Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Reincarnation vs. The Soul

This is something that used to bother me for a long time. I finally made peace with it not too long ago, but it is still a wonderful topic of discussion.
Buddhism teaches that there is no self, no soul.
I can buy that. After all, there cannot be a permanent soul if everything is impermanent. Some people have an issue with this belief, but for me, it fits.

However, if there is no such thing as a soul or self, then how does reincarnation work? Reincarnation indicates that something is getting reborn. What is this something that is getting reincarnated? The easiest answer would be to say that its the soul.

Ah, but wait, I don't believe in the concept of a soul.

The concept of reincarnation was something I wrestled with for a while. The concept of a soul never seemed quite right to me, and impermanence makes sense. But I have trouble rejecting reincarnation all together because so many Buddhists have adopted it. We follow Buddha's teachings to break free from the cycle of suffering and, according to some, the cycle of birth, death, and rebirth.

One day, while I was thinking about this, another thought occurred.
"Why do I even care? Why not just live this life as well as I can, with all the compassion and mistakes and humor that comes with it? To me, people die, and then...
Who knows?
That's part of what death is. The unknown.
I don't know when I'll die and (possibly) be reincarnated.
So why worry?

Some would see this as kind of a cop-out, but it satisfied me.


TaraDharma said...

I don't see it as a cop out at all - it seems a healthy acceptance of this bit of unknowingness. None of us really knows what happens after this body and life ends -- it's like that great song "Let the Mystery Be." I like that it's a mystery. We are not all-knowing.

Happy New Year.

Jordan said...

Professor Ian Stevenson of the University of Virginia’s Department of Psychology had done quite a bit of research in that field. Interesting stuff there.

Take care,

Taru Sharma said...

I went through this phase also..:-) To really understand what gets reborn, I think it is essential to not only understand Emptiness or Sunyata theoritically but also realize it by meditation. Buddha said that rather than asking the question what gets reborn, a better question is how rebirth happens. I look at it like this - I don't know what happens after death, I have no first hand knowledge of next birth or past birth, I needed to understand how this concept has any effect on my present life. Dependent origination explains rebirth - If there is craving and clinging in this life, as a result of that phenomena of next life will happen. Whatever we crave for or cling to is impermanent and will eventually leave us, so is the craving or clinging worth it? Craving is what gives rise to ego and leads to actions rooted in dissatisfaction which, in turn, have unwholesome affect.


Bodhipaksa said...

Your "agosticism" about rebirth is very much in line with the Buddha's parable of the arrow, and also with his refusal to answer certain metaphysical questions. For me, rebirth is one of those things that I can't prove from my own experience, so to claim that it's a *fact* would be a violation of the precept against untruthful speech; to state something as true when you don't know it's the case is not honest.

Incidentally, I don't think it's quite correct to say that the Buddha taught there was no "self." he taught there was no "atta," and although that word does literally mean "self" it would have been taken to mean something more like "unchanging essence." I think the Buddha taught that there is no *unchanging* self.

Another wee thing is that Buddhism teaches rebirth rather than reincarnation. Reincarnation implies a "soul" that as it were puts on a new body as if it were a suit of clothes. Rebirth merely implies that there is a causal connection between one life and the next.

An image that can be helpful is of lighting one candle with another. There's no "flame essence" that passes from one candle to the other -- one flame simply arises on the basis of the other one.

All the best,

Alice said...

Another example, or question, to add to Bodhipaksa's: if you planted a cherry seed and a cherry tree sprung forth with many cherries, could it be said that the new cherries are the same as the original cherry?

Anonymous said...

I went through years of this stuff, wasting nothingness only knows how many hours talking about it, reading about it, puzzling about it. Then it occurred to me: No. One. Knows. Why do you care?

So I had to quit caring.

To me, practice is no more grasping, no more yearning for knowledge about the unknowable -- putting aside the intellect and getting to maximum simplicity. Seems as though the distance from there to no-thought is a bit less infinite. ;)

It's the same thing with the God question. I put it aside years before I took refuge. It is immaterial to one who is living a good life. Only those who think they may not be need worry.

I no longer have learned discussions. I just sit. I don't know if I'm any closer to enlightenment, but I'm a whole bunch happier, and have a lot more time and energy to spend on important things like family, friends, metta and butterflies.

David said...

"After all, there cannot be a permanent soul if everything is impermanent."

"However, if there is no such thing as a soul or self, then how does reincarnation work?"

Quote WikiPedia
"Impermanence is one of the essential doctrines or Three marks of existence in Buddhism. The term expresses the Buddhist notion that every conditioned existence, without exception, is inconstant and in flux, even gods."

Impermanence and the soul doesn't neccessarily imply the none existance of soul or anything else. It would simply suggest that even your soul is in a constant state of change. Growing, changing and evolving.

Carmen said...

"Believe nothing, no matter where you read it, or who has said it, not even if I have said it, unless it agrees with your own reason and your own common sense." - Buddha



Samantha said...

Ironically enough I have more problem with impermanence than reincarnation. Part of my problem with impermanence IS reincarnation.

Why? Because I remember my last life, and the one before it, and before that. I feel like a Sauve commercial.

Anyway, I'm learning the lessons I missed in the last trip, and learning why the choices that lead to my last death were not the best, have showed me how impermanence doesn't work. I have met in this life, people I've known in the past, folks I share a history with. Everything we've shared is gone, the things, but the memories and relationship remains.