Rebirth in Buddhism is always a tricky issue. Many Westerners don’t like the idea of rebirth, as they hold loosely to a materialist view that animals are self-replicating DNA machines comprised of physical matter only. Mind in this paradigm, may run by its own rules, but it is still a function of physical matter (how then, can there be free will?). This is called a functionalist standpoint, and even if most people don’t think about it, this sums up the general opinion.
Like it or not, Buddhism not only accepts rebirth as real, the whole religion in built around it. In the first teaching the Buddha gave, the Dhammacakka Sutta, we hear that Dukkha is inevitable in the round of rebirths, and that being reborn in the 3 realms is driven by the power of Tanha (craving). This statement itself requires some lengthy explanation to avoid some mistakes of interpretation….
But the very next stanza says that putting an end to this Tanha, puts an end to all Suffering. When Dukkha ends, so does the cycle of rebirth in the three realms.
The three realms are
- Desire Realms (Kama) – including heavens, ghost and hell realms, where beings are reborn directed by their karma.
- Refined Form Realms (Ruupa) – which is a set of very refined heavenly realms, attainable only by the merit of very refined meditation (jhana)
- Non-form Realms – which are super refined realms, which may or may not have form (ruupa) depending on the school you listen to. These are attainable through refined concentration states on meditation objects without form.
In all these realms it is important to note, the being is there temporarily. There is no permanent spot in heaven. Even the highest angels die.
Further, heaven is not the goal in Buddhism, but Enlightenment, after which there is no more rebirth in the 3 realms.
So what is reborn?
People mistakenly suppose there is no ‘self’ in Buddhism. There is a self, but there is no ‘Atman’ (permanent unchanging self). This collection of parts, memories, habits – all this is your self in the common English language sense of the word. Think of it this way. There is probably no part of your body now that was part of your body when you were 5 years old. Every cell has changed. Your mental qualities have changed. You can’t find a permanent part of you that has not changed. But that does not mean you don’t exist! You just continue developing from one moment to another, one decade to another.
Same when you die, according to Buddhism, you still continue to ‘be’, you still continue changing.
Truth be told, for many of us it would be a reassurance if we could die and end it there. Unfortunately, we find that we continue.
Where are you reborn?
Your destination depends on what kind of person you are. If you have been good, and done good deeds, you float upwards. If you have been bad, such as greedy or selfish, you will sink you down. It does not depend on your beliefs. It does not matter if you are a ‘Buddhist’. Simply your action in life determine your habits and purity of heart. The main deeds that lead upwards are firstly moral shame and dread – which means that you have openness, truth and honesty as your principles. Other qualities such as generosity, wisdom, morality, patience, effort, loving kindness etc.. are also heaven leading.
Bad behaviour is downward leading, and is usually described as breaking the 5 precepts. Note that a single good or bad deed is not binding. But generally, how you live your life will make you a person of refined or unrefined heart. So don’t take it to extremes and think that one squished mosquito has bought you a bad rebirth.
But there was a caveat in Buddhism. Being good did not guarantee your spot in heaven, and being bad did not guarantee your spot in lower realms. Different karmas can activate at the time of dying. You may have been good, but sometimes one karma will activate just as you are passing away, taking you downward. There was one story in the Suttas about this – a lay woman supporter of the Buddha who had practised well, but recollected a deviant sexual act as she was passing away, and was reborn in a hell realm for 6 days (similar to Christian purgatory idea).
This makes it all a little uncertain. And this uncertainty was repeatedly pointed out by the Buddha as an urgency to practise.
Because the whole system is unstable, the point of death is important in Buddhism. You should die with the right frame of mind, and the right intentions. This is why Buddhists consider it to be fortuitous if you have warning you are going to die. To be given 2 weeks to live by a doctor is better than a sudden death in a car. You can prepare yourself.
Karma is given in the Buddhist commentaries as being of 4 ‘weights’ which at the point of dying will determine the rebirth.
- Garuka – ‘heavy’: which is shedding the blood of an arahant, killing a Buddha, killing ones parents .. and a few others. If you have committed these deeds they will lead you to a hell realm rebirth irrespective of how you lived the rest of your life. The good karma you have made will eventually come into play once your spell in heaven is over. Devadatta, the Buddha’s cousin is a good example, spending countless eons in hell for his bad deeds, but destined to become a Buddha after that due to his good karma.
- Bahula – ‘habitual actions’ – i.e. how you have lived your life
- Asanna – ‘proximate action’ – basically the state of mind that happens to be there when you pass away.
- Katatta – ‘casual acts’ – the general way you lived and made choices without strong intention
Ayya Khema, a very good late teacher in Germany, reportedly gave the following description of these 4 kammas:
“If there is a herd of cows locked in a barn, and the barn door is opened, the cow that is the strongest will go out first. If there isn’t one like that, then the one who is the habitual leader will go out first; if there is no habitual leader then the one nearest the door will go out first. If there is none like that, they will all try to go out at the same time.”
You may or may not like the teachings on rebirth, but they are there. Is it necessary to ‘believe’ in rebirth? That is a good question. But certainly you can practise Buddhism, and consider yourself a Buddhist, without having a strong belief either way. For a good meditator, we like the third option between ‘believe’ and ‘disbelieve’, which is ‘I don’t know’. After all, that is the true answer.
The crucial importance of the final moments is a further topic, to be blogged on in the next couple of days.