Rebirth: Is it really possible?
Rebirth: Is it really possible?
A talk given at the Buddhist Library, Singapore on November 25, 2003. Note: Due to change of tapes during recording, parts of the teachings were lost.
Who am I?
- The purpose and meaning of life
- Transforming and eradicating the strong notion of “I,” “me” and “mine”
- Continuity of the mind and body
- Refuting the idea of a fixed soul or entity
Rebirth, is it really possible? Part 1 (download)
Proof of rebirth
- People have memories of their previous lives
- Research has been documented
- Tibetans have a system of recognizing the rebirths of Dharma masters
- Imprints from one’s actions of body, speech and mind
Rebirth, is it really possible? Part 2 (download)
The purpose and meaning of life
- Taking full responsibility for one’s life
- How karmic seeds are planted
- How to prepare one’s mind for death
- The determination to be free from cyclic existence and attain nirvana
Rebirth, is it really possible? Part 3 (download)
Questions and answers
- Buddhist perspective on a creator God
- The nature of the mind
- Different realms of rebirth
- Why ghosts and spirits exist
- Helping animals to be reborn in a higher realm
- The process of rebirth
Rebirth, is it really possible? Q&A (download)
It’s very nice to see all of you.
This afternoon we’re going to talk a little bit about rebirth. This is a topic that is actually quite important in Buddhism. That doesn’t mean that we all have to believe in it or make ourselves believe in it, because we can’t make ourselves believe in anything. But it’s important to keep an open mind towards this and to think about it and try and cultivate the perspective of many lifetimes because that really opens up our understanding of what life is about and what the purpose of life is.
Who Am I?
One of the things that makes it difficult for us to understand rebirth is that we have such a strong feeling that “I am who I am right now.” We identify very strongly with this body. We say me. We have a certain self-image, a certain kind of ego identity. We identify very strongly with that. We feel that me. We have a certain position in society, a certain little niche that we’ve carved out of who we think we are and what’s going on. And we identify very strongly with this and think that we’ve always been who we are right now.
This grasping at a strong identity and this feeling of being somebody permanent—actually, it presents an obstacle for us to really consider rebirth. One thing that is helpful in this process is to recognize that we haven’t always been who we are now. For example, we were all babies, right? Do you remember when you were a baby? No. Is your body the same now as it was when you were a baby? I hope not. In fact the scientists tell us that every cell in our body rolls over every seven years.
So we’ve actually changed bodies many times between now and when we were infants. If you live to be 80 years old, is your body going to be the same as you are now? No. If you took a baby picture and an adult picture and an old age picture of many people and mixed them all together, do you think you could pick out which baby picture, adult picture, and old picture went together? No. I had people do this in Seattle once. We all brought our baby pictures in to see if we could figure out who we were. And we really began to see how much who we are has changed because we couldn’t match the baby with the person that they are now. Yet, there’s a continuity between when we were a baby and who we are now and who we’re going to be when we’re 80. We’re not exactly the same person, but we’re also not completely, totally different and unrelated. There’s some kind of a connection there, isn’t there? When we see this, it gives us this feeling, “Well, maybe I’m not always been in this body that I’m in now.” There’s a continuity from when I was a baby. I’ve been a toddler. A teenager. Now aging, getting to be quite old, 80. And so on. There’s a continuity there, but I’m not exactly the same person.
So that’s just looking at our body and how our body changes over life. What about our mind? Is it fixed? Is it permanent? Is what you’re thinking today the same as what you thought yesterday? Are your emotions today the same as your emotions yesterday? No. We know that when we were a baby, we had emotions. We know that when we’re 80 years old, there are going to be emotions. There’s some relationship, but again, the mind’s not exactly the same, then as now and in the future. But there’s a relationship.
On the physical side, the body is changing moment by moment. That’s what the scientists tell us. Every moment something’s coming into existence and going out of existence. That’s happening on a physical level. The electrons are zipping around the nucleus, never remaining the same from one moment to the next. And also on the mental level, our mind-moments are changing, moment by moment by moment by moment. So just thinking back, does that give you a little bit different feeling about who you are?
Now, what we call, what we label, I in dependence upon, is the body and mind. We’re not our body. We’re not our mind. But we give the label I in dependence upon the body and mind being related. So when the body and mind are linked up together, we call that being alive. When the body and mind separate from each other, we call that death. Both the body and the mind have their own continuums. The body’s continuum is something that science investigates. It’s based on atoms, based on some kind of physical energy. The E=MC2 thing, it can go back and forth between mass and energy. But there’s some kind of continuity there. It can be examined on a scientific level with scientific instruments.
But we aren’t just our body because there’s also consciousness. There’s mind. There’s feelings and cognition and perception. And we call that mind. Mind can’t be measured by scientific instruments. Why? Because it’s not physical in nature. What we call mind is something that’s clear. In other words, it’s formless, and it has the ability to reflect objects. And the other quality of mind, besides clarity, is knowing–the ability to know or be aware. In other words, the mind can engage or apprehend its objects.
Life is when the body and mind are joined. Death is when they both have their own separate continuums. How many of you have seen a dead body? It’s different than a living person, isn’t it? Something’s missing with the dead body. What’s missing is consciousness, the mind. The body’s there. The brain’s there. The heart’s there. But the consciousness isn’t there. So the body has its continuity. After death it becomes a corpse, the physical continuity of the atoms and molecules. It becomes the corpse. The corpse decays or it gets burnt. It gets recycled in nature, doesn’t it? Your body gets recycled. It becomes fertilizer. It gets eaten by some worms or sprinkled in the ocean, but all the carbon and the nitrogen and everything gets recycled. It comes up later on as plants that are eaten by animals. Feeds new bodies. Looking forward into the future, our body has a continuum and it gets recycled.
Our body doesn’t last forever, does it? I remember Walt Disney. They had this thing in the states called cryogenics where they try and preserve the body in the hope that they can bring you back later on. I think it’s really rather stupid. They did that to Walt Disney. They froze his body. It’s very expensive to do so some people can’t have their whole body done, and there are different price schedules. Some people, they can’t afford, so they just freeze their head. I mean, I think it’s quite ridiculous. But anyway…
Looking forward, the body gets recycled. If we look at the body now, our present body depends on yesterday’s body, day before yesterday’s body, five years ago body, ten years ago body. Trace it back to when we were an infant. Trace the infant’s body back into the womb when we were an embryo, right up to the time of conception. Then we can trace the continuity of the body back to the sperm and the egg of our parents. And then it gets traced back further than that. The continuity of the body goes backwards in the past. It goes forwards in the future. But it has the nature of being something physical.
The mind also has a continuity, but mind isn’t physical. So the continuity is a little bit different. We can’t look at it with our eyes. But we can see if we look ahead 10 years from now, 20 years from now, our mind is going to be a continuum of the mind that we have now. One moment of mind begets another moment of mind, and that goes all the way up until the time when we die. And then just as the body has a continuity after death, after it separates from the mind, the mind has a continuity after death, after it separates from the body.
The mind is changing moment by moment, but it doesn’t just cease, stop completely with no future result. There’s no effect at the time of death, so there’s a continuity of mind after death. Similarly, if we trace the mind backwards, what we’re thinking and all of our cognitions today depend on what were all of our mental events yesterday and last week and last year and five years ago and ten years ago, the mind that we had when we were babies, though we can’t remember it we know we had a mind then, back to our mind when we were a fetus or an embryo inside of our mother’s womb and then back to the moment of conception. So that first moment of mind that joined with the sperm and the egg, because conception is not just the sperm and egg coming together, but also the mind joining that. That moment of mind, that first moment of mind that was joined with the sperm and egg–where did it come from? Well, each moment of mind has always come from a preceding moment of mind, so likewise that first moment of mind in this life came from a preceding moment of mind. So that preceding moment of mind was before this life. It was previous life. And, of course, it had its preceding moment, and it goes back and back and back.
From a Buddhist viewpoint, there’s no beginning to consciousness or mind, and there’s no real beginning to matter either because everything has a cause preceding it. Nothing can begin from nothing. If you have nothing to start with, there’s no cause and there’s nothing to transform nothing into something. From a Buddhist viewpoint, there always has to be a cause for everything that functions in this way. So that’s why we say that there’s no beginning. This actually corresponds very well with what scientists are finding out. The scientists may trace things back to the Big Bang, but then, before that they’ll trace something to before the Big Bang too. [Similarly] we trace our consciousness back and back and never find a beginning.
This idea of infinity may initially be a little bit difficult for us to understand. But if you think about your math class—remember the number line in math class? Minus one, minus two, minus three. Is there ever any end that way? No. Forward–one, two, three, four, fifty million trillion and three, fifty million trillion and four. Is there any end to the number line that way? No. Is there any end to the square root of two? Is there any end to PI? No. Similarly the Buddhist view corresponds very much with that. There are just things that don’t end.
And we say that there doesn’t have to be a beginning. In fact we say that having a beginning is totally impossible if you look at things logically. Because, like I said, everything that functions has to have had a cause. If you say, okay, things began here, then you have to ask, well what caused the beginning? And if something caused the beginning, then the beginning wasn’t the beginning. Then if you say well there was nothing before the beginning, well then, you can’t have a beginning because out of nothing there’s no reason for nothing to change into something. Buddhism relies very much on logic in this way to show that cause and effect to function and that everything depends on causes in this way. Nothing is fixed. Nothing is permanent. It’s changing moment by moment by moment, but it always depends on the cause.
Now some people say, “Well, what is it that goes from one life to the next?” When we ask that question, we often think, “Well, there’s got to be something fixed. Oh, you said the mind goes from one life to the next, so the mind is something fixed. It comes up out of this body, goes plunk into another body.” No, it’s not like that because, remember, the mind is not a fixed thing. The mind is just a label we put on all these related moments of consciousness, all these related moments of clarity and awareness. We say mindstream. Mindstream refers to that whole long continuum, not to one solid thing. We say the mindstream connects one life to the next life. We aren’t implying that there’s something fixed there. We aren’t implying a soul or a self because the mind is changing moment by moment.
Even now, the previous moment of mind is gone, and we’re in a new moment of mind. Are you the same person now as when you came in the room? Are you? No. You’re a different person now than when you came in the room. So the person at the time of death is not the same person who incarnates. The person is just a label that we give in dependence on the body and mind. There’s no fixed person or soul or self there that goes from one body into another body. Because again, Buddhists use logic to say, well that’s impossible. If there were a fixed soul, if there were something that were really me, then that thing could never change. If it couldn’t change, then it can’t go from one life to the next life because one life is not the same as the next life. So it’s in this way that the Buddha established rebirth, but also, at the same time, established selflessness. In other words, there’s no fixed person, no real soul that goes from one life to the next.
It’s a little bit difficult to understand sometimes, but you have to hear it and think about it and contemplate it. Nobody said this was going to be easy. Actually, if you want to be a Buddhist, you have to learn to think properly. You can’t be what I call a woo-woo Buddhist: “I have faith.” You have faith in what? We just make up something and have faith in it. The Buddha didn’t teach like that. The Buddha said we have to learn, we have to investigate, we have to think about things. The Buddha was respecting us as intelligent living beings and encouraging us to use our intelligence instead of just following things without investigating or saying, “Well, my friend believes that, so I believe it too.” Or even, “A holy person said it, so I believe it.” Buddha always said we have to think about things and come to our own conclusion.
This is actually what attracted me to Buddhism to start with. I met the Dharma when I was 24, and up until that time I had heard so many people tell me their version of the truth. Of course everybody thinks they have the one truth, but there were so many different versions of it, so who do you believe? Because you’re not supposed to ask too many questions. You’re just supposed to have faith. So that’s why I was very attracted to Buddhism because the Buddhists said, “Think about things. Use thought, use reason, look at experience, and come to your own conclusion.”
Proof of rebirth
Rebirth—we can begin to understand it through this logical perspective. It’s also helpful to understand it in considering some stories about people who remember their previous lives. Now, all of us don’t remember our previous lives. I don’t remember them. Of course I don’t even remember what I dreamt last night. And I don’t remember what I ate a year ago last Tuesday. I don’t remember most of what I studied in university. Does that mean that none of these things existed because I don’t remember them? No. Just because we can’t remember something, it doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. It just means we have lousy memories. That’s it. And we know that already: “Where are my keys? I can’t find my keys.” That’s happened to all of us. So the fact that we can’t each of us remember our previous lives doesn’t mean that there weren’t previous lives. The fact that you can’t remember what you ate a year ago last Tuesday doesn’t mean that you didn’t eat.
There are some people who do have memories of their previous lives, and I find it very interesting to listen to their stories. I saw a documentary once, a few different documentaries, because some people have been doing research about this. But one documentary was very interesting. It was about a woman in England, and ever since she was a young child, she kept talking about one village. I can’t remember the name of the village, but she kept talking about this village and, as a little girl, she would draw pictures of all the houses in this village. And she used to talk to her family about how she lived there and she had eight children and all these kinds of things. And her family thought, what’s this kid talking about because they never heard of that village. Well, later on, after the woman grew older, she was curious about this kind of thing. She did some research and she found out that actually there was a small village in the U.K. with that name. She went to that village, and she had the drawings she had done as a child, and they matched the village. And she remembered the name from her previous life in the village. There was a family by that name. This video, this documentary, showed them interviewing her previous life’s son because she was now maybe 30 or something like that, but her son from her previous life was 70. She was telling her memories from the previous life, and the son was also telling what he remembered from when he was a child. And they matched.
It was quite remarkable and here was somebody—she wasn’t a Buddhist or anything like that—but she had a memory and there were actual people who could vouch for what she remembered, because that man said, “Yes, there were eight kids in my family and my mother died. This and this had happened and this had happened in the family.” And it was also what the woman had said.
There was some other documentary I saw where they took a woman from Australia who had remembered being a doctor, I think his name was James Burns, from Scotland, in a previous life. The woman is probably alive now, but the doctor lived many centuries ago, I think maybe 16th, 17th century. Anyway, in the documentary they showed the scientists taking this woman to Aberdeen, and they covered her eyes when they drove into the town. She didn’t know where she was. They stopped by the port, removed the eye covering, and she could lead them from the port to the medical school in the town. And when she got to the medical school—it’s incredible because this was the medical school where Dr. James Burns had trained—she’s walking through and she’s experiencing recognition like when you see something and you haven’t seen it for a really long time, “Oh I remember that.” And she got to a certain point and she said, when they were walking down the corridor, “No, this isn’t right, this isn’t what I remember, something’s changed, the floorplan isn’t how I remember it.” She told them how she remembered it. Well, later on they went into the archives of the medical school library and they pulled out past records, before the building had been renovated, and sure enough, the floorplan was like she had remembered.
There are all these stories of people who remember things. The Tibetans have a tradition of recognizing the next lives of very great masters. This is part of their culture. This is purely a Tibetan cultural thing. The Buddha did not say you have to identify the next version of great masters, but the Tibetans just have this in their culture. They started doing it, I don’t know, maybe around the 16th century, something like that, 17th century. For example, the 13th Dalai Lama, the one prior to the present Dalai Lama, passed away in the 1930s, and they embalmed his body, and it sat in state in the Portala Palace in Lhasa, the capital. While it was sitting in state so that everybody could file by and look at it—the monks are known for doing a lot of prayers to find the new rebirth of the Dalai Lama—they noticed that on the northwest corner of the northwest pillar, there was some special fungus growing. And they began to notice some strange cloud formations in the northwest part of the sky from Lhasa. So they thought well maybe they should send a search party out into the northwest part of Tibet.
They sent it into a region called Amdo. At the same time, they had some of the monks go to this lake called Lhama La-tso—it’s an incredible lake at 18,000 feet. I’ve been there, and it’s really stupendous. They did a lot of prayers and meditation, and then some of them can see visions in the lake. They saw the letters, the Tibetan letters a, ka, and ma. So they just remembered that. They didn’t tell very many people. They just remembered a, ka, and ma.
Then they sent the search party out in the Amdo area of Tibet. Now, when they search for the new Dalai Lama, they don’t go around saying, “we’re looking for the Dalai Lama”, because everybody’s going to go, “It’s my kid.” Because everybody thinks my kid’s special, right? Instead, the search party was dressed up like merchants. In old Tibet, this was in the 1930s, they didn’t have hotels or motels. When you were a merchant party, you had your animals, your yaks, and when it was time to sleep at night, you found a farmhouse and the farmer usually let you stay there. So they were traveling around doing this. Also, I should mention, in the vision that they had at the lake, besides the letters a, ka and ma, they had seen a certain turquoise roof in the distance, and they saw a little brown dog out in front of a farmhouse.
So they were going through Amdo looking in this area, and the monk who was in charge of the mission was dressed up as the person who took care of the animals. He wasn’t dressed up as the head of the party because, whenever a traveling party stayed at a farmhouse, the head of the party went into the meditation room, the shrine room, but the people who took care of the animals went into the kitchen. And the children were always in the kitchen, so that’s why he dressed like that.
So he went in dressed like that. He had the prayer beads on from the previous Dalai Lama, and he was sitting in the kitchen at this one farmhouse drinking his tea, and this little boy about two years old comes and sits in his lap and pulls at the beads and says, “These are mine.” So then the other monks, who were also disguised said, “Well, we’ll give you the beads if you can tell us who the person wearing them is.” And he said, “Oh yes, you’re so-and-so Rinpoche from Sera Monastery.” He knew who the monk was even though he wasn’t dressed up in monk’s robes. Then they brought out some of the ritual instruments that were used by the previous Dalai Lama mixed together with other similar ritual instruments, some of which were a lot more attractive. And the child just automatically picked up the ones that belonged to the previous Dalai Lama.
When they checked the a, ka and ma, the a referred to Amdo. The ka referred to Kumbum, which was a great monastery in the Amdo area, and which had a turquoise roof. And then the ma referred to some other thing in the geography of the area. I can’t remember what it was. And, when the search party had come, there had been a little dog in front of the house.
So in this way they gained some confidence that this child was the next life of the previous Dalai Lama. When they do this, the personality of the previous life and the personality of the next life are often very, very different. And that again shows there isn’t some solid person with a solid fixed personality that goes from one life to the next, because the previous Dalai Lama apparently was very stern and very like this. You look at old pictures of him, and he’s like this. The present Dalai Lama – some of you may have attended teachings – is very lighthearted. But both of them were great practitioners and great scholars. And you can see that by the way they teach and the way they guide people.
Now this doesn’t mean in the Tibetan tradition that everybody who is recognized as the next life of a previous master is always the right child, and it doesn’t mean that the child, from the time they are little or even when they grow up, is going to be an extraordinary master, because things change from one life to the next. The Dalai Lama always advises us, we shouldn’t have faith just because somebody was recognized as what they call a tulku, a rebirth of a previous master. But we should always look at what a teacher is in this lifetime, what their qualities are, and select our teachers by their qualities in this lifetime. He said you shouldn’t rely on past life social status. And I think this is quite important because sometimes people get really a little woo-woo about Tibetan Buddhism – “Oh, he’s a very high lama, he’s a reincarnation of Maitreya, woo-woo.” That’s not a valid way to select spiritual teachers. But still, when we look at this, and we see that some people do have memories and can identify things from a previous life, it gives us some faith, some confidence that there are multiple rebirths.
Another way that we can approach rebirth is, if you aren’t firmly convinced about it, which many people aren’t, to keep an open mind and see if certain things that happen in life could be explained by rebirth. For example, a long time ago I was giving a talk in Florida, in the US, at a library. It was an area in Florida where there are a lot of older people who retire who aren’t Buddhists. They asked me to give a talk about rebirth, so I gave a talk similar to this one. At the end of it, one woman came up to me and she said, “Thank you so much. I really understand my son now because nobody in our family knows anything about music or is very musically inclined. But my son, from the time he was a very small child, was very musically inclined and when we went places, without anybody having taught him, when he heard classical music, he could say, “Oh, this is Beethoven’s number da, da, da, da, da and that’s Chopin’s number de, de, de, de, de.”” And she said, “I don’t know how my kid learned that, but if I think about rebirth, then oh, perhaps in a previous life, he had some familiarity with music, some habit or knowledge and that just carried over into this life.”
Sometimes we can use the understanding of rebirth to explain things in our life, in other peoples’ lives, that are otherwise very difficult to explain. I mean, I look at my becoming a Buddhist nun. How in the world did I become a Buddhist nun? I grew up in middle class America. There weren’t any Buddhists in the community I grew up in. There’s always this debate about nature and nurture. If you look at nature, genealogically, as my parents remind me, there is not one Buddhist in my genes. In terms of genes, I have zero from anything that vaguely resembles Buddhism. So, people who say what you are as a result of your genes—a little bit difficult to explain in my case.
If you look at the nurture side, my parents weren’t Buddhists, the community I grew up in wasn’t Buddhist, I didn’t know anything about Buddhism when I was a kid. Why was it that the religions I learned as a kid didn’t appeal to me, but when I met the Buddhadharma, I said, wow, this makes sense. And why in the world did I want to become a nun? I mean, this is not what my parents had in mind for me. I was not taught from the time I was this big, you should become a nun. I had a totally different upbringing about what I should do as an adult. Well, why, why did my life turn out the way it did given the nature and the nurture? So even in my own life, it seems like there must have been some karmic connection with the Buddhist teachings from the past life. That’s the only way I can explain it anyway.
When we talk about karma—karma just means our actions—what we think about, our emotions, what we say, what we do, all of these mental, verbal, and physical actions that leave imprints on our mind. In one life we form different habits, what we think about or how we think. We form habits, emotional habits. These things are not some kind of fixed personality, but there is energy in a certain direction and that energy can be affected and molded and so forth. I think that all of us here—why are we here today? Why aren’t we doing something else? Well, there was some interest, there was something from the past that was ripening that made us think, “I want to hear a talk about rebirth today.” We all have some kind of karmic connection from the past. This all happens without anything being permanent or fixed or rigid or without there being a self or a soul.
The purpose and meaning of life
Understanding rebirth is important, because when we do, it gives us a different perspective on what we do today. If we know that our mindstream, or what we label I in dependence upon, doesn’t cease and go totally out of existence at the time of death, and that if we know the cause-and-effect function, then we know too that what we’re doing now is going to influence what we become. Of course it’s going to influence what we become in this lifetime, but it’s also going to influence what we become beyond this lifetime. So when we become concerned about that, then the thought, “Oh, if I do something negative now, it’s not just going to have the result around me right now, but it will have the result in later life, and it will have the result in future lives. Similarly if I act in constructive ways and I’m kind now, that action’s going to have an immediate result, but it’s also going to have results later on in this life and also in future lives.” We begin to see that we are creating our future by what we’re doing now.
This is why Buddhism, to a great extent, emphasizes self-responsibility—that we’re responsible for our actions and we have to take care with what we do, because we’re creating the cause for what we become. Nobody else is doing that. But this is also good news because if somebody else were in charge of what we became, then we’re mere puppets, and we can’t do anything to help ourselves because all we can do is sit there and hope for the best because somebody else is deciding, and if that person’s in a bad mood, we’ve had it. In Buddhism there’s no manager or controller of the universe. The Buddha does not decide what we get reborn as. Rather, we’re creating all the causal energy that influences what we get reborn as.
What we get reborn as, it’s not a sum total of who we are. It’s not like there’s a ledger with pink points and yellow points and what you get reborn as depends on how many pink ones you have and how many yellow ones you have. It’s not like that. The analogy is more like a field. In one field you can have many different kinds of seeds of totally diverse plants, can’t you? Many, many different kinds of seeds all in the same field. All the seeds are not going to grow at the same time because different seeds depend on different levels of moisture, some grow in a dry climate, some in a wet climate, some when it’s one temperature, some when it’s another temperature, some need a certain kind of fertilizer. So there are all sorts of conditions that surround what seeds are going to grow at a certain time in the field.
If our mindstream, the continuity of the mind, is like a field, all of our actions are leaving these energy remnants, and those are like the karmic seeds that are being planted in the field. These karmic seeds are not material. They’re not made of atoms and molecules. They’re not solid and permanent, but they are things that exist. They’re like an energy trace of our actions, and we can have many different energy traces in this field from many different actions because we see, even in one day, we do all sorts of different things, don’t we? One minute we’re very sweet and polite. Next minute we’re in a lousy mood, and we swear at somebody. Then an hour later we’re compassionate again. And an hour after that, we backbite. We plant, just in the course of one day, so many different seeds in our mindstream.
What seeds ripen at the time of death depends upon which ones are stronger. If there are some actions that we did that are that were very, very strong, that’s like planting a triple A grade seed that’s like really strong and powerful and can grow. Or if we’ve done an action repeatedly, it becomes much easier for the seed of that action to ripen at the time of death. It also depends upon what’s happening around us at the time we die. And that’s why it’s very important at that time to have a good attitude and to take refuge in the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha, to forgive the people we need to forgive, to apologize to the people we need to apologize to, to generate a heart of loving-kindness at the time of death, to be able to look back at our life and rejoice at the merit or positive potential that we’ve created and to pray at the time of death to dedicate, “In all my future lives, may I never be separated from the Buddha, Dharma, Sangha. May I always meet qualified teachers to guide me. May I always have the conducive circumstances to practice, and may I make use of all of this and not waste it.” That’s important to pray for too, because otherwise we wind up with a good situation and we waste it.
So we’ve got to pray from our side that we don’t kind of fiddle away all of our opportunities. If we have that kind of positive mental state at the time of death, that’s like putting water and fertilizer on some of the virtuous karmic seeds in our mind, and then those seeds ripen and attract our mindstream to a different kind of body in the next life. Our negative karmic seeds still are there. They haven’t disappeared. Just as in a regular field, you water it and maybe your lilies grow. Your chili pepper seeds are still there. They haven’t grown yet, but they’re there. In the same way, we can have a fortunate rebirth and still have some negative karmic seeds in our mindstream. Or somebody could have an unfortunate rebirth and still have positive karmic seeds in their mindstream.
What I’m getting at is the more we understand about karma and the more we see our life and lives in terms of a continuity, then the more we are interested in living a wholesome life, abandoning negative actions, engaging in positive actions. Furthermore, we become more interested in getting out of the cycle of existence altogether, because at a certain point we say, “Well, it’s great to have a good rebirth, but I’ve been doing this since beginningless time, and it’s getting a little bit boring.” You’re born, you get old, you die, you’re reborn, you get old, you die and you’re reborn. It’s like when you’re a kid on a merry-go-round. Like going from upper realm to lower realm as the little horse goes around and around. You might think it’s fun, but after you’ve been on the merry-go-round for more than three minutes, it’s like, “Mom and dad, get me off of here. This is boring, and I’m getting sick to my stomach.”
It’s the same thing when we begin to realize that cyclic existence—we’re just going up and down and up and down, but still around and around and around and around, and it’s not getting us anywhere. Then we say we want to get out.
The determination to be free from cyclic existence is what we sometimes translate as renunciation. Renunciation is not a very good translation. It’s more a determination to be free from our suffering and the causes of our suffering and to arrive at a final state of happiness, which is what we call nirvana. If we have a big perspective, we can see that the purpose of our life is to aim, on a temporary basis, to at least get a good rebirth so we can continue practicing. But after that, let’s get out of cyclic existence and attain nirvana altogether. And after that, let’s also realize that we have all these other living beings around us, who are just like us, who want to be happy and don’t want to suffer, and let’s help them get out too. And so when we think like this, then we realize how meaningful our life is and how important it is that we live each moment of our life with mindfulness and care and compassion and wisdom.
When we think like this, then our life really becomes very vital. Our life is interesting. It has a purpose. The meaning of life is not to make money, because you make money and then you spend it and it’s gone, and what you haven’t spent at the time you die stays here and all your relatives fight about it. But you go on alone with all the karma that you created from having made the money. We’ve got to be careful of what karma we create, because that goes with us and the money stays here. Like I tell people, I don’t care how much you burn, none of it goes with you. It all stays here. What you burn only pollutes the air.
Understanding rebirth and karma gives us a way to have a lot of meaning in our life and for us to feel like there’s something important for us to do in life. It’s to abandon harmful actions, to do positive actions, to aim for nirvana, to develop a kind heart and want to become a fully enlightened one so I can help everybody else get out of cyclic existence. When you realize that you have the potential to do this, based on your present life, that you have all the conditions you need to be able to practice and do something meaningful, then you don’t want to lie around and sleep and eat popcorn all day because you realize there’s something more important in your life.
Okay, so that’s a little bit about rebirth.
Questions and Answers
How about some questions or comments? Yes, in the back there. Speak loudly, okay? One at a time, okay?
Audience: [inaudible 55.30]
Venerable Thubten Chodron (VTC): [You’re asking] if I could explain more about how there’s no soul even though rebirth is possible. So like I said, if there were a soul, rebirth would be impossible. Because if something is fixed and permanent, it cannot change. And one life is different from the next life which indicates that change has occurred. If we had a fixed soul, we would always be thinking the same thing. We don’t. We change. It’s like the analogy of a river. I like this analogy very much. When you look at the river, the Singapore river [for example]: I can’t really use it, it’s kind of dry most of the time. So just bear with me and think of the Mississippi River, okay? You’ve all heard of the Mississippi. It’s a big river. Now, we say Mississippi as if it’s one thing. Right? But if we analyze and we investigate – what is the Mississippi River? Can we find one thing that is the essence of the Mississippi River? What are we going to point to? Do we point to the banks of the river? Are they the river? Is the bottom silt, the bottom of the river, is that the river? Is the water the river? Is all of this upstream the river? Or how about downstream? It’s very different upstream than downstream isn’t it? Which one’s really the river? If downstream’s the river, upstream can’t be the Mississippi. If upstream’s the Mississippi, downstream can’t be because if it’s fixed and permanent, like having a fixed, permanent soul, it can’t be both. Because upstream is different from downstream. And the banks are different than the silt at the bottom and that’s different from the water. And it’s different when it’s flowing along smoothly, and it’s different when it’s going down a waterfall. When we look and investigate, we cannot find one thing that we can draw a line around and say, “This is the essence of the Mississippi.”
When we don’t analyze and investigate, and we just look [at it] as a whole, we all agree that this thing has some kind of continuity we call the Mississippi. It’s similar with the mindstream. There isn’t one thing that we can draw a circle around and say, “This is me. This is the essence of me. And the soul goes from one life to the next life.” But it’s more that there’s this continuity of clarity and awareness that keeps changing moment by moment by moment. And it’s not the same in earlier moments as it is in later moments. That’s why rebirth can occur because change occurs. But there’s no soul that gets reborn.
VTC: OK, so there’s a question—this is asked by somebody practicing in the Tibetan tradition—that when our teacher dies, do we automatically accept the next life or who is recognized as the next life of our teacher, as our teacher? No, you don’t automatically have to recognize the next life as your teacher. And in fact I think it’s better that you kind of stand back and you watch the child as he or she grows up. And you see about your connection with the child. You see if they become a great master like the previous one. So you don’t automatically have to accept the next life also as your teacher. Each time we should investigate. I mean, the Buddha said we should investigate the qualities of the teacher before we accept them and not just do things with undiscriminating faith.
VTC: Somebody asked, “I’m often asked, where is your God in Buddhism?” Buddha said he’s not a God. There is no God in Buddhism. And who said there needs to be a God? You could just as easily ask somebody, “Where’s Buddha in your religion? How come your religion doesn’t talk about Buddha? Where’s the Buddha in your religion?”
We don’t believe in a God. But it’s also very interesting because if you ask people who believe in God, every single one of them has a different definition of God. For people who do deep contemplation in other religions, very often what they call God has a lot of similarities to what we call emptiness or Buddha. There are some qualities that Buddhists believe in that correspond with qualities some people ascribe to a God. If we talk about love and compassion, the principles of love and compassion, you’ll find many Christian contemplatives for whom God is not some guy in the sky with a white beard, but for whom God just means love and compassion. Buddhists believe in love and compassion too. We don’t give it the name God, but we believe in love and compassion. If you’re talking about beings who are more spiritually advanced than us—yes, Buddhists believe there are other beings who are wiser and more compassionate than us. We call them arhats and bodhisattvas and Buddhas.
If you talk about God as being the creator of the universe, Buddhism doesn’t have anything like that, because like I said before, we think it’s impossible for there to be a creator of the universe. Because if there were a creator, then the beginning wasn’t the beginning because the creator lived before the beginning. And if there’s nothing, why in the world did the creator create? I mean this was my question long before I even knew anything about Buddhism, because I was raised believing in a God. And I kept on looking around, because I grew up during the Vietnam War and racial violence and everything, and I’m going, “If God created things, He really blew it. There’s so much suffering in the world. Why in the world did God create suffering?” And when I asked people this question, they said, “Well God created suffering so we could learn.” And I said, “Well if God was the creator, why didn’t he create us more intelligent so we didn’t need to suffer in order to learn.” I could not find any answer that satisfied me in this regard.
I’m not criticizing people who believe in God because everybody has their own belief, and it’s good that there’s a variety of religions so everybody can find what feels comfortable for them. But what I’m doing is just explaining a Buddhist view and how we use reason to ascertain what exists and what doesn’t exist. I do a lot of interreligious dialogue, especially with Catholics. Buddhist nuns and Catholic nuns get along very well. We understand each other well. The monks all talk theology. I’ve been at interreligious dialogue with the monks, and they’re all out there, “Well my religion, the scriptures, and my religion, the scriptures…” The women, when we get together, we don’t do any of that. I hope no monks are listening. But we talk about practice, and we talk about what it’s like to live a life that’s dedicated to spiritual practice. And we talk about how you balance your inward meditation with your service to the community. So we have lots of interesting discussions. But I find when I talk with the Christian nuns, many of them, their idea of what they call God, like I said, isn’t some person, but applies to love and compassion or even to emptiness, selflessness.
Audience: Can you explain how it’s possible that after we have evolved to the state of a complex and intelligent being, we can still return to be reborn as a simple creature, like an ant? For example, if we have a tertiary education, how can our knowledge return to elementary level? Please convince me.
VTC: You bet I will. If we use the example of having a tertiary education, how can it go to an elementary education? How many of you have been around elderly people who are demented or suffer from Alzheimer’s? How many of you have watched your parents become forgetful and become almost like a child? They can’t even remember who you are. Somebody who was once very intelligent, very wise, who had so much information, then all of a sudden, they get old—it’s gone. It happens, doesn’t it? Even in this lifetime. So in the same way, we can be very complex creatures now, but if we have the seeds of negative karma in our mindstream and we are attracted to be reborn in a certain kind of body in the future, then we’re also limited by the nervous system structure of that body that we’re reborn into in the future. It’s like the intelligent capacity of the mind goes into hibernation during that lifetime. Did I convince you?
Audience: I would like to know, since you mentioned the theory about God [inaudible 1.08.11]
VTC: What ends is cyclic existence. The continuity of consciousness does not end. [inaudible 1.08.53] But I said that the mind, asking where the mind exists in nirvana – the mind, remember, is not made of atoms and molecules, so it doesn’t have to exist in a physical place. It’s not like you go three clouds up and turn right. Because the mind isn’t atomic in nature. It doesn’t need to be in a certain place to be in nirvana. Nirvana is a mental state.
Audience: [inaudible 1.09.44]
VTC: Ok, who has better karma, a pet in a well-cared for home by a well-to-do family or human beings suffering permanent poverty? If the animal has better karma, then why isn’t it born in a higher human realm? Remember I said that our mindstreams can have many different seeds, but only some of them ripen each lifetime? Some of the seeds ripen in terms of the body and the realm that we’re reborn in. Other seeds ripen in terms of the conditions that we have in our life. So somebody who is reborn as an animal, when you’re reborn in what’s called an unfortunate rebirth like that, that’s a result of not keeping good ethical discipline or there’s some negative karma that’s ripened that made their mind attractive to be reborn as an animal.
If they’re in a well cared for home—I have two cats—they’re very spoiled, they have lots to eat. The fact that they have lots to eat is a result of having been generous in a previous life. Because when you give, then you also receive. It’s karma. So they are experiencing the fruition of a negative karma that threw them into a cat rebirth, but some positive karma that allows them to be in a well-cared-for good home.
A human being who’s living in poverty: they are a human being as a result of having kept good ethical discipline in the past, and so some positive karma is ripening that makes them attracted to a human body, but they’re temporarily living in that state of poverty maybe because in a previous life, they were a soldier who took the food away from the inhabitants of the country they invaded. Or maybe they were a politician who prevented the distribution of food to the people in the country, so therefore they experienced the result of poverty.
We can’t say who’s more fortunate because it’s all going to change anyway. In terms of who has the better possibility to practice dharma in that life, you still have to say the human being, because when you have a human body and human intelligence, it’s possible to practice. You can still hear the teachings and try and practice. I try and explain to my cats about the precepts and loving kindness and they just look at me and go, you know, “Feed me.” That’s all they care about.
Audience: Dear Venerable, since there’s no beginning, where are minds before the six realms such as human beings and animals started?
VTC: Again, there was no beginning to the six realms. And the six realms are not places. The six realms are also states of mind.The six realms existed [since] beginningless [time]. And when we talk about the human realm, there’s human beings on our particular planet earth, but there could be human beings that don’t necessarily look exactly like us in different places in this universe. I mean this universe is really big. We look at these stars that look like tiny dots, and they’re much bigger than our planet. There’s lots of room out there for other life forms.
Audience: When, in the state of nirvana, does it mean there aren’t any changes?
VTC: In the state of nirvana, there’s still the continuity of mind, but the mind has been freed from the ignorance, attachment, and anger that bind it in cyclic existence. That mind is focused in single-pointed meditation with the wisdom that realizes emptiness. Mind always changes moment to moment, but what the mind is focused on, emptiness, is something that is unconditioned, that doesn’t change moment by moment. And there’s never any reason to fall out of nirvana because once you’ve eliminated ignorance, there’s no way to become ignorant again. Once you’ve eliminated ignorance from the root. If you’ve only eliminated superficial levels of ignorance, the seeds are still there and it can come again. It’s like chopping a weed off part way. The roots are still there. It’s going to grow again. But if you uproot it, it can’t grow again. So that’s why we have to develop the wisdom that realizes emptiness that uproots the ignorance.
Audience: How about spirits and ghosts, why do they exist if mind is awareness and not soul?
VTC: Spirits and ghosts can exist. They’re included in the hungry ghost realm. But somebody who, due to karma, is reborn as a spirit or a ghost—they’re only born like that until that karmic energy ceases, then they die from that realm and get reborn in another realm. Just as our life doesn’t last forever, rebirth in any of the realms doesn’t last forever. So things keep changing.
Audience: Is it possible for one mindstream to be reborn into two beings? Or more?
VTC: In our ignorant stage, no. One mindstream, one being. When people gain great meditative powers, the great bodhisattvas who have single-pointed concentration on the nature of reality, who have great compassion and bodhicitta for all beings, they can manifest in many different forms at one time. But that’s due to their meditative abilities.
Audience: If I would like to help my pet dog be reborn in a higher rebirth to learn about the dharma, how can I help?
VTC: Now, just substitute mother for that: “If I want to help my mother get reborn in a higher rebirth.” It doesn’t matter whether it’s our mother or a pet dog or the stranger walking down the street. It’s a living being. We want to help them have a good rebirth. In the case of animals, it’s more difficult for them to learn the dharma, so what you do is you do your chanting out loud so that they hear. You read your Buddhist sutras out loud so that they hear them and they plant little seeds on their mindstream. You can walk with them around stupas or pagodas or show them pictures of the Buddha. It’s just things that put a good memory trace on their mindstream. And people say, “Well, how does that work?”
You know how the people, the sneaky advertisers, how you’ll be watching a movie and in a split second, they’ll flash “Drink Coca-Cola,” and then without you even knowing it, you get that imprint and want to go buy a Coke. You know, sneaky advertisers. In the same way, an animal—it’s like putting those imprints subliminally on their mindstreams so they can ripen in the future.
In terms of a human being, you have a much better chance of helping your mother or your brother or your sister or your husband or your wife because they actually can understand. And so you try and teach them about non-harmfulness, teach them about having a kind heart. When you’re trying to help people in a spiritual way, you don’t need to pull out all your Buddhist books and start rattling off Sanskrit and Pali terminology because some people are going to be turned off by that. “Hey mom and dad, there’s Buddha, Dharma, Sangha, nirvana, shunyata, you know, karma.” I mean, they’re going to go “Huh?” But you start off and you talk about non-harmfulness and refraining from harming others physically, refraining from stealing, refraining from unwise sexual behavior. You start talking about using speech in wise and kind ways and not deceiving and lying and backbiting. You talk about ways to calm anger, ways to become more generous and less stingy. These kinds of things everybody can relate to, and then from there, when they find some benefit from that, then they can begin to learn some of the other things.
We’ll have one last question there.
Audience: If a rinpoche tells you about your past life, do you believe him?
VTC: I have no idea. That’s up to you. If a fortune teller tells you about your past life, do you believe it? I have no idea. You can make up your own mind what you believe. I have no idea. In any case, I do not think it really matters who we were in our past life because if you look in the broad perspective of all of cyclic existence, we’ve all been born in all six realms repeatedly. So I think it’s much more important what we do this lifetime. How we practice this lifetime. I mean you meet all these people who—have you ever noticed how many people remember being Cleopatra? There was one Cleopatra and all these people think they were her. Or I was some great spiritual master in my previous life or I was this or that previous. That’s all very nice, but what are you doing this lifetime? If you’re going around drinking and criticizing people and you’re just out to get money – it doesn’t really matter who you were in a previous lifetime. We have to practice this lifetime. Cultivate this lifetime.
Audience: [inaudible 1.20.53]
VTC: [You’re asking] does it mean that whatever we learn in a past life is brought forward? No. We have bad memories. Like I told you, I can’t even remember what I studied in university and getting a degree in it. I can’t tell you anything. So it doesn’t mean that everything’s brought forward. There might be some seeds or predispositions to learn that material more rapidly or to be more interested in that material than in other things, but you don’t come in fully educated. We all know that, don’t we?
OK, this one’s really the last question.
Audience: [inaudible 1.21.44]
VTC: Is there a timeframe? They say that within 49 days from the time of leaving one life you’re born in the next. Why it’s 49 and not 48 or 50, I have no idea. But this is just what they say. And it can also be shorter. Sometimes it’s one or two days, a week or 10 days.
Venerable Thubten Chodron
Venerable Chodron emphasizes the practical application of Buddha’s teachings in our daily lives and is especially skilled at explaining them in ways easily understood and practiced by Westerners. She is well known for her warm, humorous, and lucid teachings. She was ordained as a Buddhist nun in 1977 by Kyabje Ling Rinpoche in Dharamsala, India, and in 1986 she received bhikshuni (full) ordination in Taiwan. Read her full bio.