Killing Birth and Death

I thought there were a few things in Tuesday’s post that might raise questions in some reader’s minds. First, one might wonder if it is possible to be a “good” Buddhist if you do not totally buy into rebirth.

In Mahayana Buddhism, I’m not so sure that rebirth is presented as anything to “buy into.” Especially in the case of Nagarjuna. Here is someone who rejected assertions of both existence and non-existence, who saw all things as empty because they posses no intrinsic essence of their own, and realized that it was the tendency to find things to seize, to assert, to cling, that is the primary cause of suffering. It is difficult for me to accept that a person with such a mind would then take an absolute stand on rebirth, a theory that is really little more than rank speculation.

Rebirth has to be a metaphor. And for many other “Mahayanists” it must have been the same case. Jung might have classified rebirth as an archetype. We get confused by the translations and the layering on of our own prejudices and Western way of thinking.

I think many people misunderstand the significance of rebirth. They mistake it for an ultimate truth, when actually it belongs with the conventional truth. Teachings on rebirth are upaya or skillful means, preparatory teachings leading to the ultimate truth, which unfolds only when we free ourselves from thought constructions and “enter” into emptiness, which is neither existence nor non-existence.

We get a clue about this from K. Venkata Ramanan in Nagarjuna`s Philosophy, who notes that The Maha-Prajnaparamita-Sastra

points out that when one sees only the birth and endurance of things, then there arises the existence-view, and when one sees only the decay and death of things, there there arises the non-existence view.”

Both views, existence and non-existence, are regarded as extremes. Indeed, all views are extremes, and they are all empty. Ramanan says further that

all schools [of Buddhism] recognize the denial of views . . . and the denial of views means the denial of such view as are based on extremes, especially the extremes of externalism and negativism, both of which are traced back to the false sense of self.”

The cycle of birth and death (and rebirth) represents the continuous flow of reality in which nothing is created or destroyed, comes into existence or goes out of existence, and where neither being nor non-being are tenable, let alone the notion of self-being (svabhava). Looking at it this way, the principle of rebirth is a tool for us to use in breaking free of the notion of a self that persists eternally. Part of the key to understanding this is having a good grasp of what Buddhism means by “rebirth.” It requires some further explanation, but in short, its literal sense does not suggest that the same person is reborn.

I wonder, though, if the question of whether or not there is literal rebirth should such take up much of our time. I feel what’s more important is how birth and death plays out in our mind. Nagarjuna himself says,

The single instant of a snapping of the finger contains sixty “moments,’ and in every one of these moments there are phases of birth and death. It is by virtue of the birth of the continuity of these mental elements that is possible to know that this is the mind of greed, this is the mind of anger ect. The wayfarer comprehends the stream of birth and death of the mental elements like the flow of water or the flame of the lamp. This is known as the door to the comprehension of emptiness (sunyata).”

The challenge for us to go beyond our usual thinking processes. To think anew. To have a rebirth of thought. That’s what we really mean by putting an end to thought construction. We can’t put an end to thinking. But we can transform it, construct our thoughts differently. We can empty our mind, and open it.

If this is a subject that is of interest, you may want to check out this post from a few months back that suggests yet another practical and rational way of looking at rebirth.

In the meantime, here is an excerpt from a dharma talk by Thich Nhat Hanh,

There is a classic Buddhist gatha:

All formations are impermanent.
They are subject to birth and death.
But remove the notions of birth and death,
and this silence is called great joy.

. . . It means you have to kill your notions of birth and death. As someone who practices the way of the Buddha, you have [a] sword . . .  which is sharp enough to remove wrong perceptions and cut through all notions, including those of birth and death . . .

The true practitioner understands real rebirth, real continuation . . .

Before you can answer the question, “What will happen to me after I die?” you need to answer another question, “What is happening to me in the present moment?” Examining this question is the essence of meditation. If we don’t know how to look deeply to what is happening to us in the here and the now, how can we know what will happen to us when we are dead?

. . . I don’t care at all what happens to me when I die . .  When I walk, I want to enjoy every step I take. I want freedom and peace and joy in every step. So joy and peace and lightness are what I produce in that moment. I have inherited it and I pass it on to other people. If someone sees me walking this way and decides to walk mindfully for him or herself, then I am reborn in him or in her right away—that’s my continuation.


4 thoughts on “Killing Birth and Death

  1. Your thoughts on lack of inherent existence and non-conceptuality can be applied equally to everything. What does this mean about how we should think about rebirth specifically?

    How does our thinking change how we act? How do our acts change what we experience? How does our experience change our beliefs?

    Many people say they have experienced living and being reborn, including the Buddha. Others say that this is impossible and irrational. Who is being literal and who is being metaphorical?

    I don’t think there’s any one answer to any of these questions, but if someone can answer them for themselves, I think they will know what to believe and what to discard.

    1. Thanks for your comment, James. I agree, I don’t think there is any one answer. People should think for themselves and make their own decisions about these matters. The point I am trying to make is that one should formulate an opinion after one has done some investigation and not just dismiss something like rebirth merely because one is skeptical about it. Rebirth and other similar concepts do appear in Buddhist teachings just so that there is some sort of metaphysical explanation for things. They are there to teach us something about how we think, act, believe, etc.

      1. Whatever in the teachings, whether Hinayana or Mahayana, would make you believe that the Buddha’s teachings on rebirth is merely a metaphor? Such an assertion requires passages from the Buddha’s teachings that are, umm, metaphorical. When the Buddha states that during one meditation he observed his infinite past lives, was he being metaphorical? He goes into some detail about the nature and circumstances of his past lives. Such extremely divergent circumstances certainly aren’t a metaphor for a more congruent present existence. Of course, believing in the Buddha’s teachings on rebirth take a certain amount of trust. Are you distrstful of the the Buddha’s teachings on rebirth and if so, why?

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