhaps something will come up in the coming few decades that prompts a revision of quantum physics, but “information never being destroyed” remains an integral principle. Karma, but also rebirth, remain central Buddhist doctrines. I think karma and rebirth are intertwined and that any sound dialogue with the frontiers of astrophysics and quantum science will compel a Buddhist to grapple seriously with karma and rebirth beyond black holes and the observable universe… the doors to the wondrous unknown.
* In quantum physics, a cardinal principle is that “information” cannot be lost. I can watch ice melt in a drink or incinerate the mug itself with a flamethrower, but the only reason one can’t reverse such processes (reform a cup from ashes or separate the melted water from the drink) is not due to our everyday conception of forward-moving time (there is no rule that says time can’t run backwards) but rather, due to the second law of thermodynamics. In other words, entropy and more broadly causality determine how we see the passage of time rather than time itself, as counterintuitive that sounds. The actual information of destroyed cups and melted ice is not lost at all.