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June 30, 2022

Reincarnation: Who Goes, and Where

Reincarnation: Who Goes, and Where

As I watched a very knowledgeable Buddhist master talk about reincarnation, I could not help but wonder why bother with the topic. I have enough trouble going to sleep each night and remembering who I am the next morning, let alone next life. Besides, what benefit will a belief in reincarnation be for me if I could understand it. What does it have to do with the here and now?

In many ways the question of rebirth is unimportant, but it is important in as many ways as it is unimportant. From my point of view, reincarnation suffers from an overemphasis on whether it exists or doesn’t exist. Why not take a better look at why the question arises at all, which if examined would have many practical advantages?

We all know that Buddhism adheres to a “no self” doctrine, while many other traditions believe in a “soul,” a distinction which sets these sides at odds with one another. But they are not as much at odds as it may seem. By “no self” the Buddhist is speaking of an absence of “self” in the sense of “soul,” but the presence of self as a continuum of constant change. The Buddhist merely rejects an unchanging eternal essence or soul, but not self altogether, for it excepts a self of change and transformation, or a “consciousness continuum”.

So, both Buddhist and those who believe in a soul except reincarnation but differ on what the nature of that which reincarnates is. This oversimplification is enough for the current purposes, as much is written on the subject elsewhere. I would rather focus on the practical ideas behind rebirth that applies where we are now, rather than some distant future life.

It is true that many masters from all traditions have passed through life, death, and rebirth consciously like we do when we go to sleep at night and awake the next morning aware of who we are.

We all have an awareness of who we are; but some of us have a much stronger sense of ourselves than others. For most of us it would be ridiculous to worry about what we are going to be in a future life and entangle ourselves in a metaphysical and philosophical quagmire to little practical advantage. We can, however, seek advantages in the present. I don’t think the masters ever intended the idea reincarnation to be debated at the expense of learning to wake up a little more aware of who we are each morning of our lives.

No one can deny that they forget who they are when they go to sleep and wake up remembering. Let us assume that some can die and be reborn the same way. For us not so strong in our sense of selfhood, it is enough that we move in that direction without getting bogged down in what often turns out to be the distraction of metaphysical sophistry.

There are some who believe in rebirth and some who don’t. Let’s not bother wondering who’s right when we all agree that happiness is the universally worthwhile goal. Happiness is also a very relative experience and is quantified from coarse to sublime. Can we take the teaching of the gospel or the law of karma to heart and day by day progress to more sublime levels of happiness? That is the question we should be asking ourselves.

The challenge is not to understand whether there is reincarnation or not, but to renew ourselves each day. As our understanding grows so will our interests, and then “reincarnation and karma”, “no-self or soul”, may become topics of our enlightened inquiry. But what’s the hurry when there is so much to achieve right where we are?

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