The Importance of Understanding Rebirth and Believing in It
Morelia, Mexico, June 2000
This evening we’re going to be talking about rebirth. Rebirth is something that is extremely central and important in Buddhism, and I think it’s very important to acknowledge that. Let’s first look at why it’s important, evidence why it’s important.
If we look at the lam-rim, the graded stages of motivation along the path, we speak about three levels of motivation:
The first level is to aim for a fortunate rebirth. If we don’t believe that there is such a thing as rebirth, then why would we possibly aim for a more fortunate one? It wouldn’t make any sense.
The second level is that we’re aiming for liberation. Liberation from what? Liberation from uncontrollably recurring rebirth. So if we don’t believe that rebirth exists, why would we want to get liberated from it? It wouldn’t be an issue at all.
And if we look at the advanced level of motivation, then we’re aiming to become a Buddha, and we’re aiming for that in order to be able to help everybody else overcome and get liberated from uncontrollably recurring rebirth. So this is the way that it’s actually presented in the teachings. And again we wouldn’t want to be able to help everybody overcome rebirth if we didn’t believe in rebirth.
Now, a lot of people tend to serve Dharma-lite – you know, like Coca-Cola Light? – and so we water down these levels of motivation:
Instead of aiming for a more fortunate rebirth, we aim for just making things better in this life.
Instead of getting liberated from uncontrollably recurring rebirth – well, just get liberated from all the difficulties that we have in this life.
And becoming enlightened is not to liberate everybody else from uncontrollably recurring rebirth, but to liberate everybody else from their problems in this life.
So this is Dharma-lite. Some people of course prefer Dharma-lite, but it’s not the “Real Thing.” And although Dharma-lite may be helpful, beneficial – certainly one does gain benefits from practicing in this way without taking into consideration rebirth – it tends to resemble therapy. We’re trying to make things better in this life and not have problems in this life, so it’s a little bit like therapy. And then social work – we’re going to go out and help others get rid of their problems in this life. And very nice. Buddhism has a lot of very helpful suggestions that can be of benefit in a process of therapy and training for social work, but I think this is really shortchanging Buddhism. Buddhism speaks about much more than this.
So we need to appreciate why it’s so important to work on ourselves within the context of rebirth. First of all, why would we want to work for a more fortunate rebirth? Buddhism is not talking about being reborn in heaven and that everything is going to be really nice and wonderful and we’ll have eternal happiness. That is not the aim of getting a more fortunate rebirth in Buddhism. But rather what it’s saying is that we’re working on ourselves to try to develop ourselves – overcome our problems, our confusion, and realize our potentials – and this is a very long process. The chances are that we’re not going to finish it in this lifetime, and so it’s something that we want to continue. It’s not like we’re running a race and we just want to see how far we get before we drop dead. We want to reach the end of the race. And whoever gets the furthest before they drop dead wins? That’s not quite the way that it is. So we want to be able to continue all the way to the end of our goals, and if we don’t finish in this lifetime, we would like to have a fortunate rebirth with the circumstances to be able to continue. So to give us some sort of hope that it is possible to reach these goals, it’s very important to think in terms of rebirth, because chances are it’s going to take a lot of lifetimes to reach the goals.
Also, in tantra we want to get enlightenment in this lifetime, and a lot of people prefer tantra for that reason because they think “Well, we’re not talking about rebirth. We don’t have to think of that, because we’re going to get it in this life.” But again chances are we’re not going to reach enlightenment in this lifetime – that’s extremely rare – and so also we want to be able to continue, so again we would want to have fortunate rebirths. And if we look at the procedure in the highest class of tantra, in that we work to purify the process of death, bardo, and rebirth – bardo’s the in-between state between death and rebirth – and we have a very detailed analysis of how that process works, and we practice in imitation of the process of death, bardo, and rebirth. So if we don’t actually believe that rebirth takes place, why in the world would we want to practice purifying death, bardo, and rebirth? What in the world are we doing? Without conviction in rebirth, the whole tantra practice becomes a game. Right?
So that’s one point. The second point – why it is so important to think in terms of rebirth – is for gaining a proper understanding of karma. That first point was that we need to think in terms of getting fortunate rebirths to be able to continue on the path if we don’t finish. The second point is that we need it for the understanding of karma. That’s because the results of our actions mostly do not ripen in this lifetime. The example that we used last time was that we’re practicing really hard and meditating every day and doing prostration, and all these sort of things, and then we get cancer and die. And so we can get very discouraged if we expect that the results of our actions are going to ripen in this lifetime. And then we look at a corrupt official who is cheating everybody and becoming fabulously rich, and they don’t get caught, and they live their whole lives in extreme wealth and power. So where’s karma? It doesn’t have to be a government official; it can be a business person (no names!).
Some of our actions may ripen in this lifetime, especially when they’re done with an extremely, extremely strong motivation, but most of them ripen in future lives, whether it’s positive or negative. And most of the things that we experience in this life are not the results of what we’ve done in this life but are the results of what we’ve done in past lives. I need to qualify that though. I mean, there are certain things that we do in this lifetime – like build a house, and then you experience living in the house, which is the result of building the house. We shouldn’t think that cause and effect doesn’t work at all in this lifetime. But we can work very hard, get a very good university education, and we don’t get a job. So it doesn’t follow cause and effect that if you get a good education, you’re going to get a job. Whether you get a job or not is dependent on many other karmic factors from previous lives.
So it’s very important for the understanding of karma and cause and effect to think in terms of rebirth. It is not that it’s helpful – it’s absolutely necessary. Otherwise the whole thing does not make sense at all, the discussion of behavioral cause and effect. Otherwise we’re left with a very different view of what happens in life. You went to the university, and you got a job or you didn’t get a job. Well, what did that depend on? It either depended on luck or it depended on God’s will. And since Buddhism says that there are many problems in terms of both of those possibilities, then the discussion of rebirth and past lives, and so on, is the only real way of explaining it that not only makes sense but that gives us some way to affect what happens to us in the future. That’s the important thing. I mean, you could live thinking that everything that happens is just on the basis of luck or God’s will. There are certainly many societies that think that way. I’m saying that that’s impossible. That doesn’t leave very much room for taking responsibility oneself for what happens.
The next point why rebirth is important is in terms of the meditations for developing love and compassion, starting with recognizing everybody as having been our mothers in previous lives (let’s just say recognizing everybody as our mothers):
- Now, the full Dharma version is that they’ve been our mothers in previous lives.
- The Dharma-lite version is that, well, anybody could take us home and be kind to us and give us a place to stay and feed us like our mother would do, like a mother would do – anybody in this room, anybody on the street – anybody could be like that.
And the Dharma-lite version is very helpful, and it enables us to see that everybody has the possibility to be kind to us and that we could be like that to anybody as well. We could take anybody home into our house and feed them. Right? It opens our hearts out to others. It opens our hearts out to other people. And even within people, it is limited pretty much to grownups. You don’t quite see that the baby could take you home and take care of you and feed you, that the baby could act like your mother. But the serious limitation here is: What about the cockroaches? Can you see that the cockroach can be like a mother to me, take me home and feed me, and that I could be like a mother to the cockroach and take the cockroach home and give it a nice place to sleep and feed it? It doesn’t work that way, does it? That’s Dharma-lite. That’s the disadvantage of Dharma-lite. So although there’s no need to throw away Dharma-lite, it has serious limitations, and that’s not really getting us into the full scope of the Buddhist vision – opening our hearts up to all beings, not just adult humans.
The next point is that if we think just in terms of this lifetime, then we tend to identify quite strongly with our own situation – that we are young, we are old, that we’re a man, that we’re a woman, that we’re Mexican, that we’re German, that we’re African. We tend to identify with our own situation, and it’s not so easy to empathize with other situations. We tend to feel “I can only really relate to other Mexicans or other people from my religious background” or “I can only really relate to people my own age or my own sex.” It’s absolutely normal that people think like that.
But if we think in terms of rebirth, then we’ve been every age – sometimes we’ve been young, sometimes we’ve been old – we’ve been both male and female, we’ve been different types of nationalities, and we have been different life forms, not always human. And so because we have a much broader concept of ourselves, it allows us much more easily to develop compassion for others in situations that are different from what we’re in right now. And we don’t tend so much to identify solidly with what we are now as our solid identity. Because we’ve been so many different life forms etc., it helps us to understand more easily the teachings on voidness – that we have no solid, permanent identity.
A further point is that when we think of rebirth, that implies beginningless mind. And for understanding what mind is, what its cause is, and for understanding the voidness of the mind (that the mind doesn’t exist in impossible ways), we need the understanding of rebirth. If we think that mind only exists in this lifetime, we have a big problem in terms of what is the cause of the mind. Then it starts to really affect our understanding of voidness, how the mind exists.
So for all these many, many reasons, the understanding of the Buddhist explanation of rebirth is really very, very central and important to full Buddhism despite the fact that some people in the West teach Dharma-lite.
If we look at taking refuge – putting a safe direction in our life – as we explained on Tuesday, as we discussed, this is not at all the first step that we take on the path of Dharma. This is a very, very advanced step. So that’s not where we start. And developing the initial level motivation in terms of the graded stages of the path – in other words, the motivation to work for a more fortunate rebirth – that also is obviously not the place that we start as Westerners.
We were speaking the last time about the four thoughts that turn the mind to the Dharma. Well, what about for the first thought that turns our mind, thinking about appreciating the precious human life that we have? Think about it. How can you really appreciate that we have a precious human life if it were not possible that we could have had another type of life, another type of rebirth? There are many, many, many possibilities of different types of rebirth, and we were able to get this one, which is a precious human rebirth, and it’s unbelievably rare. We’ve had all sorts of other rebirths in the past, and now we’ve gotten this special one, and it’s not going to be easy to find again. Right? Look at the example that Shantideva uses to explain it, the example of the blind sea turtle that stays under water for a hundred years and only comes up once every hundred years – there’s a golden yoke floating on the ocean, and the chances of getting the precious human life are as rare as that turtle coming to the surface and sticking its head through that yoke. So even the first thought to turn our mind to the Dharma – appreciating the precious human life – is founded on rebirth.
In order to start turning our minds to the Dharma, we need a certain prerequisite state of mind which is taken for granted by people from a society that’s traditionally Buddhist. People in traditional Buddhist societies may not understand rebirth at a very sophisticated level, but they certainly think in terms of the existence of rebirth, and they would be interested to learn more. We need to develop this attitude which is taken for granted in a traditional Buddhist society. And that prerequisite, I would assert, is that we need to acknowledge the central, important place that rebirth plays in Buddhism. And we need to have interest and the intention to understand the Buddhist explanation of it – not some other explanation of it, but how Buddhism explains it – because there are many other explanations of rebirth and afterlife, and Buddhism has its own special way of understanding it. All the Dharma teachings are in terms of the Buddhist explanation of it.
When we say that we need to be interested in learning the Buddhist explanation, we need to exclude what is not the Buddhist explanation:
Buddhism is not saying that rebirth is in terms of some sort of permanent soul that leaves the body and goes into a next body. That’s not the Buddhist understanding.
Nor is the Buddhist understanding that we are dealt lessons to learn from some higher being or higher authority – like being dealt cards in a hand – and once we learn our lesson we’ll go on to a better rebirth, and we’ll continue to have a rebirth of the same situation until we learn our lesson. And implicit in that explanation is that rebirth is constantly getting better and better and better – once you learn this lesson, then you go on to a higher state and learn the next lesson. So that’s not the Buddhist understanding at all.
Nor is it that there’s just one afterlife and that rebirth takes place just once after this life and then it’s eternal (whether or not we have purgatory before it). That’s not the Buddhist understanding either.
So we need to have a very open mind and interest in what actually is the Buddhist understanding of rebirth. The issue of rebirth is basically one of continuity. We’re talking about continuities. Continuity is the continuation of something from moment to moment. We have four possibilities of continuities:
We can have a continuity that has a beginning and an end. For example, this body that we have now has a beginning when we are conceived, and it’s going to end when we die, and it continues from moment to moment while we’re alive. Easy.
Then we can have continuities that have no beginning but have an end. For example, confusion or samsara. Confusion and samsara have no beginning, but they can have an end.
The third possibility is that something has a beginning but no end. For example, the disintegration of a glass. When I break a glass, that disintegration – that ending of the glass – has a beginning. It starts when the glass breaks. And it has no end: It’s going to go on forever. That glass will always be broken. It’s always going to be broken. A million years in the future, that glass is still broken. I mean, it’s not going to come back. So it has a beginning but no end. It starts to become a little bit freaky, doesn’t it? This is Buddhist logic.
The fourth possibility is that something can have no beginning and no end. The mindstream is an example of something that has no beginning and no end.
This is what we need to understand when we are working with rebirth. We’re working with a continuity of the mind, and it has no beginning and no end. We’re not talking here about uncontrollably recurring rebirth, which is samsara. That has no beginning, but it has an end. We’re talking just about continuity of the mind that goes beyond samsara. Even when one is liberated from samsara, it continues. So no beginning and no end.
In order to understand this, we have to understand what does Buddhism mean by mind. What is it that has no beginning and has no end? To make a long story short, what we mean by mind in Buddhism is the mental activity of experiencing things. So it’s experiencing – not experience – experiencing as an activity, an ongoing activity. We experience waking up, we experience everything during the day, we experience sleeping, we experience dreaming, we experience dying. All the thoughts, everything we see, everything we hear – there’s experiencing that. And all of that experiencing is:
Individual. It’s my experience, not your experience.
Subjective. It’s from our individual point of view.
Unbroken. It’s not that you go to sleep and you stop experiencing – you experience being asleep.
So this is what we’re talking about when we’re talking about a continuity. It’s a continuity of individual, subjective experiencing of things. And it’s not that we’re accumulating experiences. It’s the active process of experiencing. That is what continues with no beginning and no end, an individual, subjective experiencing of things, and there are many of them, a countless number of them, of these individual, subjective streams of experiencing things.
So that’s what we’re talking about that continues. So now we have four possibilities of how does it continue:
Does it have a beginning and an end?
Does it have no beginning and an end?
Does it have a beginning and no end?
Or does it have no beginning and no end?
Is it like our body?
Is it like confusion?
Is it like the disintegration of the glass?
Or is it something else, with no beginning and no end?
Continuities need to continue as the same category of phenomenon – I will explain that – otherwise it’s not a continuity. That’s just a definition, so let us look at examples so that we understand what it’s talking about.
One category of phenomenon would be physical phenomena – matter and energy. That’s one category of phenomenon. So we can have a continuity of physical things, and the continuity will be of things in the same category. They’ll all be physical or energy things:
A seed can transform into a tree.
That can change into wood.
That can transform into a table.
The table can transform into fire and ashes.
So there’s a continuity here of a similar category of phenomenon.
Then we can also talk about subjective, individual experiencing of things. Individual, subjective experiences could be, for instance:
That can turn into attention.
Then that can turn into annoyance (you don’t like it anymore).
That can turn into boredom.
That can turn into tiredness.
So, like this, all of these are phenomena in the same category. They are all individual, subjective ways of experiencing something. So that’s a very different category of phenomenon than something that’s physical. Anger cannot transform into a table, and wood cannot transform into anger. That’s very profound actually. It underlines the fact that we’re talking about something quite different from physical things when we’re talking about mind. We’re not talking about the brain and the chemical processes and the electrical processes. We’re not talking about that. We’re talking about individual, subjective experiencing of things. We’re not talking about one chemical situation in the brain changing into another chemical situation. Right? It’s a different category, and things have to continue in the same category of phenomenon. So if that’s the case, how does the continuity work? How do we relate this to our life and rebirth? What are we talking about here?
We can have a model that accords with it being a continuity of physical phenomena. If we speak of a physical continuity, there could be the sperm and the egg of the parents transforming into the body of the baby, and the body of the baby transforms into the body of the adult, and part of that body of the adult, the sperm or the egg, transforms (together with something else) into the body of the next generation.
So is that what is happening? When we talk about rebirth, is it just from one generation to another or what? Because a body is a continuity from the parents. The genetic code, all that sort of stuff – that is a continuity from parents. You don’t think of previous lives to explain that. But is it the same with experiencing, individual, subjective experiencing? Think about that. Is it? Is it that part of our parents’ experience becomes our experience and that our experience will continue because part of our experience will become our children’s experience? Is it the same thing? Think about it.
Well, we could say part of it if we’re talking about experiences like we’re accumulating experiences – our parents experienced the Second World War and the Depression, and we can learn something from their experience, and it has affected our lives. But we’re not talking about that. We’re talking about individual, subjectively experiencing things, not experiences. Right?
Now, we could say that our being able to experience things individually follows from the fact that our parents were able to experience things individually. We can say that. It follows from the fact. Because our parents experienced being alive, we can experience being alive. If our parents didn’t experience life, we wouldn’t be able to experience life. So you could say that. But that’s not what we’re talking about. (The Buddhist method is to explore all the possibilities. It’s very important to do that.)
The point is that our parents’ individual, subjective experiencing of things does not change into our individual, subjective experiencing of things. We experience things in different ways. We experience the exact same thing that our parents experienced but in a different way. Our experience is individual and subjective, and it’s not a transformation of our parents’ individual, subjective experiencing of the same thing. Do you follow that? That’s really very important because that’s the way that we disprove that mind comes from the parents the way that the body comes from the parents. If you just leave it with the words mind and body, forget it. It doesn’t make any sense. My individual, subjective experiencing of things is not a continuity of my parents’ individual, subjective experiencing of things. Let that sink in for a moment. Experiencing is individual and subjective. Does it make sense? All right.
So then the next question is, as for our own individual, subjective experiencing of things (which continues every moment of our lives):
Does it start from nothing and end with no result? Does it just start from nothing and end with nothing?
Does it have an absolute beginning and before that there’s nothing (it’s totally nonexistent)?
Does it have an absolute end when we die and afterwards there’s nothing that follows from it?
It didn’t come from our parents, it didn’t come from anybody else, so did it come from nothing? Did it have a beginning that way? That doesn’t make any sense either. Why? We can look at this in terms of what drives the continuity from moment to moment. What drives it? What pushes it? Buddhism says that we have something called the compulsive impulse to continue to live (srid-pa). When we talk about the twelve links of dependent arising at the weekend, this is the link that’s usually translated as becoming. That’s an unbelievably vague word to call it.
So there’s this impulse – it’s compulsive and it’s automatically there – to continue to live, to continue experiencing more things. You stick your head under water, for example. Why do you take it out? Because you want to continue experiencing things. And even if you want to kill yourself by sticking your head in a sink full of water, that’s almost impossible to do (without putting a heavy rock on your head) because instinctively, compulsively, automatically – it’s a reflex – you take your head out of the water. A reflex to take your hand out of the fire. It’s part of our whole being, that reflex.
This is the classic argument that’s given in the texts, and I’ll put it in simple terms. If moment one produces moment two and moment two produces moment three because of this compulsive impulse to continue, then why shouldn’t moment three produce moment four? It makes absolutely no sense that there’s no continuation of the continuity. Because we’re not talking about the continuity of a physical basis. The body might not be able to support the experiencing of something, but that’s something in a completely different category. We’re talking about a different continuity. We’re talking about the continuity of experiencing something subjectively, individually. That moment we’re talking about is the moment of death.
Remember we said that wood cannot produce anger, cannot transform into anger (we can get angry with a piece of wood, but that’s different). So likewise the physical body cannot transform into subjective experiencing of something. We can experience something based on having a body, but the body doesn’t transform into experiencing something. So if we don’t have wood – if wood is no longer present – that’s not a reason for saying that you can’t have anger, that there’s no anger. Right? Because the anger’s coming from something else. You may not be able to get angry at that piece of wood if the wood isn’t there, but that doesn’t mean you can’t have anger.
And for a similar reason, just because the body is no longer functioning – the brain is no longer functioning – that doesn’t mean that there’s no continuity of subjective experiencing. We may not have experience of things based on the chemical stuff that’s happening in the brain, but it could be based on something else; it’s not that chemical interaction that transforms into the experiencing. So the only thing that logically follows is that because the moment of death has that compulsive impulse to continue, it’s going to produce another moment of individual, subjective experiencing of things, even if it’s no longer on the basis of this physical body.
And the exact same argument goes for the beginning: If we say that experiencing of things starts only with the presence of the joined sperm and egg, or whatever period – it’s very difficult to say when exactly it would start, but let’s say it starts at that moment of conception – well, it’s very hard to say that “Well, it didn’t exist before, because there was no joined sperm and egg to support it.”
So the only conclusion that we can come to that’s logical is that the first moment of subjectively experiencing things on the basis of this physical body is the successive moment from a moment beforehand of subjectively individually experiencing things not on the basis of this body. It’s the previous moment of the same individual, subjective experiencing of things. The same thing with the last moment of death: the only logical thing is that it produces the next moment of continuity of the same individual, subjective experiencing. Why? Because the first moment of a lifetime and the last moment of a lifetime both have a compulsive impulse to continue existing, and cause and effect makes no sense if this works in a cause-and-effect sequence throughout our life but not a cause-and-effect sequence of the first moment or the last moment. The survival instinct.
So these are the logical arguments that we need to work with.
Now, we’re talking about the continuity of individual, subjective experiencing of things. Well, what is this subjective aspect? There are two models, two possibilities – there may be more, but we can talk about two – two possible models of how a continuity with a subjective aspect to it could continue. There’s two possibilities:
One possibility would be like a conveyor belt, the moving belt at the airport that carries your luggage. So there’s continuity of experiencing which is like the continuity of this moving belt, and that me that’s the focus of the subjective aspect is like a piece of luggage moving on this belt. Right? Experiencing things, experiencing moment to moment, and there’s some thing which is there being carried along which is me, and that is making it individually my experience, my individual experiencing of things. That’s not the way it is according to the Buddhist understanding.
The other model is the model of a movie, a motion picture. With a motion picture, there is continuity of the frames. We’re not talking about the physical basis, the actual film. When it’s being projected, the movie is one moment after another moment after another moment, but there’s nothing solid that is staying there, remaining the same, going through the whole thing. But movies are individual, aren’t they? And we can label the movie – for instance, Star Wars. There’s no little stamp “Star Wars” that’s there in every moment of the projection, but Star Wars is just a conventional way of referring to this continuity of scenes. And it’s a way of defining or describing the individuality of this movie. Do you follow that?
So the conventional me is just like Star Wars. There’s a continuity of individual experiencing things, and if we want to put it together and describe and define the individuality of that, we would say me – not you, me.
Now, Star Wars is not the title “Star Wars” is it? It’s the movie, what the title refers to. So similarly me is not just a word but it’s what the word refers to; it’s what the label refers to. So that’s how we define or describe the individuality, me. We can label it me.
So when there is an individual subjective experiencing of things, it arises or happens with the feeling of a solid me that’s experiencing it and that’s separate from the experience: “Now I’m experiencing a good mood,” “Now I’m experiencing a bad mood,” “Now I’m experiencing happiness,” and “Now I’m experiencing unhappiness.” If feels like that, doesn’t it? But there’s no such findable thing. It just feels like that because of confusion. Or to be more precise, because of confusion we believe that “I actually exist.” And it’s because of the habit of confusion that we feel like that; it feels as though there’s a solid me separate and experiencing the experience. So since there’s no such findable thing as a solid me separate from experiencing and which is doing the experiencing, that separate, solid me has no solid, permanent identity as a human being or as a male or as a female or as a cockroach or whatever. Right? Although it’s individual.
There’s a very important distinction between having a permanent identity and being individual. I’m not you. My experiencing is not my parents’ experiencing. It’s individual. It’s over a zillion lifetimes, and the individual experiencing isn’t set as being a human one or a male one or a cockroach one or a female one, but it’s individual. And the type of body that it is based on in any particular lifetime – well, that’s the result of karma, of actions, of what you do with experience.
So when we talk about rebirth, what is it that continues from life to life in the Buddhist way of understanding? It’s the individual, subjective experiencing of things – that phenomenon goes on from lifetime to lifetime – with a conventional me as what can be labeled onto it to organize and refer to it. What’s happening is that this experiencing of things is according to karmic potentials, tendencies, and habits. So that’s also continuing.
If we look at the explanation in highest tantra, we can talk about different levels of experiencing things, and so we speak of the subtlest level of experiencing things – that’s sometimes called the clear-light mind – and also there’s the subtlest energy, which supports the experiencing of things. So this is what continues. It’s these two things basically, the subtlest level of experiencing and the subtlest energy that supports the experiencing, and – conventional me – we can refer to that, to its individuality, in terms of the convention me. So that’s what continues. No beginning, no end.
But – also from no beginning – coming with it is confusion and what comes from that, the karmic potentials, tendencies, and habits. The karmic things come from the confusion. Right? But that confusion and the karmic potentials, tendencies, and habits – all of those, although they have no beginning, can have an end, they can be separated out, because you can have that experiencing of things with understanding of reality, which is the exact opponent of experiencing things with confusion. So even though confusion has no beginning and it’s part of this package, it can be gotten rid of – so it can have an end – because it could be replaced in such a way that it doesn’t return.
So when we’re talking about rebirth, uncontrollably recurring rebirth – it’s with this confusion and all the karmic stuff – that has no beginning but can have an end. Whereas when we talk in general about continuity of mind – that goes into enlightenment as well, when we’re free from the confusion and the karma.
So if we can start to think like this in terms of this beginningless and endless continuity of subjectively, individually experiencing things, then if we don’t get rid of the confusion in this particular little lifetime – well, of course we want to continue, because it will continue, so we want to get the best circumstances to be able to work on it further. And if we’re able to see the whole continuity (at least conceptually) of many, many different lifetimes, then the whole teachings on karma – subjectively what I’m experiencing (the type of rebirth and so on) is individual based on karma, my previous actions. This is the result of actions from many, many lifetimes, coming with all these karmic potentials and stuff.
And if we understand this continuity of individually experiencing things, it doesn’t have a solid identity for me, and it doesn’t have a solid identity for anybody else either. So this other being does not have the solid identity of being a cockroach. It’s an individual that has been in many, many different life forms, and so obviously it could have been my mother. But because of its karma it happens to now have a connection with a cockroach body. And we undoubtedly have been a cockroach at some time as well, so we can empathize with the suffering of a cockroach. And when we understand that this individual, subjective experiencing of things doesn’t have a solid identity, then that understanding will get rid of the confusion and all the karmic junk that’s coming along with the continuity.
So we can see that when we get into this understanding of rebirth – what it actually means in Buddhism – that’s one of the basic keys for everything. Everything is built on that. So first we need to be open to understanding it. First we need to acknowledge the importance of rebirth, and then we need to be open to understanding it and want to understand it. Next we get an intellectual understanding of it, but we don’t want to leave it at that – we want to get a gut, visceral understanding of it and conviction in it. I should say not only understanding but conviction. We go from an intellectual understanding and conviction to a gut-level understanding and conviction.
So what’s the difference between the intellectual and the gut level? Those are Western categories. Buddhism doesn’t talk in those categories. That’s because we have a big difference between mind and emotions in our Western concept of reality, and we experience it that way; we do experience a difference between intellectual and emotional understanding of and conviction in something.
But how does Buddhist analysis look at that (so it gives us some clue as to how to go from the intellectual to the gut level)? The difference between the two is not the difference between a conceptual understanding and a nonconceptual understanding. That really is not correct. Conceptual just means that we perceive it through an idea of what it means. Nonconceptual means that you don’t have to use an idea to perceive it. So it has nothing to do with the difference between intellectual and visceral. We can have a visceral feeling based on an idea of what rebirth is, obviously.
So the thing is that when we get thorough familiarity with rebirth, with the understanding of rebirth, and seeing these things this way – when we’re thoroughly familiar with that from meditation, through familiarizing ourselves from practicing seeing things that way, then that way of viewing things will automatically and spontaneously arise. Automatically we’ll see things in terms of individual, subjective continuity of experiencing, not just a woman or a man or a cockroach or whatever, and toward ourselves as well. So automatically we will see others and ourselves like this spontaneously because it’s so familiar. And it’s not only that we see things like that, but they automatically appear like that. People – beings – automatically appear like that. They seem like that. They appear. It’s not that they’re appearing from their side. They appear. In the Western way of saying it, our mind makes them appear. It’s not that the mind is some thing that makes them appear that way, but automatically that appearance is going to arise as part of the experiencing of them.
And what does that mean? What are we describing? We are describing a feeling of rebirth – it automatically arises as part of the experience – that this is an individual, subjective continuity of experience or whatever. I mean, that’s a lot of words. But it automatically arises as part of the experience, that it feels like that. So if beings and ourselves are not automatically appearing this way, then that’s intellectual understanding and conviction (there’s intellectual understanding, and then there’s an intellectual conviction based on that). And if it automatically and spontaneously arises like this, then that’s a visceral feeling (it feels like that; it feels that this is really the way it is).
So going from an intellectual understanding to a gut understanding and an intellectual conviction to a gut conviction is not something that happens just magically. It’s not something that is just… well, going from conceptual to nonconceptual means to just stop thinking, just become intuitive and go into some sort of vague, magical thing of just intuitively feeling it. But going from that intellectual level to the gut level is simply the product of familiarity with seeing these things with conviction that comes from meditating. Meditating is practicing seeing this all the time.
So don’t worry if you only have an intellectual understanding. That’s great. Don’t worry about that. A lot of people complain: “Oh, I only have an intellectual understanding.” I mean, it’s a great accomplishment to have an intellectual understanding. So the point is to meditate – to familiarize ourselves – to see things that way over and over again, not just sitting in your meditation but seeing the people on the street, seeing the people in your house, seeing the cockroaches in the garden, seeing everybody. And through that repeated familiarization, eventually automatically things will appear that way, and it will feel like that.
So you could ask “Isn’t that brainwashing?” And you’d have to say that yes, the process of brainwashing with let’s say communist propaganda and brainwashing with Buddhist propaganda is the same. After a while you really feel that the communist propaganda – if you’ve seen that all your life and you really have gotten into it, you really feel Tibet is part of China. You feel that. So it’s very important not to say that “Well, if I really feel it on a gut level, intuitively, then it’s true.” That’s not the case. There’s a big difference between the Buddhist brainwashing and the communist brainwashing.
Remember we spoke about the difference between confusion and understanding:
When we examine correct understanding, it can be validated – it stands up. The more and more we examine it, the more we see that it is true and the more that it brings happiness to ourselves and others.
And the more we examine confusion, the more we see that it doesn’t stand up – it’s not true. And thinking that way, with confusion, brings unhappiness and suffering to self and others.
So there’s a big difference between the Buddhist brainwashing and the communist Chinese brainwashing. Although you could get to a visceral feeling and understanding of anything through familiarity, one has to examine very carefully what is it that we want to get a visceral feeling and conviction in. And also brainwashing, the communist Chinese form of it, is motivated by somebody else; it’s not self-motivated. The Buddhist is self-motivated based on understanding and compassion. And so it’s quite different from that perspective as well.
So the understanding and conviction in rebirth is not a negative type of brainwashing, that we are being told to do this so that you’ll be a good boy and good girl and you’ll go to heaven or otherwise you’ll go to hell. It’s not this type of brainwashing. But rather it is based on understanding the importance of rebirth, understanding the importance of a correct understanding of the Buddhist explanation of it, and conviction that it actually is true. And we understand, we see, what are the benefits of seeing things this way and feeling this way in terms of karma, in terms of compassion for everybody, in terms of liberation, etc. And based on that, then we work to familiarize ourselves with it. It’s not a negative brainwashing, but it is a familiarization process. That’s meditation. It’s self-motivated based on compassion, based on seeing the beneficial results. And once we can actually understand what we’re talking about with rebirth and really feel that very strongly, then we can work on getting that continuity free from confusion, free from all these karmic potentials and stuff, so that eventually our individual, subjective experience of things will be free of suffering – because it’s free of the causes of suffering, which is confusion – and in this way we will experience things with happiness ourselves, and we will be in the best position to be able to bring others to this type of experiencing of things as well.
Something to think about, obviously. But hopefully with this type of presentation and outline, it gives you a clearer idea of how to approach the subject. And if at the end of this lecture you come away with at least the feeling that “Yes, rebirth is a very important thing in Buddhism. And I don’t want to just have Dharma-lite, but let’s get the real thing,” and with an appreciation of that importance, and you have some more interest to go and really work with this material – because it really is central – that would be a great benefit. And when we talk about rebirth, we’re not talking about a mystery. We’re talking about something that is really quite logical and reasonable. It’s not simple, but it’s understandable. And the process of getting to the gut-level feeling of it is a process that can happen. It’s not that it’s just going to be good luck or whatever. I mean, it’s worked out, how to do it. It’s not a process of “Hallelujah, now I believe.”
What questions do you have?
Participant: What’s the place of memory in this process?
Alex: The way that memory continues from one lifetime to another is similar to the way that habits continue from one lifetime to another – the way that memories continue within one lifetime as well. It’s the same process not only from one lifetime to another lifetime. Within one lifetime or from one lifetime to another lifetime, the mechanism of continuity of memories and of habits is the same. Right?
It’s not that memories or habits are little things that are sitting inside our head. They exist by mental labeling. It’s a conventional way of organizing repetitive patterns of similar events. I drank coffee two days ago in the morning, drank it yesterday in the morning, drank it today in the morning. How do we organize those similar events into a pattern? We say, “Oh, there’s a habit of drinking coffee in the morning.” And that habit does exist, but it’s just a way of organizing, a way of referring, and it’s not just the word habit.
So three days ago you said something to me. Two days ago I thought about it. Yesterday I thought about it. Today I thought about it. So how can we organize and explain these similar events? We would say, “Well, there’s a memory of it.” But the memory is not some thing sitting in our head which pops up like a cuckoo out of a clock. It’s a habit of repeating a similar way of thinking, thinking or feeling (it could be on any level). So the memories continue with the continuity of experiencing things – the memories continue the same way that habits do – but they’re not an inherent part of it.
Participant: When we die and there’s no longer a basis for supporting our mindstream, what prevents our mindstream getting mixed with other mindstreams?
Alex: There’s no gross physical basis for the mindstream, but there’s the subtle basis, the subtlest energy, so that maintains the individuality.
Well, it’s quite late, and so maybe we can end here. This weekend, starting tomorrow night, we’ll talk in more detail about how rebirth actually works, the twelve links of dependent arising – specifically how samsara works. So if you have more questions, we can look at them on the weekend.
So we end with a dedication. We think whatever understanding and insight we might have gained, even if it was very, very small, may that go deeper and deeper so that it generates more interest, more intention, to really look at this topic much more seriously so that eventually we can get a correct understanding and a gut-level understanding and conviction in rebirth so that this becomes fully integrated into our whole way of viewing and feeling how things are in the world and so that then we can experience the benefits of this understanding for ourselves and be able to bring benefits to others.
Thank you very much.
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