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Sydney Musai Walter Roshi, in Tricycle magazine, quoted Taizan Maezumi Roshi as saying, “ … in the Abhidharma it says we die and are reborn 6,400,099,980 times in 24 hours.” Musai Roshi went on to say, “This puts rebirth not in some future where we will pay for our sins or reap the benefits of our good behavior, but in this present moment, which is where we both experience and influence our karma.” In one sense, we are re-created or reborn in each moment.
I write this post as a Zen practitioner, not a teacher or scholar. But I enjoyed writing it and hope you enjoy reading it and find it informative.
Central to the belief in reincarnation is the belief in karma. The traditional definition of karma refers to all of our actions and their consequences. When we take action, there is a cause and an effect; each effect, then becomes a cause, and the cycle continues. There is little attention given to rebirth or reincarnation (the two words are usually used interchangeably) in Zen Buddhism; instead, we are asked to focus on this life and the present moment.
The belief is that after we die, the effects of our karmic actions are carried over from one lifetime to another, unless we “burn off” or atone for our karma. The Buddha taught that it is one’s good or evil intentions that bring about good or bad karma. Thus, one also has the freedom to undo karma by good will and virtuous actions. Eventually, it is said that if we work out our karma over lifetimes, we will enter nirvana. Although people have equated nirvana with heaven, it is usually described as an existence free from the suffering of the real world. Since God is not addressed in Buddhism, we are not joining the Divine. (As a Jew, too, I believe that God is ever-present and beyond space and time, so God will be present wherever I am.)
Buddhism teaches that there is no soul in the Judeo-Christian sense. Instead, we are made up of thoughts, feelings and perceptions, aggregates that transfer to a new body after death. Different types of Buddhism state that this exchange happens over various time periods, from immediate transfer to 49 days. This belief in aggregates corresponds to the understanding that everything is impermanent, so a permanent soul doesn’t fit into Buddhism. BuddhaNet offers a more in-depth description of rebirth.
I remember a Zen practitioner who had experienced a traumatic childhood. She refused to believe that “she” had committed evil actions in a previous lifetime and that that she was living out that karma in this life. She felt that she shouldn’t be “blamed.” She didn’t grasp that the aggregates of her being realized in that body of the past were effectively being carried over to a different person (the person she was in this existence). It is a complex idea to understand, especially once a person gets beyond the conceptual belief and the aspects of reincarnation become personal.
My Introduction to Reincarnation
I first learned about reincarnation outside of my interest in Zen. As I mentioned earlier, rebirth is rarely a topic for a Zen discussion. When I learned about reincarnation, it was at a time when, quite frankly, I didn’t think much about death or what would happen after I died. Before we married, my future husband, who had left Catholicism, asked me why I was motivated to live as a good person. Since I didn’t behave well out of a concern for the punishment I would receive if I behaved badly (Judaism asks us to do good in this life and refers to hell very little), I told him that I tried to be a good person because God expected me to. Although I wasn’t an observant Jew, I’d always felt a connection to God.
As I looked into reincarnation, I found that it made sense to me. The Buddha wanted practitioners to know that even if we created negative karma (acted in ways that were hurtful or destructive), we could work out our karma by behaving in ethical and helpful ways in each succeeding lifetime. I have been blessed with a life, to date, that has had few traumatic experiences, so my belief is that I’m either extremely lucky, or I have paid for the negative consequences of my actions in previous lifetimes. Still, I try very hard to be a compassionate, ethical and responsible person — not because I have to, but because I love God and believe that God expects me to, and quite frankly, it’s my nature. I also say to people (half-seriously) that if I don’t work out all my karma in this lifetime, I probably have lots more lifetimes to resolve it!
The concept of heaven doesn’t speak to me. I love my life and experiencing God within it; although life also contains old age, sickness and death. I hope my practice will see me through the difficult times. I’m not afraid to die, but hope that I’m not a burden to my loved ones.
I am also a hospice volunteer. It’s an honor to attend to people at the end stage of their lives. Friends have told me that they respect my commitment, since they couldn’t imagine doing it. Death, however, is inevitable; we begin to die the moment we are born. As I write this section, I have learned that the patient I met with weekly over ten months has passed away. My reaction is quite normal: I am sad; I miss her: I shed some tears; I am comforted to know that she is free from her suffering. I realize, too, that I’m not interested in whether she reincarnates or goes to heaven (the latter is what she would have believed). In fact, I’m not very attached to my belief in reincarnation, so I don’t need to convince others that it’s true. The premise speaks to me and is very personal.
By the way, my husband is not a Buddhist. Neither of us were Buddhists when we married, but he has always been loving and supportive of my practice..
. . . And Finally, Politics
As for the potential influence of Buddhism on politics, I’m skeptical. I can’t imagine everyone being a Buddhist, for one. I don’t care whether a person running for office practices a religion, is agnostic, or an atheist. I want to see the history of their actions and behaviors. No religion (nor its practices) guarantees that a person will be a wise, thoughtful, and ethical politician. Given that the overwhelming numbers of Buddhists are liberal, I believe the potential for practical political policy would be at risk. I can only hope that the rules of karma apply.