Reincarnation: The Zen Buddhist Perspective

 

366218_origSydney 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.

Karma

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.)

The Soul

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.

Life’s Unfolding

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.

There are 15 comments.

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  1. Merina Smith Inactive
    Merina Smith
    @MerinaSmith

    Rebirth and recreation every moment–sounds akin to repentance, forgiveness and redemption.

    • #1
  2. Arahant Member
    Arahant
    @Arahant

    anonymous:

    Susan the Buju: in the Abhidharma it says we die and are reborn 6,400,099,980 times in 24 hours

    That’s once every 13.5 microseconds. If you live for 75 years, that’s 175 trillion (1.75×10^14) deaths and rebirths.

    That’s a lot of rebirth.

    • #2
  3. Arahant Member
    Arahant
    @Arahant

    Susan the Buju: Regarding the potential influence of Buddhism on politics, I’m skeptical. I can’t imagine everyone being a Buddhist, for one.

    Well, there are countries that are Buddhist majority.

    • #3
  4. Arahant Member
    Arahant
    @Arahant

    Thanks for doing this, Susan. I enjoyed reading it.

    • #4
  5. Saint Augustine Member
    Saint Augustine
    @SaintAugustine

    Thanks for the tip, Arahant.

    Ok, I’m here.  “Saint Augustine followed your conversation.”

    Who knows if I can contribute, or when I can even read it?  iWe has my brain pretty full of other theology talk in other threads.

    • #5
  6. Susan the Buju Contributor
    Susan the Buju
    @SusanQuinn

    Arahant: Well, there are countries that are Buddhist majority.

    I was talking about the U.S. Countries like Thailand, for example  aren’t doing well in terms of governance

    • #6
  7. Arahant Member
    Arahant
    @Arahant

    Susan the Buju: Countries like Thailand, for example aren’t doing well in terms of governance

    So, is that because of Buddhism, or because they were always basket cases?

    • #7
  8. Front Seat Cat Member
    Front Seat Cat
    @FrontSeatCat

    Life is a process and its different for everyone – I grew up going to church, but it was not forced. My uncle went to a Catholic church and dropped me off at the Presbyterian Church, and we had breakfast together afterward. I also went to a Methodist church because my best friend went – but even as a small kid, I was turned off by some of the racial slurs of people in her family and then they put on their “good” side on Sunday.

    As I got older, I went through a long new age phase.  I believed that every path led to the same place – my sister gave me “hell” about that for years.  Then I had a couple of very bad years, family and health-wise, and found I had no answers in what I believed, no assurance, no comfort – what I believed blew away like fog. I realized after 20 years, I did not have a clear understanding of God at all. That was the beginning of understanding for me.

    A Greek guy that used to run a local pizza shop had eyes that literally sparkled when he talked of God – he invited me to church. It was a process, but I experienced real miracles from that point on and have come full circle back to my Christian roots – I think God is always ready to meet us where we are if we but seek Him.

    • #8
  9. Arahant Member
    Arahant
    @Arahant

    Front Seat Cat: Then I had a couple of very bad years, family and health-wise, and found I had no answers in what I believed, no assurance, no comfort – what I believed blew away like fog. I realized after 20 years, I did not have a clear understanding of God at all. That was the beginning of understanding for me.

    That happens to a lot of people. They have to really examine their beliefs, and decide they all don’t work together.

    • #9
  10. Susan the Buju Contributor
    Susan the Buju
    @SusanQuinn

    Arahant:

    Susan the Buju: Countries like Thailand, for example aren’t doing well in terms of governance

    So, is that because of Buddhism, or because they were always basket cases?

    They were always basket cases. Thailand has never figured out what it means to have a democratic government. There are two major parties, and when the party who is “out” doesn’t like what’s going on, they protest and have nearly shut down the country a number of times. Also, Thailand, like many Asian countries, are widely corrupted at business and government levels. We have friends there who have told us many stories about people backing out on business deals and there’s nothing the other party can do; if the second party wants to sue, the party breaking the deal will bankrupt them in the courts. Our friends are actually quite committed to Buddhism; they meditate and take actions to earn merit (Theravadans work to earn merit as a way to build good karma). And they are just good people.

    • #10
  11. Susan the Buju Contributor
    Susan the Buju
    @SusanQuinn

    Front Seat Cat: It was a process, but I experienced real miracles from that point on and have come full circle back to my Christian roots – I think God is always ready to meet us where we are if we but seek Him.

    What a beautiful story of your journey! I’m so glad you have found your “religious home.” So many people dabble in religion and spirituality, looking for the perfect place to be. They never go deep enough to find their home as you have. My journey has gone here and there, too, and in fact I’m re-thinking my connection to Judaism. I’ve no idea where that will take me, since I’m very grounded in Zen, but we’ll see.

    • #11
  12. Larry Koler Inactive
    Larry Koler
    @LarryKoler

    Nice post, Susan. Thanks.

    The many lifetimes you mention: are they as humans or something else? Hinduism teaches that we start as a drop of water as an individual and progress from there.

    Regarding the soul, it seems that what you are describing as “thoughts, feelings and perceptions, aggregates” can safely be referred to as a soul for the sake of word use. Something is transferred and it has identity associated with it. Not arguing but just seeing it as odd to say it’s not a soul — if so, then I don’t understand the difference.

    Your use of the term aggregates seems to match the Hindu idea of samskaras — those tendencies, either weaknesses or strengths, that follow us from lifetime to lifetime.

    • #12
  13. Larry Koler Inactive
    Larry Koler
    @LarryKoler

    Regarding karma, Hindus take note that it is desire that is held in karma. Desire for good and avoidance of bad are both equally involved in ensnaring us in the world. The path of perfection (divinity) involves withdrawing from the world into a point of neutrality to the world.

    The teaching goes that God doesn’t create good and evil but that it is our mind that identifies such things. So, salvation or attaining the divine state involves accepting the world as perfect, as an intentional place made by God for His hobby (sorry for this term — best I can come up with right now because it isn’t really accurate but it does reflect the playful nature of God’s creativity).

    Finally, there is the teaching by Krishna that we must act and we must be righteous in our actions but never desiring the fruits of action. In the west we say that we are in the world but not of it.

    It’s called dharma — right action.

    • #13
  14. Susan the Buju Contributor
    Susan the Buju
    @SusanQuinn

    I’m so glad to hear from you, Larry. Very thoughtful comments. So I’ll do my best to respond.

    The many lifetimes you mention: are they as humans or something else? I remember the Roshi (maybe you’ve heard of Taizan Maezumi Roshi, founder of the White Plum) was asked this once, and I don’t think he was kidding–he wasn’t sure! But he thought we couldn’t come back as something smaller than we are (like a rock, he said). Doesn’t sound very scholarly . . . I think that by the time we’ve become humans, we repeatedly come back as a human–my take.

    Regarding the soul, it seems that what you are describing as “thoughts, feelings and perceptions, aggregates” can safely be referred to as a soul for the sake of word use. I completely agree! But the Buddhists insist it’s not a soul, and the Jews and Christians say we don’t reincarnate. I think for the sake of argument, we can say that the aggregates are impermanent, constantly changing. I’ve always had the impression the soul is more fixed. But I’m with you.

    Regarding karma, Hindus take note that it is desire that is held in karma. Desire for good and avoidance of bad are both equally involved in ensnaring us in the world. The path of perfection (divinity) involves withdrawing from the world into a point of neutrality to the world. From my perspective, yes and no: fully agree with your comment about desire–it’s part of the Four Noble Truths that say we suffer because we cling/desire. I don’t know that we pursue the path of perfection, since we don’t have “divinity,” but we do have the absolute, which is the perfection and includes everything. But the absolute is the existing perfection, it simply is. In Buddhism we strive to let go of desire, but experiencing it is inevitable, so it is an ongoing effort, “nowhere to get to.”

    The teaching goes that God doesn’t create good and evil but that it is our mind that identifies such things. So, salvation or attaining the divine state involves accepting the world as perfect, as an intentional place made by God for His hobby (sorry for this term — best I can come up with right now because it isn’t really accurate but it does reflect the playful nature of God’s creativity).

    Since God is not addressed in Buddhism, we commit it on our own. Buddhists today don’t like to talk about “good and evil”–it’s so judgmental! There is a precept, however, that says, “I vow to do good and not commit evil.” In the last Zen center I attended, one teacher changed the word evil to “harm.” (Evil sounded too Christian to her.) So although some Buddhists might want to attain a perfect state, Buddha never suggested this aspiration; we can attain enlightenment, but always have to descend the mountain.

    • #14
  15. Susan the Buju Contributor
    Susan the Buju
    @SusanQuinn

    It’s called dharma — right action. Dharma is a complex word in Buddhism. It means the Buddhist teachings; it means education in general; and it means our very lives. So when we serve others in the hope of relieving the suffering of others, we are serving the dharma in every way.

    • #15
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