Wednesday, February 23, 2011

COME AGAIN? BUDDHISM AND REBIRTH

Here's an interesting website … Buddhists Against Reincarnation.

I neither believe nor disbelieve in reincarnation, but I accept the idea of reincarnation as a working hypothesis. Why believe? Belief makes no difference to whether or not an idea or thing is true. No amount of belief will make something true if it is not. Anyway, as Alan Watts once wrote, "Supposing my personal existence does not continue, what of it?"

Contrary to the Buddhism of many, the Buddhism that the Shakyamuni Buddha himself espoused calls for no belief (see Buddhism Without Beliefs by Stephen Batchelor), no dogma, no doctrine, no saviours, no gurus, no sacred or infallible books, no superstition … only a life of service and giving to others ... free from the bondage of self. In the words of the Dalai Lama (pictured below), “My religion is simple. My religion is kindness.”

So, in the words of J. Krishnamurti (see this talk of his), I embrace and explore the idea of reincarnation as “a means of self-discovery … not to find a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer but as a means of understanding [myself].”

Reincarnation is certainly an interesting idea. It makes much more sense to me than resurrection. If true, it helps to explain a number of life’s mysteries and apparent injustices. However, what actually reincarnates? The soul? I have trouble with that one. Some reincarnating ego? Ditto. Anyway, Buddhists speak more in terms of “rebirth” than reincarnation.

On the website mentioned above there are reproduced the following excerpts from Chapter 53 of The Gospel of Buddha, which is a compilation of ancient texts published in 1894 by that great student of comparative religion Paul Carus (pictured below):

There is rebirth of character,
but no transmigration of self.
Thy thought-forms reappear,
But there is no egoentity transferred.
The stanza uttered by a teacher
is reborn in the scholar who repeats the words.

Thy self to which though cleavest is a constant change.
Years ago thou wast a small babe;
Then, thou wast a boy;
Then a youth, and now, thou art a man.
Is there an identity of the babe and the man?
There is an identity in a certain sense only.
Indeed there is more identity between the flames
of the first watch and the third watch,
even though the lamp might have been extinguished
during the second watch.

Then there is this excerpt from the Samyutta Nikaya in which "rebirth" is said to be the result of the "process of becoming", a process which leads to "old age and death, sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief, and despair":
 
"Just so, Ananda, in one who contemplates the enjoyment of all things that make for clinging, craving arises; through craving, clinging is conditioned; through clinging, the process of becoming is conditioned; through the process of becoming, rebirth is conditioned; through rebirth are conditioned old age and death, sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief, and despair. Thus arises the whole mass of suffering again in the future.

"But in the person, Ananda, who dwells contemplating the misery of all things that make for clinging, craving ceases; when craving ceases, clinging ceases; when clinging ceases, the process of becoming ceases; when the process of becoming ceases, rebirth ceases; when rebirth ceases, old age and death, sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief, and despair cease. Thus the entire mass of suffering ceases."

Hmmm. Interesting. If the Skakyamuni Buddha actually spoke these words, then query whether he did believe in rebirth in the sense in which the concept is ordinarily understood in Buddhism. The Buddha used the image of a flame being passed from one candle to another and then to another, before proceeding to question - and doubt - whether the flame on the final candle was that of the first candle. Huston Smith, that great authority on the world's religions, refers to this process as one in which "influence [is] transmitted by chain recation but without a perduring substance". Another metaphor used by the Buddha to describe this process of "influence", in which one human life has consequences - often far-reaching ones - for others, is that of the bells. Each life is a note sounded in an open room, causing similar instruments to vibrate with the same sound ... all the way down the "corridors of time" ... until at last the note is swallowed up in one universal harmony.

Thus, any "rebirth" is entirely in the form of influence ... or, perhaps, enduring character. (As an aside, we all know that the influence - for "better" or for "worse" - of a person lives on after their death, whether in the actual lives of other persons or otherwise [eg in the so-called "race mind" or the "collective unconscious"].)

Anyway, the historical Buddha was never one for metaphysical speculation. If asked about the matter of rebirth, I am sure he would have said something like this, “Does it really matter? The important thing is this present life now? How are you reincarnating now?”

I am also reminded of the words of Dhyana Master Hakuin (see The Cloud Men of Yamato): "How wondrous! How wondrous! There is no birth-and-death from which one has to escape, nor is there any supreme knowledge after which one has to strive."

In other words, if you are thinking about rebirth, you are thinking about "I" and "me". Forget about the "I" and "me" altogether ... then you might just have a chance of actualizing Nirvana.

Here is some very good advice from the Buddha that I have lived by. It has served me well throughout the years, and it makes perfectly good sense:

Believe nothing because a so-called wise person said it.
Believe nothing because a belief is generally held.
Believe nothing because it is written in ancient books.
Believe nothing because it is said to be of divine origin.
Believe nothing because someone else believes it.
Believe only what you yourself judge to be true.

As I see it, the really important thing is this … have you been reincarnated today? Each day, and every minute of the day, and from moment to moment, we are being reincarnated in a different form. The practice of Mindfulness keeps us aware of this fact, and enables us to watch, with bare detachment and choiceless awareness, our body, mind and its contents “transmigrate” from one moment to the next.

“Rebirth of character” … that is what all true religion is about, despite the views of some who would have it otherwise. Even the Apostle Paul spoke of the need to be transformed by the renewing of one’s mind (see Romans 12:2). Unitarians of yesteryear taught "salvation by character", which is something very similar.

It is written that the Shakyamuni Buddha said, "But if there is no other world and there is no fruit and ripening of actions well done or ill, then here and now in this life I shall be free from hostility, affliction, and anxiety, and I shall live happily.”

“Here and now in this life … .” That is what Mindfulness is all about … the here and now. How alive are you? How aware are you? Is there hostility, affliction and anxiety? Are you happy? How will you ever know these things if you live mindlessly?

When Buddha was asked whether he was God, he replied, “No.” He replied the same way when asked whether he was the son of God, a prophet, and so forth. What was he then? “I am awake,” said the Buddha. The essence of Buddhism, in two words, is ... "Wake up!"

Come alive! Wake up! Reincarnate!



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