To Re-Be or Not Re-Be, That is the Question

In 2011, the Chinese government enacted a law that prohibited Tibetan lamas or monks from reincarnating without government approval. The Chinese government wants to have the right to approve reincarnations of living Buddhas or senior religious figures in Tibetan Buddhism. Let’s for a moment forget the ridiculousness to trying to approve who may or may not reincarnate themselves, and focus instead on the high probability that this was merely a ploy to allow the Chinese to chose the next Dalai Lama, someone they could control.

Only problem is that if you understand Tibetan Buddhism then you know a Dalai Lama cannot be chosen, only found. That’s because the next Dalai Lama is supposed to be a reincarnation of the previous one. High Lamas and Tibetan governmental officials have to search for this person. Sometimes it takes a while. Took them four years to find the current Dalai Lama.

Some Chinese officials claim this young girl is the next Dolly Lama.
Some Chinese officials claim this young girl is the next Dolly Lama.

So, back in 2011, Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama, said that when he reached the age of ninety, he would decide for himself whether to reincarnate or not.  In the meantime, last year he suggested that it might be a good idea for his successor to be a woman, remarking,

Biologically, females have more potential . . . females have more sensitivity about others’ well being. If the circumstances are such that a female Dalai Lama is more useful, then automatically a female Dalai Lama will come.”

Just recently, Tenzin Gyatso told a German newspaper he is actually doubtful about the need for successor:

We had a Dalai Lama for almost five centuries. The 14th Dalai Lama now is very popular. Let us then finish with a popular Dalai Lama.”

I suspect he might have had some tongue in cheek there about his popularity, but it’s true, and there may be a specific reason for this pronouncement. Commenting on the situation, Robert Thurman, Executive Director of Tibet House US, who is close to the Dalai Lama, indicated that by rejecting the need for a successor Tenzin Gyatso hoped to pave the way for a more democratic Tibet.

Now, the Chinese government, which doesn’t respect Tibetan Buddhist tradition enough to recognize that a Dalai Lama can’t be chosen, is accusing the current Dalai Lama of not respecting the Tibetan Buddhist tradition. In a statement to the press, Chinese government spokesperson Hua Chunying said:

China follows a policy of freedom of religion and belief, and this naturally includes having to respect and protect the ways of passing on Tibetan Buddhism. The title of Dalai Lama is conferred by the central government, which has hundreds of years of history. The (present) 14th Dalai Lama has ulterior motives, and is seeking to distort and negate history, which is damaging to the normal order of Tibetan Buddhism.”

Hmm. I wonder.  If China follows a policy of freedom of religion and belief, then why is it being accused of persecuting the country’s Christian community by demolishing churches, tearing down crosses, and kidnapping bishops, and of course, why does it continue to interfere with Tibetan Buddhism?

The bottom line here is that if the Chinese government has its way, the Dalai Lama will reincarnate whether he wants to or not.

Sad, and rather silly. Technically, you know, reincarnation is not a Buddhist concept. See this post from 2010 that explains.

Yes, the whole reincarnation business between Tibet and China is a lot of silliness. But this is something we should take seriously, for Stephen Colbert says he has the solution.

Watch:

 

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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.

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The Reincarnation of Paul Revere’s Horse

The title of this post comes from a line in a Bob Dylan song. I don’t know if Bob believes in reincarnation or not. I rather doubt it, since he has fairly conventional religious views. But who knows? Shirley MacLaine definitely believes in reincarnation. Buddhists probably shouldn’t because it’s not really a Buddhist concept. Buddhism teaches rebirth.

Reincarnation is the theory that the same person will be reborn in successive bodies. The core teachings of Buddhism say nothing about this. Reincarnation found its way into Buddhism through the assimilation of folklore and native beliefs. Buddhism rejects the notion of a soul or a self that can transmigrate. So, rebirth is different from reincarnation. What Buddhism is talking about is a continuum of consciousness. The difference may seem slight, but its there.

Still, some people may wonder if then rebirth isn’t also just another supernatural belief we should cast off. The funny thing is, I don’t think of rebirth as being supernatural. It seems rather scientific to me.

Looking at existence just in terms of the cycle of birth and death, we know everything that is born will eventually become old and sick and then die away. On that, there is no question. What happens next is debatable. Yet, it would appear from the way nature and the universe behaves that things are recycled. Leaves fall to the ground to become compost that helps other plants to grow and it’s also food for worms and the worms become food for ants and beetles, and so it goes in a continuous cycle.

The universe itself continuously recycles energy and mass at both the subatomic and macro-atomic level. Atoms, molecules, planets, suns, and even galaxies are destroyed and the energies are dispersed to be reassembled in other forms. Fritjof Capra in The Tao of Physics called this “the Cosmic Dance”:

The exploration of the subatomic world in the twentieth century has revealed the intrinsically dynamic nature of matter. It has shown that the constituents of atoms, the subatomic particles, are dynamic patterns which do not exist as isolated entities, but as integral parts of an inseparable network of interactions. These interactions involve a ceaseless flow of energy manifesting itself as particles are created and destroyed without end in a continual variation of energy patterns . . . The whole universe is thus engaged in endless motion and activity; in a continual cosmic dance of energy.”

Here we also have science revealing patterns of interdependency, consistent with the Buddhist concept of interdependency (pratitya-samutpada). Additionally, science tells us that new matter and energy are created about every trillion years. So, evidently what we see as birth and death is not birth and death at all, it is only the transformation of matter and energy. It’s recycling.

Some years ago, Princeton physicist Paul Steinhardt and Neil Turok of Cambridge University unveiled the “cyclic universe theory” which suggests, “that space and time may not have begun in a big bang, but may have always existed in an endless cycle of expansion and rebirth.”* The beginningless beginning . . .

I don’t feel that it’s deal breaker if existence does not unfold exactly as Buddha-dharma has laid out. It’s the overall principle that is important. Nor, do I believe it is out of the realm of possibilities that the recycling of energy may not also apply to living beings. For these reasons, I am reluctant to dismiss rebirth as just some supernatural notion that deserves no attention or contemplation.

Yet, I think people make too much of the question of rebirth. People shouldn’t feel that, well, if I practice Buddhism then I will be expected to believe in this “supernatural” stuff. But if you keep your mind open, then it’s possible that you might perceive deeper meanings about the inevitability of change and life manifesting itself in interrelated patterns within cycles of  time and nature.

Birth and death are just cycles of life and Buddhism says that throughout these cycles, nothing is created and nothing is destroyed. It’s just life, flowing . . .

This teaches us the humility of our mutual dependence as well as the universality of our true nature and the freedom from that most deadly of all illusions, the illusion of a permanent, separate ego. Whatever resists transformation condemns itself to death. There is no death for those who accept the law of transformation.”

Lama Anagarika Govinda, Creative Meditation and Multi-Dimensional Consciousness

The sweet pretty things are in bed now of course
The city fathers they’re trying to endorse
The reincarnation of Paul Revere’s horse
But the town has no need to be nervous

Bob Dylan, Tombstone Blues

* princeton.edu

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Karma, again . . . and again . . .

I have to admit that I am not 100% sold on the ideas of karma and rebirth. Some people tend to think of them as a kind of “next-life” balm, and there are times when I tend to agree with that.

But after I think it about it some more, I wonder. How is the notion that you carry around everything from your past, especially all the dumb shit you’ve ever done, around with you through countless lives, endlessly into the future, any kind of balm or reassurance? Karma is like a set of luggage that you tote around everywhere you go. You can leave the bags at the gate, bribe the sky cap to lose them, hope that the airline loses them, or better yet, destroys them, and yet, no matter what you do or where you go, it catches up with you, a huge set of heavy bags to lug around some more. Nothing very soothing or restorative about that. No ambrosia. No nectar or honey-dewed comfort.

Now the flip side is of course that we also carry around good stuff, and for most people the good and the bad should even out, with the former having a bit of an edge. That’s something that is often forgotten about when this subject is discussed.

So while I may harbor doubts about the actual mechanics of this doctrine, I take seriously the point teachings about karma and rebirth are trying to make, which is to take responsibility for your thoughts, words, and actions. You can’t escape from yourself and there is no blaming others for this or that because ultimately you are the one who decides what to think, what to say and what to do.

It is important to remember that karma means “action,” a word that can refer to many things. In an essay entitled “The Buddhist Concept of Karma”, Professor of Indian Philosophy, Hari Shankar Prasad grouped Karma(s) into two categories:

karma-without-agency . . . the dynamic nature of reality . . . This kind of karma is essential and blind, for example, the internal bodily processes, the [burning] of fire, etc. . . . the second, karma-by-human-agency which is the basis of the popular doctrine of karma and its retribution (vipaka). This kind of karma is essentially ethical and causal in nature . . .

Prasad goes on to explain that this second kind of karma, which reflects the ethical aspect, demonstrates that it is not necessary to hypothesize the existence of a Supreme Being, for the Buddhist concept of karma instills moral values on the secular level. Furthermore, the Buddhist karmic doctrine rejects any sense of fate (niyati, vidhi) to which a person can evade responsibility for his or her actions by passing the buck to external determining factors.

Up to this point, I think everyone should be on board, but we come to some forks in the road when the ideas of rebirth and transference of merit (parinamana) are thrown in. On one hand, this should be enough. Taking responsibility for our thoughts, words, and deeds on the deepest level, while at the same time purifying them, is the job of a lifetime. What more can we do  other than exercise control over our “volitional capers.” Living an ethical life in this life is the right thing to do regardless of whether or not it increases the possibility of more favorable circumstances in some next life.

We may or may not have had past lives, but we all certainly have a past. That’s why the bags have our names on the tags and no matter how hard we try to lose them, some sky cap will always come up and say, “Here is your luggage . . .” And, what’s more, you have to give a tip.

As I noted this doctrine of karma with its moral aspects is not the exclusive domain of religion, nor should it be the starting point of religion. The Buddhist sense of karma put it all down on the secular level, and as well, on the level of conventional or relative truth. On the ultimate level, it’s a whole other ballgame, as Nagarjuna points out in the Maha-prajnaparamita-sastra:

All deeds are empty, sunya (relative and contingent); and the deeds that are done with this understanding are called the right deeds. The farer on the Mahayana way, the bodhisattva, comprehends the ultimate sameness of all deeds; and he does not take the good deed as meritorious and the evil deed as devoid of merit. For, in the ultimate truth, there are no deeds, good or evil. This is the true wisdom (Prajna). But this is itself also the right deed for it issues in the deed that is done with the right understanding . . . Having achieved the true understanding of deeds, one neither does deeds nor desists from them, for one is devoid of clinging and so one does not consider oneself as the doer of deeds. And such a wise man always does the right deeds and never any wrong ones. This is the right deed of the bodhisattva.

Nagarjuna is not denying deeds literally. Rather he is rejecting clinging in regard to deeds and any sense of passion, pride, or even guilt, associated with doing deeds. It is definitely not an escape clause that one can use to justify any action simply because in the ultimate sense all actions are empty. Nagarjuna is pointing to the state of mind capable of transcending suffering on account of thoughts, words, and deeds. It is also safe to assume that if there is some kind of balm being offered, it too is empty, relative and contingent.

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Karma and Rebirth

Today a passage from the Pitrputrasamagama, found in Shantidava’s Siksasamuccaya or Manual of Wisdom. The chief speaker in the following dialogue is said to be the Buddha:

The senses are like illusions, material objects are like dreams. Take for example; a man asleep might dream that he has made love to a beautiful country girl. Awakened from sleep he might remember her. What do you think; does that beautiful girl in the dream exist? “

“ No, Blessed One.”

“Would that man be wise to remember the girl in his dream, or to believe that he had actually made love to her? “

“No, Blessed One. Because the girl does not exist at all, so how could he have made love to her, except perhaps on account of weakness or fatigue, he might think so.”

“In this same way,  a foolish and ignorant man of the world, when he sees agreeable forms and believes in their existence, is pleased, and being pleased feels passion, and feeling passion acts accordingly, develops the action that springs from passion, creates karma, threefold by body, fourfold by voice, threefold by mind; and that action, developed, from the very beginning is injured, hindered, distracted, changed, not going towards the east, not south nor west nor north, not up nor down, nor to the intermediate points, not here nor across, nor between both.

But at life’s end, when the time of death comes, when the vitality is checked by the exhaustion of one’s allotted span of years, the karma that fell to him dwindles, and his previous actions become the object of the mind, the last thought in his mind as it disappears.  Then, just as the man on first waking from sleep thinks of the country girl about whom he dreamed, the first thought upon rebirth arises from two causes:  the last thought of his previous life as its governing principle, and the actions of the previous life as its basis.

Thus, a man is reborn in states of hell, or in bestial states, or in spiritual ones, demonic ones, or human or celestial states. And from this first thought belonging to rebirth, a new series of thoughts arise, and the experience of the ripening of karma is to be felt. The stopping of the last thought is known as death, the appearance of the first thought is known as rebirth, and the manifesting of the first thought is known as arising. Nothing passes from life to life, but death and rebirth take place nonetheless.

The last thought when it arises does not come from anywhere, and when it ceases it does not go anywhere; action arising does not come from anywhere, ceasing it does not go anywhere. First thought too arising does not come from anywhere, ceasing does not go anywhere. All are essentially empty. The last thought is empty, karma is empty, the first thought is empty, rebirth is empty, and arising is empty. In the whole process no one acts or creates karma, and no one experiences the effects of karma, except by verbal convention.”

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