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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