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Reincarnation, God, and Things You Don’t Believe

Question:

Regarding your line “I mean that Buddhism isn’t a system of faith or belief, but a way of living and interacting with the world around us.” (http://www.dailybuddhism.com/archives/18) How do you reconcile this dealing with what a Buddhist can see and experience with a belief in reincarnation, something that “you don’t know and you don’t remember.” Isn’t this crossing into the territory of “faith”, and more associated conceptually with a religious principle as opposed to a philosophical one?

Just to clarify, I’m not trying to “nail you” or anything, I’m truly interested in your take on this question as someone more aware of Buddhist principles and beliefs than I am. Personally I have my own “philosophy” (or belief structure if you will) that mainly revolves around accepting that there are many things in this world that we simply do not know. That doesn’t mean there isn’t a God, but much as you indicated Buddhist philosophy indicates, there is no way of knowing if God exists or not so it is a moot point to consider or spend energy on. To my personal thinking, as I indicated above, I have no way of knowing if there is reincarnation or not, however I’ve not truly seen/experienced evidence of it so I accept that I do not know, so I can’t tell anyone that they are wrong, but likewise I put no association of truth with the theory of reincarnation either.

I’ve just found your podcast and will be starting to play catchup, so I apologize if this is something you’ve addressed before or if you dislike receiving direct questions such as this. Also, I’ve considered the points that Buddhism for many can be considered an “ala cart” philosophy where you take what you can use and leave what doesn’t seem true to you. For the most part I believe this is likely what I will do as I learn more, but I was still interested in your thoughts.

Answer:

Don’t apologize; I love all the questions. Once in a while, I’ll get stumped, but I haven’t been nailed yet.

First, as to believing in reincarnation, you are right about it being a religious question in the West. This is not the case in the East, where it’s just accepted as the way things are. I did cover this back in my two parter, Converts vs. Background Buddhism and The Dog Story. You can also do a search for reincarnation or rebirth on the site to find several other past articles. Rebirth isn’t so much a matter of faith or religion in the East so much as it is just an accepted fact. Yet in the West, rebirth is a pretty big hindrance for many.

Your comparison between belief in rebirth and the belief in a god is spot-on in my opinion. we cannot know for sure, so don’t waste time worrying about it. I’m not sure that I really believe in rebirth myself, but I generally don’t worry about it. I like the idea of karma and the Path whether or not there is rebirth, and live my life with that in mind. If I am reborn in the future in a better or worse position, I’ll deal with it. If I’m simply dead forever, I’ll have lived a good life. I’m not going to get attached to the outcome. Belief in rebirth is not crucial to being a Buddhist, although a lot of the basic ideas just assume that it’s true.

And the “ala carte” metaphor you used is also a good one. Take what you need and can use; don’t focus on what you cannot use. Every so often you should look at the things you don’t use and re-evaluate them; sometimes that stuff you skip makes sense a few years later.

13 comments to Reincarnation, God, and Things You Don’t Believe

  • Reincarnation seems to be one of, if not THE, biggest issue Westerners have with Buddhism.

    Buddhism strongly advocates the removal of false beliefs, and the cultivations of true ones. Furthermore, it does not ask you to believe anything if you cannot confirm it with your own observation and reasoning. From my formal studies and personal reflection, there are aspects of the Buddhadharma that I find to be knowable truths – the most striking example being the first two noble truths. I find ignorance and suffering to be readily observable in the world, and so I accept them as truth. Since Buddhism places such an emphasis on personal verification, I am MORE WILLING to put FAITH into things like reincarnation. But, crucially, it is an element of faith. The difference between knowledge and faith is important.

    I’m not sure if I’m making my point clear, hopefully I did.

  • Mat

    One thing I find greatly refreshing about the Buddhas teaching is that he instructed us not to believe anything because he said it, but to find out for ourselves if what he said is true from our own experience. So far in my practice I have found the teachings to be bourne out by my experience – but reincarnation is clearly a little harder to verify in person. So for now it must remain as ‘case unproven’. Although reincarnation doesn’t greatly interest me as a concept, I am still open to the possibility of it being a fact rather than an article of faith.

    In the Kalama Sutta the Buddha said:

    “If there is a world after death, if there is the fruit of actions rightly & wrongly done, then this is the basis by which, with the break-up of the body, after death, I will reappear in a good destination, the heavenly world. But if there is no world after death, if there is no fruit of actions rightly & wrongly done, then here in the present life I look after myself with ease ‚Äî free from hostility, free from ill will, free from trouble.”

    This sums it up for me. I will live my life regardless of whether there is or is not reincarnation. If I live a wholesome life then I will be happy either way.

  • Very clear and very well-said. Thank you!

  • Jayna

    the ‘evidence’ that i heard for reincarnation stems from the law of karma.

    it can be seen that people are born under different circumstances and spend their childhoods differently. but why should some be born in luxury while others are born in war zones? why are some born blind, while others can see? where did this good/ bad karma come from? similarly, how is that some people die with horrible deaths after living their lives without any apparent way of accumulating bad karma? the theory is that your karma ‘carried over’ from your past life and is resolving itself in this one.

    of course, this explanation depends on the law of karma. but the Kalama Sutta in the previous post sums it up for me.

  • Jami

    Nice question and interesting answer.

    But the practical side to faith was stressed in the Middle East before the imposition of ‘modernity’. God, doubted or embraced, was just there. Praying, living faith in practice, was the social reality.

    Schism existed, but not to the extend of our Christian past. But schism existed in the Buddhist past too, and here, dear Brian, I must note a mild difference of opinion.

    A former guest-speaker, Jeff, stressed the social activism of his (Japanese) school. I assume such differences, in the end, revolved around fundamental concepts and Sutras. Given such differences, we may assume that concepts such as ‘reincarnation’ were not so lightly accepeted, as out there, like a koan, among waterless flowers.

  • I just wanted to say I appreciated Mat’s response. It sums up what I believe perfectly. I think I will commit it to memory so I can use it whenever people ask me about birth and death and rebirth.

    thanks

    srlasky

  • Benjamin C.

    I was taught reincarnation in a very linear and logical manner.

    If the present moment of thought came from the previous moment of thought, and that moment of thought came from it’s previous moment of thought, then you keep going back until you have your first moment of thought when you are in your mother’s womb. It has been said that something can not come from nothing. So therefore the first moment of thought from inside your mother’s womb comes from the last moment of thought in your previous life.

    If I confused you then I am sorry. It made sense to me when I heard it explained like that.

  • I'm liking it!

    Ben: Actually not confusing at all and pretty straight forward, thanks. I had the pleasure of attending H.H. the Dalai Lama in Foxboro Mass this past Saturday and he shared the same basic explanation. It helps with the Reincarnation aspect so I’m left to amuse myself with the sharing of Karma piece. Partial sharing or no sharing? Check back in a year and see where I am on this one… Keith

  • Anirudh Kumar Satsangi

    Reincarnation seems to be correct. I would like to quote my personal case:

    Rebirth is ‘YES’. I know about my previous birth. My most Revered Guru of my previous life His Holiness Maharaj Sahab, 3rd Spiritual Head of Radhasoami Faith had revealed this secret to me during trance like state.
    HE told me, “Tum Sarkar Sahab Ho” (You are Sarkar Sahab). Sarkar Sahab was one of the most beloved disciple of His Holiness Maharj Sahab.

    Since I don’t have any direct realization of it so I can not claim the extent of its correctness. But it seems to be correct. During my previous birth I wanted to sing the song of ‘Infinite’ but I could not do so then since I had to leave the mortal frame at a very early age. But through the unbounded Grace and Mercy of my most Revered Guru that desire of my past birth is being fulfilled now.

  • Travis

    I was just looking around because I was curious about Buddhism but I have to say that the argument for reincarnation sounds fancy at first but once you think about it for 2 minutes you realize it’s based on BS logic. I mean you can use the same type of reasoning to say if I am walking to a door and I only walk half way there, then I walk half way again, then half way again, over and over then I would never actually get to the door. While it follows logically to say that, we still know it’s BS because we can walk to a door. It makes more sense to say that before the first thought there was a pre-thought, and before that there spark, and before that there was probably just memory gathering data, down all the way to the first brain cell firing. I honestly know nothing about how the brain works but I can assume it starts small and works it’s way up to a thought. Another perhaps better example of similar logic is that before me were my parents, and before them there parents and so on all the way back to the first man. Something didn’t come from nothing right? I guess we never actually evolved from anything. I’m not trying to prove you guys wrong, I just don’t like seeing it explained like that. Other than that everything you guys said was very interesting to someone like myself who though every Buddhist believed in reincarnation.

  • Our perceptions all come from the mind (even sense perception). When the mind dies (i.e. brain disintegrates after death) then we can’t even know we’re dead. But how can we be dead if the mind doesn’t exist? I believe in ‘rebirth’, but cannot affirm that how we lived will influence what we will be in future lives. I believe karma resets at birth. After all, if it influenced beyond this life, that would defy the concept of ‘no-self’. We experience a series of consciousnesses, but none are related because we are essentially nothing.

    I tried to explain this in the final part of a small story. It takes a while to get to this, but it’s there…

    http://storywrite.com/story/204164

    Any questions, please ask.

  • What is mind and consciousnes and even God is described in my following work. We should have no doubt that every particle of the universe has intelligence. It is a very special type of arrangement of these particles for manifestation of intelligence behaviour including artificial intelligence.

    “Gravitation Force is the Ultimate Creator, this paper I presented at the 1st Int. Conf. on Revival of Traditional Yoga, held at The Lonavla Yoga Institute (India), Lonavla, Pune in 2006. The Abstract of this paper is given below:

    The Universe includes everything that exists. In the Universe there are billions and billions of stars. These stars are distributed in the space in huge clusters. They are held together by gravitation and are known as galaxies. Sun is also a star. Various members of the solar system are bound to it by gravitation force. Gravitation force is the ultimate cause of birth and death of galaxy, star and planets etc. Gravitation can be considered as the cause of various forms of animate and inanimate existence. Human form is superior to all other forms. Withdrawal of gravitational wave from some plane of action is called the death of that form. It can be assumed that gravitation force is ultimate creator. Source of it is ‘God’. Gravitational Field is the supreme soul (consciousness) and its innumerable points of action may be called as individual soul (consciousness). It acts through body and mind. Body is physical entity. Mind can be defined as the function of autonomic nervous system. Electromagnetic waves are its agents through which it works. This can be realized through the practice of meditation and yoga under qualified meditation instruction. This can remove misunderstanding between science and religion and amongst various religions. This is the gist of all religious teachings – past, present and future.

    AND

    ‘In Scientific Terminology Source of Gravitational Wave is God’ I have presented this paper at the 2nd World Congress on Vedic Sciences held at Banaras Hindu University, Varanasi on February 9-11, 2007. The Abstract of this paper is given below:

    For Centuries, antagonism remained between science and religion. Science and spirituality require to be fused. An integrated philisophy is to be developed. It is written in the scriptures that entire creation is being maintained only through love or force of attraction. In Persian it is known as quvat-i-jaziba. It is on account of this force that the entire creation, which come into existence through the combination of small particles and atoms, is being maintained and sustained. The creation or universe includes everything that exists. In the universe there are billions and billions of stars. They are held together by gravitation and are known as galaxies. Sun is also a star. Various members of the solar system are bound to it by gravitation force. Gravitation force is the ultimate cause of birth and death of a galaxy, star and planet etc. and various forms of animate and inanimate existence. Gravitation force is the ultimate creator, sustainer and destroyer of the universe. These are the three attributes of God. Providence has located within the human body a spiritual faculty. When this faculty is developed like physical and mental faculties we find that Truth-the goal of science and God-the goal of religion are one and the same thing”.

  • Violetta

    I like Mat’s post…Buddha’s quote comforted me, because as someone who is learning about the belief system of Buddhism, I have a hard time relating to rebirth. Maybe it is because I am from the ‘west’ and the mentality here is still just different. However, just like believing in a God or heaven is criticized, why then cannot we criticize and question the concept of reincarnation or rebirth? The fact, well, in my experience at least, is that I have not seen any proof of it.

    I do have a question though. If you do not have to ‘believe’ in the concept of rebirth to be a buddhist, what remains? I was under the impression that being a buddhism is living your life preparing for death and rebirth – or, the avoidance of rebirth…by working on your karma…how you live this life will determine what you are reborn as or if you are reborn at all. So, if we do not believe in rebirth, then can we actually call ourselves buddhist?

    Another question – how do you all feel about the possibility of being reborn and potentially having a family, a spouse different than the one you have now? I love my husband dearly and I feel that the concept of rebirth takes away from my closeness and intimacy of my relationship. Its like, if we are just going to continue having cyclic rebirth and possibly be in different families with multiple intimate relationships, it barely makes my current one seem special. Is this a misunderstanding I have? It makes me very uncomfortable and really, one of the main reasons I am not so open to the concept of rebirth. It makes our existence seem very ‘unspecial’ so to speak. What do you all think?

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