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Is Rebirth Relevant?

March 27, 2011

As I become more of a skeptic everyday, I’ve been re-contemplating concepts, theories and teachings I’ve read and heard. One thing I keep coming back to is rebirth and or reincarnation, whatever you choose to call it. I’m starting to look at it all in a different way, without the goggles of a tradition or something a teacher may have told me. Doing so, has felt like the training wheels are coming off a bit.

To be honest, for a while I was feeling it necessary to have a teacher. Things started changing though, as you know from a previous post, things started to get stale and feel like I was just going through the motions. It didn’t feel real, and the goal that was set didn’t seem like much of a goal, never mind an end. As I slowly slid down the wall, like a piece of melting cheese on a hot summers day, my mind was analyzing the things I have been taught, and thought that I understood as concrete. But, as we know, nothing is concrete or permanent. It feels great to be stepping back and looking at things fresh again.

I’ve always understood rebirth to be some sort of substantive thing, like with the Dalai Lama’s and all. I even thought there was no way around it, this had to be the way things were done and when we die, our “energy” and karma is reborn. That’s it. I mean, they, the Tibetans, go through the rigors of finding a child based on clues the person who had died either told them beforehand, or left in notes, etc. Once that child is found, a series of tests is given to see if that person recognizes certain items that belonged to the previous incarnation. It’s been done for a long, long time, it has to be the truth, right?

I’m not saying it doesn’t happen at all either, I do believe, to an extent, that something is expelled from the body and is reborn. What it is, I am not sure. What I am starting to believe though, is there is no “full reincarnation” and the recognition these “reincarnates” have of the items are based on traces left behind in the energy/ mind streams that continue or. When I die, Nate is not coming back. Maybe some part, or trace, will. But, as a whole, Nate will be dead. Or, it could be pure coincidence, like I said I don’t know.

The way I am looking at things now is not based on faith that these things exist because we are told they exist, but in more of an investigative manner. Rather, I am looking at the teachings on a basis of what is necessary and what is not. Does knowing whether rebirth is true help you or I right now? I don’t think it does. And, as a matter of fact, as we spend a lot of time worrying about it does it not hinder the practice of right now anyway?

Buddha was not interested in any of the metaphysical stuff. For instance, he was not the least interested in such things as creation, he believed knowing whether or not it existed was irrelevant. When we peel the onion back, we see that there are many things that could be considered irrelevant. Understanding, or better yet, trying to understand rebirth right now, has no relevancy. That’s at least my story, and for now, I’m sticking to it.

15 Comments leave one →
  1. April 8, 2011 7:04 am

    My view on the tulkus or reincarnates in the Tibetan system, is that they’re “merely labeled” tulkus. They actually don’t need the label of tulku, but carry the burden of the title if it benefits others.

    Some bodhisattvas, they actually pray not to be recognized, because they don’t want the attention. Maybe your neighbor or sister is a tulku, who knows. So the tulku stuff, I believe it’s actually more for us.

    I’m sure you’ve probably done the meditation before where you watch the mind, and notice that every moment of consciousness is caused by a previous moment of consciousness. You can trace it back, now was caused by 5 minutes ago, 5 months ago, 5 years ago etc. That’s my reference point for rebirth, is it possible to find a moment of existence that didn’t have a previous moment?

  2. April 6, 2011 1:36 pm

    The Buddha tells us that clinging to any self-view holds us back, so any view of karma or rebirth that causes us to think about our self / soul / atman / whatever, continuing into the future, anything tied to who we are now, anything like that *at all* is a hindrance. He points out that we can tell what is dharma by whether it moves us forward on the path, tell what is not by noticing what adds more dukkha. You’re shooting an arrow at the heart of it, Nate, by using that investigative method. Thanks for blogging about it, and thanks to all who share their thoughts in response.

  3. Jorge permalink
    April 2, 2011 8:21 am

    I think is very important to take into account the historical perspective of when the Buddha was alive. Correct me if I am wrong but I understand that Karma and rebirth were part of the culture of his time. We have to understand that even though he was a very wise and enlightened being, he was human after all and he was limited by the knowledge available at that time.
    I am focused on my practice and the benefits of it in the present moment, I agree with Pete about karma, your actions have consequences on other beings and the world. I like the quote from Guy Newland’s book “Introduction to Emptiness”, “our choices matter enormously in the relative world”.
    Reincarnation, well, if Buddhism is about living in the present who cares about the next life. I do not bother with those metaphysical questions.

  4. Blake permalink
    March 30, 2011 3:50 pm

    Weird to see one of my tweets quoted here! And it sums up my take: it doesn’t matter. Sure it’s fun to play around with it in our minds, but at the end of the day, it just doesn’t matter.

  5. Pete W permalink
    March 30, 2011 3:23 am

    Hi

    Following on from your posting here, I saw this tweet and thought it seemed pretty relevant to our conversation:

    @blakethegeek
    The fact that the metaphysics of Buddhism changes with each culture’s world view tells me one thing: metaphysics doesn’t matter.

    Cheers

    Peter
    @notpeterw

  6. March 29, 2011 1:10 pm

    Laying so heavily on reincarnation is one the biggest things that turns me off to the Tibetan tradition. As has been hinted at in so many of the comments here, all that matters is the moment. It doesn’t matter how the universe began or what happens when we die, because they are not now.

    I’m chewing on the connections between (the concept of) reincarnation, the Western Paradise, and the symbolism and meaning of the Death card from the Tarot for a post soon do maybe it’ll feed your hungry heart and mind a bit.

    Thanks for proposing the thoughts for discussion.

  7. Michael @miko57 permalink
    March 28, 2011 1:59 pm

    Nate, this is definitely an intereresting subject. I’m probably much newer to Buddhism than most here. But, I’m glad to say that my understanding has evolved considerably over the couple of years I’ve been practicing. I tend to approach B uddhism more as a practice, and less a religion, the longer I’m at it. In that respect, I also tend to be less concerned about how I reincarnate. To me, the crucial thing, is understanding that every action on my part, will have a ripple effect that will continue. As to what part of “me” remains, I’ll have to say that I really don’t know. But is this relevant? Yes. It’s the questions, not the answers, that carry us forward.

  8. Pete W permalink
    March 28, 2011 7:51 am

    Hi Nate

    An interesting post, it sounds like you’re well on the way to finding answers within you rather than relying on other people’s views and opinions.

    I wonder if, like me, you’re beginning to see Buddhism as something you do rather than something you believe. Personally, even before I began on this path I never had any interest in the metaphysical. I have no use for Buddhism as a ‘religion’. I guess I have something of a punk approach to it, strip it down to its basics, question everything, cast aside what I don’t accept or experience as true and take it forward on that basis, as something that can be of use to me and the wider world. For me that’s one of the beauties of the dharma, you don’t have to believe anything or take anything on faith. Literal reincarnation and karma are two of the things I’ve chosen to put aside.

    On a side note, it seems to me that reincarnation and karma are particularly emphasised in Tibetan Buddhism and I wonder whether many of the preconceptions and confusions that we in the west have about Buddhism stem from seeing the Tibetan way as the only one when in fact it’s a relatively small part of the wider Buddhist world. Perhaps it’s something to do with the global phenomenon that is the Dalai Lama, the only Buddhist that the majority of people can name…

    Anyway, perhaps our use of the word ‘karma’ confuses us slightly. It brings with it a lot of pop culture baggage and misunderstanding to our western way of thinking. It’s seen as some sort of divine cause and effect. If we said that our ‘actions’ live on after death most people would be pretty happy to agree with that. If your actions (your karma) are good during your lifetime, the people you leave behind will remember you fondly or benefit from the things you did during your life. That’s enough for me to want to improve my karma, my actions. If my actions are bad, people will remember me badly and the harm that I cause will live on after my death. In that way you could say that my karma continues but only in the minds of others.

    As for reincarnation, again, I’ve never had any time for a metaphyisical interpretation. Yes I can see that we reincarnate constantly during our lives. Our personalities change, our bodies renew on a daily and yearly basis. I look back at a picture of me when I was 20 and there’s not much left of that person now but I’ve taken elements of him into the life I’m leading today. I still share some of his values and his taste in music for example but he’s hung on to the hair! So, in a way, the 20 year old ‘me’ has reincarnated into the 40 year old me as the ‘me’ of today will reincarnate into the ‘me’ of tomorrow. For me that’s reincarnation plain and simple. I don’t think there will be any ‘reincarnation’ after my death except that my bones or ashes will decompose and become part of the earth once again. That’s it though.

    Thanks again for the interesting post, please keep us up to date on your evolving relationship with the dharma.

    Cheers

    Pete W

    @notpeterw

  9. March 28, 2011 8:02 am

    Pete,

    Thank you for taking the time and writing such an in depth comment.

    In just about every way, I am right there with you. Your explanation of karma, not the hocus pocus karma, but the way we affect people now and after our deaths is so sensible.

    At the same time, there are some things that are unexplainable. But, lately, they’ve become less and less of a concern because at this time, right now, they have no affect on my life. That’s where I’m at for the moment.

    Thanks again for the comment!

  10. March 27, 2011 1:01 pm

    Some say that every moment is a little death and the next moment is proof of rebirth. We connect the dots, or moments, to make coherent sense of the universe around us, but this, like everything else is nothing more that shadows on the wall of the cave.

    So is rebirth real? Sure, but we’re making reality out of shadows with that too.

    Always walk the Middle Way no matter what it is you’re exploring and you’ll always be following the Buddhadharma.

  11. March 27, 2011 12:46 pm

    It’s easy to get confused because reincarnation as with the Tibetan’s tulkus and so on is not what Buddhism really talks about, which is rebirth, a cycle of birth and death. If you look around you’ll see that all nature, in fact everything in the universe participates in the cycle of birth and death, where energy and matter is recycled, reused, although not in its same original form. Still, if you read the Dalai Lama and other Tibetan teachers they do an excellent job of explaining the continuum of consciousness and the cycle of birth and death (sans reincarnation). The question is not what is relevant particularly but rather what can be learned. As a skeptic myself, I say there is a much you can learn and it does not require believing or accepting anything, just an open mind.

  12. Mark permalink
    March 27, 2011 9:38 am

    All beliefs are empty of substance, including ours. My teacher taught me two things, everything else was secondary: 1 namuamidabutsu. 2 Buddism is Not metaphisics or ontology, it is epistemology. NOT about how things are but how to find out how things are.

    God did not reveal anything to Buddha. There are no dogmas.

  13. March 27, 2011 9:28 am

    I honestly believe that this is one of the most misunderstood aspects of Buddhism. In the Theravada tradition all that is transferred from one life to the next is dukkha and karma. No personality is sustained because it is dependent on the five aggregates. To that end, we do not have reincarnation. The one life we have here is it. However, the fact that anything continues plants the seeds of ego resurrection AND THAT becomes of great interest to people.

    However, when the Buddha is always asked questions like “is there a God” or “is there a soul” he was always wise enough to bring the answer to the real issue “why is this important to the moment of living right now, the understanding of suffering, and the end of suffering.”

  14. March 27, 2011 11:20 am

    I understand where you are coming from here Josh. I’ve been reading, and listening to some podcasts, of some well know and lesser folks in the Buddhist realm that don’t really follow any tradition. They have come to the same point you mention here, about dukkha and karma being the only that is transferred. A lot of what the were saying is what got me to rethink the things I had already formed an opinion on.

    I am enjoying the twists and turns this path entails, and am glad the freedom to think is embraced.

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