5.2
June 16, 2009

I don’t believe in Reincarnation. Am I still a Buddhist?

I grew up in a Buddhist family. As the Dalai Lama says of Buddhism,

Anything that contradicts experience and logic should be abandoned. – His Holiness the Dalai Lama

In fact, the Buddha himself said something along the lines of “Buddhism is what can be experienced, not what I say it is.” And so I’ve never believed in reincarnation—I’ve never experienced it, it strikes me as superstition, as a spiritual hangover from Buddhism’s origins with Hinduism (I also don’t particularly believe in eight-armed green deities).

Still, from a strict Buddhist p.o.v., reincarnation is part of our dogma. Wait, I thought we didn’t have dogma, we only “believed” what we could experience? Well, there’s the rub. If you ask my teacher, Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche, the fact that I don’t believe in reincarnation means I’m not, strictly speaking, a proper Buddhist. I say, show me the evidence of it, and why it matters to my Bodhisattva Vow: to be of benefit.

Because that, after all, is the whole point of all this Buddhist stuff (at least as I was brought up to understand it in Chogyam Trungpa‘s sangha community): to become sane (Hinayana), work for the benefit of others (Mahayana) and fully involve onself in this short, precious human existence (Vajrayana). And Trungpa Rinpoche himself never emphasized reincarnation, or the six realms (except as psychological analogies).

So call me a dis-believer. But given that Buddhism is a non-theistic tradition, I think that just makes me a…Buddhist. ~ elephant journal editor-in-chief, Waylon Lewis.

Via one of my favorite Buddhist e-newsletters, Upaya, which also has an elegant site that’s chock-ful of events and Dharma:

Shinshu Roberts was looking at Suzuki Roshi transcripts and ran across this:

Student F: “Reincarnation. What do Buddhists believe?”

Suzuki-rōshi: “Yeah, that is—it has been Buddhist belief, and no one can deny it, you know. It is difficult to say it doesn’t exist. It is very difficult to say. [To say,] “It does exist” is easy [laughs], but we cannot—if you want to deny something, it is very difficult, you know [laughs]. It is easy to say, “I am not enlightened.” This is easy. But it is very difficult to say, “I have no easy [?] desires”—I have no such easy desire as you have. Can you [laughs] clearly declare in that way, you know?

Maybe, you know, your idea—the thought of reincarnation—someone may say it is—it is superstition. It is easy—it is not so easy to say that is superstition. You have to prove, you know, everything from every angle if you want to say that is—reincarnation does not exist. It is almost impossible to deny something, some idea which you have. So maybe we shouldn’t [laughs]. It is better not [to].

And actually, some of you may say that is superstition. Some of you may say so, but he himself, you know, what exactly what he does, actually, is based on that kind of idea—idea of reincarnation. That is how he is—how human nature is going. I may die tomorrow, you know, but I—until I die, I think I will live tomorrow too. When I go to bed I think I am quite sure [laughs] that I can get up tomorrow at five o’clock. I am quite sure. But we cannot be so sure [laughs]. You see, we—I believe in my future life always. That is actually what we are doing. So it is more than belief, you know. [It is] actual life we have. Okay?”

Now, I have little idea what Suzuki Roshi is saying. I think he’s saying reincarnation happens now—it’s beyond superstition. But whatever he means, I agree with it—he’s the author of one of my favorite Buddhist books, like, ever.

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Waylon Lewis  |  Contribution: 596,850