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Rebirth Revisited

Question:

I know that Buddhist belief is based greatly on experiencing teachings for yourself, and not taking what anyone says (even the Buddha himself) as truth without first examining it ourselves. However, I am confused as to where the belief in rebirth and karma comes from in Buddhism. I agree with this Buddhist belief that we should not blindly follow anything anyone says, and must figure things out for ourselves and experience them, but the belief in reincarnation seems to go against this. How can we possibly know that rebirth occurs if we cannot see it for ourselves? Thanks for the wonderful podcast.

Answer:

We’ve talked about this in the past (several times), but I think this may be the number one point of Buddhism to which Westerners cannot relate. Most non-Buddhists recognize reincarnation as the butt of uncountable jokes, scams, and is generally taken seriously only by some very strange celebrities. The fact that a huge portion of the world’s population do believe in rebirth is irrelevant if all you know are Shirley Maclaine jokes.

No one really knows the origins of the rebirth idea, it goes way back beyond Buddhism, into Hinduism, and is likely far older than that. I’m only guessing here, but I’d bet that the idea of rebirth is probably older than the concepts of heaven or hell; ancient people understood the cycle of life very well. You are born, you age, you die; it’s no great leap to see that cycle as a wheel that repeats. The idea is so old, however, that no one can say absolutely where it came from, but the idea has been refined and elaborated over the years, first by Hinduism, then by Buddhism.

As you said, it’s not a requirement that you believe anything blindly, and Buddhism encourages questioning. While it is true, that many of the writings on Buddhism concern themselves with reincarnation, it’s not really absolutely necessary to believe in it. The majority of Buddhist ideas relate to your life here on Earth, right now. “Promotion” or “demotion” in the next life is not something to be strived for (more attachment and grasping); the goal is to live a good life now. Whatever happens next time around, just happens. If the Buddhist concept of rebirth is correct, it will happen to you whether you believe in it or not, so don’t worry about it. If it causes you doubt and “suffering,” then throw it out.

Keep an open mind, do some research into different ways people explain rebirth, and maybe someday you will come to believe it. Or maybe not.

Here are links to two previous articles on the topic. Be sure to read the comments below each.

Reincarnation, God, and Things You Don’t Believe: http://www.dailybuddhism.com/archives/1323

Rebirth and Karma: http://www.dailybuddhism.com/archives/1182

13 comments to Rebirth Revisited

  • The Buddhist concept of “rebirth,” sometimes called “reincarnation” is based in the Buddhist understanding of the concept of “self.” Perhaps the best way to put it is to ask, “If there is rebirth or reincarnation, WHAT IS IT that is reborn?” If this question is followed deep enough and honestly enough, one can see (perhaps with some reluctance) that there’s nothing that can be essentialized in order to be reborn or reincarnated. What will be reborn when I die? Will it be the “self” I feel that I am at the moment of my death? That could, conceivably, be pretty crappy. Will it be the “self” I felt I was when I was ten years old? Well, that certainly wasn’t a constant for the entire year that I was ten years old. Will it be some version of my “self” that I get to sort of choose, or make up like choosing various dishes from an a la carte menu? Unlikely. I think this is why Buddhist names, which people might traditionally receive when they take the precepts or receive some level of ordination, point to qualities that, hopefully, can be reborn over and over, such as “Great Light of Compassion,” or “Peaceful Mind.”

  • How do you explain differences in individuals like race, country, religion, social status, education, wealth, health etc without the concept of re-birth. Though it may not be proven, this concept seems more logical than one life.

  • ZenYen

    I view the rebirth thing like this: Consider that at any moment, you are the product of every previous moment. In the next moment, you will be changed from what you are right now. Everything changes. So at any given moment, you are a “new” you.

    That new you, being the product of every previous moment, will reflect all the karma of all those moments. So, accumulate good karma now to be “reborn” as a “higher being” in the coming moments.

    In other words, the “reincarnation” thing is all metaphorical … but I could be wrong.

  • anirudh said…
    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. Sarkar Sahab later on became Fourth Spiritual Head of Radhasoami Faith
    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.

  • Shozen

    Some teachings use the concept of death and rebirth to emphasize the constant changing nature of our lives. The infant which one was born is not the adult of today. The parents of my youth are dead to me but who they have become are very much alive.

    Other teachings emphasize the constant flux of nature which causes the temporary occurrence of sentient beings much like a complex interference pattern causes a temporary appearance of non moving waves. The wave which identifies itself as the mound of water and sees itself as different from all the other mounds of water; panics when it realizes it will cease to exist when things change. Whereas the wave which identifies itself with the water, realizes all the other mounds are but reflections of it; relaxes as it realizes it continues when things change so it enjoys the experience.

    The Shirley Maclaine model of reincarnation might be true, but that is not what the teaching is about. Many come into the practice seeking information about past lives or to gain merit to be reborn in a better condition. However, any karma that one gains from practice which results in anything but a better and deeper understanding of oneself and others should be considered “bad” Karma especially if it leads to wealth, riches, or an easy life.

  • Unless current of consciousness (gravitation force current) or say individual soul merges with its source i.e. God, it is busy in some sort of creational process. And when it assumes human form again it is said to be rebirth or reincarnation.

    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.

  • Nalliah Thayabharan

    Buddhism is a method of cultivating the mind. Since Buddhism affirms that the universe is governed by impersonal laws and not by any creator-god; it has no use for prayer, for the Buddha was a teacher and not a god; and it regards devotion not as a religious obligation but as a means of expressing gratitude to its founder and as a means of self-development. Hence Buddhism is is not a religion at all
    Nature abhors a vacuum, and religious entrepreneurs, taking advantage of the situation, seize the opportunity to spew prophetic nonsense. At least some area of life should be left to the individual where the person is totally free, without anybody else deciding for him, where he can open his wings like an eagle and fly across the sun – no chains, no bondages, no hindrances.
    Honesty is honesty – it cannot be Muslim, it cannot be Christian. Truth is simply truth – it is neither Christian nor Hindu. Love is simply love – it cannot be Eastern and it cannot be Western. Compassion is compassion – it does not belong to any race, to any country, to any climate; it is not dependent on any geography, or any history.
    Meditation is simply so scientific that just as we accept physics without bothering about whether it is Hindu or Muslim, we accept chemistry without ever thinking whether it is Protestant or Catholic. When we go to the doctor, we never bother whether the medicine is Christian or Muslim.
    The inner reality is simply a pure silence: thousands of flowers blossom there but they don’t belong to any organization. They are the reward of our own search, of our own inward-going.
    All the organized religions care basically depriving humanity of religion because they are misdirecting us. They are always directing us outwards — their God is far away in the sky. And when we pray, folding our hands towards the sky, we don’t realize that there is nobody to hear us.
    In fact, the one who is praying, the one who is alive in us, the one who is breathing in us, is the God. We have just to discover it.
    It is hidden in the layers of your false personality. Find out, in your innocence, and life becomes a sheer joy, a song without words, a dance, a celebration. And at the very end of your celebration, there is nothing but tears of gratitude. Those tears of gratitude belong to the individual heart, overflowing with gratefulness towards existence.
    Heaven is a “fairy story” for people afraid of the dark. Thoughts of heaven may stave off fears of death and the idea of an afterlife offers some hope in a world where life has been pretty harsh. Religious belief in the afterlife can be a powerful motivator to follow the rules of the religion. If you think of your body as a machine, it’s kind of hard to believe in life after death.Regard the brain as a computer which will stop working when its components fail. There is no heaven or afterlife for broken down computers. A deity no longer has any place in theories on the creation of the universe in the light of a series of developments in physics.
    We are born and reborn at every moment. Like many other Buddhist teachings, is easily verifiable by reference to our own experience and by science. The cells in the human body die and are replaced thousand times during the course of one’s life. This is part of the process of birth, death and rebirth. If we look at our mind, we find that mental states of worry, happiness etc., change every moment. They die and are replaced by new states. If we look at our body or the mind, our experience is characterized by continuous birth, death and rebirth. Our lives appear to be unbroken blocks of continuous events, but, when we maintain the straightforward frankness of our own mind as it comes to life each instant, even without effort, even without training, we are beautifully born each instant. We die with each instant, and go on to be born again, instant by instant.
    Buddhism is a way of life based on the training of the mind. Its one ultimate aim is to show the way to complete liberation from suffering by the attainment of the Unconditioned, a state beyond the range of the normal untrained mind. Its immediate aim is to strike at the roots of suffering in everyday life. All human activity is directed, either immediately or remotely, towards the attainment of happiness in some form or other; or, to express the same thing in negative terms, all human activity is directed towards liberation from some kind of unsatisfactoriness or dissatisfaction. Dissatisfaction, then, can be regarded as the starting point in human activity, with happiness as its ultimate goal.
    The material world around us, is not based on ‘loose’ particles with empty space between them. There is no empty space, all is filled with energy. We live in one gigantic energy field. This energy field is even bigger then our universe, and probably encompasses all universes. So this means if we move our arms, we ‘push’ aside energy, and this will have effect throughout the whole field, it will not have huge effect, but it is like we in a pool, and we cause ripples and currents when we splash our arms, not just around us, but in the whole pool. The reality around us is based on different levels of worlds, that all are fixed in this field. Our organs are made out of cells, the cells are made out of cytoplasm, the cytoplasm is made out of molecules, the molecules are made out of neutrons, protons, and electrons, neutrons, protons, and electrons are based on quarks and energy waves, these quarks and energy waves are again based on smaller waves and we will end up in a giant pool of energy.

  • Necrolius

    For all we know, this entire universe is a flux of energies operating constantly in a cyclic way. Input and output comes hand in hand. We get output in new forms and dimensions based on the inputs we receive and hold dearly in life. If scientists can believe in the existence of other worlds and lifeforms, why can’t the existence of a parallel dimension right where we are exists where spirits are the “other” beings. In simply put, we are also a form of energy interacting with the other energies in this universe.

  • Necrolius

    Buddhism without rebirth is meaningless. There is nothing to get out of. If so, whats the point of attaining Buddhahood so that we can benefit more suffering beings? Energies cannot be destroyed as proven by science. I believe they get transformed from one state to another.

  • Necrolius

    The mind or consciousness is the greatest configurator of our existence. Its like a black box that we write to it which we are predetermining now our spiritual blueprint or dna which eventually expresses into the form or state of being most deserving of us. Ancuent humans are spiritual first and they have achieved a glorious history of achievements in areas unexplained by modern science especially when they have less tools or technology than us.

  • Necrolius

    Religion should not dismiss Science so should Science not dismiss religion. They have actually alot to learn from each other.

  • Necrolius

    Rebirth is starting to be more and more evident is our daily lives. These days we talked about migrating our data to a new phone or computers. If something as inanimate as data can be migrated…why not consciousness that is alive. The only thing in Buddhism is that there is no eternal soul which is logical. Are u the same you today and 1 year ago? No. Because we grow and change based in what we experience in life. If we are not the same “me” now, how can we be the same “me” in future lives shaped by new conditions of change?

  • “Religion should not dismiss Science so should Science not dismiss religion. They have actually a lot to learn from each other.”

    No. The older I get, and the more I see, the more I disagree with that statement.

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