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Home > Fundamentals of Tibetan Buddhism > Level 1: Getting Started > Do You Believe in Rebirth?

Do You Believe in Rebirth?

Singapore, August 10, 1988

Revised excerpt from
Berzin, Alexander and Chodron, Thubten.
Glimpse of Reality.
Singapore: Amitabha Buddhist Centre, 1999.

Question: Do you believe in rebirth?

Answer: Yes, I do. But, it has taken a long time for me to reach that point. Belief in rebirth does not come instantly. Some people may come from a background in which belief in rebirth is part of the culture. This is the case in many Asian countries, and thus, since people have heard about rebirth since they were children, the belief in it comes automatically. However, for those of us from Western cultures, it seems strange at first. We do not usually gain conviction in rebirth all of a sudden, with rainbows and music in the background and “Hallelujah! Now I believe!” It does not usually work like that.

It takes most people a long time to get used to the idea of rebirth. I went through various stages in the process of gaining conviction in it. First, I had to become open to the idea in the sense that I thought, “I do not really understand rebirth.” Acknowledging that we do not understand it is important, because sometimes we could reject rebirth and what we are actually rejecting is an idea of rebirth that Buddhism would also reject. Someone may think, “I do not believe in rebirth because I do not think that there is a soul with wings that flies out of the body and goes into another body.” Buddhists agree, “We do not believe in a soul with wings either.” In order to decide whether I believed in rebirth, I had to understand the Buddhist concept of rebirth, and that concept is not simple. It is very sophisticated, as you can see from what I explained before about the subtlest consciousness and energy, and the instincts that accompany it.

Then I thought to give rebirth the benefit of the doubt. Provisionally, let us say there is rebirth. Now, what follows from viewing our existence in this way? We can establish all the bodhisattva trainings, we can recognize everybody as having been our mother and thus can feel some connection with all others.

It could also explain why the things that happened in my life happened. Why was someone from my background drawn strongly to study Chinese language? Why was I drawn to go to India and study with the Tibetans? Considering my family’s interests and the environment in which I grew up, it made no sense that I was interested in these things. However, when I thought in terms of rebirth, there was an explanation. I must have had some connection with India, China and Tibet in different lifetimes, and this has caused me to be interested in these places, their languages and cultures. Rebirth started to answer many questions that I could not find any answers to otherwise; if there were no past lives and no karma, then what happened in my life did not make any sense. Rebirth could also explain the recurring dreams that I used to have. In this way, I started slowly to become more familiar with it.

I have been studying in India for the last nineteen years and have had the great privilege and opportunity to study with some of the very old masters while they were still alive. Many of them have died and have come back, and now I meet them again as small children. I know them in two of their lives.

There is a certain point on the Buddhist path at which you can control your rebirths. You do not have to be a Buddha, or even a liberated being, an arhat, to do this. Nevertheless, you do need to be a bodhisattva. You also need to have advanced to a certain stage on the tantric path and to have a very strong determination to be reborn in a form so that you can help everybody. There are certain visualizations and methods that enable you to transform death, the intermediate state and rebirth. If you have mastered that level, you can control your rebirths. There are about a thousand people among the Tibetans who have achieved that level and when they pass away, they are found again. In the Tibetan system, they are called tulkus. A tulku is a reincarnate lama, someone given the title Rinpoche. The title Rinpoche, however, is not used exclusively for tulkus, or reincarnated lamas. It is also used for an abbot or retired abbot of a monastery. Not everyone who is called Rinpoche is a reincarnate lama.

Also, I should point out that the way the word lama is used varies from one Tibetan tradition to the next. In some, lama refers to a very high spiritual teacher, such as a geshe – one who has the equivalent of a Ph.D. in Buddhist studies – or a reincarnate lama. In some traditions, lama is used for someone who functions somewhat like a community priest. This person has done a three-year retreat and has learnt the various rituals. He or she will then go to villages and do rituals in people’s homes. The title lama can have different meanings.

Again, there are about one thousand recognized incarnate lamas, or tulkus, and they are identified through various indications that they themselves give as well as by other indications such as oracles or significant signs in the environment. The attendants of the previous lama will look for the new incarnation. They will bring ritual objects and personal belongings of the previous lama together with other similar items. The child will be able to recognize what belonged to his or her previous life. For example, His Supreme Presence, His Holiness the Dalai Lama, recognized the people who came looking for him. He called them by name and started speaking to them in the Lhasa dialect, which is not the language of the region where he was born. By such signs, they are able to identify the child.

Meeting my teachers again in their next lives has been quite impressive for me. The most impressive example was Ling Rinpoche, who was the senior tutor of His Holiness the Dalai Lama. He was also the head of the Gelug tradition. When he passed away, he remained in meditation for nearly two weeks, although his breath had stopped and for all medical purposes, he would have been considered dead. However, his subtle consciousness was still within the body: he was absorbed in a very profound meditation with the very subtle mind. The region around the heart was still slightly warm, and he sat in meditation position without his body decomposing. When he finished the meditation, his head tipped and a bit of blood came from his nostrils. At that time, his consciousness had left his body.

In Dharamsala, where I live, this sort of things occurs two, three, four times a year. It is not uncommon, even though someone needs to be at a high level of spiritual practice to do this. This ability can be attained.

Ling Rinpochey’s reincarnation was recognized when he was one year and nine months old. Usually, children are not identified so young, because when they are older – about three or four years old – they can speak and give some indications themselves. The child was brought back to his old house. There was a very large ceremony to welcome him. A few thousand people lined the streets, and I had the fortune to be among them. They were dressed in special clothes and were singing. It was such a joyous occasion.

Question: How was the child identified?

Answer: It was through oracles and mediums, as well as his being able to identify various objects from his previous life. Also, he displayed certain physical characteristics. For instance, his predecessor always held his mala (the garland of beads) with two hands, and the child did this as well. He recognized the people from his household, too.

What was the most convincing for me, however, was the child’s behavior during the ceremony. The child was carried to the house where a throne was set up near the doorway facing a large verandah and two to three thousand people gathered in the yard. Most children under two years old would be very frightened in such a situation. He was not. They put the child on the throne. Normally, a child would want to get down and would cry if he could not get his way. This child sat cross-legged without moving for an hour and a half while the people did a long-life puja (ritual) for him. He was completely interested in what was going on, and being amidst this huge crowd did not bother him at all.

Part of the ceremony entailed making offerings to the lama and requesting him to live long. There was a procession of people, each holding an offering – a statue of the Buddha, a scriptural text, a stupa reliquary monument, a set of monks’ robes, and many other things. When someone gave an offering to him, he was supposed to take it with two hands and give it to a person standing on his left. He did this perfectly with each object. It was really remarkable! How can you teach a one year and nine-month old child to do something like that? You cannot.

When the ceremony had finished, all the people lined up to receive his hand blessing. Someone held the child, and he gave hand blessings, holding his hand in the correct position. With total absorption, and without losing interest or getting tired, the child then gave a hand blessing to two or three thousand people. After that His Supreme Presence, His Holiness the Dalai Lama, had lunch with him and they spent some time together. The only time that the child cried and made any fuss was when the Dalai Lama started to leave. He did not want him to go.

In fact, the child was giving hand blessings even before he was recognized as being Ling Rinpoche. Both he and his older brother were in an orphanage, because the mother died shortly after he was born. The father was very poor and so had to put the children in an orphanage. He used to give hand blessing to the people there. His older brother, who was three or four years old, would say to people, “My brother is very special. He is a lama. He is a Rinpoche. Do not do anything bad to him. Treat him special.”

The previous Ling Rinpoches have been the teachers of three consecutive Dalai Lamas. One Ling Rinpoche was the teacher of the twelfth Dalai Lama; the next Ling Rinpoche was the teacher of the thirteenth; the next one was the teacher of the fourteenth. Certainly, people look at this one to be teacher of the next Dalai Lama.

Seeing examples like this made a big impression on me about the feasibility of future lives. So, by thinking, by hearing stories and by seeing things like this, gradually one becomes more and more convinced about the existence of past and future lives. If you ask me now, “Do you believe in future lives?” Yes, I do.

Question: Are incarnate lamas found only among the Tibetans?

Answer: No, about seven have been identified in Western countries as well. One of these, Lama Osel, the reincarnation of Lama Thubten Yeshe, is a Spanish child. Meeting Lama Osel has given the people who knew Lama Yeshe much conviction in rebirth.