“Reincarnation”

As a Buddhist, there is a sense in which I am "supposed" to "believe" in reincarnation, or, more subtly, rebirth.[1. this is not actually true, strictly speaking, thus the scare quotes. As a Buddhist, I don't have to believe in any particular doctrine.] I certainly do not accept the picture of rebirth in which a person's soul slips out of their nostrils at the moment of death & enters the body of a newborn human baby; nor do I accept the idea that one can recollect past lives as Shakespeare or Ulysses S. Grant. (Why, in this version, is the past life always a famous person?) Nor do I credit all the (mostly Christian) accounts in drugstore counter books about going to heaven & returning to tell about it. These have mostly turned out to be hoaxes anyway. This version of the soul & this sort of reincarnation is easy to dismiss as naive, at best. But long before I became a Buddhist, I was not a good materialist, but more of an empiricist, & I had the sense even then that the fabric of the universe was far stranger than we had led ourselves to believe. Little hints or inklings of a greater mind during dreams or hallucinations, often revealing something about past events that later proved to be true, or future events that "came true" in certain ways. Perhaps this is just deja vu & can be explained physiologically or neurologically, but I don't think this covers all the cases. Once I became a Zen student, different ways of thinking about rebirth became available to me. The metaphor I like best is that of lighting one candle from another just as the first candle gutters & goes out. Is the new flame the same flame? No. It is caused by the first candle but has no relationship of identity with it. There are just flames going out & flames being lit. One has to understand these "flames" & "candles" as representing in this metaphor any being in the universe, sentient or insentient. I also think many of the accounts of Karma we find in popular Buddhism--to say nothing of the wider culture--are oversimplified & naive. You're a bad person, consequently, you get reborn as a bug, or in one of the elaborate eschatological realms invented by Brahmin priests & taken over by early Buddhism. All my empiricist alarm bells start ringing at such a picture. Robert Thurman, in The Yoga of Everyday Life, argues for a kind of Buddhist Lamarckianism in which good actions here & now produce moral improvement later. My own first impulse would be to imagine more randomness in the system--that which particular candle one lights as one's own is going out is to some extent a matter of chance. In this way of looking at it, the universe is seething with possible connections & the person exiting this lovely scene of oceans & clouds gets plugged into the next available slot, which, statistically, most likely is the body of a bacterium, the most numerous life form on the planet. But I don't rule out the possibility of moral improvement across space & time. Perhaps each helping action one performs "in this life" prepares one's residual energy for more refined work in future rebirths, but I also have the sense that we live all our "births" at the same time. (Robert Thurman says this present life is a bardo,[2. The intermediary stage between death and rebirth—where a soul who has just left its body experiences a . . . “virtual reality” where its life flashes before its eyes, and it gets to witness first-hand the karma it has accumulated during that lifetime.] a transition stage from one life to another. I honestly do not know. There is another problem behind these others & that is what gets transferred from one birth to the next. Is it a substance? A subtle form of energy? I've already rejected as naive the notion of a soul moving from one body to another but with little post-it notes of former identities stuck to its incorporeal carcass. In Zen & many other forms of Buddhism self or soul is a construct, without any permanent identity--just some temporary piles of different kinds of stuff hanging together--loosely amalgamated like the dust & stone of a comet. What part of that self gets transferred over to the other side? The very idea is incoherent. Those piles of stuff are of course the skandhas of Buddhist psychology, which strikes me as very subtle. Those heaps that constitute the self have no metaphysical status, they are the results of conditions & cause & effect. When the constituted person ceases to exist, the heaps dissolve back into the flow of existence. So what little grain of identity gets reborn. I think it can only be the force of one's moral actions in "this life" that goes forward.  If one performs good acts now & here, the reverberations of those acts continue outward infinitely, which is a kind of immortality. And there may be some kind of little boost that kicks in at the moment of death. Again, I don't know & I refuse to presume. But this doesn't get me quite back to my starting point. Since I fell ill, I have naturally enough begun wondering what I will experience at the moment of death. Will my consciousness simply go out & the force of my accumulated actions jiggle the structure of the universe ever so slightly? That seems most likely. But it seems just barely possible that some flake of consciousness will detach itself from my identity & make a journey through some bardo to or toward . . . something else. I'd like to be awake for that, but of course there would be no "I" to be awake. I have to end by saying, again, I don't know. One thing I do know, however, is that current science in its materialistic turn has missed out on the study of the world's full range of phenomena. There is more going on in any part of this existence than we can begin to imagine.

Author: jd

Joseph Duemer is Professor of Literature Emeritus at Clarkson University in northern New York state. His most recent book of poems is Magical Thinking from Ohio State University Press. Since the mid-1990s he has spent a good deal of time in Vietnam, mostly Hanoi. He lives with his wife Carole & five terriers (four Jack Russells & one Patterdale) on the stony bank of the Raquette River in South Colton.

1 thought on ““Reincarnation””

  1. THINGS CHANGE HERE AND IT’S A MATTER OF TIME

    Flattening gusting
    The sea is blueblack deep.
    Waves break
    As the earth curves westward.
    Suns rise up, go down,
    Clouds burst.
    Winds swing the hands
    Sweeping around the dial.
    There’s no returning
    To yesterday’s landmarks.
    Listen just a puff away
    Even here things change.

    © Edward Mycue 16 January 2013

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