Rebirth vs. Reincarnation

Reincarnation is not a Buddhist concept.

Reincarnation is the idea that the same soul or same person is reborn in successive bodies. Buddhism rejects the notion of a soul or a self that is permanent. You will never be reborn as the same person ever again.

What Buddhism teaches is rebirth, the cycle of birth and death. You may carry over into your next life karma, or traces, of your former lives, but  you will be a new, unique person with no real memory of the past. According to Buddha-dharma, it’s very rare to remember a past life.

The concept of reincarnation found its way into Buddhism through the assimilation of folklore and native beliefs; strictly speaking, it is not part of the Dharma or teachings.

Ultimately, it doesn’t matter. Whatever happens when we die is going to happen regardless of what we believe. Buddhism does not stand on assertions about what comes after physical death. Buddhism is about the experience of life, here and now.

The great Zen master Dogen once said, “This present birth and death itself is the life of the Buddha. If you attempt to reject it with distaste, you are losing thereby the life of the Buddha.”


The Buddha

PBS’s recently aired documentary, “The Buddha”, was promoted as the story of the historical Buddha.

Unfortunately, the “historical” Buddha was nowhere in sight, instead viewers were presented with the same old mythological Buddha of the magical birth, who struggled with the demon Mara, performed miracles and so on. It is a nice story, but much of it cannot possibly be true, and the rest is certainly elaboration.

Perhaps those viewers unfamiliar with the traditional account, and others, found it interesting, however I can’t help but feel the program would have been much stronger if they had not relied so heavily on the myths.

As mythology, the story serves its allegorical purpose, but only if those receiving the story are able to see the allegory.

Over twenty years ago, another PBS program, The Power of Myth, a dialogue between Bill Moyers and Joseph Campbell, gave the world fresh insight into the meaning of mythology. A  tutorial, if you will, that came with this now-famous caveat from Campbell: “Every religion is true one way or another. It is true when understood metaphorically. But when it gets stuck in its own metaphors, interpreting them as facts, then you are in trouble.”

I do not know if we are yet capable of resisting the temptation of getting stuck, and so, I wonder if it creates any value to keep perpetuating religious myths, especially when we invest so much in our religions. I am inclined to think that we would be better off if we put these myths behind us.

I will leave that for now, to give you a glimpse of the ordinary man behind the curtain, the Buddha.

Continue reading “The Buddha”


Shakin’ all over

Haiti is still a mess from their massive earthquake. Here in Los Angeles we experienced an quake recently that was rather scary. It was one of those rolling quakes, lasting a good thirty seconds or so. Fortunately, no damage or loss of life.

This week, a terrible earthquake in China. So far: 1,700 dead, 12,088 injured, 312 missing.

Sunday, Chinese President Hu Jintao met with survivors in a mountainous Tibetan region where badly needed aid was finally arriving.

The Dalai Lama has expressed his desire to visit the quake site in Tibet. He has not returned to China since fleeing Tibet in 1959 after a failed uprising against Chinese rule. He was denied permission to visit after a 2008 China quake.

“To fulfill the wishes of many of the people there, I am eager to go there myself to offer them comfort,” the Tibetan spiritual leader said Saturday.

Somehow, I have a feeling the Chinese authorities won’t let him this time either. They have made it a crime in Tibet to even posses a photo of the Dalai Lama.

A letter from Tibetans in the quake zone requesting a visit from the Dalai Lama here.

The New York Times has an interesting article on how monks in Tibet are helping the quake effort here.



Thanks for coming here. This blog has roughly a twofold purpose:

The first, as expressed in the title, is to elaborate on the theme of the spiritual  journey.

TagoreIn 1930, the great Indian poet, musician and playwright, Rabindranath Tagore gave a series of lectures at Manchester College, Oxford, later published as The Religion of Man. In these lectures, Tagore spoke of civilization’s “constant struggle for a great Further,” referring of course to the instinct that motivates us to go beyond, to break out of our shell of limitations, our thirst for knowledge. Tagore said it was an Endless Further, our “ceaseless adventure.” It is endless because knowledge is endless. No one can ever know everything.

Tagore also knew that in our spiritual journey, the journey itself is the destination. As we set out on the road to liberation, we might think that we will eventually arrive at some place, find an ultimate horizon.  It is just an illusion, a concept in our minds.

Some people seek God, and yet can no one can say that there is final shore to reach in the search for a being that encompasses the entire universe.

In Buddhism, the stated goal is enlightenment. I like to use the word “awakening” because it implies continuous development. When Siddhartha Gautama became the Buddha, he did not stop growing, learning, awakening. When he reached Nirvana, he realized he had not gone anywhere, that Nirvana was no realm other than this saha or mundane world. I think Buddha knew about the Endless Further.

My second purpose is to make clear some distinctions and relations which might lead to a better understanding of religion and spirituality. We express and apprehend religion through ideas, words, and practices. Their meanings  shape our religions and our spiritual beliefs. I am not sure that we grasp these meanings very well. Understanding as far as possible what meanings are attached to religious ideas and practice is essential.

The journey to spiritual awakening is the greatest adventure.  Whether you believe it is an inner journey to discover one’s own true nature or an outbound voyage to seek God,  the final destination, the attainment of  enlightenment or a crowning state of sanctifying grace is just a mirage. The road goes on forever. In this lifetime, at least.

No one should be disheartened over the lack of final destination, for as Basho wrote, “Everyday is a journey, and the journey itself is home.”

Comments are welcome and encouraged. A third purpose of the blog is to spark some dialogue. Just click on “Responses” up in the right hand corner of this post section.

Coming shortly, a post on the recent PBS program “The Buddha.”  After that: “Just how ‘religulous’ is religion anyway?”


Short Takes

A few miscellaneous thoughts to start with:

I don’t believe in God, not as conceived in Western religion. I agree with Bruce Lee: “If there is a God, he is within. You don’t ask God to give you things, you depend on God for inner theme.”

A good philosophy is not static, never final or completed. To have any value, it must be dynamic and continually evolve just as life itself is dynamic and constantly changing. A philosophy is good when it probes with penetrating discernment into life’s complex matrix of relationship and experience. However, even a good philosophy is not perfect. If anyone waited for perfection before presenting a philosophy for the benefit of others, it would never be expressed.

Eckhart Tolle’s book The Power of Now was a best seller a few years ago. Buddha taught the Power of Now 2500 years ago. He called it mindfulness. The Buddhist monk, Thich Nhat Hanh says, “When mindfulness shines its light upon our activity, we recover ourselves and encounter life in the present moment. The present moment is a wonderful moment . . .”

My mind is imperfect. It is often scattered, confused, chaotic, cluttered . . . If I practiced more mindfulness, my mind would still be imperfect, but it would be less scattered and confused. It is said that mindfulness is protection from the fangs of wild animals. The beast I face is none other than me.

I like Taoism. Tao is referred to as the Way and points to the way things are, the way of the universe. However, there can be no precise definition of Tao. The Book of Tao begins: “The Tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao. The name that can be named is not the eternal Name.” Tao is everywhere, but it can’t be found.

Wu wei is a Taoist concept that means loosely “doing nothing.” It doesn’t mean literally not doing anything, but rather knowing when to take action and when not, and to be aware of the natural rhythm of things. Lao Tzu, the father of Taoism, said that by doing nothing one can accomplish everything.

There’s a great little movie called the Tao of Steve. It’s about an under-achiever who fashions a philosophy based on Steve McQueen. At one point Dex, the lead character, says, “Doing stuff is overrated. Like Hitler. He did a lot. But don’t we all wish he woulda just stayed home and gotten stoned?”

Steve McQueen once said, “I would rather wake up in the middle of nowhere than in any city on earth.”

When we change, the world changes, because all things in the world have an inter-dependent relationship, so there is no real separation between our life and the life of the world. When we idealize someone like Buddha, we are actually idealizing our own best nature. It’s helpful to have a model or a standard to strive for. In this sense, Buddha is a tool to help us be, as Gandhi said, “the change in the world you wish to see.”