Are the doctrines of karma and reincarnation an essential part of Buddhism?
The understanding of karma is part of Buddhism. Karma, in very simple terms, is cause and result. It is not reward and punishment. Reincarnation belongs to the law of karma. With this understanding, you know that if you have done good then somewhere there will be a good result and if you have done bad things then the result will be bad. Karma, or action and result, means that if you want to improve anything, yourself or something else, then you have to work on the improvement yourself - this is Buddhism. I think an understanding of karma is still useful even for those who do not totally accept it.
Does the Buddhist view of karma mean that the whole of your life is pre-determined, leaving you no choice?
Some people look at it like that but that is not quite correct. Up to now - when and where you were born, who your parents are, your brothers and sisters - things like that are all caused by actions in your past life or lives and you are now experiencing the result. But it is also said that you do have some choice to plan for your future - both for next year and the next life. Your future depends on what you do right now. Right now you are planting the seed - that is the cause - and you will experience the result later. And if you plant a potato seed now it will not grow into an apple tree The result, the future, is in our hands; our actions now will create a result. The law of karma does not mean that you just sink into a sleep, thinking, "There Is no point. All I can do is wait for the result". Our present human life carries the experience of the result of our past actions, but at the same time we are creating our own future. If you see it in this way, everything is not pre-determined by karma, because we are also creating our own, new karma. One thing I keep on saying is, ""Doesn't matter what you did, what matters is what you do now so that you can make your future better".
Some people are disturbed by the idea of karma. If a disaster happens, like a sickness, or death of a child, it is seen as 'punishment' for something they have done wrong, Can you comment on that?
I think that people who use the idea of karma like this, either do not understand karma properly or are misusing the meaning of karma to make excuses. What is happening does not depend on whether you believe in karma or not; things will still happen in your life, good and bad, pleasant and unpleasant, but I think a better understanding of karma will enable you to deal with everything more easily. Without understanding, dealing properly with painful things is much more difficult, and you just say, "This must be something to with really bad past life actions and therefore there is nothing I can do about it. This suffering is my punishment", I think with a better understanding, you will not use the idea of karma like this, as a kind of careless excuse. A better understanding will help you to experience everything - good and bad - In a more positive way. It will help you to make your personal garbage into good compost!