I saw a recent blog post on Precious Metal that I liked, which questioned the Relevancy of Rebirth. I think it’s great that he’s willing to ask these questions and is willing to see how people will respond.
I think this was an interesting question because it questions wether someone actually understands the concept of rebirth to begin with, or they’re merely repeating what they’ve heard.
Rebirth Is a Difficult Topic in the Modern Age
I once heard a teaching of Tsem Tulku where he said that rebirth is a very difficult thing to teach to people living during the Kaliyuga. This just means that in the current time, people’s attention spans are shorter and people are more interested in gross sense objects. The environment and culture also provides obstacles to spiritual practice, making practicing virtue and generating realizations very difficult. This more or less describes my situation.
In the beginning, what brings most people into the Dharma is teachings on how to do deal with emotional strife.
Once they learn to work with their emotions for a while, they can later tackle the idea of rebirth. They can use inferential logic and maybe even through a higher level practice, someone can directly perceive rebirth.
I don’t have any direct experiences, but what he said struck a chord with me because this is more or less my experience.
When I first came to Buddhism, my main concern was dealing with emotional strife. I noticed that life was moving in endless circles and wanted to try something different. For some strange reason I had some faith towards the concept of rebirth, but it was really later that it stated to open up for me.
Basic Premise of Rebirth
The basic premise behind rebirth, is that every moment of consciousness is always caused by a previous moment of consciousness.
If I think about it, I have a moment of consciousness now because I had one 5 minutes ago, 5 months ago, 5 years ago, 15 years ago etc. It then becomes a detective game. Is there an actual moment of consciousness that didn’t have a previous moment? Can something actually come about without having a cause?
If there is one, this would lead to a long line of illogical absurdities. I’ll briefly go over these now, so I guess this is the disclaimer before I go forward.
Using Logic to Establish Rebirth
The present moment of consciousness comes about due to a previous moment of consciousness. If this isn’t the case, a long line of absurdities would follow.
This could mean that I could have had a stream of consciousness up until the age of 5, all of the sudden disappeared from 6 – 10, and the came back at 11. 5 causes 6, causes 7, and so forth, so these gaps don’t exist.
Without a previous moment of consciousness causing the present moment of awareness, then someone who is 40 years old wouldn’t remember being 10 years old. Since the stream of consciousness from 10 until 40 is interconnected and related to each other, a 40 year old person can remember being 10 years old.
Also, rebirth really ties in the understanding of cause and effect, that previous actions lead to our current pre-dispositions and situations. If there is no karma and no rebirth, then everyone would have to start at a clean slate. This would mean a Dalai Lama couldn’t be highly attained because his previous lives of practice would be nonexistent.
A broken stream of consciousness would also mean that everyone would have to start at a completely clean slate and karma would be obliterated. So no one would have to drink dirty water, or a child wouldn’t have his parents die at age 5 and then spend the next few years feeding off garbage and living off the streets. Unfortunately these things do happen, so I don’t think the clean slate theory is possible. Some people don’t eat garbage, they eat 5 star meals every day since they day they were born.
Instead of going back 15 years, 20 years, 30 years, one can go back to the womb, and even before that.
Understanding Rebirth Through Meditation
I think once someone can establish rebirth through logic, the next thing is to see it in meditation.
Some people who have high levels of concentration can remember their past lives in meditation. I havn’t acheived that, but I think many can get a feel for rebirth through studying the conventional nature of the mind.
I think in meditation, it’s interesting to observe the mind’s qualities. Does it have a shape? Does it have a color? When a moment of thought arises, where does it arise from? Where does it abide? Where does it go?
Eventually, a feeling comes that the mind is not a solid or unitary thing.
Its just a stream of consciousness, with one moment causing the next and so forth. If a preceding moment has to continually cause the next, the feeling comes that there is no beginning to this. Any ideas of a beginning and end is merely a conceptual elaboration.
Expanding of World View
My own experience has been that understanding rebirth, even if its only a little bit, has changed my world view. While I really enjoy my family, friends, my wife, I also understand that our lives are constantly changing and this isn’t permanent.
So what is actually more beneficial for the moment? Using my family and friends to dispel feelings of lonliness and increase my feelings of clinginess, or think about what I can do to benefit them in the long term? If I try to plant seeds of love and compassion in them, that is something they’ll have with them for many lifetimes.
I really like how Thich Naht Hanh explains it. He says that peoples’ minds are like fertile fields with seeds. When we’re in contact with people, what kind of seeds are we watering? Are we watering seeds of compassion, or are we watering seeds of anger and jealousy?