Reincarnation - a.k.a., New Year's Day
- By Yin De Shakya
- Dec 30
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It’s a new year; a time for looking forward, and a time for looking back.
Each time we celebrate “New Year’s Day” we are giving ourselves the opportunity to begin anew. It’s a chance for a fresh start. It is, for many of us, an opportunity to release feelings of guilt and frustration over things that didn’t go so well in the past, and to look forward to making our circumstances better in the year to come.
If we could limit the amount of time we spend mentally dwelling in the past or in the future to New Years, then we could get on with what’s really important: living life in the only time that really exists – the NOW. The present moment is the only time over which we have control. The past can never be regained, and the future cannot be affected until it becomes the present moment. Sure, we can plan for the future, but the planning must happen in the present moment. The past is made up entirely of memories of previous present moments, and the future is made up entirely of plans for and speculations about what those present moments will be like. But when we spend too much time dwelling on either past or future we miss the ultimate reality of the present. So let’s make a New Year’s Resolution to live more mindfully of the present moment in the coming year. Let’s try to let go of past failures and past successes, of future wishes and dreams, and live fully in the present moment, starting right now as you read this.
In addition to all of the celebrations associated with this time of year, New Years Day is really a wonderful opportunity to experience the Buddhist phenomenon of rebirth, but without having to go through that unpleasant experience called death first.
Notice that I said “rebirth” and not “reincarnation”. I used the word “reincarnation” rather than “rebirth” in the title because “reincarnation” is the word people most commonly use to understand this phenomenon and it’s the word that causes the most misunderstanding. Rebirth, however, seems to me to come closer to the truth about this issue.
One of the most common questions I get from would-be Buddhists and curious non-Buddhists relates to the misconception that all Buddhists believe in reincarnation. And, as many Zen answers go: we don't... and we do. We neither do nor do not believe or disbelieve in reincarnation; at least not in the context in which most people define the word. But before we talk about the Zen Buddhist understanding of rebirth, let's back up a minute and look at why this question always comes up. Why do people want so desperately to believe in some form of reincarnation?
The common understanding (at least here in the Western world) of reincarnation is that it’s the rebirth of our eternal soul into a new human body. This is a natural desire for those human beings (including me) who don’t accept the idea of eternal heaven or hell following this one life in human form. After all, who could live happily with the belief that once were gone, were gone? The idea of annihilation of the self is terrifying to almost everyone. We have a natural built-in desire to protect that which we have mistakenly come to believe in as our “Self”.
Much of the time, when someone here in the west converts to Buddhism, he or she does so out of a sense of longing for truth, with a profound puzzlement, and often with a somewhat jaded and bitter sense that he or she has been deceived for a long time.
It's very disconcerting when we realize that, contrary to what we have been told all our lives and by everyone we ever trusted, we can no longer accept the idea that, upon the death of our physical body, our "soul" - that mystical non-physical unchanging eternal essence that is the real "me" - will somehow liberate itself from the corpse, and float upward into the kingdom of heaven where the creator and father will welcome us, absolve us of all our sins, and reward us with an eternity spent in splendid repose, but still with a complete sense of being who we were before death.
In addition to realizing the questionable logic of this belief, it seems like something of a slap-in-the-face reward for living a good and moral life, devoting hours and hours to prayer and community service, and in some cases giving enough in tithing over the course of a lifetime to cover the cost of a second home... in Malibu.
So, we come ultimately to the realization that it just isn't going to happen the way we were taught. In fact, the whole concept of a creator God who sent his only son to earth to die for our sins begins to unravel and leaves us feeling naked and confused. So we begin a search for the truly true truth, a quest for something more plausible and yet still acceptable to our desire to carry on as individuals, and we end up liking the supposedly Buddhist idea that our "soul", our sense of "I-ness" can just start over again in a fresh young body - just like the Dalai Lama does century after century.
We talk to people who have read some Buddhist books and who once knew an actual Buddhist and they tell us of the miracle of reincarnation, and flush with excitement at having finally found that which our ego-self has been seeking, we join the ranks of the reincarnating Buddhists. What they didn't tell us is that this definition of reincarnation is in direct disagreement with the decidedly Buddhist principle of anatta (Non-Self).
At this time, I’d like to ask you to think about just what it is that could survive the death of the physical body to be reborn into another human or animal body. Is it your “soul”? Where do you find this soul? Where is it when you are unconscious? Does the soul sleep when the body sleeps? Where was it four billion years before you were born? Where is it right now? Is your soul the one who is thinking about itself, or is your brain thinking about and searching for your soul?
To use a fairly common analogy, imagine a chair; maybe the one you’re sitting on right now. Where does its true essence, its “chair-ness” live? Is it in the seat cushion? So if you had just the seat cushion, would it be a chair? No. Chair is just a concept to communicate what we mean when we refer to all the aggregate parts that, when assembled properly, allow us to sit in an upright position with our feet on the floor, our backs straight, and our knees bent at ninety degrees.
So the real challenge then is to understand just exactly what there could be of a self that could be reborn into a new body. Where can we find a permanent essence of self?
From the Tibetan Buddhist perspective (which is as far from Zen as two branches of the same tree can be) the mind is neither physical, nor a by-product of purely physical processes. The mind is a formless continuum that is a separate entity from the body. When the body disintegrates at death, the mind does not cease to exist. Although our superficial conscious mind ceases, it does so by dissolving into a deeper level of consciousness, called 'the very subtle mind'. The continuum of our very subtle mind has no beginning and no end, and it is this mind that Tibetan Buddhists say can survive the death of the physical body.
Everything we do in our lifetime leaves a mark on our subconscious mind – our very subtle mind and will someday ripen into a karmic effect. That is to say every action will lead to a reaction at some point in the future and it is not always easy to see the relationship between the seeds we have sown in the past and the fruit we harvest in the future. Good actions lead to good results and bad actions lead to bad results. This is the law of karma and it is the basis of morality in the Buddhist traditions.
Now, if you were to ask a Zen Buddhist about reincarnation you’d probably get a response something like: "Ask me when I'm dead" or "We have this one precious chance to liberate ourselves and all other living beings, why waste time on such unverifiable speculations?" These kinds of answers, while certainly logical and in line with the Mahayana Buddhist and Zen schools of thought, do little to help those who have a real concern with this issue. Sometimes, it's just not enough to say that it's not a part of our path and leave it at that.
When understood properly, the concept of rebirth can be quite in line with Zen Buddhist thought and practice. But we have to understand just what it is that can be reborn. It certainly is not an eternal unchanging soul, which carries our individual memories and sense of being a separate self along with it - that which was never real cannot be reborn. When a Zen Buddhist speaks of rebirth (and we almost never do unless provoked) he is speaking of the ongoing effects of his actions - his Karma. That which carries on is the ever-widening ripple on the pond of humanity caused by the splash he made during his lifetime. He is reborn in the sense that, because he existed, nothing he came into contact with will ever be the same. Nor will anything contacted by anything he came into contact with, and so on, and so on, ad infinitum.
A human being in the present moment is the effect resulting from a past cause, and future human beings are the effects resulting from present causes (us – we are the present causes which will result in future births). But we cannot successfully pull a set of permanent and separate “souls” from the sea of cause and effect, just as we cannot pull a set of permanent and separate waves from the ocean. Each wave on the ocean is both an individual wave and a part of the water; each human being is both an individual for a time, and a part of that which makes up “existence” for all time.
As the Christian mystic Meister Eckehart said: “As long as I am this or that, I am not all things and I have not all things. Become pure till you neither are nor have either this or that; then you are omnipresent and, being neither this nor that, are all things.”
Another great mystic put it this way: “Still there are moments when one feels free from one’s own identification with human limitations and inadequacies. At such moments, one imagines that one stands on some spot of a small planet, gazing in amazement at the cold yet profoundly moving beauty of the eternal, the unfathomable; life and death flow into one, and there is neither evolution nor destiny; only being.” His name was Albert Einstein.
In addition to the effects of our existence being reborn (metaphysical), there is a physical element, which must also be considered. Just the way that no new material has been created to make our bodies (The Law of Conservation of Matter), nothing will be destroyed when our body dies. If we choose burial in the ground, there will be a decaying, then a decomposing, followed by a reabsorbing into the earth. If we choose cremation by fire, then the elements of our physical bodies will be transformed into smoke, heat, and ash. In either case the elements which once comprised our bodies will become the parts of the atmosphere, the soil, a tree, a dog, or a streambed. If we consider this physical rebirth scientifically, we can trace the elements in our bodies back to when they were star material, to being the particles which made up the earth, and in turn became part of various plants and animals which were then consumed by our great grandmother, which gave rise eventually to our mother and to us - although much more material was added at each step of the process, none of it was newly created. So, in this way, we can understand that we are truly inter-connected with everything that has ever existed and everything that will ever exist.
The problem with reincarnation only comes into play when we start insisting that there is something separate and permanent that houses our individual identity. The entirety of the Buddha’s teaching is founded on the experience that negates this misconception. When the Buddha sat under the Bodhi tree he did not discover that he had a permanent soul - quite the contrary. If we can exercise just a little bit of faith and try to find out for ourselves, we will eventually come to understand the beauty of Sunyata (emptiness) firsthand, thereby extinguishing the flame that craves reincarnation and coming to an understanding of just what rebirth really is.
We experience small “deaths” and “rebirths” frequently. For example; anytime we experience brief mystical or transcendental interludes brought on by absorption in meditation, beauty, art, music, nature, and so on, at these times, we our “selves” vanish altogether and in our place is simply consciousness.
On some level, we know what the truth is without being told. Even a hardened pragmatist like J.B.S. Haldane felt moved to write that:
“If death will probably be the end of me as a finite individual mind that does not mean that it will be the end of me altogether. It seems to me immensely unlikely that mind is a mere byproduct of matter… But as regards my own very finite and imperfect mind, I can see, by studying the effects on it of drugs, alcohol, disease, and so on, that its limitations are largely at least due to my body. Without that body it may perish altogether, but it seems to me quite as probable that it will lose its limitations and be merged into an infinite mind or something analogous to a mind which I have reason to suspect probably exists behind nature. How this might be accomplished I have no idea. But I notice that when I think logically and scientifically or act morally my thoughts and actions become those of any intelligent or moral being in the same position; in fact, I am already identifying my mind with an absolute or unconditioned mind. Only in so far as I do this can I see any probability of my survival, and the more I do so the less I am interested in my private affairs and the less desire do I feel for personal immortality. The belief in my own eternity seems to me indeed a piece of unwarranted self-glorification, and the desire for it gives concession to selfishness. In so far as I set my heart on things that will not perish with me, I automatically remove the sting from my death.”
So, for many people, the reason for investigating Buddhism is out of a fear that what they consider to be their "self" may cease to exist, and they want reincarnation to be real so this can be prevented. But ultimately, and ironically, Buddhists end up dedicating their lives to extinguishing this very "self" they had hoped to make immortal, and realizing in the process that this does make them immortal!
You see, it’s not about ceasing to exist, or coming into existence. It’s about realizing on an experiential level that we never really did exist as a separate or permanent individual self, and that we’ve always existed as a part of the one. We will always be a part of the One. Just don’t try to locate, isolate, and label the “one” and you may eventually come to understand it. Practice a spiritual regimen like meditation, and the odds are greater that you will come to experience it. So at the beginning of this New Year, let us take a brief look back and a quick look ahead for reflection and contemplation, and then get right back to the joy of living in the present moment; this moment; a moment in which we are not a bunch of separate selves, but rather a wonderful unity of humans and humanity - waves and water.