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.
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