I hope you are all doing very well. Last week I was at an Effective Altruism social event and the topic of death came up. I was speaking to a practising Buddhist who was curious about what I thought about reincarnation. I was able to respond to her aptly.
"I don't know."
I have heard of incidences where young children were suddenly driven to travel to villages they had never been to. That they are equipped with knowledge that they couldn't have known, recognise people they have never met and even locate hidden possessions of their former past lives.
I have also heard of accounts where UFOs abduct farmers, virgins give birth and statues from all over the world bleed the same blood.
As far as I can see, all of these claims have yet to be verified. I have no reason to accept any of them.
My reverence for other parts of Buddhist thought is probably swinging me to a biased position but I can't put reincarnation in the same boat as the traditional Abrahamic vision of a heaven and a hell.
If the person had asked about Christianity I would not have been so agnostic.
In Mahyana Buddhist lore, it has been said that the future Buddha will be Maitreya, who has been depicted as one of the retinue of the historical Buddha.
I like to call Mahayana (and its subset Zen), "tricky Buddhism". They explicitly believe that many of the teachings were not meant to be taken as literal truth but rather as compassionate instruction. That is to say; while not strictly true they are useful to those following them.
Reincarnation may be such an instruction. Not exactly true, but useful those inclined to believe in it. A less damaging fiction than the alternatives.
The Vimalakirti Sutra is said to be one of the few expounding the absolute truth rather than the relative. In it, the titular Vimalakirti inquires Maitreya on his claim to being the future Buddha:
"What's being reincarnated? Who's being reincarnated? Will the reincarnated being be the same in this life as the next life?"
What is the self that can or cannot be reincarnated anyway?
Please watch the short skit starting ~32 minutes into this video. It is extremely amusing.
The Mystery of Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche
I first saw Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche at a public talk of his on Buddhism in 2017. It was an excellent evening, he spoke eloquently and delivered ancient wisdom with the charm and wit of any comedian I know.
He divided all of Buddhism into three parts.
All the normal precepts you find in every religion; don't lie, don't kill, don't steal, be nice to others, all of that jazz.
The self that can or cannot follow these precepts is an illusion.
You have to get rid of all concepts including the concept that the self is an illusion.
According to him, our suffering is due to our entanglement with our concepts. We constantly compare the way things are with an imagined ideal of the way we believe they should be and we strain and suffer to reach this place. At the root of these concepts is the idea of who or what we are, the agent suffering in the midst of all these experiences.
In an online talk, Rinpoche has described all of Buddhism as simply skilful means to seeing through this illusion. Once we have seen through the stories we tell ourselves we can dispense with the means — that is; Buddhism. If I remember correctly he described it as the thorn we use to remove the other thorn. We throw away both at the end.
Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche is almost as mysterious as he is wonderful. Admittedly, at this point in time, I have watched hours of his content on YouTube. A part of me always trying to pin him down — what does this man really believe?
"Reincarnation, the Buddha didn't really mean it."
This was at the end of a list of tenets he referred to as provisional teachings — teachings that the Buddha didn't really mean. It included all the buddha's teachings on morality, being a vegetarian, mindfulness, love, compassion, karma, samsara and nirvana. Oh my, how controversial!
If you don't believe me, watch the part of this video that starts 36 minutes in.
From this point of view, Buddhism is simply a means for dispelling ignorance and all of its methods and teachings are themselves useful illusions to adopt when needed.
The sage Shantideva once declared that for a practitioner, one is allowed to keep one specific ignorance for the time being:
"Thinking that there is an Enlightenment to be reached."
The aim of Buddhism is to achieve Enlightenment, and yet even this is not real?!
It makes me wonder what all these people are doing... Whatever it is, I have a feeling they are having a lot of fun.
The next life
In the conversation I was having, it was brought up that we should prepare for death, and how we do so depends on what we believe is after death.
For example: If you believed in a Christian Heaven or Hell, the way to prepare to death is to make sure all of the ten commandments are followed closely and live according to the precepts of the bible. If any of them are broken, then it would be imperative to confess to a priest to ensure that at the hour of death one's slate is clean.
But what if reincarnation were real? How does one ensure one's future happiness?
I believe the answer is rather beautiful.
We don't know who we will be reborn as, so the way is to work for the welfare of all. It is to create a world were the causes of everyone's suffering have been addressed and we all more happy and prosperous.
If we eradicate poverty and disease, then in future lives we will not experience them.
If we lessen our impact on the environment and mitigate the effects of climate change, then in future lives we will suffer their effects less.
If we create a culture with less prejudice and needless discrimination against people based on their race, sexuality, age or gender then when we are born as each of them we will suffer less.
This doesn't only extend to other humans. It is also possible to be born as an animal. If we take steps to lessen the suffering of animals and restructure our society to no longer cause such needless misery simply because we enjoy the taste, we can avert the incredible suffering that we would find ourselves in if we are born in a factory farm.
Of course, existential risks, like nuclear war, a super-intelligent AI or a meteor colliding on the earth have the potential to bar the possibility of any future lives at all!
How amazing is it that with this assumption we can closely align our self-interest with the that of all sentient beings?
While I do not accept reincarnation as being true in the way it is believed, I can see the value of adopting this kind of thinking when we determining how we should act. A useful heuristic. A means of expanding our circle of sentiments and learning to value others as ourselves.
Even Obama has invoked the analogy of being able to be born in a very different form to the one we are in:
"If you had to choose one moment in history in which you could be born, and you didn’t know ahead of time who you were going to be–what nationality, what gender, what race, whether you’d be rich or poor, gay or straight, what faith you’d be born into–you wouldn’t choose 100 years ago. You wouldn’t choose the fifties, or the sixties, or the seventies. You’d choose right now."
Before I let you go, some news about the website. I released a minor theme update, now rollover effects on the buttons are much smoother and it's possible to view details about the banner images by rolling over them (try it).
In other news, it looks like the website is doing very well, just this month it has reached over a thousand views! This might not seem impressive to some of you, but this is higher than it has been for any month since its inception. I am quite pleased.
You can see this month's activity here.
I am unsure where all the hits are coming from. A lot of it may be coming through search engines and social media but some are certainly because of all of you. Thank you for taking an interest in my website and if you have ever shared any of my content I am truly grateful.
I am quite serious about living this way and it will not be possible without your support.
Once again, thank you for everything,