Becoming Convinced of Rebirth: A Personal Story
Freiburg, Germany, February 2003
When we reaffirm our motivation, which means our aim of why we’re here – well, why have we come here? To learn something about the Buddhist idea of rebirth. Or, if we already have some idea, to get a little bit more clarity about it. And why would we want to know about rebirth? It could just be out of curiosity, but that’s not a terribly deep or profound reason for coming here, although it could bring us here of course. But even if we’ve come here out of curiosity, then I think that we could try to make our time here together a little bit more meaningful in terms of thinking, “Well, how do I actually relate to this whole issue of rebirth?”
Rebirth is something that is taken very seriously, not only in Buddhism but in many different systems of thought in the world (with of course different understandings about what it is and how it works). And maybe there’s something in it. Maybe it could actually be true. And, if it is true, what does that actually mean in terms of my life and how I lead my life? So, if we think in those ways, then coming here is also with the aim of seeing, “Well, is this something that could become part of my own world view and which would help me in my life?”
So let’s perhaps reaffirm this type of aim for being here – in a realistic way, which means you don’t have expectations that, after one short lecture, all of a sudden we’re going to understand completely the Buddhist view of rebirth, or we’re going to reach the point at which we say, “Hallelujah! Now I believe.” That’s quite unlikely that will happen. But this can be a start – or if we’ve already made a start, a further step, perhaps – in the direction of thinking about this issue quite seriously. So think of that for a moment.
Now when we talk about rebirth – or anything actually, in general – there are many ways in which we can know it. We can of course have an incorrect understanding; that’s one way of knowing it. Another way is that we can presume that it’s true, but we don’t really understand it. Or we can understand it logically and be convinced through logic that there must be rebirth. Or we can have actual experience of evidence that there is such a thing as rebirth, either in terms of remembering our own past lives or meeting someone in several lifetimes.
If I look at my own personal experience with this issue of rebirth: I was born in the United States in a family that had absolutely zero interest in anything Asian. And, from my own side, as a young child I was interested in Asian philosophy; I started doing yoga when I was thirteen. And at university I studied Asian languages and Asian philosophies, and first went to Asia when I was twenty years old. And when I was twenty-four I basically moved to India and studied with the Tibetans, and I always had absolute and complete feeling of being at home there. And although almost everybody that I knew from Western countries who came to India to do that, to study with the Tibetans, always had difficulties with getting visas and all the bureaucracy of staying in India, I never had the slightest bit of difficulty with that for twenty-nine years. And, from very early on, my direction was very, very clear – of wanting to become a translator, translating not only language but translating Buddhism from one civilization to another, bringing it to the West, and so on. From, I think, the age of seventeen that was very clear what I wanted to do. That’s more than forty years ago.
So that type of life makes absolutely no sense, considering the background of the family and culture in which I was born. And so the idea of rebirth was something which was very appealing, because it made some sense out of my life – that undoubtedly in some previous life I must have been Tibetan or some sort of person strongly involved with Buddhism, India, with Tibetans, and so on. So it made sense out of my life, and although I didn’t really understand rebirth – my way of relating to rebirth was just presuming that it was true, without really understanding how it worked or anything like that – but because it made sense of my life, it actually was quite helpful in terms of giving me the self-confidence to continue in this direction, rather than: “I’m crazy for doing this.” It was very helpful.
So, as I studied Buddhism more and more, I saw how central a role rebirth plays in Buddhist theory and practice and approach to life. And so I studied more and more the logic behind why is there rebirth and how does Buddhism actually explain it. At first I assumed it was true and then saw, “Well, let’s see what follows from that.” And what followed from that, in terms of practice, was very helpful. And so, yes, I really want to understand it more deeply.
So I had some intellectual understanding of it, saw the logic of it, but that type of understanding only goes so deep. And the real question comes: Well, what are you going to feel like at the moment of your death? At that point, how convinced are you going to be of rebirth? It’s very nice during your life and in your meditation – you say, “Oh yeah, yeah” – but are you going to approach death with fear, or are you going to be very relaxed about it, confident about it?
And I’ve been very, very fortunate in my life because I’ve had the wonderful opportunity to know somebody in two lifetimes, and to know them very, very well in two lifetimes. And this is specifically my teacher Serkong Rinpoche; my main teacher. Serkong Rinpoche in his last lifetime was one of the tutors of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, and I spent about nine years with him as his apprentice – in a very medieval sense of being an apprentice – under his wing, being with him a great deal of the time, and him training me to be a translator, training me to be a teacher. And I also was his secretary and wrote his letters and stuff in English, and arranged his travels in the West, and went with him in the West, and his interpreter, and had a very, very close relationship with him. I consider that very, very privileged, to have had that experience.
Although I had met him a few times earlier, but that was only briefly when he was visiting where I was staying, but when I moved to Dharamsala and I went to see him, basically the initiative to become very close to him like an apprentice was from his side. He basically somehow recognized the karmic connection that I had with him, and just from his side said, “Stay. Don’t go away. Sit over here. Watch how I’m dealing with other people,” he started to teach me different words of what he was saying, and explain things, and just… It came from his side. Mind you, he was one of the most highly realized great masters of the previous generation.
So he died in 1983. (And if you’re interested in more details, his whole story and biography, it’s on my website. In “Sources of inspiration” there’s a big long biography of him [now it’s in Approaching Buddhism → Spiritual Teachers].) But, anyway, he died in very special circumstances. And the Tibetans, these very, very high lamas, are able to direct their rebirths, and he was quite an expert in that, more than most people who are able to do that. And so he died; and exactly nine months to the day, he was reborn. He wasn’t interested in hanging out in the bardo or any sort of thing like that. Just immediately. He died in special circumstances of taking on some karmic obstacle to His Holiness the Dalai Lama, so that danger to His Holiness’s life would be gone. So he took it on himself and died in that way, letting people know – certain people know – what he was going to do, so it was very clear. And then – bam! – immediately taking rebirth in the same place where he passed away.
And often when they look for these reincarnations, they have some ideas – some great lamas may have some visions in a dream, or something like that, and then go around looking, and test a child, and stuff like that. But the real test is if something comes from the side of the child, not just from the side of the people looking.
The area where Serkong Rinpoche died and where he was reborn is the valley of Spiti, which is on the border of Tibet in India. And Buddhism was in a very difficult state there, a very degenerate state, and the old Serkong Rinpoche had gone there and basically reformed Buddhism – started the monasteries again, started all their lineages again, started a school, all these sort of things. So he was almost like the Saint of Spiti Valley. And so everybody had a picture of him in their house, including the parents of the rebirth, and when the little Serkong Rinpoche was old enough to be able to speak, he would go to the picture in the house, and point to it and say, “That’s me.” Everything clear from his side who he was. He was only about two then. When he was about four, the people from the former Serkong Rinpoche’s household went to His Holiness and asked him where to look for the new Serkong Rinpoche, and His Holiness said the same valley where he passed away. And they looked at the young children who were born at the appropriate time, and when the party came to the house of the rebirth, the little Serkong Rinpoche, four years old, ran into the arms of the attendant and knew him by name; knew the name without being told.
And the young Serkong Rinpoche has told me – he’s older now, he’s eighteen years old – and he told me that, at that time (and this is what the attendants said as well), all he wanted to do was go with them. He had no interest – as a four-year-old, mind you – to stay with his parents anymore. And he said that what he felt was that he had to go with them because he had to meet somebody very, very important to him (which actually was His Holiness the Dalai Lama). And so of course when a child is recognized as a very high reincarnate lama among Tibetans – or in Spiti, this Tibetan cultural area – then this is considered a great honor, so the parents are quite happy for the child to go. But what’s very interesting is that Serkong Rinpoche left, and he told me that, and the attendants as well – and, I mean, I knew him from that young age – that he never missed his parents. He never cried, he never wanted to go back home, didn’t even have any interest to see them anymore. Now that is really unusual for a four-year-old. And it wasn’t that they mistreated him or anything like that. They’re very wonderful people.
And I wasn’t there in Dharamsala. I was on a teaching tour at the time when he came to Dharamsala, but a few months later I returned and I went to see him. And he was still about four years old, maybe five. And I went in to see him, and the attendant said, “Do you know who this is?” And the little boy said, “Don’t be stupid. Of course I know who this is.” Now I was a little bit suspicious, because actually my photo was… I mean, there were many, many photos – Tibetans love to have photos all over the walls – and there was a photo on the wall of the old Serkong Rinpoche and myself when Serkong Rinpoche had an audience with His Holiness the Pope. So there was sort of a picture there, and I thought, well, maybe he knew me from the picture. But what started to convince me was the fact that this four-year-old totally accepted me as somebody very, very close to him, like a family member, and that was instantly from the very beginning. He wasn’t like that toward other people, although he was friendly. I was just totally, totally accepted by him, and totally, totally comfortable – I mean he was, with me. And this is coming from a four-year-old. It’s not something that you can fake as a four-year-old or five-year-old.
Over the course of the years as he’s grown up – as I said, now he’s eighteen – I have, in many ways, given general advice and guidance of how he would be raised. But I’ve kept a bit of a distance, very much on purpose, because I didn’t want him to become infected – if I can use that heavy word – by my own Western ways or by Western culture. I wanted very much for him to grow up in a totally Tibetan atmosphere and to feel totally at home in that Tibetan monastic context. And he did.
So, when it came for his education in modern subjects, I arranged for a Tibetan to teach him English, not a Western person – and science, and all these sort of things – for him to learn it in exactly the same way as Tibetan children learn it in the schools in India. There’s no need for him to learn it American Sesame Street and this sort of irrelevant type of manner – that just makes for cultural conflict – he doesn’t need to know about the Cookie Monster and these sorts of things. And I think that this approach was very, very successful. And he’s grown up totally comfortable in his position, because he and the reincarnation of Ling Rinpoche (the senior tutor of His Holiness) are the primary candidates who would be the teachers of the next Dalai Lama. And this is something which he very, very strongly takes seriously as his position in life, and he’s very comfortable with that.
Although, as I said, as Serkong Rinpoche was growing up, I would see him every few years or so, but I didn’t really spend a lot of time with him. Nevertheless, now more recently, as he’s more grown up, now I do spend much more time with him, and I speak with him on the phone, and arranged and accompanied him on his first visit in the West, and translated for him on this visit to the West. The relationship has always stayed incredibly close, and very, very strongly coming from his side – it’s not like I’m clinging, “I want to be so close to you” – from his side, he says all of this.
It’s very interesting. A year and a half ago I went to India. Serkong Rinpoche was – I think the closest analogy would be graduating from one step in his education and going on to the next stage in his education. So I went for that event. And I went with another Western friend who had also been a disciple of the old Serkong Rinpoche, an Englishman [Alan Turner], and in the last lifetime I translated a tremendous amount for him (private teachings), and Serkong Rinpoche again saw him as very special. And the way that Serkong Rinpoche, the old one, used to teach me was that in most cases he would never teach me anything just to me; I had to translate it for somebody else, in order to learn something from him. So always the emphasis that my studies must be with the motivation to help somebody else, not just for myself. So we both went to India for this graduation. And, at that time, I asked Serkong Rinpoche for a special teaching on a certain transmission that I know that he had. And of course my friend Alan was there, and I needed to translate it for Alan. And so we were sitting there with the new Serkong Rinpoche, and I said to him, “You know, this really is a wonderful feeling to be translating for you again a teaching.” It was the first one that I did for him in this particular lifetime. And his reply was: “Of course you’re doing this. This is your karma. Last lifetime, this lifetime – it’s absolutely natural. Of course.”
So, as I said, and the relationship has continued more and more since then. And it’s things like this, from personal experience, that one becomes much more convinced – than through logic – of the validity of rebirth, that it actually is the case. Because what continues, really, is this very, very close connection. Aside from the certain habits that he has, and interests that he has, and certain things that he studies that he’s very, very interested in, similar to what he was in his previous life. But this connection, this personal connection – that to me was the most convincing.
He’s very supportive of the whole website project, and so on. We’re a team, and the team continues. Although of course our relative position in terms of age and experience is different, but the fact of being a team and working together – the same, continuity. He helps with the website and supports the whole project. Because what I’m doing in this website, a great deal, is preserving his teachings from his last lifetime. So it’s not only a source of information for him, to continue the type of teachings that he gave in his previous lifetime, but also I’m setting it up for myself in my next lifetime, so that I will come in contact with this, hopefully, and also continue. I mean this whole experience with Serkong Rinpoche has really convinced me of this continuity.
And I had another very remarkable experience in terms of this, because Ling Rinpoche (the senior tutor) – also I have also known him in two lifetimes. The old one, I also translated for him occasionally – although not regularly, like with Serkong Rinpoche – but occasionally I translated for him, and I certainly studied with him. And now also I know the reincarnation, who is now a year younger than Serkong Rinpoche; he’s seventeen. So when I was in India for Serkong Rinpoche’s so-called graduation, I went to see Ling Rinpoche with my friend Alan. And I had not met him for, actually, many years. The last time I had seen him he was much younger. And of course he remembered me and recognized me, and was very interested in what I was doing, and so on. And what was really quite remarkable – I mean, it’s really funny – Tibetans, when you go to see them, always will serve you tea and cookies. Now there’s one particular cookie which is – or biscuit, it’s an English digestive biscuit – a certain particular brand which actually is my favorite.
Question: Which one?
Alex: McVitie’s digestive biscuits.
And we’re in a monastery in the middle of the jungle in South India. This is where Serkong Rinpoche and Ling Rinpoche live. And he asked the attendant to bring in some tea and biscuits for my friend and me. And he brings in McVitie’s digestive biscuits for me to have with my tea. How in the world he knew that this was my favorite biscuit, I have absolutely no idea. And he just sort of looks at me and “Ha ha ha!” type of thing – “You don’t believe in karma and rebirth?” type of thing.
Question: It’s not on your website?
Alex: That’s not on my website. Where he got these from, I have no idea, but naturally this is what he would serve me. I mean, it was a similar type of laugh that he had done in his previous lifetime with me.
I remember once I went to see him and I was sitting in his room, his sitting room. Tibetans sit on these low beds. So he was on one bed, like this, and I was on the other bed which was perpendicular to it. And we’re sitting there and talking, and all of a sudden we see a big scorpion on the floor in between us. And Ling Rinpoche – he’s Yamantaka, this Buddha-figure (he was a specialist in this), which is the most fierce and forceful figure, you know, with flames and all these sorts of things – looked at it, and he looked at me and he said, “Oh dear, a scorpion,” in a very ridiculous, dramatic gesture. “Oh dear, a scorpion. Are you afraid?” And I looked at him and I said, “How could I possibly be afraid of the scorpion in your presence?” And then he sort of just laughed – the same way he laughed when he brought the digestive biscuits – he just laughed at me and then called the attendant, and the attendant just, the way that the Tibetans do – you put a cup over the scorpion and a piece of paper underneath it, and you take it out. You know, he just sort of manifested this scorpion for a joke with me.
So, as I said, it’s experiences like these that has made me much, much more convinced that there is validity in this whole thing of rebirth.
Now of course when we work with rebirth like that, it’s very important to understand what actually is going on with rebirth, because we can be convinced of an incorrect understanding of it as well as a correct understanding. So, if you’re going to be convinced that the thing actually exists and is the case, then it’s much more helpful to be convinced on the basis of a correct understanding of it. And when you start to look at the Buddhist understanding, what is often a general approach is to first of all put aside what are the incorrect views of it so that you can get to what the correct view of it is.
So what the Buddhist explanation is not, is the idea of some soul with definite identity, a solid thing, going from one body to another. Now one could think that that was the case, because here’s Serkong Rinpoche in one lifetime and now here’s the next Serkong Rinpoche. So one could think, well, there is a soul, an entity called Serkong Rinpoche that is going from one body to another. That’s not it. So, in the case of these high reincarnate lamas, of course, they continue to identify the continuity – the next one, and the next one, and the next one – and they give them the same name, but that’s not usually the case. And so we get the wrong impression, that there’s an entity called Serkong Rinpoche going from one lifetime to another. That’s unusual. Because what we’re talking about in Buddhism is basically a continuity, what we call a mental continuum or a mind-stream; and, depending on what we do, that mental continuum is going to, although it’s individual, it’s going to manifest or connect with a certain type of body in each subsequent lifetime. It will connect with the elements that will be a basis for a different body. So, in a sense, it will manifest in a different form.
So, that continuity, that continuum… It’s not that now, for instance, that continuum is always Alex. That’s my name. It’s not that the continuum is always Alex and that’s its identity – Alex the human – and now Alex the human is reincarnated as Fifi the dog. It’s not that. It’s not that there is this entity called Alex that now is the dog. It’s just that the continuum at one point, because of its various karma, various actions, will manifest in human form and just happens to get the name Alex, and another time will manifest in a dog form and get the name Fifi.
And, in the Buddhist formulation, it’s not that the rebirths or reincarnations are going to constantly get better, and once you get into a human form, that’s it, and [then] you’re always going to be a human. That’s not the Buddhist view. The Buddhist view is, depending on what one does, [it can] go up and down – human, animal, ghost, whatever. (They believe in ghosts.) And the form that this continuum is going to manifest – although of course it’s individual – the form that it’s going to manifest in is dependent on one’s own behavior, one’s own actions. It isn’t that somebody external is dealing you out, like you were a card, dealing you a lesson to learn, and once you’ve learned that lesson then they’re going to deal you another hand of cards, and here’s the next lesson to learn. That’s not Buddhism either. It’s coming from one’s own activity.
We’re dealing here with continuity. This is the key for understanding the Buddhist teachings on rebirth. And we’re talking about continuity which is an unbroken succession of moments of something; we’re not talking about continuity in space. We’re talking about a continuity over time, like a movie, rather than a river. We’re talking about like a movie – one moment at a time, goes on and on and on. And we speak here about a continuity that has no beginning and no end. It’s not like our lecture this evening which does have a beginning and does have an end, even though there’s a succession of moments of it. This is one that has no beginning and no end, which is of course very difficult to understand, but that’s something that we have to work with – try to figure out why, logically, it would you have no beginning and no end. Because obviously we can’t see that it has no beginning and no end; that’s difficult to experience.
And when we talk about “what is it that has a continuity?” we’re talking about continuity of mind. It’s called mental continuum. And so we have to understand what we mean by mind in Buddhism. What we mean by mind is mental activity; we’re not talking about a thing, like the brain, or something immaterial (like in the West we talk about mind). And we’re talking about an actual activity which is going on all the time. Of course you can have something that’s doing that activity, but that’s not what we’re talking about. We’re not talking about the thing that does the activity; we’re talking about the activity itself. And we’re talking about a subjective activity and it’s individual. And, if we want to find an equivalent word in our Western conceptual framework, it would be the activity of experiencing things; subjectively experiencing things.
That experiencing as an activity is what we’re doing in every moment. And that experiencing of things can be many different flavors, as it were. What actually is happening in each moment is that there’s an arising of some sort of mental appearance and a mental engaging with that appearance. So there’s the arising of a sight; the arising of a sound, like the sound of words; the arising of a sight and the seeing of it; the arising of sounds of words and hearing it; arising of thoughts and thinking them; the arising of feelings or emotions and feeling them. It’s just describing the same activity from two points of view. It’s not that a thought arises and then you think it, or an emotion arises and then you feel it. It’s not like that, is it? The arising of an emotion and the feeling of an emotion is the same thing.
And this is happening without there being a separate “me” from the whole process, that’s either making it happen, or controlling it, or out of control, or observing it. It’s just happening. There is no separate “me” from that. It’s just going on. And, as I say, it’s different flavors each moment. Now there’s a seeing, then a hearing, and then a feeling angry or feeling happy, moment to moment, unbroken. Sleeping, whatever. It doesn’t stop when you go to sleep. We’re experiencing being asleep. One experiences sleep. I mean, from a Buddhist point of view there’s even experiencing of death. So we’re always experiencing.
Now, when we talk about continuities, continuities continue in the same category of phenomenon. So we have continuity of matter and energy or we have a continuity of experiencing things, and so things transform from moment to moment. So you can have a tree transforms into wood, and that transforms into a table, and that transforms into firewood, and then that transforms into fire and ashes, and… Like that, heat energy, and so on. It’s continuity in the same category; that’s matter, energy. And, similarly, we can have the experiencing of interest can transform into attention, that can transform into annoyance, then into boredom, then into tiredness. It’s transforming. It’s the same type of category of phenomenon, all of these. But anger can’t transform into a table, and wood can’t transform into anger.
Participant: But anger can transform a table into firewood.
Alex: But the anger itself doesn’t change into firewood. The anger can motivate a person to chop the table into firewood, but it’s the table that transforms into the firewood, not the anger that transforms into the firewood.
So then we think in terms of the body. Okay? Well, what kind of continuity do we have here? I mean, I’m just suggesting lines of reasoning. We can’t go through the whole thing; it’s very complicated. But in these lines of reasoning… Like, for instance, the sperm and egg of the parents can transform into the body of the baby, the body of the baby transforms into the body of an adult, and then there’s more sperm or egg, and then the body of the next generation, and the next generation. So you have a continuity there on the level of body. But is the same thing happening with experiencing of things? Does the parents’ experiencing of things transform into the child’s experiencing of things, to the baby’s experiencing of things. Does it work the same way? That’s something you have to think about. We can learn from our parents’ experiencing of things. The parents’ experiencing things might influence what we experience, but does my parents’ experience of seeing a movie, or liking a movie, transform into my experiencing of seeing a movie? And we may both like the movie, but does their enjoyment transform into my enjoyment? That doesn’t make very much sense.
So there has to be maybe some different type of mechanism that’s going on here. The experiencing of things. It’s not a transformation of the parents to a child. It’s not like the sperm and egg and a body. Now we can say, “But doesn’t experiencing of things have a physical source? Does a body create the experiencing of things?” That also you have to examine. You can say, “Well, the experiencing of things always has to have a physical basis, that’s true. So that experiencing needs some sort of support, but does the support create the experiencing?” You can have a glass of water. A glass of water. There’s the container. The glass contains the water, but does the glass create the water? You can’t say that. The glass is necessary to contain the water, but a glass doesn’t create the water. So, likewise, a body is necessary to contain experiencing, but you can’t say that the body creates experiencing.
So, then, you’ve got to go a little bit deeper. And, as I said, if one works deeper and deeper and deeper with these things and then it starts to become really quite amazing. If you think, “What about the continuity of our body?” Let’s not just talk about from parent to child, in generations, but what about in our lifetime? Every atom in our body has its own continuity, atom or quantum of energy. If you think about it, it’s really quite extraordinary. Because of course all the atoms and molecules of the body change during our lifetime, yet there’s a continuity with an individuality. That’s really quite remarkable. The body of an eighty-year-old person, there’s a continuity of the body of a one-week-old infant, but there isn’t hardly any atom, any molecules, or cells that are the same.
And, if you think of all the physical stuff in our body, it’s quite incredible. There’s atoms of food, and then that comes into the body, and then it transforms and becomes atoms of part of the body for a little while, and then it transforms and becomes waste or it becomes kinetic energy, there’s energy from outside and then energy goes outside. It’s extraordinary if you think of it, isn’t it? All these different atoms from all the different food that we’ve eaten, and then that becomes all the different atoms and cells of the body, and then all the waste. There’s this whole process that’s been going on. Each part of our physical body is a continuity of something which, at one point, was not part of our body, then has a little bit of time that it’s part of our body, and then it continues as something, again, different from the body. So each of the atoms has its own continuity, and yet the body itself has a continuity that retains its individuality. This is really remarkable, isn’t it? We usually don’t think about it in those terms. Well, what makes it “me”?
So then you start to think, “Well, is it the same thing with experiencing of things?” Just as my body is made up of many different parts and atoms, and digestive system, and circulation system, and all these different systems, each moment of our experiencing of things is made up of many different components all networking together. So there’s seeing, or hearing, and there’s feeling a level of happiness or unhappiness, and there’s emotions, and there’s attention, and there’s interest, and there’s concentration – and all these things have their continuities, and all mixed together and networking together. So ask yourself, “Is it similar to the body?” Is there sort of happiness which was not part of my continuum – like the food – that sort of was somebody else’s happiness, and now it comes into my body and now it’s part of my happiness, it is my happiness, and then it has the continuity and it’s somebody else’s happiness. Like an atom being part of somebody else’s body like when we eat meat, and then it’s part of our body, and then we die or something, and then the worm eats it and then it’s part of its body. Is it like that? That doesn’t make any sense, does it? So it’s different. All you can say is that my experiencing of happiness now is a continuity of my experiencing happiness before. It’s not a continuity of somebody else’s experiencing of happiness. It’s continuity of my own experiencing of happiness.
So, thinking like this, we come to the conclusion that the subject experiencing things can only be a continuity of itself – prior moments of itself, and later moments of itself. Then you have to ask the question: If it’s like that, and a physical body is only supporting it but is not creating it, then does it have an absolute beginning and an absolute end? Does that make any sense? Like birth or conception, and death. Does this experiencing have an absolute start? That, before, it was nothing, and then the nothing transformed into something, into experiencing? If it did, how did that work? Or where’d it come from? And at the end? There are things going on from moment to moment to moment forming a continuity and then, all of a sudden, nothing? That doesn’t make very much sense either, or does it?
The matter and energy of the body continues from before we’re born and after we die, so what about experiencing? This is something to really think about, and it has to do with the whole understanding of cause and effect. And cause and effect, which is operating from moment to moment, which is making a continuity go on, can that have an end or beginning if it’s going on equally moment to moment to moment? What makes the continuity go from moment to moment is this grasping to continue to exist, it’s called. So there’s always grasping to continue to exist; it wants to go on and on and on and on. You’re going to have that the moment that you die as well. So if that grasping to continue to exist is taking you from moment one to moment two, why shouldn’t it continue that moment when it’s your moment of death – it should create another moment. It doesn’t make any sense that it doesn’t have an effect. To continue to exist. That’s why you take your head out of the water when you stick your head underwater. It’s very difficult to drown yourself by just putting your face in a sink of water and drowning. It’s very difficult to do, isn’t it, because automatically there’s that grasping to continue to exist – you take your head out of the water. Can anybody do this? “I’m going to stop breathing,” and then you just hold your breath until you die. That’s very difficult to do – going to be very difficult to do – I mean, naturally you’re going to take another breath.
So these are the type of things that we think about in terms of trying to understand rebirth and become convinced logically that it explains all these things.
And, as you go deeper and deeper and deeper, then you get a more sophisticated understanding of, well, how does it work and what actually is going on from lifetime to lifetime. It’s not like a big suitcase moving down a conveyor belt in the airport. You get your luggage, a suitcase called Serkong Rinpoche, and now it’s over here in that body. It’s not like that. But there’s continuity. And what we find continuing are certain patterns, like the connections like I explained with Serkong Rinpoche in several lifetimes; these things are there. And certain inclinations, certain things that he’s very interested to study – comes very easy to him. Certain personality traits. He has a very good sense of humor, like he had in his last life.
So then it translates very much in terms of our own experience in life, because what this is saying is that the type of personality that we have and that we develop – and we can work on our personalities, of course – and the type of habits that we have, and behavior that we have – well, these are things which are going to continue. There’s going to be continuity of these things. And so this puts a great deal of responsibility on ourselves. What type of continuity of experiencing do I want to have? So how I act – all these things matter; they are going to have consequences. And it’s not in terms of reward and punishment. It’s not that somebody else, some external force or being, is involved here, in terms of the Buddhist explanation. But it’s just very logically in terms of cause and effect. You studied something and then you learned it, for example. So the same type of thing: You built up a certain habit as a child – well, that will continue as an adult, then it may continue in future lives as well.
So it gives us the general idea. Of course we can get more sophisticated in our understanding. Things don’t develop in a linear way; it sort of goes up and down. It’s not like from this lifetime exactly you start where you left off last lifetime. It’s much more complex than that. You might build a certain habit as a child, and when we’re, let’s say, as a young adult, that might not be so prominent, some other things may come up, but then later in life it comes up again, this habit that we had as a child. Things don’t go in a very linear type of way. I mean this is more refined, our understanding.
Okay. So maybe this is enough about rebirth. But, as you can see, in Buddhism it’s something which is really looked into very deeply. And it’s an issue which, if you start to think about continuities and how the body works and how experiencing works, naturally one is lead to this conclusion that rebirth makes sense – with no beginning and no end. It really seems to be the only way of solving this riddle, as it were. And thinking in this way, even if we just presume it to be true – I mean, like my own experience – presume it to be true, and then start to work with understanding and logic, still it very much can affect one’s whole world view in a very positive constructive way, because primarily it means that we take responsibility for our own lives, and this is a very important thing in Buddhism. What we experience, although other people contribute to it, it’s basically our own responsibility. We might be in a terribly bad relationship and a certain person does some horrible things to us, but it was my responsibility – I got into that relationship – isn’t it?
And, if we have the fortunate opportunity, as I did, to know somebody actually in more than one lifetime, then it gives even more weight to being convinced that this whole thing is for real.
Okay. Let’s end here, in terms of the lecture, and then we’ll continue with maybe fifteen, twenty minutes of questions, if you have questions.
Question: If everything is a from moment to moment continuity of experiencing moments, then what’s the explanation? That since the former teacher knew that you like those biscuits and it appears that the younger one also knows that you like those biscuits, doesn’t it need something like a place of storage? A place to store consciousness, conscious moments?
Alex: Well, that gets into quite a technical point. When we speak of memories… Memory works similar to a habit. Memory, from a Buddhist point of view, is not that there’s some information stored anywhere; it’s just that there is a series of similar events in which one is having conscious an experience of something which is similar to something before. You know, when I remember going to Venice – well, what I remember, that conscious experience of remembering, is not exactly the same as the actual experience, but something similar. And then maybe a week later I’ll remember it again, but actually what I experience is again not exactly the same, but it’s similar. So it’s a repetition of a series of similar events. Or, if we think in terms of a habit, a habit of drinking tea – well, there’s just a series of actual moments of drinking tea, just similar to similar moments of drinking tea. Or even remembering a fact, like one plus one is two, is just moments of experience of thinking “one plus one is two,” and each moment is similar to the previous time that we thought “one plus one is two.”
Now what is the habit or what is the memory? The Buddhist analysis of that is that this is merely an abstraction. We call this a mental imputation. It’s an abstract that you use to organize and describe those series of similar events. A description. It’s a way of describing. A mental construct. But it’s not actually that “one plus one is two” is somewhere in our brain, somewhere in that continuum of experience. I mean, this is from the Buddhist explanation – that it’s an abstraction. And so, if you have a series of similar events in one lifetime – well, if you have further occurrences of similar events in the next lifetime then, as an abstraction, you can say, “Well, that habit or memory has continued from one lifetime to another,” without there being some definite findable thing, like a suitcase, that has carried on from one lifetime to another, or from one part of one lifetime to another part of a lifetime.
So it’s like that. I mean, the analysis goes deeper and deeper and deeper from there. Because it’s very important in terms of how do you get rid of negative habits, and it’s very important to understand how a habit exists in order to understand how you get rid of it. It’s not that you erase something. And seeing it as an abstraction leads us to understanding how you can get rid of it. It’s a mental construct. What you’re basically doing is getting rid of any circumstance that would ever cause a recurring of a similar phenomenon in the future. If there can be no possibility of a future occurrence of the pattern, then the habit is gone.
Question: The continuum of experiencing of one being meets with the continuum of experiencing of another being, and by interaction they influence each other. The question is: Are there other means of influencing, other than by behavior, or action and reaction, like on an energetic level?
Alex: You mean without actually doing something or speaking to the person? Without physical contact? You mean like telepathy from a distance or something like that? Well, yes. Buddhism says that if, for instance, you do certain prayers or certain meditation practice, and somebody’s very far away, that can act as a circumstance which will influence their experiencing of things. Buddhism says that. And naturally somebody who wrote a book a hundred years ago – if I read that book, that has an influence on me, even though that person is no longer around.
Question: The question is: If there’s one continuum of experiencing and another continuum of experiencing and they meet each other… He doesn’t quite understand where they are, or what they should be. It doesn’t make sense to him.
Alex: Where they are? Well, it’s like the glass of water; the water is in the glass. So it’s located in the – its locus is in terms of the physical body that supports it. But, I mean, there’s a difference between someone’s experience transforming into somebody else’s experience, and someone’s experience affecting somebody else’s experience. Those are quite different. Somebody’s happiness, my seeing it, can be a circumstance for me feeling happy. Or somebody’s understanding of something can be a source of information that stimulates me to think and then I understand it. But it’s not that their understanding transforms into my understanding. One needs to investigate that much more closely, because you could say… Well, it’s like a telephone: I say something then the person heard it differently, and then they repeat the message and it’s slightly transformed and changed, and then the next person. So the same thing in terms of understanding. But is that a transformation? This is what I’m saying. That all of this, what I was presenting, are the topics to think about, to meditate on, to try to understand, to analyze. There’s a transformation of information, but is there a transformation of experiencing? One has to make a difference between the information changing and the experiencing.
As I say, these are things that one has to not just look at superficially. One has to go deeper and deeper and deeper and think about it. Just as we looked at the analogy of the transformation of atoms, like in food. So, likewise, you think of other examples, like information, and then you see: “Is that the same with experiencing?” That’s how one works with this whole thing of rebirth. It’s a topic to work with in order to understand it. It’s not a matter of dogma: here it is and accept it, or if you don’t accept it you go to hell. It’s not like that.
In the Buddhist approach, they give you various indications of how to think about it, how to analyze it. Try to understand it yourself. That’s why I say another analogy would be information. Is it like information transforming? Everything hangs on or depends on our understanding of mind – of mental activity, of experiencing – because this is what we’re talking about that has the continuity. That’s not easy to understand or to recognize. What actually is it that has a continuum? I explained it a little bit, in the most basic way. That really is quite difficult to recognize, and to recognize in ourselves. It requires a lot of meditation.
Alex: Okay. So there are several questions that are here. One is in terms of continuities and there being no soul, and yet there’s individuality and subjective individuality. How does that work? And within one lifetime we speak in terms of a personality, and is that an abstraction or is that something which is definitely describable? These type of questions are here. And it’s confusing.
And yes, it is confusing. Because to look more deeply into the issue of “no soul, but yet individuality” gets into the whole Buddhist understanding of how the self exists and the refutation of impossible ways in which it exists. So that gets into a very complex topic.
For instance, if we look at a movie. That’s made up of individual moments, one at a time. Only one moment occurs at a time. There’s nothing that actually continues, no physical thing that goes from one moment to another. We’re not talking about the piece of plastic that the film is printed on; what we’re talking about is what is actually projected, what we see. Yet there is continuity of the movie. Now we could give that a name. We could call that film Gone with the Wind. But it’s not as though there’s something in each individual moment, a little name written on the bottom of the screen in each moment, “Gone with the Wind,” or anything like that.
This is what we mean by an abstraction. An abstraction doesn’t mean vague. This, I think, was the confusion in terms of your question about personality. It doesn’t mean vague; it just means it’s a mental construct. Like giving a name to something to be able to put together a series of similar moments that follow in a particular sequence, like a movie. All right? And that film is individual, an individual film; my movie is not your movie. So we have moment-to-moment of experiencing in a mental continuum and we can give it the name “me.” And whether it has the name “Alex the human” or “Fifi the dog” in another lifetime, that doesn’t matter. That is dependent on the particular life form. But, through all of them, one can give the name “me.” “Me” is the name that could apply to all of it, to the whole thing, regardless of the lifetime, from a subjective point of view.
Now the problem is of course that it feels as though this “me” is something separate and solid from the experience, that can either control it, or is observing it, and so on. It feels like that. That’s what’s confusing. But actually it just feels like that. But that’s, again, confusion. So it feels like I’m unaffected by anything: “You can call me whatever terrible names you want to call me, but that’s not going to affect me.” You can’t be affected by anything. Or it’s monolithic: “I went to sleep last night, and got up this morning and here I am again” – the same “me,” as if it was one solid monolithic thing. It feels like that, but that’s deceptive. “I’m back again. I was out of my mind yesterday when I was drunk, but now I’m back to my real senses. The real me is back.”
So all of this… It’s not very easy to understand, because it feels like this. But then one has to analyze is this really so. And so “me” is… Well, there is me – I’m sitting here, I’m talking, and so on – and that’s a way of putting together the experience. It’s a mental construct. A mental construct exists, but we have to understand how it exists. It doesn’t exist as some solid “thing.” There’s a solid thing that now is Alex the human and now is Fifi the dog. One has to really work with this a long time and get very, very precise. That’s one point.
And then the other thing: When I use the word abstraction, it doesn’t mean, well, the personality is abstract, meaning it’s vague. But what in the world is a personality? I mean, all you have are these moments of similar type of behavior, and then you impute on it, you imply on it, you put it together and say, “Well, there’s this type of personality trait, that type of personality trait,” and then, on top of all those patterns, you impute a “personality,” a general word for the personality. So all of that’s mental construct. But it’s not vague; it can be quite precise. It’s like E=mc². That’s an abstraction to describe similar phenomena, but that’s very, very precise, isn’t it? So maybe we’ll stop here. It’s a good place to stop: E=mc².
So let us again end with a dedication. Whatever we’ve learned, may it go deeper and deeper and act as a cause for being able to develop ourselves further and further in a positive way to be of best help to everyone.
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