When the Buddha was spreading his message throughout north India around 500 B.C., reincarnation was an accepted assumption as it had been a dominant aspect of Hinduism. As Buddhism spread throughout Asia, the notion reincarnation traveled with it. There too, it became such an established belief that reincarnation is generally not considered a theory so much as an established fact. The reincarnation of one's soul is a virtual "given," thought to be a universal law, almost like gravity and every bit as certain as death and taxes. Interestingly, when Buddhism met Chinese Taoist culture, the notion of Reincarnation died on the spot, being overridden by preexisting beliefs of ghosts - formless spirits of dead ancestors. Strongly held beliefs are inevitably hard to abandon, despite whatever attractive wrapping they come in.
But other Buddhist cultures were either eager for new ways to view life and death, or their preexisting religions fit well with the ancient Hindu beliefs and the notion of reincarnation was readily integrated into Buddhist culture. As I started learning about various life-after-death theories, I was surprised to discover the diversity of reincarnation theories from which one could choose. Reincarnation, as we most often think of it in the West, involves retention of an individualized "soul" from one life to the next (although the former life is not usually remembered). Sometimes people mistake the Zen Buddhist's notion of Rebirth with reincarnation. Rebirth, for us, is the awakening of our Self to ourselves in this life. As our old "self" - ego self - dies, a new self is born. Anyone who has experienced this can only describe it as rebirth.
For those without this entirely intimate personal experience, there is often the need to believe in something more - a belief generated, more often than not, by fear of death. We may choose to believe that the "soul" goes to "heaven" or to "hell", or reincarnates into another bodily form. Those without fear or imagination may opt for "the end is the end - end of story" line. Contrary to some popular belief, Zen Buddhism doesn't take any of these options.
The notion that we never die is such a powerful latch to grasp onto that popular culture has become replete with examples of reincarnation-beliefs in every social, ethnic, and political corner. We are told that the famous World War II General, George Patton, believed he was the reincarnation of Julius Caesar; that Sadam Hussein believed he was the reincarnation of the ancient Babylonian King Nebakanether; that Sylvester Stallone thinks he may have once been a monkey in Central America (not a joke!); and we all know of Shirley McLain's efforts to popularize reincarnation. How could people of their credibility be doubted? Well, Sadam Hussein … maybe.
Even a good many licensed psychiatrists practice "past-lives therapy" and have their calendars full of appointments. Some statistics show as many as 60% of Americans consider reincarnation a "reasonable probability." That number may be conservative.
Are we better off today now that the classic Greek (and Zen!) inquiry "Who am I?" has been overtaken with pop the new question "Who was I?" No.
We need to step back and review our beliefs with a critically eye. If we are going to ponder the theories of life after death, let's apply some common sense. Does the belief change how we live our lives in a fundamental way? Does it help us discover ourselves? Does it help us turn our attention inward, or does it keep it locked in Samsara's domain of suffering? Does the belief satisfy a relief from fear of death? Are we motivated to believe reincarnation doctrines because of fear? Because of peer pressure or pressure from religious or social groups we belong to? We owe it to ourselves to look deeply into things, unemotionally, with a critical eye and with an open heart. The motives behind our thoughts and opinions are every bit as important as the thoughts and opinions themselves.
It's tempting to lay out the various evidence and arguments for and against the various reincarnation theories; analyze and choose, but this is like reading poetry looking only for literal interpretations, looking - seeing - no deeper. From a Zen point of view, reincarnation is not a relevant question because it doesn't pertain to our life here and now - the only life that we have. [Some physicists might disagree with this since there is growing thought that an infinite number of parallel universes exist, with us in them. But this takes reincarnation into altogether new dimensions . . . ]
So what do Zen Buddhists think about Rebirth? How close do Zen Buddhists come to believing in reincarnation? Time and space, to a Zen Buddhist, are illusions - Maya. Form is an illusion made to seem real by the senses. Form exists, at a fundamental level, only as energy flux. Interestingly, this ancient view is consistent with our contemporary understanding of physics. Reality, to a Zen Buddhist, is formless, spaceless, and unitary. It's the Taoist's Tao, the Buddhist's Dharma, and the Greek's Logos. It is ever beginning, and never ending. It is our own Nature, indivisible from everything that is. We are unified as One: one existence in time, space, and consciousness.
Reality, we maintain, only exists in the now, yet we recognize that the nature of material existence directs us to view time as linear. It is because of the nature of our senses that we are baited into endless debates about reincarnation and other manifestations of our creative minds.
When we ask ourselves the question of whether we believe in reincarnation we should look just as hard at the nature of the question as we do at the nature of the answer. Who is asking the question? Who is this "I"? What is it to be asking the question in the first place? These can be much more penetrating and insight-producing questions to work with if we apply effort and willpower to them. And their answers prove far more revealing about our nature as human beings.
"Do I believe in reincarnation?" Paradoxically, the answer is hidden within the question itself.
"What color is the dog house, true or false?"