Some Aspects of Rebirth

Last week we spoke about the kind of karma, the kind of action whose results make themselves felt in the course of the current life.

In trying to understand the Dharma we must avoid examining its individual threads as if they existed in isolation.  We can’t pull one thread out of the whole fabric and pretend that it has a separate existence from the totality of the teachings.  Rather, we want to see the Dharma as a beautiful organic whole where all parts contribute to the overarching theme of transformation and liberation. The Dharma is like the healthy body of a young person in the prime of his or her life.  All parts work together in perfect cooperation.  There is harmony and balance throughout.  Whatever understanding we believe we have gained about the Dharma, we need to test it in the light of all the other parts of it. If our interpretation of one part is out of harmony with another, we need to question our understanding.

Here is an example:  You see a drunkard sitting on the cold sidewalk with a bottle in one hand and a styrofoam cup for coins in the other. Perhaps you have read a book that proclaims that we all must burn off our karmic debts  from previous lives, and once that is done we can hope for a happier incarnation next time around.  The author may even have included some sayings of the Buddha to bolster his point.  So you take a passing look at the shivering man and philosophize that helping him in some practical way would deprive him of the opportunity to get rid of his bad karma once and for all.  Perfectly logical, isn’t it?

Then shortly thereafter, as you are sipping your latte at Starbucks, you reflect on the experience, and the thought dawns on you that there is a clash between your view on Karma and the Buddha’s emphasis on maitri, karuna, mudita, and upeksha, those four all-important qualities that should govern our lives. Maitri means love, karuna is an active form of compassion, mudita is the joy that comes from helping others, and upeksha is an even-handedness and inclusiveness that does not separate the deserving from the undeserving.  Together these qualities are known as the four brahma viharas or “celestial” abodes, that is to say states of mind in which we want to spend our whole lives. Now you are caught between two incompatible views.  On the one hand there is the hardline interpretation of Karma and on the other there is the teaching on the four brahma viharas, which we could simply call the teaching on the nature of love.  What went wrong here?   

The contradiction came about because the author of the book you read tried to grasp the impossible complexities of the workings of Karma in a strictly intellectual way without reference to the spirit of the Dharma as a whole. When you come across such a dilemma, it is always safe to take refuge in the spirit and discard the letter.

The example I have given is an every-day occurrence and you might think that no one in his right mind would fall into this trap.  Unfortunately, you would be wrong.  All disciples of the Buddha should be aware that the True Nature of Reality cannot be grasped through intellectual acrobatics and logical deduction. Our brain-based interpretations need to be moderated by the four celestial abodes. If we deal with a single aspect of the Dharma and tear it out of its compassionate soil, we can lose ourselves in what the Buddha calls the jungle of views.

Also last week, we heard that the Law of Karma is not the only operative force in the universe.  Interdependence is at work as well.  Stated simply, Interdependence means, “This happens because all of that happened before.”  Numerous preceding events have to come together in order to shape a single new event.  Ignoring this would lead to serious error, including a cold-hearted refusal to alleviate the suffering of others.  If we ascribe all life events to the workings of Karma, we end up with a cosmic justice machine that dishes out consequences until we finally “get it.”  This kind of view would enable us to look down on all those human beings who suffer more than we do.  They must have piled up a whole bunch of bad deeds in a previous lifetime or two.  This was a common world view in the days of the Buddha.  But it is decidedly not what the Buddha taught.

Brahmanism ruled the day. The Vedas and later on the Upanishads taught that Karma and its consequences were the only active forces determining all events.  If you were born into a high caste, you would live a privileged life.  If not, the only way to enhance your chances for a better life next time and to wipe out the consequences of ill deeds committed in previous lives was to make frequent sacrifices.  And these sacrifices had to be performed according to complicated rules—so complicated in fact that only highly trained and well-paid specialists could do them correctly.  These experts belonged to the caste of priests or Brahmins.

But even the Brahmins with all their ritualistic skills could not help you if you were the child of untouchable parents.  You would have to spend your life as a night-soil carrier.  Cleaning latrines was what the universe had decreed for you. You were considered so hopelessly impure that even your shadow could soil the garment of other people—which is why you were not even allowed to enter a town in daylight.  To make matters worse, your subhuman status excluded you from climbing the ladder of reincarnation in successive lives.  Once a shudra, always a shudra, in this life and in all lives to follow.  It said so in the holy books, and so it had to be true.

The Buddha abhorred discrimination and he abhorred sacrifices, and he did not hold old books in high regard just because of their antiquity.  He saw no merit in sprinkling the blood of innocent animals on statues of gods.  Instead, he taught a very liberating insight.  It is something we have often touched on: Impermanence.  Impermanence, said the Buddha, rules our lives.  Everything is in constant motion—no exceptions.  One side-effect of this teaching was that it made nonsense of the caste system.  If everything is subject to change, then how could the shudras be beyond hope?  And so it was that royals and untouchables found themselves living side by side in the Sangha established by the Enlightened One.  This bold innovation is just one of many reasons why the Dharma is often referred to as the Lion’s Roar.  It took the courage of a lion to go against the benighted traditions of the time.  Once the lion had roared, the road to liberation was open to all.

I will turn now to an aspect of Karma that we studiously avoided last week.  We had spoken only about single-life Karma.  You will recall that Karma is defined as volitional action that produces consequences. If you accidentally drop and destroy your friend’s I-phone, that does not produce vipaka or consequences.   But if you then refuse to replace it, that is a deliberate act and, according to common belief, it will have results.  Perhaps it will end your friendship. That would be an instant single-life result.

When we try to understand how Karma affects a future life or future lives, we immediately come up against a stumbling block.  After all, the Buddha clearly taught Non-Self, anatman, the absence of a permanent and separate core.  And so we ask ourselves how the consequences of a volitional act can possibly make their way across the river of death into a later incarnation.  Incarnation literally means  an entry into flesh; so re-incarnation implies that something is re-entering flesh.  As such, this term fits perfectly into the ancient pre-Buddhist belief that, upon the death of the body, the soul seeks out a new flesh-based organism to live in.  If we understand Impermanence and Non-Self as the Buddha taught it, there can be no Self abandoning one body and moving into another.  So the Buddha speaks of re-birth instead of re-incarnation.

Instead of attempting to define rebirth, I will rely entirely on metaphors provided in the Dharma.  We will start with an excerpt of a dialog between the Buddha and a seeker by the name of Kudanta.  Kudanta was troubled by just this conundrum of how the consequences of action can find their way from one life to the next when there is no Self that migrates.  In this case, the Buddha begins by comparing the process to a flame.  He asks Kudanta:

—Suppose a man were to light a lamp.  Would it burn the night through?

—Yes, it might do so.

Now is it the same flame that burns in the first watch as in the second watch?

—No, it is not.

—Then there are two flames, one in the first watch and the other in the second watch?

No, in one sense it is not the same flame, but in another sense it is the same flame.  It burns the same kind of oil and it emits the same kind of light.

—Now suppose there is a man who feels like yourself, thinks like yourself, and acts like yourself.  Is he not the same man as you?

—No, sir.

—True, Kudanta, he would not be yourself.
Now, tell me, is the person who goes to school as a child the same person when he has finished his schooling?  Is one who commits a crime the same as when he is caught to be punished by having his hands and feet cut off?

—They are the same.

—Very well, then you agree that persons can be the same, in the same sense as two flames of the same kind are called the same; and you must recognize that in this sense another man of the same character and product of the same karma is the same as you.

—Well, I do.

—And in this same sense alone you are the same today as yesterday.  Your nature is not constituted by the matter of your body, but by the samskaras, the mental dispositions.  The person is the combination of these samskaras.
Now consider the continuation of your personality, which is preserved in your karma.  Do you call it death and annihilation, or life and continued life?

—I call it life and continued life for it is the continuation of my existence, but I do not care for that kind of continuation.  All I care for is the continuation of the self.                   

—Very well.  This is what you desire and this is the clinging to the concept of self.  This is your error.  All compound things are transitory: they grow and they decay.  All compound things lack a self, an atman, an ego.

—How is that?

Where is your self?  Your self to which you cling is in constant change.  Years ago you were a small babe; then you were a boy; then a youth, and now you are a man.  Is there any sameness of the babe and the man?  There is a sameness in a certain sense only.  Now, which is your true self, that of yesterday, that of today, or that of tomorrow, for the preservation of which you are clamoring?

—Lord of the World, I see my error, but I am still confused.

—It is by a process of arising that samskaras come to be. All samskaras spring into being by means of  gradual becoming.  Your samskaras are the products of your deeds in former existences. In your samskaras will you continue to live, and you will reap in future existences the harvest sown now and in the past.

We will leave Kudanta here.  You will be pleased to learn that the dialog between him and the Buddha carries on until Kudanta eventually gets the point. The important lesson here is that nothing solid passes from one existence to the next, but the samskaras shape a future life.  Samskara means two things: “that which has been put together” and “that which puts together.”  Therefore we can say that samskaras are the volitional formations we have put together in one life.  In time they become active karmic ingredients; they become the energies that put together a later existence.

Now let’s listen in on another dialog dealing with the same issue.  This time it is King Milinda questioning Nagasena, a wise Dharma teacher.  This king is a historical personality better known in the West as the Indo-Greek king Menander.  Nagasena is an important Buddhist scholar who lived around 150 BCE. 

You will find it easy to follow this conversation if you keep in mind the meaning of something called namarupa. Whenever this technical term appears in the text, just substitute “human being” for it—or better yet, call it “human becoming.” That will help a lot because namarupa is not a fixed entity; it is the process of human becoming.

The King: “Teacher Nagasena, does rebirth take place without  anything transmigrating [passing over]?”

The Budddha:  “Yes, your majesty. Rebirth takes place without anything transmigrating.”

“How does rebirth take place without anything transmigrating? Give an illustration.”

“Suppose, your majesty, a man were to light a light from another light; pray, would the one light have passed over (transmigrated) to the other light?”

“Certainly not.”

“In exactly the same way, your majesty, does rebirth take place without anything transmigrating.”

“Do you remember, your majesty, having learnt, when you were a boy, some verse or other from your professor of poetry?”

“Your majesty, did the verse pass over [transmigrate] to you from your teacher?”

“Certainly not.”

“In exactly the same way, your majesty, does rebirth take place without anything transmigrating.”

But what is it that is born into the next existence?”

“Your majesty,” it is name and form or namarupa that is born into the next existence.”

“Is it this same name and form that is born into the next existence?”

“Your majesty, it is not this same namarupa that is born into the next existence; but with this present namarupa, your majesty, one does a deed—it may be good, or it may be wicked—and by reason of this deed another namarupa is born into the next  existence.”

“If it is not this same namarupa that is born into the next existence, is one not freed from one’s evil deeds?”

“If you were not born into another existence, you would be freed from your evil deeds; but, your majesty, inasmuch as you are born into another existence, therefore you are not freed from your evil deeds.”

“Give another illustration.”

“Your majesty, it is as if a man were to ascend to the top story of a house with a light, and eat there; and the light in burning were to set fire to the thatch; and the thatch in burning were to set fire to the house; and the house in burning were to set fire to the village; and the people of the village were to seize him, and say, ‘Why, O man, did you set fire to the village?’ and he were to say, ‘I did not set fire to the village. The fire of the lamp by whose light I ate was a different one from the one which set fire to the village;’ and they, quarreling, were to come to you. Whose cause, your majesty, would you sustain?”

“That of the people of the village, of course.”

“And why?”

“Because, in spite of what the man might say, the latter fire sprang from the former.”

“In exactly the same way, your majesty, although the namarupa which is born into the next existence is different from the namarupa which is to end at death, nevertheless, it is sprung from it. Therefore is one not freed from one’s evil deeds.”

“You are an able man, Nagasena.”

Here then we learn how this process of becoming, which is all we human beings ever are, carries over from one life into the next.  This understanding takes the mystery out of rebirth because we are already being born every moment while we are alive.  So death, in a way, is nothing new.  The namarupa I will be at the end of this sentence is already different from the namarupa I was at the beginning of it.  Rebirth does not have to wait for death to occur.  It is happening constantly while we are still very much alive.  This is one of the hopeful aspects of Impermanence: We are not beholden to the past.  Our past actions lead up to the present moment, but if we are awake they do not bind us.  In every single thought-moment we are reborn and we are free to make a new beginning.

This is how Thây can say that he does not have to wait for death in order to be reborn.  He is the starving child in Africa, he is the cloud, and he is the rain that seemingly causes the cloud to die, and he is the multitude of his disciples around the world including you and me. There is no self and there is no other.  And what Thây is we can become also.